Historian Harold Johnston explains that the Romans were very much so attached to their families. Family, however, was not defined as a mother and father and children, as it is today. In Roman times, a family consisted of one man who was in charge of the entire household, and he was called the pater familias, or Head of Household. (1, page 21)
Johnston explains that the pater familias was the legal owner of all the profits made by the rest of the family, and the legal owner of all material possessions, which included all the slaves. Under his possession was his wife, his children, his children's children, and all the female spouses of his male children. His female children would be given up in marriage, and given to the pater familias of the house she is marrying into. (1, page 21)
The descent of the family was traced through males, and all males who could trace their ancestry to a common male were thus called agnati, "and this agnatio was the closest tie in relationship known to the Romans." (1, page 25)
The significance of the agnatio is in the Roman belief as to what will happen to every Roman male in the afterlife. Johnston explains this significance as follows: (1, page 28-29)
So you can see that if a Roman did not perform family life in accordance with tradition, he would therefore be offending the spirit, and this would result in sickness. If appropriate ceremonies and sacrifices are not made, sickness may result. And, as we all know, both allergies and asthma are a sickness that might consume a man.The importance they attached to the agnatic family is largely explained by their ideas of the future life. They believed that the souls of men had an existence apart from the body, but not in a separate spirit-land. They conceived of the soul as hovering around the place of burial and requiring for its peace and happiness that offerings of food and drink should be made to it regularly. Should these offerings be discontinued, the soul would cease to be happy itself, and might become perhaps a spirit of evil. The maintenance of these rites and ceremonies devolved naturally upon the descendants from generation to generation, whom the spirits in turn would guide and guard.
Johnston continues: (1, page 29)
Basically this means that the Head of the Household was in charge of making sure tradition was followed in order to keep the male ancestors happy as they hover over their graves. An unhappy male soul results in an unhappy household, one full of grief and sickness.The Roman was bound, therefore, to perform these acts of affection and piety so long as he lived himself, and bound no less to provide for their performance after his death by perpetuating his race and the family cult. A curse was believed to rest upon the childless man. Marriage was, therefore, a solemn religious duty, entered into only with the approval of the gods ascertained by the auspices. In taking a wife to himself the Roman made her a partaker of his family mysteries, a service that brooked no divided allegiance. He therefore separated her entirely from her father's family, and was ready in turn to surrender his daughter without reserve to the husband with whom she was to minister at another altar. The pater familias was the priest of the household, and those subject to his potestas assisted in the prayers and offerings, the sacra familiaria.
One problem that Roman males had is if they had no children, or if their male child passed away. When this happened, "he had to face the prospect of the extinction of his family, and his own descent to the grave with no posterity to make him blessed." (1, page 30)
To accommodate for this, he had two options open to him: (1, page 30)
- He might give himself in adoption and pass into another family in which the perpetuation of the family cult seemed certain, or
- He might adopt a sen and thus perpetuate his own
Of course, as Johnston notes, " He usually followed the latter course, because it secured peace for the souls of his ancestors no less than for his own."
Anyway, I find this very interesting. What do you think?
- Johnston, Harold Whetstone, "The Private Life of Romans," 1908, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Scott, Foresman and company