Ancient History & Civilisation

The Family

Throughout the whole of Rome’s history, one feature remained constant - the family. The city grew to be an empire, the republic became an autocracy, old-fashioned religion yielded to frenetic new cults from the East, but, through it all, Roman society was based on the family, economic life was built around it, and its many complex problems continued to provide endless matter for debate among Roman lawyers.

At the head of every Roman family was the paterfamilias, “father of the family,” the oldest male member. He was undisputed lord and master, with even the power of life and death over his sons and daughters - a right that, primitive though it may seem, took a long time to become a dead letter; there were cases on record of its being exercised as late as the first century B.C., though happily not after that. Another equally extraordinary right he never lost: Until the day, he died he was sole owner of the family property. Sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, none could legally have possessions of their own so long as they were in the power of a paterfamilias; it was all his - even the salary of, say, a grown-up son with a lucrative government post, or a legacy that might have come to a middle-aged daughter from a friend. One would expect to hear of the younger generation exploding in exasperation at such an impossible state of affairs, but apparently it did not. Almost certainly, some accommodation must have been worked out, though we have no idea of what it was. One factor helped - that life expectancy was short, that only the exception lived to a ripe old age; thus, in the normal course of events, most children did not remain too long in this anomalous position of being adult in years yet minor by law.

In one sense, a paterfamilias never did lose his power of life and death: When a child was born, he alone - not necessarily in consultation with the mother - determined whether it was to live or be exposed to die. (Infanticide was practiced throughout ancient times among poor and rich, the poor to limit the number of mouths they had to feed, the rich, the number of heirs who would divide up a handsome property.) And when the children were grown up, inevitably the paterfamilias arranged marriages for them. Legally he could insist only that they take a mate and not specify whom, but since the girls were married off when barely into their teens and the boys had no money they could call their own, it is hardly likely that either had much choice.

Girls married when they were twelve to fifteen, boys when slightly older. Marriages were arranged to carry on a family’s name and preserve its property. Passion and romance played no part; men who needed extramarital relations went to whores, or if they had the money, elegant courtesans. We hear many lurid tales about adultery, orgies, and depraved carryings on, but this all took place among the upper crust, the Roman nightclub crowd. Marriage among responsible Romans was a serious matter, knit by a firm emotional bond. There was, of course, a legal bond, but no religious one. No church blessed a Roman union. Consequently, to cohabit with a woman without being formally married was not “living in sin,” but a recognized procedure. Even emperors did it. Marcus Aurelius, for example, the philosopher-emperor who ruled Rome from A.D. 161 to 180, when his wife died took the daughter of his wife’s business agent as concubine rather than wife “so as not to introduce a stepmother over all the children.” It was not unusual for an upper-class woman to set up a household with a mate of humble status, even a slave; it might start tongues wagging, but there was nothing irregular about it.

In arranging a marriage, the first topic the paterfamilias turned to was the dowry. Every bride had to supply one - but it always remained hers; if her husband died, or if the couple divorced, the dowry was returned, minus a fraction for the upkeep of the children and possibly another fraction as penalty if she had misbehaved. Since women married so early, their chance of being widowed was great; without a dowry, there could have been no possibility whatsoever of finding a new husband.

Once the dowry and lesser matters had been settled, the families arranged a betrothal, a ceremony in which the prospective bridegroom not only made his pledge but sealed it with gifts, most often a ring that was worn on the very same finger we use today (ancient savants claimed that there was a special nerve running from the ring finger to the heart). Theoretically, a formal wedding was not necessary, merely a matter of tradition, but a Roman bride wanted it as much as her modern counterpart. In picking the day, one had to be very careful to avoid any of the considerable number that were of evil omen. All of May was out, and so was the first half of June - although the second half was favored. When the day came, the bride was dressed in a special gown - a full-length white wool tunic that had been woven on an old-fashioned loom - and donned a special orange or yellow veil. The house was decorated with flowers and boughs of evergreen. A sacrifice might be carried out - it was not obligatory - the marriage contract was signed before ten witnesses, the couple joined hands to mark the cementing of the union, and everybody sat down to the wedding feast. The Roman satirist Juvenal sums it up with his usual brevity: “The contract’s signed, all shout ‘Best wishes,’ and take their seats for a huge repast.” Toward evening, a procession conducted the bride to her new home: Four boys whose parents were still alive accompanied her, one lighting the way with a torch of a special thorn bush, two by her side, the fourth carrying her spinning apparatus; all walked, caroling wedding songs, to the doorway, where the bride put fillets of wool on the doorposts and anointed them with oil; she was then lifted over the threshold and saluted her husband with the touching age-old phrase Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia, “Where you (are) John, there I, Mary.”

