Ancient Roman Family

Roman Family Funeral Slab 1st C

The Roman family was called familia, from which the Latin word 'family' is derived. The familia could include the triad with which we are familiar, two parents and children (biological or adopted), as well as enslaved people and grandparents. The head of the family (referred to as the pater familias) was in charge of even adult males in the familia.

See Jane F. Gardner's "Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life" reviewed by Richard Saller in The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 1. (Feb. 2000), pp. 260-261.

Purposes of the Roman Family

The Roman family was the basic institution of the Roman people. The Roman family transmitted morality and social status across generations. The family educated its own young. The family tended its own hearth, while the hearth goddess, Vesta, was tended by state priestess called Vestal Virgins. The family needed to continue so that dead ancestors could be honored by their descendants and connections made for political purposes. When this failed to be motive enough, Augustus Caesar offered financial incentives to families to breed.


The wife of the pater familias (the mater familias) might have been considered part of her husband's family or part of her natal family, depending on the conventions of the marriage. Marriages in Ancient Rome could be in manu 'in the hand' or sine manu 'without the hand'. In the former case, the wife became part of her husband's family; in the latter, she remained tied to her family of origin.

Divorce and Emancipation

When we think of divorce, emancipation, and adoption, we usually think in terms of ending relationships between families. Rome was different. Inter-familial alliances were essential for garnering the support needed for political ends.

Divorces could be granted so that partners could remarry into other families to establish new connections, but the family connections established via first marriages need not be broken. Emancipated sons were still entitled to shares of paternal estates.


Adoption also brought families together and allowed continuity to families that would otherwise have no one to carry on the family name. In the unusual case of Claudius Pulcher, adoption into a plebeian family, led by a man younger than himself, allowed Claudius (now using the plebeian name 'Clodius') to run for election as tribune of the plebs.

For information on the adoption of freedmen, see "The Adoption of Roman Freedmen," by Jane F. Gardner. Phoenix, Vol. 43, No. 3. (Autumn, 1989), pp. 236-257.

Familia vs. Domus

In legal terms, familia included all those under the power of the pater familias; sometimes it meant only enslaved people. The pater familias was usually the oldest male. His heirs were under his power, as were the people he enslaved, but not necessarily his wife. A boy without a mother or children could be a pater familias. In non-legal terms, the mother/wife could be included in the familia, although the term usually used for this unit was domus, which we translate as 'home'.

See "'Familia, Domus', and the Roman Conception of the Family," by Richard P. Saller. Phoenix, Vol. 38, No. 4. (Winter, 1984), pp. 336-355.

Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan

Meaning of Domus

Domus referred to the physical house, the household, including the wife, ancestors, and descendants. The domus referred to the places where the pater familias exerted his authority or acted as dominus. Domus was also used for the dynasty of the Roman emperor. Domus and familia were often interchangeable.

Pater Familias vs. Pater or Parent

While pater familias is usually understood as "head of the family," it had the primary legal meaning of "estate owner." The word itself was usually used in legal contexts and required only that the person be able to possess property. The terms usually used to denote parenting were parens 'parent', pater 'father', and mater 'mother'.

See "Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household," by Richard P. Saller. Classical Philology, Vol. 94, No. 2. (Apr. 1999), pp. 182-197.

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman Family." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Ancient Roman Family. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman Family." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).