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The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Family Life
 
Mother and child
Ancient Rome was a man’s world. In politics, society and the family, men held both the power and the purse-strings – they even decided whether a baby would live or die.

Families were dominated by men. At the head of Roman family life was the oldest living male, called the "paterfamilias," or "father of the family." He looked after the family's business affairs and property and could perform religious rites on their behalf.

Absolute power


The paterfamilias had absolute rule over his household and children. If they angered him, he had the legal right to disown his children, sell them into slavery or even kill them.

Only the paterfamilias could own property: whatever their age, until their father died, his sons only received an allowance, or peliculum, to manage their own households.

Sons were important, because Romans put a lot of value on continuing the family name. If a father had no sons then he could adopt one – often a nephew – to make sure that the family line would not die out.

Materfamilias

Roman women usually married in their early teenage years, while men waited until they were in their mid-twenties. As a result, the materfamilias (mother of the family) was usually much younger than her husband.

As was common in Roman society, while men had the formal power, women exerted influence behind the scenes. It was accepted that the materfamilias was in charge of managing the household. In the upper classes, she was also expected to assist her husband’s career by behaving with modesty, grace and dignity.

Baby love?

The influence of women only went so far. The paterfamilias had the right to decide whether to keep newborn babies. After birth, the midwife placed babies on the ground: only if the paterfamilias picked it up was the baby formally accepted into the family.

If the decision went the other way, the baby was exposed – deliberately abandoned outside. This usually happened to deformed babies, or when the father did not think that the family could support another child. Babies were exposed in specific places and it was assumed that an abandoned baby would be picked up and taken a slave.

Infant mortality


Even babies accepted into the household by the paterfamilias had a rocky start in life. Around 25 percent of babies in the first century AD did not survive their first year and up to half of all children would die before the age of 10.

As a result, the Roman state gave legal rewards to women who had successfully given birth. After three live babies (or four children for former slaves), women were recognized as legally independent. For most women, only at this stage could they choose to shrug off male control and take responsibility for their own lives.


Where to next:
Religion in Ancient Rome – Roman Worship
Life in Roman Times – Weddings, Marriages and Divorce


 
Related Links:

Women   Women
Marriage & Divorce   Marriage & Divorce
The Roman Empire

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Age of Augustus

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The Roman Empire - In The First Century