However, Gaius and Gaia did not have to be with each other very long if they did not care to. Divorce among the Romans was simple and quick: Either party merely uttered to the other the laconic Latin phrase Tuas res tibi habeto, “Keep what’s yours for yourself,” and the union was severed. Whatever children there were, being in the power of the paterfamilias, remained with the father. The dowry was returned - though this might take some time if, as frequently happened, the husband was short of cash. Cicero’s letters show us both sides: While frantically trying to pay off Terentia, his wife of thirty years whom he had divorced to marry a young woman with a fortune, he was equally frantically trying to collect his daughter Tullia’s dowry from her spendthrift ex-husband.

From the moment a bride crossed the threshold of her husband’s home, she was a matrona, a married woman, who would from then on dress with proper restraint and take care of running the household. What this involved depended on the family’s social status. If it was low, she would move into a slum apartment - in Rome all but the very rich lived in apartment houses - where her daily routine must have been much like that of the wife in a tenement-dwelling family of today. If she was middle-class, she still moved into an apartment, although one with the space to accommodate a maid, a cook, and perhaps other household slaves. If she was of the aristocracy, she moved into a mansion that most likely housed not only her husband but many of his family - grandparents, uncles, aunts, and numbers of the family freedmen, that is, the slaves who had been granted their liberty yet, as was often the case, continued to live with their erstwhile master. In such an establishment, there would be a veritable army of household slaves.

And whatever class she belonged to, she had the responsibility of the children - if there were any. One of the distinctive features of family life in this age was the practice of some sort of birth control, at least among the upper classes.

In the first and second centuries A.D., there was an abnormal rate of childlessness among Roman families, particularly the well-to-do. Augustus, his eye on every phase of his subjects’ existence, even tried to rectify the situation by law. He used both the carrot and the stick: special privileges for women with three or more children (for example, they had the right to act legally for themselves instead of having to go through a male guardian), special penalties for bachelors and childless couples (for example, they could not be named as heirs in a will). One cause certainly was the predilection on the part of many upper-class males for homosexual relations. A more serious cause was a deliberate effort on the part of the women to avoid childbearing. How they did it is a question. Both abortion and contraception were known, but there is no way of telling to what extent they were practiced. Abortion was at the very least painful and could be dangerous. Contraception was preferable; but, though the medical writings of the period mention perfectly good devices (for example, inserting olive oil or honey or other clogging fluids in the vagina or using pessaries of wool), they often prescribe them along with others that are so totally absurd - one doctor, for example, endorses as “very effective” the wearing of “the liver of a cat in a tube on the left foot” - that it is doubtful how much useful knowledge circulated among ordinary married Roman couples. The courtesans the poets are always mooning about, who played the role in Roman life that geisha have in Japanese, must have had their techniques, and what they knew may have filtered back, by way of philandering husbands, to Roman society women. Possibly women insisted on their husbands’ and lovers’ practicing coitus-interruptus, one of the simplest forms of contraception, but there is no mention of it in any of the contemporary medical writings or any other writings, so we have no way of being sure.

Whatever the techniques, one by-product was a welter of wealthy people with no children to inherit their riches. This inevitably brought into being a swarm of fortune hunters, who fawned on childless couples, dogged the steps of bachelors and widowers, and chased after widows and spinsters.

