He is lord of life and death of children and slaves. The father of the family watches over the good manners that were already in place among the ancestors and, as a patron, ensures order in the district.
The birth, a happy event? Maybe. Even when the delivery is over, the exhausted mother cannot yet hug the newborn. Instead, the infant is wrapped in a cloth and laid on the floor. Now comes the moment when everyone present will hold their breath.
What will the pater familias do? Pick up the baby or turn around silently and leave the room? If that is the case, he will not accept his child and thereby seal his fate. The relatives always have to tremble when, instead of the longed-for son, a girl is born “again” or the baby has a disability. That could mean his death sentence.
The right to put one’s own child to death is just one example of the sheer omnipotence of the Roman father. In this case, the term family not only includes parents and (adult) children, but also grandchildren, daughters-in-law, slaves and all property, be it buildings, land or assets. This entire complex of people and objects is under the sole control of the oldest male relative in the family. This is the lord of life and death of all members of his household and has unlimited power.
Only the pater familias has the right to enter into contracts, buy or sell property. He can even dispose of his wife’s dowry freely and, if he wishes, he can even sell his own children as slaves. Even if at least the latter is unlikely to happen in reality, sons and daughters are by no means free in their decisions. While the son cannot marry without the consent of the father, the married daughter remains under his authority unless the father expressly hands her over to her husband.
If the father has accepted his newborn child, it is taken into the family after eight days in a solemn ceremony.
This article first appeared in G/History magazine.
In the first years of life, the mother is responsible for the upbringing of the sons and daughters. While the girls remain in their mother’s care, the boys are handed over to a male educator at the age of seven. In poorer families it is the father himself who takes care of the practical training of the offspring.
Patrician families, on the other hand, hire a professional teacher who not only provides his protégés with a comprehensive education, but also takes care of their physical fitness and encourages them to lead a virtuous life. At the bottom of the family hierarchy are the slaves. From a purely legal point of view, they are not regarded as people, but as “things” or “speaking devices”. It is estimated that at the end of the Republic about a quarter of the Roman population were slaves.
But a slave is not always a slave. The more highly qualified, mostly of Greek descent, usually work in the family household, where they are often employed as teachers, but sometimes also work as architects or artists. They are usually treated fairly and they can expect to be released sooner or later.
But the masses of slaves have had a hard time shouldering it. For example those who – mostly in chains – work on the latifundia of the big landowners. Others toil under miserable conditions in mines or quarries. If they become ill, injured or no longer able to work for other reasons, this means certain death. The average life expectancy of these slaves is just 21 years.
Hardly anyone gives a thought to dead slaves. But the deceased ancestors of the family are honored with a special ancestor cult, in which death masks play a significant role. Wealthy patrician families prefer wax models, even if they are much more delicate than plaster masks and have to be touched up constantly. But they have the clear advantage of appearing more alive.
The family keeps the death masks in shrines. They are only taken out and festively decorated on special holidays. In addition, they are used at large funeral ceremonies, where the relatives wear the masks themselves in front of their faces to commemorate the great past of the dead and thus demonstrate the fame and honor of their own family: “They put them on people who are taller and shape are as similar as possible to the deceased,” writes Polybius. “Who should not be deeply impressed when the images of the men praised for their deeds are all gathered there as if they were still alive and animated?”
The soft, mostly yellowish wax masks conform to the facial features of their wearers while maintaining the resemblance to the deceased. In this way one demonstrates not only the close connection to the ancestors, but also the continuity of their values, the mos maiorum.
This “ancestral custom”, which is based on virtues such as obedience, striving for fame and honor, bravery and piety, serves the Romans as a compass for a good and righteous life. They feel that they are part of a larger whole, to which they have to integrate and subordinate themselves.
In return, his clients are loyal to him. They form his followers in public and support him, for example, in efforts to gain high office. According to Cicero, the patron enjoys unlimited authority: “One has the greatest respect for one’s father first, but then for one’s patron.” This sentence is somewhat reminiscent of the mafia, which has also adopted this strictly hierarchical patriarchal system.
By Karin Feuerstein-Prasser
The original of this post “He decides whether a baby is allowed to live: That’s how powerful the householder was in ancient Rome” comes from G/History.