Family in Roman Society

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Family in Roman Society



Life Outside the Home. The interaction of different members of the familia or gens with other members of society depended on a variety of factors: social status, gender, age, rank, marital status, and profession, to name a few. Although one of the ideals toward which a familia would strive was independence, ultimately one family was intertwined with several others through marriage and through political beliefs and religious duties. Looking at the family in the broader context of society and social change provides a better sense of the nature of Roman society.

Divisions in Roman Society. The two broad social divisions in Roman society were the patricians and the plebeians. Traditionally the patricians were the descendants of the first Roman senators, the patres, chosen by Romulus at the beginning of Rome’s history. The plebeians were the remaining free citizens. The original division was based on lineage. As the society progressed, and as the economy began to include commerce and crafts along with agriculture, another group, the equites (“horsemen” or “cavalrymen”) emerged. At first the equites were

linked only by the fact of their being at the same economic level and sharing military duties. Throughout the Republic the group gained prestige, but it was not until 129 B.C.E. that a ruling that prevented senators from being enrolled in equestrian centuries, or divisions, in the army marked the equites as a separate division of society. An additional proposal by Gaius Sempronius Gracchus excluded senators from certain courts, allowing only those in the new economic class to serve. The equites were a mixed group of plebeians, businessmen, former freedmen, or the sons of freedmen. Socially they had much in common with patricians and the two groups intermarried with little hesitation.

Distinctions. In addition to these legally recognized classes, Roman society was also in practice divided into the honestiores and the humiliores —the more honorable men and the more humble men. In the empire, distinction began to be made in the penalties and punishments assessed Romans, based on their status in one of these two groups: honestiores suffered milder penalties than humiliores for their crimes. These distinctions were based on a combination of one’s personal wealth and family name. As time passed, the distinction became wholly based on wealth. In 361 C.E. the Emperor Julian issued an edict about punishments for crimes, but he used the terms locupletes and per egestatem abiecti sunt infaecem vilitatemque plebeiam “the wealthy” and “those who have through poverty fallen into impurity and the worthlessness of common people.”

Priests and Priestesses. Religious offices in Roman society took many forms. Most, especially the Flamen Dialis (the priest of Jupiter), the Flamen Martialis (the priest of Mars), the Flamen Quirinalis (the priest of Quirinus), and the Rex sacrorum (the king of sacred things) were lifetime responsibilities. To be eligible for the Flamen Dialis and the Rex sacrorum, both the man and his parents had to have been married by a special ceremony called a confarreatio, and his wife had to be alive. She automatically became the Flaminica Dialis, or the Regina sacrorum, with religious duties of her own. If the wife of the Flamen died, he had to step down from the priesthood. The Flamen and Flaminica Dialis were never allowed to leave Rome. Candidates to fill these four priesthoods were chosen by the pontifical college, a group made up of the three major priests (Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis, Flamen Quirinalis), the Rex sacrorum, the twelve lesser flamines, the pontifex maximus, the lesser pontiffs, and the Vestal Virgins. At first the three major Flamines were barred from holding political office. In the late Republic, only the Flamen Dialis still faced this limitation. The office appears to have gone vacant during the late Republic, until Augustus revived it in 11 B.C.E. The twelve lesser flamines were each assigned to one of the lesser gods or goddesses. Like the major flamines, the lesser flamines were noted for their distinctive dress. Unlike the major flamines who were all patrician, the minor flamines were plebeian.


Although slaves were legally possessions, there were Romans, such as the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who looked at slaves as human beings who just happened to be placed in an unfortunate circumstance. In this letter to Lucilius, Seneca expresses his view and reflects on the relationship between slaves and their masters (Letters 47):

I’m glad to hear, from these people who’ve been visiting you, that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. It is just what one expects of an enlightened, cultivated person like yourself. “;They’re slaves,” people say. No. They’re human beings. “;They’re slaves.”; No, they’re friends, humble friends. “They’re slaves.” Strictly speaking they’re our fellow-slaves, if you once reflect that fortune has as much power over us as over them.

This is why I laugh at those people who think it degrading for a man to eat with a slave. Why do they think it degrading? Only because the most arrogant of conventions has decreed that the master of the house be surrounded at his dinner by a crowd of slaves, who have to stand around while he eats more than he can hold. …And all this time the poor slaves are forbidden to move their lips to speak, let alone eat. The slightest murmur is checked with a stick; not even accidental sounds like cough, or a sneeze, or a hiccup are let off a beating… The result is that slaves who cannot talk before his face talk about him behind his back. The slaves of former days, however, whose mouths were not sealed up like this, who were able to make conversation not only in the presence of their master but actually with him, were ready to bare their necks to the executioner for him, to divert onto themselves any danger that threatened him; they talked at dinner but under torture they kept their mouths shut. It is just this highhanded treatment which is responsible for the frequently heard saying, “You’ve as many enemies as you’ve slaves.”; They are not our enemies when we acquire them; we make them so.

How about reflecting that the person you call your slave traces his origin back to the same stock as yourself, has the same good sky above him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do? It is as easy for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see a slave in you. Remember the Varus disaster: many a man of the most distinguished ancestry, who was doing his military service as the first step on the road to a seat on the Senate, was brought low by fortune, condemned by her to look after a steading, for example, or a flock of sheep.