Whatever abortion or contraception was practiced was almost certainly limited to the rich; on the other hand, all classes, but particularly the poor, resorted to exposure for getting rid of unwanted children. It did not necessarily mean the child’s death. Some of the most famous tales of ancient literature, such as the story of Oedipus or of Romulus and Remus, concern infants who were exposed and then rescued in the nick of time, and there are even a few important historical figures who started life this way. As a matter of fact, people found it profitable to be on the lookout for foundlings in order to raise them as slaves either for their own household or for sale. In Roman Egypt, and very likely elsewhere as well, they scavenged for them in the town dump, where it was the practice to abandon infants; in legal documents slaves are frequently designated as being “from the dump.” Sometimes they did not have to rely on the haphazardness of the dump: There were poverty-stricken families willing, despite laws against it, to sell unwanted children into slavery. Both the government and private individuals tried to alleviate the situation by instituting child-assistance programs. The emperor Nerva, followed by Trajan, established funds in various localities, the proceeds of which were to pay for the upkeep of a given number of boys and girls - many more boys than girls, since the emperors had in mind the needs of the armed forces. Private philanthropists who set up foundations happily avoided any such discrimination. Here, for example, is a provision in the will of a certain wealthy woman of Terracina, a town on the coast of Italy about midway between Rome and Naples; it is a bequest “of one million sesterces [some $4 million] to the town of Terracina in memory of her son Macer, so that, out of the income from this money, child-assistance subsidies might be paid to one hundred boys and one hundred girls - to each citizen boy 5 denarii [some $80] each month, to each citizen girl 3 denarii each month, the boys up to sixteen years, the girls up to fourteen years.”

Such forms of aid were not enough to correct the situation. In the fourth century, Constantine bowed to the inevitable and allowed parents to sell children, presumably to slave nurseries.

The infant who escaped being exposed was given a name in a special ceremony on the eighth or ninth day after birth; then, sometime within the next thirty days, the father entered the name in the public register. In lower-class homes, the mothers suckled the children, but in families that could afford it, they were turned over successively to slave wet nurses, nurses, and nannies. Childhood was much shorter than now: For a Roman girl, it ended with marriage in the early teens; for a boy, about fourteen or a little later, when, in a formal public ceremony, he put aside the medallion he had worn about his neck as a mark of childhood and his child’s toga with its scarlet hem. Until then, children did as they always have: The girls played with dolls, the boys with tops and hoops. They built things with building bricks (rather than wooden blocks); they enjoyed time-honored games that involved dice or nuts (instead of marbles); they played draughts; they tossed balls back and forth; they had pets - dogs and a variety of birds. When they were six or seven, they started to go to school. There was no publicly supported elementary education. A magister or grammaticus, a “schoolmaster,” would set up a school, taking a fee from each of his pupils and teaching them in return the three R’s in both Greek and Latin. They practiced writing on waxed tablets, arithmetic problems with abacus and calculi, “counting board” and “counting pebbles.” Sometimes there was not even a schoolroom. The little group would gather under one of the colonnades that surrounded the forum, where passersby could hear the shrill voices rehearsing their lesson - and, no doubt, the students heard the hurly-burly of the passersby. But the children must have resisted such distractions with all their might, since what Horace, Martial, Saint Augustine, and others remembered best in recalling their school days was the teacher’s irascibility and quick hand with the rod. Nurses accompanied the girls to school, and special slaves, called paedagogi or “child-leaders,” the boys. Secondary education - presumably for boys, since girls were at home learning the running of a household - lasted until thirteen or fourteen and included grammar, syntax, and literature in both Latin and Greek. The curriculum concentrated, in Greek, on Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Menander, the celebrated writer of comedies; in Latin, on Vergil, Horace, and Terence, the Latin follower of Menander.

The slaves of a family that was merely moderately well off, including those needed for the household chores and those for the children, might number as many as half a dozen, while the slaves in a great aristocrat’s mansion could be counted in the hundreds. In previous centuries, Rome’s wars of conquest had brought back thousands of prisoners to supply the slave markets. During the long period of peace that the empire maintained, that source had disappeared, and most slaves were bred at home. Masters encouraged their slaves to mate, for the children could either be raised for the household staff or sold off to other families. Home-grown slaves had the great advantage over foreign imports of being native speakers of Latin, a language that Greeks and others found very hard to learn. Household slaves were by no means all menials; those who tutored the children, for example, were often far more cultured than their owners. This was even truer of the slaves employed in government and business. A slave was allowed to save money he had earned through tips, bonuses, or other means, and with this accumulation, his peculium, he could eventually buy his liberty. As a freedman, he had certain obligations to his former owner and often continued living in the same house. In the spacious mansions of the great, the multitudinous slaves and freedmen no doubt had their own quarters. In the average middle-class family, inhabiting an apartment with more or less limited room, slaves slept either off the premises or on pallets laid down nightly on the kitchen or corridor floors.

