Ancient History & Civilisation


The Greek lived in a house, the Roman in a home. It was a Greek who said, ‘The city trains the man’; a Roman probably would have said that a man was taught by his family and the state. From the earliest times the family formed the basis of Roman society and provided for each future citizen his grounding in education and morality in a community which knew neither school nor church. The paterfamilias held in his ‘hand’ (manus) the whole familia, which included wife, children, dependants and estate. Over them he exercised absolute and life-long power (patria potestas), including the right of life and death (vital necisque potestas). This authority was in practice limited to private affairs, as a father could not control a son who was holding a magistracy, but it remained a reality: towards the end of the Republic a father slew his son for participating in Catiline’s conspiracy. It was the father who decided after the birth of a child whether to rear or expose it, though in this he was restricted by religious prohibitions. But the very survival of thepatria potestas shows that it can seldom have been abused: it was a healthy discipline, remote from Oriental despotism. Further, before taking action a father would generally consult a family council of relatives whose advice might act as a moral, though not a legal, restraint. As the head of each family must be a male, the father usually adopted a son if he had not one of his own. Children born to his sons or brothers were ‘born to him’ (adgnati, agnati), but the children of his daughters and sisters only ‘shared in his birth’ (cognati) and legally belonged to the families of their fathers or husbands.

Within the household the women, especially the materfamilias or matrona, who played such an important part in upholding the family, attained a dignified and influential position. Unlike the women of Greece the Roman lady pursued her daily occupation in theatrium or main room, not in Oriental seclusion. Her chief occupations were to bring up the children, to manage the household work, and to make wool for weaving the family clothes. She could attend religious festivals or banquets and had complete social liberty. This practical freedom contrasts strangely with her theoretical dependence on her husband. Legally a woman had no personal existence and on marriage she merely passed from the protection of her father to the manus of her husband. But the emancipation of women was begun early; they were allowed by the Twelve Tables to hold property. There was also a development of the marriage ceremony. Beside the ancient patrician rite of confarreatio which gave the husband complete authority over his wife, marriage bycoemptio was recognized: this implied an equal partnership and the wife could say, ‘Where you are master, I am mistress’ (‘Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia’). Marriage by usus was established by a year’s uninterrupted cohabitation. By a law in the Twelve Tables a wife could avoid the legal control of her husband by passing three nights during each year away from her husband’s house. Finally there was free marriage, based on mutual consent, which gave the husband no authority over his wife. It was the payment of dowry rather than a legal ceremony that marked the intended permanence of a union. As marriage was more a personal affair than the concern of the state, divorce was also personal and easily obtained (by the husband, though not by the wife!). And yet it was infrequent. Where affection failed, the conservative tendencies of a dignified aristocracy must often have tended to uphold the continuity of family life. But even in an age of loosening family ties, the numerous sepulchral monuments of Imperial Rome attest the prevalence of happy married companionship (e.g. ‘She loved her husband with her whole heart, she bare two sons… cheerful in converse, dignified in manner, she kept the house, she made wool.’ C.I.L., I, 1007; cf. the formula S.V.Q. ‘sine ulla querela’. Still more must similar conditions have prevailed in the earlier and more austere days whose monuments have perished.

Roman education was a family concern. In early days the object of training was to form character rather than to promote culture; to fit a child to become a good citizen. Though religion was divorced from morality, the simple daily religious ceremonies of the household would often produce in a child a sense of responsibility and awe towards the unseen. But the greatest influences in the building of character and the enforcing of morality were the parents, home life and the mos maiorum. The ideal Roman was a vir fortis et strenuus. The qualities to be evoked were gravitas, continentia, industria, diligentia, constantia, benevolentia, pietas, simplicitas, and above all virtus, manliness. The mother was responsible for the children’s earliest training, and her influence was great. The older boys constantly attended their father at his duties in home and state and received from him instructions in the three Rs, as well as in physical training. They were taught to respect the traditions of their family and of the state. Thus a dignified, patriotic and self-sacrificing character was formed, but often at the cost of a certain conservative narrowness and unadaptability. The first school is said to have been opened in Rome about 250 BC. From that period onwards Greek influences increased. Rhetoric and slavery began to get a stranglehold on Roman life, despite the opposition of Cato, who wrote in large letters an account of the legends of early Rome for his son to learn and who studied Greek literature in order to teach his son and to save him learning from a slave. Family life remained uncorrupted and a source of Rome’s greatness as long as men could say with Cato that ‘a wife and a son are the holiest of holy things’.

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