ancient Rome, a "gens" (pl. "gentes") was a clan, caste, or group of families, that shared a common name (the nomen) and a belief in a common ancestor. In the Roman naming convention, the second name was the name of the "gens" to which the person belonged. The term has also been used to refer to families within a clansystem in other contexts, including tribal clans.
The origins of the "gentes" are unclear, although they are probably not as ancient as the Romans themselves thought; although some were associated with particular cults or ceremonies, all were primarily personal and familial in nature, with no specific political or public duties. Also, the "gentes" did not usually have legendary founders that were worshiped, and the gentile assemblies are not recorded to have passed any sort of legally binding resolutions. Few of the names have clear Indo-European etymologies, and some have been traced to Etruscan names.
Nevertheless, the relationships of the "gentes" was a major factor in politics; members of the same "gens" were "family", and therefore frequently (though not always) political allies.
"Gentes" did have a legal standing in republican Rome. The "gens" as a legal entity owned property, including a family burial ground. There was a "gens" chief, more formally in early Rome and less formally in later Rome; in fact, some notable members of
patrician"gentes" had themselves adopted by plebeianfamilies in order to run for offices not open to the patricii. Members of a "gens" had a legal obligation to help one another when asked. A gens was exogamous; that is, individuals could not seek marriagepartners from within the gens.
A gens was patrilineal and patriarchal. However, such customs were not necessarily inherited from the Italics; the Etruscans could have exercised them also. By the time of republican Rome, Etruscan culture as a whole was fast assimilating to the Italic. The gentes were probably mixed.
plebeians and patricians were not allowed to intermarry, and several patrician families had collapsed as a result, until the " Lex Canuleia", allowing intermarriage, was passed.
Among the patrician "gentes" there were two categories, the "gentes maiores", and the "gentes minores". The "maiores" were the leading families of Rome: these were the
Aemilii, Claudii, Cornelii, Fabii, and Valerii, and they claimed special religious and secular privileges.
* [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State]
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