Was The Power Of Fathers Over Wives, Children And Slaves Absolute?

2446 words - 10 pages

Was the power of fathers over wives, children and slaves absolute?

A Roman father would be given the title of pater familias, meaning head of household and family. This title, given to any male Roman citizen who was “sui iuris”1, 'under his own power,' gave the pater familias certain legal powers over his familias, a word which “covered every member of the household subject to the power of the father...children, slaves and...the wife”2. With respect to these legal rights, the word 'absolute' can be defined as unrestricted or unlimited3. It is, however, important to bear in mind that, according to Plautus, “laws are subordinate to custom”4. The role of the pater familias was a long ...view middle of the document...

A Roman marriage could be cum or sine manus . Traditionally during the ceremony for a cum manus marriage, a woman would ask her husband, “Do you wish to be my paterfamilias?”8 This signified the wife being placed under the legal control of the husband and his patria potestas as she legally became a member of his family. A woman in a cum manus marriage had the title of mater familias. Although the title is parrallel to its male counterpart, the similarity ends there. The title gave no added power to the wife and by the Empire, the word was synomonous with wife9. The wife was subject to her husband's power of life and death and all her property and inheritance would belong to him. He only had to return her dowry in the event of a divorce10. Moreover, a woman could not instigate a divorce. In this way, a cum manus marriage gave the pater familias complete control over his wife and her financial assets.

In a sine manus marriage, however, the wife legally remained a member of her father's family, staying under his potestas. Consequently she remained independent from her husband and retained her hereditary rights11. Therefore the husband's power over his wife was severly limited. Although a sine manus marriage meant the wife was still under the power of her father, this was less burdensome as it was likely her father would die sooner than her husband, leaving her independent earlier than in a cum manus marriage.
Whatever the marriage, however, the customs of Roman society proved to be a limiting factor in how much power the husband had over his wife. By the late Republic, regardless of what kind of marriage a woman had, an upper-class Roman matron enjoyed a fair amount of independence and often kept control of her own property12. These changes in society made a husband exercising absolute power over his wife unusual and applied peer pressure, encouraging men to give their wives the independence that was becoming the norm.

From birth, a child fell under the potestas of the pater. The extent of a father's power over his offspring can be seen in the ius vitae necisque. This law gave a father the power to decide whether his child lived or died. The power of life or death was an established legal right, as can be seen by the use of the word “ius” and its inclusion in the Twelve Tables13. If the pater familias decided to exercise his power of life and death over his children, even his wife “was powerless to protest the infantcide” even “of a legitimate and healthy child”14. Consequently, the father's power was so great that he could decide the fate of his children.Yet although the pater had the legal right to exercise capital punishment, it appears that by late Antiquity this right was considered obsolete. Custom limited the father's power, dictating that it was proper to verbally scold disobedient children, or at most, give a beating15. Furthermore, the decision to kill one of his children was not made solely by the pater. Before the child could...

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