World History 1 105 - 7.1.3 What Family Meant in Rome

The power of the paterfamilias was mirrored in the power of Roman politicians and magistrates. Romans’ personal respect for authority, dispensing of justice, and honoring of the family influenced the way they conducted themselves publicly. The desire to further the family’s prosperity also extended into other facets of daily life. The family as a unit worked to achieve status and prosperity, and everyone had a role to play.

Politics was certainly an extension of Roman family principles. Holding a coveted and powerful political position, Roman senators were referred to as “conscript fathers” (patres conscripti), and their authority, dispensed through legislation and legal judgments, was much like that of a father over his household. Laws about marriage and childbirth made once-private matters a concern of the Roman state. For example, the emperor Augustus made adultery a public crime, setting out to promote childbirth in Rome and protect legal marriages. Yet, like the expectations for women in Roman society, this legislation disproportionately punished women, who could be exiled for adultery as a result.

Dueling Voices

Augustus’s Laws Governing the Family

During his reign, which lasted from 27 BCE to 14 CE, the emperor Augustus enacted numerous moral laws to encourage proper Roman marriage and behavior, including those concerning adultery, discussed in the following accounts by the Roman historian Tacitus and by Suetonius, the biographer of the early Roman emperors. The question was, if Augustus could not ensure good behavior in his own family as paterfamilias, how could he expect Roman citizens to follow his strict moral guidelines? As you read, note the tone of each and what each author says about public perceptions of Augustus’s treatment of the women in his family.

Fortune, staunch to the deified Augustus in his public life, was less propitious to him at home, owing to the incontinence of his daughter and granddaughter, whom he expelled from the capital while penalizing their adulterers by death or banishment. For designating as he did the besetting sin of both the sexes by the harsh appellations of sacrilege and treason, he overstepped both the mild penalties of an earlier day and those of his own laws [the laws concerning adultery passed in 18/17 BCE].

Tacitus, Annals

But at the height of his happiness and his confidence in his family and its training, Fortune proved fickle. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice, and banished them. . . . After [his daughter] was banished, he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury, and would not allow any man, bond or free, to come near her without his permission, and then not without being informed of his stature, complexion, and even of any marks or scars upon his body. It was not until five years later that he moved her from the island to the mainland and treated her with somewhat less rigor. But he could not by any means be prevailed on to recall her altogether, and when the Roman people several times interceded for her and urgently pressed their suit, he in open assembly called upon the gods to curse them with like daughters and like wives.

Suetonius, Life of Augustus

  • Why do you think Augustus went beyond the penalties of his own laws to punish adultery within his own family?
  • What do his actions say about the cultural values of Roman men?

Emperors were especially interested in maintaining their family’s stability, for the practical purpose of ensuring dynastic continuity but also to garner positive public opinion. Rulers took special interest in finding an heir and exercising tight control over family matters. Augustus worked diligently to name an heir to rule after him, appointing several before being succeeded by his stepson Tiberius. Having an unstable household could mean a quick end to an emperor’s reign if the situation became too tumultuous. In the later Roman Empire, when there was significant turnover of rulers, emperors named an heir soon after coming to power.

Similarly, public figures who embodied Roman family values were looked on favorably. Cornelia, a noblewoman in the second century BCE, is remembered for devoting herself to motherhood above all else. She gave birth to twelve children, and after her husband died she refused to remarry and focused instead on raising her surviving children. Her sons Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus led influential political careers before they were both assassinated. Cornelia is reported to have said of her sons, in conversation with another woman displaying her jewelry, “These are my jewels.” Cornelia was noted for embodying feminine virtues in her motherly devotion and for her indirect impact on Roman politics.

By contrast, public figures who disregarded Roman family values were infamous. For example, Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, was viewed as a power-hungry woman in her time. She married her uncle, the emperor Claudius, who was twenty-five years older than she. She then convinced him to adopt her son Nero from a previous marriage, an act that eventually implicated Agrippina in Claudius’s murder in 54 CE and led to Nero’s reign as emperor. Instead of holding more power as empress after Nero’s ascension, Agrippina saw her relationship with her son flounder. Nero plotted to have her killed, first in a sinking boat, from which she escaped, and then by an assassin. The violence and treachery of the imperial family especially tarred Agrippina as a disreputable woman.

Finally, respect for ancestral custom and precedents known as mos maiorum (“the way of the ancestors”) and for deceased members of the family were epitomized in funeral parades. In these public rituals, the deceased was carried from home to the city center, or forum, where the body was laid out. A eulogy was delivered by the heir, surrounded by others wearing ancestor masks that represented deceased family members. The procession linked the living family to the past, and the route through the city gave the ritual public and communal significance (Figure 7.6).

An image of a stone carving is shown on a maroon colored background. The stone is off-white and cracked in places. Designs made up of squares, circles, and “U” shapes run across the top and bottom of the carving. At the right an altar is seen with a carved bottom, two columns in the middle with a highly etched box in between the columns, and a triangle top with décor on the perimeter and the carving of a faded figure in the middle. A small person in a shirt is shown with no facial features in front of the altar, bending over and holding on to a small furry looking animal on four legs with no snout visible. To the left of the altar stand two figures with short hair, robes, holding items in their hands. The one in front stands lower than the figure behind who holds a “V” shaped object to his mouth. To the left are seen three groups of two figures, all on horseback. The horses all have decorative reins and saddles and the figures in front are shown lower than the riders in the back. The figures wear robes and shoes with lariats around their heads. The first rider in front is missing a foot. The first two figures in the back have large feathers on their shoulders while the last rider in the back holds a long, round object over his shoulder.
Figure 7.6 This relief from the first century BCE depicts a Roman funerary procession. The deceased’s high status is clear from the presence of soldiers, musicians, and politicians heading toward the sanctuary on the right, where an animal sacrifice is prepared. (credit: modification of work “Etruscan-Roman cinerary urn from Volaterrae circa 100 BC” by “TimeTravelRome”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax