Roman Society Reading Questions


1.        Do reading #1 and answer the following questions:

     * Who was the paterfamilias?  What role did he play in Roman society?

     * What power was wielded by the paterfamilias?

     * What was the relationship of the Roman family to the Roman state?

     * List some of the characteristics of the official Roman state religion.

     * What did the hearth symbolize for the Roman family?  Who took care of the hearth?

     * How was religion linked to the state in early Roman times?

     * What were some of the key virtues that were taught to Roman children?

     * In your opinion, what was the most important Roman “virtue?”

  1. Do reading #2 and answer the following questions:

     * Why did Marcellus murder his daughter?  What right did he have to do so?

     * What rights did women have under early Roman law?

     * Who controlled the property and other assets of Roman women?

     * Why did the women protest the Oppian law?

     * Which of Cato's objections to women's behavior do you think was the most important?

    * Since women did not vote or sit in the assemblies, how can the outcome of the
       incident be explained?


Roman Society


The basic unit of Roman society was the family. The state was only an enlarged family in the early days, and its practices grew out of those first formed within the family group. When we think of a family, we understand it to be mother, father, and children. The Roman familas was broader than this. It included not only the parents and children but also the sons’ wives and their families, the slaves, and the clients, whose position was hereditary. When a daughter married, she passed into the household of her husband.


The father, the paterfamilias, had complete authority over the members of his family, much as the magistrates had authority over the citizens. He could sell his wife into slavery or divorce her, if he chose. His new-born children were placed at his feet while he decided whether they should be exposed to die if weak, or raised. If they misbehaved, he could punish them with banishment, slavery, or even death. The father’s authority, however, was limited by custom. People frowned on a man who sold a married son into slavery or who exposed a son or first-born daughter to the animals in the hills surrounding the city of Rome. Before a paterfamilias could condemn his child to death, he had to submit his decision to a family council.


The Roman matron [a matured, usually married woman] might have few legal rights, but she enjoyed enormous respect and prestige in the home and in society. Unlike the Athenian wife, she could leave her home to make visits and to attend the games, the theater, and the courts with her husband. In the streets, a path was cleared for her, and anyone who insulted her was deemed worthy of death. In society her position was honored, and in the home she was mistress as her husband was master.


In the early days of the Roman Republic, the main occupation of the citizen was farming or herding. Cincinnatus, you might recall, on receiving the summons to be dictator, was occupied in plowing his fields. There were no great inequalities of wealth; while no one was very rich, few were very poor. Each household was largely self-sufficient. The women made the clothes from flax or wool. For themselves they made the stola and the outer garment called the pella, and for the men they made the tunic and wrap-around toga. Utensils were made of wood and clay. Whatever else was needed was obtained by barter in the markets held every nine days. Until the 4c B.C.E., the Romans did not use coins, but lumps of bronze. Gradually these lumps assumed fixed weights and were stamped with the figure of an ox or some other device.



The use of bronze indicates that silver and gold were rare and precious, and the slowness of the Romans to adopt coinage, which was used by the Hellenes in Naples, suggests a lack of interest in commerce! Just as the institutions of the state grew out of those of the family, so the state religion was built on that of the family. Within the family group the father was honored as chief priest; his home was the temple, and his hearth was the altar. Family worship took place every day at meal times, when the father threw a little food and wine into the flames of the hearth as an offering to the gods. The chief gods were the guardian deities, the Lares and Penates. The Lares protected the fields, and the Penates watched over the family stores. Vesta, the spirit of the hearth, and Janus, the guardian of the doorway, were other important household deities. The family ancestors were also honored. The ancestors were souls called the manes, or pure ones. The Roman family included not only the living members but these dead ancestral spirits as well.


The education of the children was in the hands of the family. A mother taught her daughter household management [domestic sciences], how to prepare food and cook, and how to make the clothes. A father instructed his sons in the practical necessities of life—reading, writing, and arithmetic, the Twelve Tables, and managing affairs. Beyond this he taught them the proper conduct, the qualities of virtus [virtue], dignitas [dignity], gravitas [seriousness], and the stern virtues of respect for custom, tradition, the gods, and authority. The Romans revered the laws and traditions and honored those in authority, whether the paterfamilias or the magistrates. The Roman boy learned how to obey before he grew up to command, and as an adult he was expected to bring to bear in his public conduct the same virtues he displayed in governing his household.


The Roman family was the mold in which the character of the Roman was formed, much as the polis formed the character of the Athenian. The Roman poet Virgil described it thus: We carry our children to the streams and harden them in the bitter, icy water; as boys they spend wakeful nights over the chase and tire out the whirlwind; but in manhood, unwearied by toil and trained to poverty, they subdue the soil with their plows or shake towns in war. Such training produced men who were tough, stern, and hard, consuming food and drink in moderation, of strong will, vigorous, and harsh. They were narrow in their outlook and slow to act, severe to those under their authority, but also strong in the noble virtues of dignity, courage, and bravery. They were willing to obey as well as to command, and they kept their word when they gave it. For such men the good of the state came above personal considerations, so they willingly left their homes and families when called upon to do so and endured sufferings and hardships without complaint. In their hearts the Romans believed that they were fit to rule their neighbors and that it was their destiny to do so.


Roman Women

"Esther moved through the lovely garden slowly, selecting the prettiest flowers, and carefully placing them in the shallow reed basket she carried. A slave from the Roman province of Judah, she had been with this family, the house of Marcellus, since she was eight, and that she was a slave rarely troubled her, for her mistress Lydia was kind, and her master, while stern and aloof {distant}, was a just man. This home was usually a place of peace and happiness, and often of laughter, for the young son Marius was mischievous and always delighting his parents with his adventures. Though he was only five, he was already talking of the day when he would command a Roman legion.


Today, however, Marius was quiet. The whole house reflected the sorrow that had come to the family. In the slave quarters, Esther's friends whispered of the terrible thing that would be happening soon. Esther knew only too well what lay in store, for she had been summoned in the hours before dawn yesterday to the chambers of her mistress, where the second child of this family was being born. Esther had tended to her mistress and cleaned and wrapped the newborn. She had gazed with wonder at the delicate features of the child, and gasped as the physician told her master, "The child must be destroyed."


 Even now, as she entered the cool bedroom to place the bouquet at the bedside of her mistress, she trembled as she remembered the words. Though her mistress Lydia appeared calm and impassive, Esther saw the trace of tears and the anguish in her blue eyes. How could the master cause his wife such pain? And the baby! To kill this infant, whose clear blue eyes gazed up at her now, whose strands of golden hair curled about the perfectly shaped head, whose tiny fingers nestled trustingly in the hands of its mother. The child looked perfect, but Esther knew that underneath the blanket, one tiny foot turned Inward with a crippling deformity.


As tears threatened, Esther hurried from the room, almost colliding with the master, who told her brusquely, "Esther, find Marius and take him into the garden. He is to study there this afternoon." Nodding, the slave left the room, but lingered outside listening to the conversation, and the pleading tone of Lydia's voice. "Husband, is it really so bad? She is our child, and she is so tiny, so helpless. Can not the law be forgotten for a time? Perhaps she will not be crippled." Esther listened at the strange, soft tone in her master's voice as he answered, "Would there were another way. But the physician says there is no chance." And then, his voice hardening, Marcellus continued, "I will do it now, for it must be done. I need not tell you this, but I will. It will be done quickly and without pain. And when I return, we shall not speak of it again."


Hearing movement, Esther shrank into the hallway alcove, to escape being seen. Roman law had long since ceased to surprise the Hebrew slave, and she knew the master of the house had the power of life and death over all who dwelled within. She also knew parental convenience, rather than romantic alliance was the main reason for Roman marriages; but in this house, the husband and wife had seemed to have real affection for each other, and she knew they both adored their son. She had seen the master defer to his wife or his son on many occasions. But they had never conflicted on a matter of law before.


 Possessing a keen and logical mind, Esther had been teaching herself to read with the Roman child's books, and so she knew that Romans were stern and unfeeling, and valued a logical rather than emotional approach to all situations. The law stated a deformed child must die! So Esther was not surprised to see the master leave the room with the small bundle in his arms. She knew he would leave the house and return without it. But she did not expect to see him stop, pause and look down upon the infant he held. It seemed a long time before he straightened and moved to his task, and only Esther saw the glistening tears within his eyes."




Laws attributed to Romulus, the founder; traditional dates, 753-716 B.C.E. 4. Romulus compelled the citizens to rear every male child and the first-born of the females, and he forbade them to put to death any child under three years of age, unless it was a cripple or a monster from birth. He did not prevent the parents from exposing such children, provided that they had displayed them first to the five nearest neighbors and had secured their approval. For those who disobeyed the law he prescribed the confiscation of half of their property as well as other penalties.


The Twelve Tables (excerpts). Rome, 450 B.C.E. (traditional date). (FIRA2, vol. 1, p. 23. Tr. ARS. L) These laws, the basis of Roman civil law, have their origins in what the Romans called mos majorum, the tradition of their ancestors. The codification and publication of the ancestral laws on twelve bronze tablets in the Roman Forum represented a victory for the plebeian class, which hitherto had been subject to prejudiced legal interpretations by the patricians. Though some of the laws became outdated, the code was never abolished.


Table IV. Paternal power 1. A notably deformed child shall be killed immediately. 3. To reject his wife, her husband shall order her ... to have her own property for herself, shall take the keys, shall expel her. 4. A child born within ten months of the father's death shall enter into the inheritance ...


Table V. Inheritance and guardianship 1. ... Women, even though they are of full age, because of their lightness of mind shall be under guardianship ... except Vestal Virgins, who ... shall be free from guardianship. 2. The conveyable possessions of a woman who is under guardianship of male agnates {relatives on the male side} shall not be acquired by prescriptive right unless they are transferred by the woman herself with the authorization of her guardian ...

4. If anyone who has no direct heir dies intestate, the nearest male agnate shall have the estate;


Husbands' punishment of wives in early Rome (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 6.3.9-12, 1st cent. C.E.) Egnatius Metellus ... took a cudgel {heavy stick} and beat his wife to death because she had drunk some wine. Not only did no one charge him with a crime, but no one even blamed him. Everyone considered this an excellent example of one who had justly paid the penalty for violating the laws of sobriety {seriousness}. Indeed, any woman who excessively seeks the use of wine closes the door on all virtues and opens it to vices. There was also the harsh marital severity of Gaius Sulpicius Gallus. He divorced his wife because he had caught her outdoors with her head uncovered: a stiff penalty, but not without a certain logic. 'The law,' he said, 'prescribes for you my eyes alone to which you may prove your beauty. For these eyes you should provide the ornaments of beauty, for these be lovely: entrust yourself to their more certain knowledge. If you, with needless provocation, invite the look of anyone else, you must be suspected of wrongdoing.' * (Livy, 34:1-8; eds., trs. M. R. Lefkowitz, M. B. Fant, 1982)


During the Second Punic War, men and women were barred from the ostentatious {intended to attract notice and impress others} display of wealth. When the war ended in 201 B.C.E., rich men resumed their habits of luxury, but women continued to be barred by the Oppian Law from that behavior. Six years later, they protested: “The matrons, whom neither counsel nor shame nor their husbands’ orders could keep at home, blockaded every street in the city and every entrance to the Forum. As the men came down to the Forum, the matrons besought {pleaded with} them to let them, too, have the luxuries they had enjoyed before. . . .”


The consul Marcus Porcius Cato (the Elder) spoke against their plea for the repeal of the Oppian law, and warned against female claims for sovereignty {full power and authority}: “If each man of us, fellow citizens, had established that the right and authority of the husband should be held over the mother of his own family, we should have less difficulty with women in general; now, at home our freedom is conquered by female fury, here in the Forum it is bruised and trampled upon, and because we have not contained the individuals, we fear the lot . . . Our ancestors did not permit women to conduct any—not even private—business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers, or husbands. Even now let them snatch at the government and meddle in the Forum and our assemblies. . . . If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt? As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.” Other speakers took the other position, and the women persisted in their protest. The Oppian Law was repealed.