Household slaves dusted, swept, and made the beds, which went quickly, since there were no sheets but just a pair of spreads infrequently changed. They had to carry in water from wells, fountains, and cisterns and carry out refuse - including commodes full of human wastes, since lavatories were limited to the ground floor, and even there, they were few and far between. Rome’s apartment houses were three to four stories high, some still more; Roman slaves must have done much hauling up and down stairs.

Marketing was done by the slaves, sometimes accompanied by the master - not the lady - of the house. Most of it was for dinner since the other two meals were light. Breakfast, taken at dawn when people rose, was a mere bite, a bit of bread or cheese or both. Lunch, at noon, was also usually cold: bread, cheese or meat, some fruit, a glassful of wine. The dinner hour was about three in the afternoon — uncomfortably close to lunch by our standards, but apparently the Roman, with only two scant meals to sustain him since dawn, was ready to fill his belly. Besides, unless he belonged to the fast set, whose members might carouse until the cock crowed, he was in bed shortly after dark; burning the midnight oil to read or talk was an expensive procedure to be indulged in only by the ambitious or the rich. Dinner varied according to family and occasion. The very poor, cramped in a single room that served as living room, dining room, and bedroom, prepared it over a charcoal brazier and ate it seated at a table nearby. Or they might buy dinner ready cooked, a cheap stew or a pot of vegetables, from one of the snack bars that lined the streets; these also supplied hot water for washing. The well-to-do almost always had a room set aside for dining, the triclinium, so called because it had three couches, each accommodating three people, arranged in U-shaped fashion around a table. On these the diners reclined, leaning on the left elbow and facing the table. To eat at one’s ease in this way was de rigueur. The mark of a cheap snack joint, for example, was that the customers sat; it was the equivalent of our eating perched on a bar stool. Dinner consisted, as today, of three courses: hors d’oeuvres, which might include olives, lettuce, leeks, mint, and other vegetables and herbs; main course, usually a variety of dishes - meats, fowl, fish - from which the diners selected; dessert of fresh fruit. Wine was served throughout, generously mixed with water, sometimes half and half, often two parts of wine to three of water; only alcoholics took it neat. This was the normal meal in an upper-class household, the kind served to the family with perhaps a few intimate friends. A dinner party was another matter.

As one ancient pundit put it, the Graces make a nice small dinner party, the Muses a nice large one - since nine diners nicely filled the places on the three couches in a triclinium. The number of courses could mount from the usual three to half a dozen or more; as a result, even a modest affair might last three hours, and an elaborate banquet double that. Each course offered a range of exotic and expensive selections. The first might begin with sliced eggs, snails, sea urchins, oysters (the last item was a particular favorite). The main course often included pheasant or goose or peacock among the choices in fowl, boar or newborn kid in meat, lobster or mullet or lamprey or turbot in seafood. And no vin ordinaire would be served but the excellent Falernian from the hills between Rome and Naples or a prized imported wine, usually Greek. At a big banquet that Caesar once gave, there were two Italian wines, Falernian and Mamertine (from Sicily, near the Strait of Messina), and two Greek, Chian and Lesbian; it was a historic social occasion, the first time guests had been served as many as four different wines. Another touch that extravagant hosts went in for was chilling the wine with snow brought down from nearby mountains.

The total cost of an elaborate banquet, complete with rare delicacies and wines, could run to astronomical figures; Lucullus, the celebrated gourmet, once spent 200,000 sesterces ($800,000) to feed Pompey and Caesar. On the other hand, a Roman host had a way of cutting corners denied to the modern: He was allowed to serve different food to different guests. Only the high and mighty enjoyed the turbot and the glasses of vintage Falernian; guests who did not count got treated quite differently. Juvenal the satirist apparently suffered this ignominy, to judge from the blast he lets loose on the subject. While the host’s end of the table drank two of Italy’s best vintages, Alban and Setian, those below the salt, as it were, got a wine that “even filthy rags would refuse to sop up,” to say nothing of a human gullet. The first course for the host’s favorites was “shrimp walled round with asparagus,” for the pariahs “a crab [Romans disliked crab] hemmed in with half an egg.” The favorites savored mullet caught in the distant waters off Corsica or Sicily, lamprey from the Strait of Messina, foie gras, and a huge boar garnished with truffles and the finest mushrooms; the pariahs were served “an eel, first cousin to a water snake, or something fished out of the Tiber, fat and juicy from living by the sewer outlet . . . and a dishful of toadstools.” The meal closed with one end of the table eating apples that might have come from the Garden of the Hesperides, and the other the sort of rotten apples people fed to performing monkeys.

