Pater familias

Pater familias

"for the episode of Ghost Whisperer, see Pater Familias."

The "pater familias" (plural: "patres familias") was the highest ranking family status ("status familiae") in an Ancient Roman household, always a male position. The term is Latin, literally, for "father of the family". The form is irregular and archaic in Latin, preserving the old genitive ending in "-as" (see Latin declension). In contemporary English, the term is sometimes used to refer to a person who is acknowledged as exercising the most authority within a family, household, or group.

The Roman "pater" was not a father in the modern, mostly western, sense of the concept, but a chief of the family "domus" (house). "Pater" is thus a distinct concept from that of the biological father, which was called the "Genitor". The power held by the "pater familias" was called "patria potestas" (paternal power). "Potestas" is distinct from "auctoritas", also held by the "pater". The power of the "pater" was over his "familia iure proprio" (not necessarily kin-based, but a political, economical and religious unit) and his "familia domestica" (based on kinship and co-residence).

Patria potestas

Under the laws of the Twelve Tables, the "pater familias" had "vitae necisque potestas" - the "power of life and death" - over his children, his wife (in some cases), and his slaves, all of whom were said to be "sub manu", "under his hand". For a slave to become a freedman (someone with "status libertatis"), he would have to be delivered "out of the hand" of the "pater familias", hence the terms "manumissio" and "emancipatio". At law, at any rate, his word was absolute and final. If a child was unwanted, under the Roman Republic the "pater familias" had the power to order the child put to death by exposure.

He had the power to sell his children into slavery; Roman law provided, however, that if a child has been sold as a slave three times, he is no longer subject to the "patria potestas". The "pater familias" had the power to approve or reject marriages of his sons and daughters; however, an edict of the Emperor Caesar Augustus provided that the "pater familias" could not withhold that permission lightly.

One should notice that the "pater"'s children, the "filii familias", could be other than biological offspring, such as brothers, nephews or adoptive sons and daughters. In Ancient Rome, the family household was, therefore, conceived as an economical and juridical unit subordinated to a single person, with a great deal of authority (the "potestas" and "auctoritas") over all its members - in fact, the Latin word "familia" (which is the etymological origin for the English word "family"), originally meant the group of the "famuli" ("servus" or serfs and slaves) living under the same roof. And the "familia" was considered the basic social unit, more primordial, for instance, than the gens (clan, caste, or group of families).

Besides being a chief, the "pater familias" was the only person endowed with legal capacity, or "sui iuris". Women (in most but not all cases), the "filii", slaves and foreigners had a "capitis deminutio" (literally, a "diminished head", meaning diminished capacity), that is, they could not celebrate valid contracts, nor did they possess, by rule, personal property. All assets and contracts belonged, in principle, to the "pater". A "capitis deminutio" meant a tendential lack of legal personality, even if there were some restrictions: there were laws protecting the slaves, and the incapable (everyone with a "capitis deminutio") could, in some circumstances, possess a quasi- personal property, the "peculium".

As such, the "patres familias" were the only full legal persons, but, because of their extended rights (their "longa manus", literally "long hand"), they also had a series of extra duties: duties towards the women, the "filii" and the slaves (though some of these duties were not recognized by the original "ius civile", but only by the "ius gentium", specially directed to foreigners, or by the "ius honorarium", the law of the "Magistratus", specially the "Praetor", which emerges in a latter period of Roman law).

Only a Roman citizen, someone with "status civitatis", could enjoy the status of "pater familias". There could only be one holder of the office within a household. Even male adult "filii" remained under the authority of their "pater" while he still lived, and could not acquire the rights of a "pater familias" while he was yet alive; at least in legal theory, all their property was acquired on behalf of their father, and he, not they, had ultimate authority to dispose of it. Those who lived in their own households at the time of the "pater"'s death succeeded to the status of "pater familias" over their respective households ("pater familias sui iuris"), even if they were just in their teens. Women were always under the control ("sub manu") of a "pater familias", either their original "pater", or the "pater" of their husband's family once married (which could be her husband or not).

Over time, the absolute authority of the "pater familias" tended to be weakened, and rights that theoretically existed were no longer enforced or insisted upon. The power over life and death was abolished, the right of punishment was moderated, and the sale of children was restricted to cases of extreme necessity.


* [*/Patria_Potestas.html George Long, "Patria Potestas", in William Smith, "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities"] London, John Murray, 1875, pp. 873‑875.
* [ "Roman Law", in "Catholic Encyclopedia"] New York, Robert Appleton, 1913.
*Olga Tellegen-Couper, "A Short History of Roman Law".

ee also

*Women in Ancient Rome
*Honor killing

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