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date: 27 November 2020

family, Romanfree

  • Susan M. Treggiari

English ‘family’ has connotations which have changed during its long history and vary according to context. Biologically, an individual human being is related to parents, through them to ascendants, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins, and may, by sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex, in turn become a parent, linked by blood to descendants. Blood relations for Romans were cognati, the strongest ties normally being with parents and children and the siblings with whom an individual grew up. Relationship established through the sexual tie of marriage was adfinitas; kin by marriage were adfines (in strict usage from engagement until dissolution of the marriage). Law initially stressed blood relationship through males: agnati (father's other children, father's siblings, father's brothers' children, a man's own children, etc. ) inherited on intestacy. By entering manus (marital power), a married woman came into the same agnate group as husband and children; if she did not, her legal ties and rights were with her natal family.

The group under the power of a paterfamilias (see patria potestas), whether or not they lived under the same roof, was sharply distinguished; there might be other living agnates outside this group. Agnatic forebears were present in family consciousness as recipients of ritual, as imagines (portraits) in an aristocratic house, and as links between the living. For the Romans, familia could originally mean the patrimony; its more normal usages were to describe


those in the power of a paterfamilias, kin, or slaves, or


all the agnates who had been in such power, or


a lineage, like the Julian house, or


a group or household of slaves (Ulpian, Dig. 50. 16. 195. 1–4).

A lineage in the broadest possible sense, a group allegedly descended from a common mythical ancestor, was gens; its members shared a middle name (nomen gentilicium), e.g. Tullius/a, as members of an agnatic familia might share a last name (cognomen), e.g. Cicero. (The class of those sharing a gentilicium extended to newly enfranchised citizens, slaves, and their descendants: see names, personal, roman.) Domus, besides meaning the building in which someone lived (home or residence: see houses, italian), covers


the household of free, slave, and freed persons and


a broader kinship group including cognates (e.g. the imperial ‘family’ or dynasty, domus Caesarum).

Increasingly, descent in the female line (maternum genus) came to be valued in sentiment, appraisal of status, and inheritance practices.

The nuclear family is described, in relation to its male head, as consisting of wife and children (uxor liberique). Similarly a list of those closest to a particular individual would be drawn up to suit various contexts: Cicero for instance in writing to his brother Quintus at an emotional moment might stress his brother, his daughter, his own son, his nephew (his only surviving close kin), his wife (QFr. 1. 3. 3). In relation to an individual, the kin or affines who count change with the phases of life and accidents of survival. The evidence of epitaphs illustrates close family ties as they existed at the time of commemoration: the person(s) who pay for a monument may do so out of love, duty as kin, or duty as beneficiary/ies. Where the commemorator is specified we get a glimpse of how the family operated, as we do from juristic sources, e.g. on dowry or succession, or literary sources, which chiefly reflect the expectations and practice of the upper classes. Although ties with remoter relations by blood or marriage are acknowledged when they exist, emphasis is normally on the nuclear family (one's wife/husband and children, or parents and siblings). In the absence of these, as for soldiers debarred from legal marriage or ex-slaves who theoretically had no parents and in practice might have been prevented from forming a family, comrades or fellow freedmen/women (conliberti/ae) might form a substitute family.


  • B. Rawson (ed.), The Family in Ancient Rome (1986).
  • B. Rawson, Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome (1991).
  • K. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History (1991).
  • S. Dixon, The Roman Family (1992).
  • C. Fayer, La familia romana (1994– ).
  • R. P. Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (1994), ch. 4.
  • B. Rawson and P. Weaver (eds.), The Roman Family in Italy (1997).
  • M. George (ed.), The Roman Family in the Empire (2005).