A proper dinner party always included entertainment. At a staid, respectable affair, the guests as they ate were treated to recitations of poetry - often the host’s own - done by a specially trained slave, and music, either singers accompanied by the flute or lyre, or the solo instruments. Sometimes a professional storyteller spun amusing and edifying yarns. After dinner, they relaxed over wine and beguiled the time with more or less serious conversation, playing riddles, laughing at the sallies of a professional jester, or gambling at dice or draughts. At less decorous affairs, the diners were entertained not only by singers but by dancers, actors, acrobats, and so on. And over the wine, the level could drop still lower: chorus girls and men doing seductive dances, lewd comics, even gladiatorial contests. The drinking tended to get out of hand; guests would pass out or throw up, and their poor slaves would have their hands full to clean them off and get them safely home.

There were a number of fixed occasions during the year when families traditionally held parties. Birthdays called for a party and presents. The biggest event of the year was the Saturnalia, the pagan holiday that underlies Christmas. By the second century A.D., it had grown from one to seven days in length, lasting from December 17 to 23. Schools were closed, gifts were exchanged, and it was the season to be jolly. Everyone, children included, was allowed to play gambling games, no slaves could be punished, and the height of the fun came when these exchanged places with the masters and were themselves waited on, reclining in style in the triclinium.

Finally, we come to death in the family. Then as now, there were undertakers to take over the unpleasant details, to tidy up the corpse, removing whatever might cause unpleasant impressions, and to dress it in the formal garment, the toga (“Let’s admit it: In a large part of Italy, no one wears a toga except when he’s dead,” complains Juvenal, lamenting the decline in good manners). An emperor received a full-scale funeral, like a modern head of state, with a solemn cortege that included a band of horn players, professional female mourners, actors who declaimed appropriate passages from tragedies or impersonated the deceased, and a line of men wearing the death masks and robes of office of his distinguished ancestors. The ordinary family simply had the undertaker furnish bearers to carry the body in a covered bier or coffin to the burial ground, followed by a procession of relatives, friends, and slaves freed in the will.

Interring the dead within city limits was forbidden by religious taboo. So the practice was adopted of burying them along the roads leading from the city gates - which is why we today see the remains of a line of ancient tombs on each side of the Via Appia after it leaves Rome. The ancients knew both cremation and inhumation, preferring now one and now the other. In the heyday of the Roman Empire, both were in vogue. Well-to-do families went in for mausoleums in which the various members were laid to rest, often in sarcophagi, elaborately carved stone coffins. Inscribed plaques identified who built the mausoleum and for whom and usually gave certain other details such as the exact size of the plot - presumably to ensure that no latecomers would encroach on it. (One pessimistic soul added to his plaque, “From this tomb let all fraud and lawyers be absent.”) Some preferred graves marked by more or less elaborate tombstones. Paupers were laid to rest in whatever they could afford, for example, a grave made of flat building tiles and as marker, the upper half of a discarded shipping jar.

Hundreds and thousands of tombstones and plaques have survived. Many were excavated by archaeologists, many extracted from later walls and structures where they had been used as building stone. They form one of the most fruitful sources of information we have about the Roman world. Ancient writers concentrate on the doings of the rich and powerful, and practically no official documents, tax registers or census rolls or the like, have survived to redress the balance. It is from epitaphs that we get clues as to how lesser folk fared, how they earned their living, what their familial relationships were. These confirm that the wild tales about the orgies and sexual high jinks of the upper crust reflect, for all the prominence given to them, only a minor part of Roman social history, that there were multitudes of people leading quiet family lives in this extended age of peace, multitudes like the prosperous tradesman who inscribed on his family vault:

To the spirits of the departed. You wanted to precede me, most sainted wife, and you have left me behind in tears. If there is anything good in the regions below (for I lead a worthless life without you), be happy there as well, sweetest Thalassia . . . my wife for forty years. Papirius Vitalis, of the painters’ trade, her husband, built this for his incomparable wife, himself, and their family.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!