The Nature of the Family

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The Nature of the Family



Members of the Familia. A familia included everyone who lived in the same household. The oldest male in the house was known as the paterfamilias. The paterfamilias had ultimate authority over the whole familia. Likewise, the oldest woman in the house was the materfamilias. Unlike the paterfamilias, the authority of the materfamilias was not legal; rather, she held a position of respect and was able to exercise the authority that this respect gave her. A husband and a wife (vir and uxor respectively, or coniunx, a word like “spouse”) were not the paterfamilias or materfamilias, if they lived with the husband’s parents. Children, liberi (” the free ones”), were members of the familia, but only of their father’s gens (” family”). Likewise, a wife remained a member of her gens even after her marriage, unless she married with manus, a condition that placed her under her husband’s control and therefore made her a member of his gens. Other members of the familia include the household slaves, particularly ones who took care of the children.

The nutrix, or nurse, cared for children from their birth. Some children developed a long-lasting affection for their nurses, and evidence suggests that nurses remained in the household long after the children had grown. When the Emperor Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E., it was his nurse and former lover, Acte, who cared for his body and buried him in the family tomb. Once a child became a little older and began attending school outside the home, a paedagogus (” a child escorter”) was assigned to accompany and protect the child.


Because there was a limited number of praenomina, or first names, often the first name appears only as an abbreviation in literary works and in inscriptions. The abbreviations, with the corresponding names, are as follows:

A. AulusMam. Mamercus
App. AppiusN. Numerius
C. GaiusP. Publius
Cn. GnaeusQ. Quintus
D. DecimusSex. Sextus
K. KaesoSer. Servius
L. LuciusSp. Spurius
M. MarcusT. Titus
M’. ManiusTi(b).Tiberius

Some of the names, such as Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus, come from numbers (for example, fifth, sixth, and tenth). Spurius was a name often given to sons who were born after their father’s death or whose paternity might have been in question. (Or they were given the cognomen Postumus, “after burial.”) Other abbreviations one might see in inscriptions are:

for F—filius or filia (son or daughter) nor

N— nepos (grandson)

1 or L—libertus or liberta (freedman or freedwoman)

Source: William G. Hale and Carl D. Buck, A Latin Grammar (Boston &London: Ginn, 1903; reprinted, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1966.)

Members of a Gens. A gens refers to all individuals born or adopted into the same family and who, therefore, had the same family name. All males had at least two names: the nomen, which was the family name, and the praenomen, which corresponds to a first name. Some men also had a cognomen, an honorary name or a sort of nickname that had become part of the family tradition. Take, for example, the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero: his gens name is Tullius, the name he shared with his father, his brother, his son, and his daughter (the latter in a modified form, to show feminine gender). Marcus is his praen omen. >His brother’s praenomen was Quintus. Cicero is his cognomen, a nickname that had become hereditary in the Tullian gens. Because there was a relatively limited number of praenomina, men were usually identified not only by their full name but also by the praenomina of their fathers and their grandfathers. For instance, the orator was known as Marcus Tullius M. f. M. n. Cicero: Marcus Tullius Cicero, son (filius) of Marcus, grandson (nepos) of Marcus. In modern times scholars tend to refer to Roman men by their cognomina: Brutus (Marcus Junius Brutus), Caesar (Gaius Julius Caesar), Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus). Notice the last example, the name of the emperor Augustus. Because Julius Caesar had no male heirs, he adopted his sister’s son, Gaius Octavius. When a young man was adopted, he took his adopted father’s name; hence Gaius Octavius became Gaius Julius Caesar. The name of his gens was retained in a slightly different form: Octavius became Octavianus, and his full name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. In 27 B.C.E. the Senate awarded the new leader and de facto emperor an honorific name, Augustus. Thus, Gaius Octavius became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus.

Women’s Names. Women’s names were much simpler. There were no praenomina for women. At first their only name came from the gens name, the nomen. Marcus Tullius Cicero’s daughter, therefore, was named Tullia. Gaius Julius Caesar’s daughter was named Julia. Marcus Fabius Ambustus had two daughters, both named Fabia. To distinguish them, they were referred to as Fabia Maior (“the elder Fabia”) and Fabia Minor (“the younger Fabia”). If a family had three or more daughters, they might be known as Claudia Prima (“First”), Claudia Secunda (“Second”), Claudia Tertia (“Third”), Claudia Quarta (“Fourth”), and so on. At the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Principate, women began to have cognomina. Livia, the wife of Augustus, was actually Livia Drusilla. Nero’s mother was Julia Agrippina. The wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus was Julia Domna; her sister was Julia Maesa; her nieces, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Notice that women did not change their names at marriage: a woman kept the name of the family into which she was born throughout her life.


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

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

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

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The Nature of the Family

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