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The History of Rome, by Theodor Mommsen
 Related Resources
• Contents of Mommsen's History of Rome
• Ancient Rome
• Texts and Translations Index
• The Fall of Rome

The House-father and His Household

The family formed an unity. It consisted of the free man who upon his father's death had become his own master, and the spouse whom the priests by the ceremony of the sacred salted cake (-confarreatio-) had solemnly wedded to share with him water and fire, with their son and sons' sons and the lawful wives of these, and their unmarried daughters and sons' daughters, along with all goods and substance pertaining to any of its members. The children of daughters on the other hand were excluded, because, if born in wedlock, they belonged to the family of the husband; and if begotten out of wedlock, they had no place in a family at all. To the Roman citizen a house of his own and the blessing of children appeared the end and essence of life. The death of the individual was not an evil, for it was a matter of necessity; but the extinction of a household or of a clan was injurious to the community itself, which in the earliest times therefore opened up to the childless the means of avoiding such a fatality by their adopting the children of others as their own.
The Roman family from the first contained within it the conditions of a higher culture in the moral adjustment of the mutual relations of its members. Man alone could be head of a family. Woman did not indeed occupy a position inferior to man in the acquiring of property and money; on the contrary the daughter inherited an equal share with her brother, and the mother an equal share with her children. But woman always and necessarily belonged to the household, not to the community; and in the household itself she necessarily held a position of domestic subjection -- the daughter to her father, the wife to her husband,(1) the fatherless unmarried woman to her nearest male relatives; it was by these, and not by the king, that in case of need woman was called to account. Within the house, however, woman was not servant but mistress. Exempted from the tasks of corn-grinding and cooking which according to Roman ideas belonged to the menials, the Roman housewife devoted herself in the main to the superintendence of her maid-servants, and to the accompanying labours of the distaff, which was to woman what the plough was to man.(2) In like manner, the moral obligations of parents towards their children were fully and deeply felt by the Roman nation; and it was reckoned a heinous offence if a father neglected or corrupted his child, or if he even squandered his property to his child's disadvantage.
In a legal point of view, however, the family was absolutely guided and governed by the single all-powerful will of the "father of the household" (-pater familias-). In relation to him all in the household were destitute of legal rights -- the wife and the child no less than the bullock or the slave. As the virgin became by the free choice of her husband his wedded wife, so it rested with his own free will to rear or not to rear the child which she bore to him. This maxim was not suggested by indifference to the possession of a family; on the contrary, the conviction that the founding of a house and the begetting of children were a moral necessity and a public duty had a deep and earnest hold of the Roman mind. Perhaps the only instance of support accorded on the part of the community in Rome is the enactment that aid should be given to the father who had three children presented to him at a birth; while their ideas regarding exposure are indicated by the prohibition of it so far as concerned all the sons -- deformed births excepted -- and at least the first daughter. Injurious, however, to the public weal as exposure might appear, the prohibition of it soon changed its form from that of legal punishment into that of religious curse; for the father was, above all, thoroughly and absolutely master in his household. The father of the household not only maintained the strictest discipline over its members, but he had the right and duty of exercising judicial authority over them and of punishing them as he deemed fit in life and limb. The grown-up son might establish a separate household or, as the Romans expressed it, maintain his "own cattle" (-peculium-) assigned to him by his father; but in law all that the son acquired, whether by his own labour or by gift from a stranger, whether in his father's household or in his own, remained the father's property. So long as the father lived, the persons legally subject to him could never hold property of their own, and therefore could not alienate unless by him so empowered, or yet bequeath. In this respect wife and child stood quite on the same level with the slave, who was not unfrequently allowed to manage a household of his own, and who was likewise entitled to alienate when commissioned by his master. Indeed a father might convey his son as well as his slave in property to a third person: if the purchaser was a foreigner, the son became his slave; if he was a Roman, the son, while as a Roman he could not become a Roman's slave, stood at least to his purchaser in a slave's stead (-in mancipii causa-). The paternal and marital power was subject to a legal restriction, besides the one already mentioned on the right Of exposure, only in so far as some of the worst abuses were visited by legal punishment as well as by religious curse. Thus these penalties fell upon the man who sold his wife or married son; and it was a matter of family usage that in the exercise of domestic jurisdiction the father, and still more the husband, should not pronounce sentence on child or wife without having previously consulted the nearest blood-relatives, his wife's as well as his own. But the latter arrangement involved no legal diminution of power, for the blood-relatives called in to the domestic judgment had not to judge, but simply to advise the father of the household in judging.
But not only was the power of the master of the house substantially unlimited and responsible to no one on earth; it was also, as long as he lived, unchangeable and indestructible. According to the Greek as well as Germanic laws the grown-up son, who was practically independent of his father, was also independent legally; but the power of the Roman father could not be dissolved during his life either by age or by insanity, or even by his own free will, excepting only that the person of the holder of the power might change, for the child might certainly pass by way of adoption into the power of another father, and the daughter might pass by a lawful marriage out of the hand of her father into the hand of her husband and, leaving her own -gens- and the protection of her own god to enter into the -gens- of her husband and the protection of his god, became thenceforth subject to him as she had hitherto been to her father. According to Roman law it was made easier for the slave to obtain release from his master than for the son to obtain release from his father; the manumission of the former was permitted at an early period, and by simple forms; the release of the latter was only rendered possible at a much later date, and by very circuitous means. Indeed, if a master sold his slave and a father his son and the purchaser released both, the slave obtained his freedom, but the son by the release simply reverted into his father's power as before. Thus the inexorable consistency with which the Romans carried out their conception of the paternal and marital power converted it into a real right of property.
Closely, however, as the power of the master of the household over wife and child approximated to his proprietary power over slaves and cattle, the members of the family were nevertheless separated by a broad line of distinction, not merely in fact but in law, from the family property. The power of the house-master -- even apart from the fact that it appeared in operation only within the house -- was of a transient, and in some degree of a representative, character. Wife and child did not exist merely for the house-father's sake in the sense in which property exists only for the proprietor, or in which the subjects of an absolute state exist only for the king; they were the objects indeed of a legal right on his part, but they had at the same time capacities of right of their own; they were not things, but persons. Their rights were dormant in respect of exercise, simply because the unity of the household demanded that it should be governed by a single representative; but when the master of the household died, his sons at once came forward as its masters and now obtained on their own account over the women and children and property the rights hitherto exercised over these by the father. On the other hand the death of the master occasioned no change in the legal position of the slave.
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