Roman Law – Patria Potestas
Updated: Feb 16
Just how much power did a Roman father have over his family? Our article gives a fascinating insight into a time when a father’s word really was law and woe betide the child who went against it.
Whilst Rome is often regarded (and rightly so) as having given us many of the benchmarks by which we define our own civilisation, there are aspects of Roman law and tradition that are best left by the banks of the Tiber.
This concept, meaning literally “the power of the father” was a fundamental foundation of Roman society and influenced the law of the time and – by extension – our laws today.
A father’s power over his children was recognised as supreme, with the children unable to go against their father’s wishes. Many abuses of power were kept under control by social convention and censure, although the father still had the ability to take whatever action he saw fit, particularly when it came to punishment.
The power of the father also extended down the generations as well, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren under his control.
However, many children found themselves free from patria potestas by the time they reached their mid-twenties, since given the life expectancy in Ancient Rome (which was the mid to late forties) the previous generation was normally dead already. Those who lived in their own households at the time of the father’s death became fathers of the family in their own households, even if they were only teenagers.
Patria potestas meant that the father alone had any rights in private law and because of this, anything that the child acquired became the father’s property. The father might permit his child to treat that property as their own but in the eyes of the law, it continued to belong to the father.
The father’s power was not merely restricted to the property of his children; he could also sell them into slavery if he wanted. However, if this happened three times, the law stated that the child was then no longer under patria potestas.
Whilst the father had the ability to approve or reject the marriages of his sons or daughter, an edict of Augustus said that he was not allowed to withhold that permission without good reason. The law did not permit him to force his children into marriage. He also had no right to prevent his children divorcing.
The father’s power over his family only ended with his death, but in certain cases, he could free a child by emancipation. However, this was something of a mixed blessing since they were, by this act, effectively disinherited.
When a daughter married, she ceased to be under his power. However, she then passed into the authority of her husband, so was not really any better off.
As well as their rights under the law, fathers also had legal duties and responsibilities. One Roman law required that any child who was ‘obviously deformed’ should be put to death, but since disabled adults existed in Roman society, it is clear that this was an area where personal choice carried just as much weight as the strict letter of the law.
Whilst patria potestas may have been absolute in the early days of the Empire, over time, the rights attached to it became steadily more diluted by disuse.
The father’s ability to put his children to death was abolished, the range of punishments available to him was reduced and his right to sell his children into slavery was restricted so that it could be exercised only in cases of extreme necessity.
By the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (r.117-138) the power of the father over the lives of his children had been diluted so far that a father who killed his son lost his Roman citizenship, his property was confiscated and he was sent into exile.
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