I don’t want to involve myself in a endless topic of debate by discussing the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are exceptionally arrogant, harsh and insulting. But the essence of the advice I’d like to give is this; treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors. And whenever it strikes you how much power you have over your slaves, let it also strike you that your own master has just as much power over you. “I haven’t got a master,” you say. You’re young yet; there’s always the chance that you’ll have one. Have you forgotten the age at which Hecuba became a slave, or Croesus, or the mother of Darius, or Plato, or Diogenes? Be kind and courteous in your dealings with a slave; bring him into your discussions and conversations and your company generally.

Source: Seneca, Letters from a Stoic >translated by Robin Campbell (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969).

Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were Rome’s only independent priestesses. The Flaminicae and the Regina sacrorum held their positions only by virtue of being married to the priests. Vestals were specifically independent of any other member of Roman society. Upon being chosen, they immediately because sui iuris (independent), but the pontifex maximus served as something of a father figure for them. When Vestals needed to be chosen, families

were supposed to offer their daughters’ names. Then lots were drawn to see which girl (usually between the ages of six and twelve) would serve Vesta for the next thirty years. The state provided the girls with a generous amount of money that was strictly under their own control and with which they could do as they pleased. Although being chosen a Vestal was considered an honor for the girl and her family, it also meant that the family lost its child to the state. By the time of the late Republic, fewer and fewer families were willing to offer their daughters as candidates. The Emperor Augustus considered the cult so important that he established a new shrine to Vesta on the Palatine Hill as part of his home and announced that if any of his own family were eligible, he would put their names forward. The cult continued to be an important part of Rome’s culture until 394 C.E. when it ceased to exist. Even though these girls grew up away from their families and under the care of the older Vestals, one incident in the Republic suggests that a strong family bond remained. In 143 B.C.E. Appius Claudius Pulcher had asked for, but not been granted, a triumph for his victory over the Salassi. When a tribune of the plebs threatened to use his veto to stop the triumphal procession, the Vestal Claudia (Appius’s daughter) leaped into the chariot with her father and rode with him to prevent the tribune from interfering. Since anyone was allowed to enter the Atrium of Vesta in the Roman Forum during the day, it seems likely that the families of these girls visited their children and maintained familial affection, if not the physical family unit.

Pontifex Maximus. The pontifex maximus was head of the pontiffs and oversaw all aspects of state religion. Early in the Republic the pontifex maximus appears to have been chosen by the pontifical college, but by 300 B.C.E. the pontifex was chosen through popular election. When the Emperor Augustus assumed the office of pontifex maximus after the death of Lepidus, the office became part of the powers associated with the emperor, clearly joining the state and its religion. By 383 B.C.E. the Emperor Gratian had dropped the title.

Lesser Pontiffs. In addition to the pontifex maximus there were lesser pontiffs assigned to perform the rituals at festivals. Although there were originally only three pontiffs, the number grew as high as sixteen under the guidance of Julius Caesar. In the early and middle Republic, men were chosen by the pontifical college, but in 104 B.C.E. they were elected to office by the people and usually served for life. Pontiffs determined the proper dates for festivals, days when one could conduct business (dies fasti), and days when one could not (dies nefasti). They kept records of events and strange occurrences that happened throughout the year and supervised burial procedures and laws governing tombs. Like all the other offices, pontiffs were originally patricians, but by 300 B.C.E. half were plebeians.

Slaves. Slaves were an ever-present part of Roman society. In the early Republic, Roman citizens might end up as slaves through debt-bondage, a practice by which they worked for those to whom they owed money for a specific period of time to pay off the debt. In the fourth century B.C.E. a law prevented one Roman citizen from enslaving another to satisfy a debt. Thereafter, slaves were primarily prisoners of war or individuals brought from other countries by slave traders or pirates. Slaves had only the rights granted to them by their owners, so the lives slaves experienced varied considerably depending on the character of the families who owned them and the sort of work for which they had been purchased.

Work-Conditions. The conditions in which slaves worked were sometimes harsh, especially for those slaves who worked hard labor. Those sent to the silver mines in Spain were often convicted criminals. In The Golden Ass, Apuleius describes the slaves in a grain mill: “Good gods, what scrawny little slaves they were! Their skin was everywhere marked with purple welts from their many beatings. Their backs, scarred from floggings, were shaded, as it were, rather than actually covered by their torn patchwork garments. Some wore only flimsy loincloths. All of them, decked out in these rags, carried brands on their foreheads, had their heads half-shaved, and wore chains around their ankles. Their complexions were an ugly yellow; their eyes were so inflamed by the thick smoke and the steamy vapor that they could barely see.”

Freedmen. Because Romans routinely freed slaves or allowed them to purchase their freedom, freedmen were a substantial part of Roman society. Many freedmen received citizenship along with their freedom; others had to earn it by having legitimate children or serving the state. The sons of freedmen were, however, automatically citizens. Freedmen gained greater importance in the early Empire because so much of the bureaucratic structure that kept the state running began to be handled either by slaves or freedmen. The Emperor Claudius considered two freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas, as trusted advisers and raised them to public positions of authority and wealth.


Apuleius, The Golden Ass, translated by P. G. Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Finley Hooper, Roman Realities (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979).

Beryl Rawson, ed., The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986).

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Family in Roman Society

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