Classically Inclined

December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.

Romans could also identify themselves as members of a gens or clan, which invoked both historical and ethnic associations. The most famous of these are probably the Julian gens and the Claudian gens, who intermarried and produced the Julio-Claudian emperors. Membership of a gens could lead to certain inherited rights or priesthoods, and indeed was the gateway to patrician status when it still held political weight in the Republic. Being part of a gens lost some functional importance when the Roman political system rearranged itself around an emperor, but the gens remained one way of defining identity and relationships. A sense of heritage could be tied up with a place as much as with ancestry, and those elements of family history were often used to considerable political advantage. A Roman thinking of ‘family’ in practical terms could thus be considering his biological family, the people who lived in the same house, the people who belong to the same gens, or those whom the law defined as legally forming his family.

So, where does my work fit into this? Well, I’m not actually interested in using Seneca’s work to recreate the lived cultural system of familial relationships in the way you might use legal texts or inscriptions. What I’m interested in is Seneca’s philosophical ideas about living ethically within a biological family. Complicated factors like the Roman laws surrounding adoption and remarriage don’t appear to make much of an impact on Seneca’s thought; for his purposes, the structure of family remains simple. I’ve decided there are three central relationships that form the core of Seneca’s view of the family. The first is the relationship between husband and wife; the second is the relationship between parents and children; the third is the relationship between siblings. Seneca has plenty to say about all three of these pairs, either by commenting directly on particular relationships or by making general statements about how they should ideally function, and the central subject of my research is working out precisely what he says and why he says it.


Further Reading

Bradley, K. R. 1991. Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, S. 1992. The Roman Family. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press.

Farney, G. D. 2007. Ethnic Identity and Aristocratic Competition in the Roman Republic.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, J. F. 1998. Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

George, M. ed. 2005. The Roman Family in the Empire. Rome, Italy, and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawson, B. ed. 1986a. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rawson, B. and P. R. Weaver, ed. 1997. The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space. Canberra: Humanities Research Centre; Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.

Saller, R. P. 1984. “Familia, domus, and the Roman conception of the family.” Phoenix 38: 336-55.



  1. Very helpful! My history teaching for next term includes a Roman social history module and power within the Roman family is a topic that looks interesting.

    Comment by Carol Atack (@carolatack) — December 5, 2012 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

    • Oddly enough, I’ve just been writing a first year lecture on Roman women… you might have a look at the Laudatio Turiae as an example both of conventional female virtues and unexpected autonomy.

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 5, 2012 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

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