Familial Interactions

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Familial Interactions



Mothers and Daughters. Both mothers and fathers were involved in their children’s lives to varying degrees, but mothers were expected to have more direct contact with their children in the early years. They supervised their children’s upbringing, either by taking care of the children themselves or by supervising the slaves who were assigned to take care of them. As daughters grew, mothers took more responsibility for teaching them what they needed to know to prepare them for marriage. In a poem by Propertius, Cornelia expressed special affection for her mother and for her daughter. Scribonia, the mother of Cornelia and of Augustus’s daughter Julia, went of her own free will into exile with her daughter in 8 C.E. Julia Maesa looked to her daughters Julia Mamaea and Julia Soaemias in order to maintain control of the empire after the death of the Emperor Caracalla in 217 C.E.

Mothers and Sons. Sons spent more time away from the home as their education progressed. Yet, mothers stayed close to their sons and worked on behalf of their political careers. Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, was noted for guiding the development of her sons throughout their lives. Aurelia, the mother of Julius Caesar, kept a close eye on her son’s wife Pompeia and it was through her testimony to her son that Caesar divorced her. Servilia, the mother of Marcus Junius Brutus (famous for assassinating Caesar), raised her son after his father’s death. Although there were male figures in his life—his uncle, Cato the Younger; his stepfather, Decimus Junius Silanus; and his mother’s lover, Julius Caesar—Servilia took an active role in his life and in the family. She worked through the powerful men who were her friends to secure political opportunities for her son. She tried to arrange an advantageous marriage for Brutus, but he chose to marry Porcia, his cousin, contrary to Servilia’s wishes. Sometimes sons had to assert their independence. Yet, the fact that Servilia was the only woman who knew beforehand about Brutus and Cassius’s plot to assassinate Caesar demonstrates the closeness between mother and son. And even though she was Caesar’s mistress, she chose to support her son. Livia, the wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, was, according to Tacitus, an overbearing influence on her son’s actions once he became emperor. Similarly, Agrippina the Younger was infamous


Propertius, one of the great love poets of the age of Augustus, closed his final book of odes with a long poem (4.11) written from Cornelia (the half sister of Julia, Augustus’s daughter) to her husband after her death. Propertius creates the image of a man weeping over a new grave, with the ghost of his wife standing nearby, attempting to console him:

Paullus, cease burdening my grave with tears:
No prayers will open the gate of darkness. …
Early, when my bordered dress was put away
Before my marriage-torch, and a new head-band
Caught up and bound my hair, then I was brought
To your bed, Paullus—soon to be separated thus.
On this stone it may be read engraved that I
Have been married to one alone. I call
To witness my ancestors’ ashes, tended by Rome,
Beneath whose inscriptions stricken Africa lies.…
That the censor’s law was never relaxed for me,
No spot in me has made your hearth-fire blush;
Cornelia was never a stain on spoils so great,
But rather set an example to a noble house.
My life was constant, the whole was free from reproach:
We lived respected from the marriage to the funeral torch.
Nature gave me laws that are drawn from ancestors:
From fear of judgement, no higher could be attempted.
Let the urn deal me whatever harsh votes it may.
Yet she shall not be shamed who sits by me:
Not you, who towed with rope the lagging Cybele,
Claudia, rare priestess of the tower-crowned goddess;
Not you, whose fine white linen showed a living hearth
When Vesta demanded back the fire damped down.
Nor have I done you wrong, sweet source, my mother
Scribonia: except for death, would you have me changed?
I am praised by a mother’s tears, and civic grief,
And the groans of Caesar are my ashes’ defense:
He bewails the passing of his own daughter’s
Worthy sister, and we see a god’s tears flow.
I earned, moreover, the stole of fertile honor:
My kidnap was not made from a sterile home.
You, Lepidus, you, Paullus, are my comfort
In death: I closed my eyes in your arms.
And I saw my brother twice in public office:
In the festive time, when his consulship began,
His sister was taken. My daughter born to mirror
Your father’s time as censor, make sure you cleave
By my example to one sole husband. In turn secure our line.
The ferry puts out for me, and I assent,
So many tending the growth of my good deeds.
This is the last reward of a woman’s triumph,
That uninhibited talk should praise her well-earned tomb.
I commend you to our children—our mutual pledge—
This care still breathes, is fired in my ashes.
The father must fulfill the mother’s role: your neck
Will have to take the weight of all my mob.
When you kiss their tears away, you must kiss for me.
The whole domestic load is henceforth yours.
And if you will grieve at all, let it be alone—
When they come, guile them with dry-cheeked kisses.
Paullus, enough for you the nights you wear out
For me, and the dreams you often believe have my face:
And when in secret you speak to my picture,
Deliver each word as though I shall reply.
Yet should our marriage bed be made afresh,
A tentative stepmother occupy my couch,
Speak well of and bear with your father’s wife,
My sons: she will surrender to your manners.
Don’t praise your mother overmuch. Loose speech
That makes comparisons will cause offence.
But if, content with my shade, he remembers me,
And still esteems my ashes as myself,
Learn promptly to perceive advancing age
And leave no access for a widower’s cares.
May the years subtracted from me be added to you:
Thus may my children gladden Paullus’ age.
All’s well: as a mother, I never was in mourning—
The entire family came to my funeral.
I rest my case. Arise, my grieving witnesses,
While kindly Earth weighs out my life’s reward.
Heaven is open to virtue: may I be found deserving,
And my shade be carried to join my honored ancestors.

Source: Sextus Propertius, The poems, translated by W. G. Shepherd (Harmondsworth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1985).

for her manipulations of Nero and Nero’s advisers. When Nero tired of her attempts to control him, he had her killed. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, was a formidable figure in the family. As a Christian, Monica was determined that her son, too, would be a Christian. She oversaw his education, ended his longtime affair with the woman who bore his son, arranged a marriage that never happened, and followed him to Rome when he left Africa. Although Augustine took his own path to Christianity, he considered himself deeply indebted to his mother’s persistence and intelligence.

Fathers and Daughters. Contrary to the popular opinion that daughters were a disappointment, or were considered a burden or less desirable than sons, evidence suggests that fathers took great pride in their daughters. Fathers often used their daughters to create political alliances through marriages, but they also came to their defense if needed. Likewise, some daughters followed in their fathers’ footsteps. In 42 B.C.E. Hortensia, the daughter of the great orator Hortensius, used her speaking abilities to persuade the triumvirs not to place an exorbitant tax on wealthy widows. Cicero had two children, but he was clearly more devoted to his daughter, so much so that grief at her death overwhelmed him. Augustus depended on his daughter Julia to bring him an heir. After making Agrippa divorce Marcella and marry Julia, Augustus thought her sons Gaius and Lucius would follow him to the throne. When they died, Augustus forced his stepson Tiberius to divorce his wife and marry Julia. When Julia’s behavior became unbearable, Augustus ordered her into exile. Although he needed her for his attempts at building a dynasty, he could not forgive her actions. Pliny the Younger writes of the intense grief of his friend Fundanus at the death of his teenage daughter, who was the image of her father. Yet, Vibia Perpetua’s father so disapproved of her conversion to Christianity that he took her infant son away from her while she was in prison.

Fathers and Sons. Fathers looked to their sons to carry on the family name, the family reputation, and the family fortune. At the same time, there was a certain amount of tension between fathers and sons because of these expectations. Some scholars suggest that this tension—caused by worries about family property and reputation—existed only in the upper classes, that the lower classes, with less to pass on, did not suffer from the same pressures. The gaps in evidence make it difficult to draw conclusions about the lower classes, but we have information about the relationships between many fathers and sons. Cato the Elder was particularly famous for his devotion to his son from the time he was a baby: he sat nearby while the child was being nursed. He taught the boy his letters by writing out his own history of Rome (theOrigines) in large letters for his son to copy. The orator Cicero was delighted by his son’s birth and made sure that his son had the opportunity to get the best education, so that he, too, could be an orator, but they were apparently never close. The poet Horace, the son of a freedman, expressed gratitude for the opportunities that his father provided and the way that his father raised him. Horace’s father worked as an auctioneer and saved enough money to send his son to Rome in style—with slaves—to get a gentleman’s education. The orator Quintilian mourned the loss of his two sons, who both died as children. He found special comfort in the fact that his older son, ten years old at his death, loved him even more than he loved his paedogogue and nurse. Quintilian’s words give some indication of the distance that existed between fathers and their children during the early years of a child’s life. St. Augustine’s recollection of his father in his Confessions offers the picture of a rather distant man who had mixed success in providing for his son financially, but who left his son’s spiritual well-being in the hands of his mother.


The poet Catullus expresses a deep grief at the death of his brother (101):

Through many nations and through many seas
I have come, brother, for these poor funeral rites,
So that I might render you the last dues of the dead
And in vain comfort your silent ashes,
Because Fortune has robbed me of you, alas,
Poor brother, unfairly taken from me.
But now, meanwhile, accept these gifts which by ancient custom
Of the ancestors are offered in sad duty
At funeral rites, gifts drenched in a brother’s tears,
And forever, brother, goodbye and farewell.

Source: Catullus: The Complete Poems, edited by Guy Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Siblings. Evidence about the relationships between brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers, or sisters and sisters comes from poetry, inscriptions, and inferences from cooperation in the political realm. What we know comes from actions between adult siblings. The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, the sons of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia (daughter of Scipio Africanus), worked together on their political agenda: both wanted to expand rights to the Italians, provide land for the poor, and lessen the power of the wealthy, but both used means that circumvented normal political channels and led to violence and ultimately to their deaths. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the triumvir, consigned his brother to death by allowing his name to be placed on the proscription list compiled by the second triumvirate (Lepidus, Octavian, and Antony). Although Paullus was allowed to escape and to go into exile, the fact that his brother was willing, maybe even eager, to sacrifice him for his own political gain suggests a less than amicable relationship. In contrast, when Marcus Tullius Cicero was forced into exile for executing the members of the conspiracy led by Catiline, which sought to murder Rome’s consuls and senators, his brother Quintus worked to have him cleared and recalled. An inscription about a woman named Turia details how she and her sister worked together to hunt down and convict the murderers of their parents and how she provided a dowry for her sister.

Women and Their Natal Families. When a woman married under the system known as manus, she legally became part of her husband’s family. As manus grew more rare, women married and moved into the homes of their husbands, but legally they and their property were under the control of their fathers, either until the father’s death or until he had declared them independent—in Latin, sui iuris, “under one’s own law.”; Familial affection, not legal status, determined a married woman’s interaction with her father, mother, and siblings. Evidence suggests that daughters maintained close relationships with their mothers. Sempronia and her mother Cornelia were close enough to be suspected of causing the death of Sempronia’s husband. Turia’s devotion to her sisters after her marriage made her take over their care after the deaths of their parents.


Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Dixon, The Roman Mother (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988)

Judith P. Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Paul Veyne, ed., From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, volume 1, in A History of Private Lives, edited by Philippe Aruès and Georges Duby (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987).