By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe a typical Roman home
- Discuss gender roles in Roman families
- Analyze the influence of social class on daily life in Rome
The family was an important element of life during the Roman Empire. The male patriarch was the head of the household, which consisted of the immediate and extended family, as well as adjacent groups, including dependents and enslaved people. While men held ultimate authority in the family, women were also expected to maintain family order, with responsibilities in and often outside the household. Pride in a family’s prosperity was a crucial Roman value, which motivated both the honoring of ancestors and the securing of a future for descendants. Romans looked to their ancestors for examples of correct moral behavior and worked diligently for the family’s continuing stability.
The Structure of Roman Families
Family life was oriented around the paterfamilias, the male head of the household. According to tradition, this patriarch had the power of life and death over all his dependents, an authority referred to as patria potestas (“paternal power”). Members of the extended family subject to this authority included the patriarch’s wife, their children, anyone descended through the family’s male line, and all enslaved people belonging to the household. With his authority, the patriarch was both the judge and rule maker of the family, with the power to sell his dependents into bondage or destroy their property (Figure 7.3).
Ultimately, however, the goal of the paterfamilias was to promote his family’s welfare. His power worked through consensus and deliberation with the other family members. As the primary provider, he expected respect from his family but could also reward good behavior. In this way, an entire family might benefit by working together to further their social or financial prosperity.
The securing of a Roman family’s reputation began with the education and training of children. In early Rome, children were educated in the home; later, grammar schools enrolled boys and girls from wealthy families until around the age of twelve. Education usually centered on reading and writing Latin and Greek as well as arithmetic. Around age fifteen, boys donned the toga virilis (“toga of manhood”), a plain white toga representing their enrollment as citizens and entrance into manhood. Roman citizenship was highly coveted and was bestowed either at birth to children of citizens or by special decree. Sons of prominent families could then go on to a civil or military career. After a son inherited his father’s property (as well as his debts), it became his responsibility to maintain the family’s reputation and prosperity.
By contrast, girls commonly married at a young age, usually between fourteen and eighteen years old, and often to a much older man. Younger girls were viewed as more sexually pure and therefore easier to control. In the most common form of marriage, a wife brought a dowry that became her husband’s property. Thus, a woman from a wealthy background with a large dowry had some sway in making marriage arrangements. She also had the protection a powerful family could offer should her husband prove to be less than ideal. Lower-class women were more reliant on their husband’s status to enhance their own. In any case, marriage represented a woman’s coming under the legal control of her husband’s household.
The vast legal and age imbalance between husband and wife was reflected in the cultural restrictions on Roman women. Yet, though a Roman man’s work was an important contributor to the family’s success, women devoted much of their efforts to the same goal. Women were responsible for the management of the household, which included ensuring provisions for the family, overseeing any enslaved people and other dependents, and looking after the children. Spinning wool was viewed as the activity of an ideal Roman woman, and many wives were expected to occupy themselves with this work. Despite these expectations, there is evidence that many women, particularly non-elite women, held professions outside the home, including in medicine, trade, and agriculture.
A Day in the Life of a Roman Family
Romans lived and worked in a variety of contexts across the empire. Most of our evidence of the practical elements of their daily lives comes from archaeological evidence uncovered at Pompeii. The remains of this once-bustling city (which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 CE) show us the occupations, architecture, and lifestyles of different social classes. In addition, though most of what we know is about wealthy estates, life in the countryside outside the city constituted another important part of imperial Roman society.
Daily life was dominated by aristocratic men who enjoyed careers in politics, law, and the military. Wealthy Romans were part of two property-based classes: the senatorial and the equestrian ranks. Only those above a certain property threshold were allowed to be members of these upper classes, and they occupied privileged social positions with access to prestigious careers denied to the lower classes. An elite Roman man’s day began at home in the domus, a traditional single-family house that served both practical and symbolic roles (the term domus refers not only to the physical residence but also to the family). It was a place of display in which a family could take pride and where the father would conduct official business. Every morning, in the role of patron, he would receive a number of clients in his home who sought his aid in exchange for loyalty. The late morning was usually consumed by responsibilities outside the home, including business and political meetings. During the afternoon, wealthy Roman men spent their time socializing and pursuing leisure activities, such as attending public entertainment performances or visiting the bathhouse.
The Plan of a Typical Roman Household
The most common type of Roman house was the atrium house, which could include two or more stories. Based mostly on evidence from Pompeii, we know that each house contained several key features. The fauces or vestibulum was the entryway. The atrium was the open-air reception hall where the patron of the house met with his clients; this area was often decorated with a colorful mosaic on the floor. The tablinum was a small room separated from the atrium by a wooden screen or curtain and contained family records and portraits.
The partial roof over the atrium, or the compluvium, was slanted to drain rainwater into the shallow impluvium pool. This water was collected in an underground cistern for use by the family, or, if left in the pool, it helped to ventilate other rooms in the house. The triclinium (“three couches”) was the dining room, where members of the household ate in the Roman fashion, reclining around a small table. Alae were the smaller recesses in a house that stored masks or busts of a family’s ancestors.
Fountains, peristyle (columned) courtyards, gardens, and other lavish features were located across the atrium from the doorway, to make sure guests could see them upon arrival. This floor plan emphasized the power relationship between a patron and his clients, as well as the authority and prestige of the paterfamilias (Figure 7.4).
- What are the key features of an atrium house and what do they tell us about daily life in Rome?
- How does the architecture of a typical Roman home reflect important aspects of Roman culture and society?
The wealthiest Romans had both houses in the city and villas in the countryside. Suburban villas were located just outside a city’s walls, and villas located in the countryside typically originated as agricultural estates. Large estates, known as latifundia, were agricultural operations in which enslaved people worked the land for the owner’s profit. In the imperial period, these estates came to contain villa residences that functioned more as places of recreation and a means to display wealth. Many elements of luxury displayed in townhouses also appear in villas, such as gardens, fountains, and mosaics. Hadrian’s villa outside Rome is an opulent example of luxury at the very top of the Roman social order, incorporating elements of this emperor’s travels in the second century CE (Figure 7.5).
Life for the lower classes was not as luxurious or as stable. Clients formed a largely educated class in Rome who supported themselves through gifts from their patrons and meager employment. Though Romans typically had a six-hour workday, the urban poor relied more on occasional work or odd jobs. In large cities, many lived in insulae, apartment complexes of three to four levels that occupied a rectangular city block. Insulae had a reputation for being overcrowded and having limited facilities, however.
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.
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].
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).