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Parenting and Spanking

Roman Law

Posted by bob76 on 2018-11-14 18:26:05

From "A History of Private Life; From Pagan Rome to Byzantium", edited by Paul Veyne, pages 27 to 29.


A peculiarity of Roman law that astonished the Greeks was that every male child, past puberty or not, married or not, remained under the authority of his father and did not become a Roman in the full sense of the word, a paterfamilias, until the father's death. More than that, the youth's father was his natural judge and could privately sentence him to death. A testator had almost unlimited discretion: fathers could disinherit their sons. Hence it was possible for an eighteen-year-old orphan to make his mistress his heir, yet a grown man could take no legal action on his own while his father was alive. "Where a son is involved," one jurist writes, "public officials have nothing to say; though he were consul, he would have no right to borrow money." Such, at any rate, was the theory. What was the practice? Morally it was even worse.

There were of course legal limits to paternal power. Not every father disinherited his children, and to do so one had to be sure not to die intestate. A son deprived of his inheritance could contest the will in the courts. In any case, only three-quarters of his patrimony could be taken away. As for a father sentencing his son to death, a notion that played a large role in the Roman imagination, the last instances date from the time of Augustus and outraged public opinion. Still, a child had no fortune of his own: whatever he earned or inherited belonged to his father. The father could, however, grant him a certain capital, the so-called peculum, to use as he saw fit. Or the father could decide quite simply to emancipate the boy. Sons therefore had grounds for hope and means to act.

But the latter were mere expedients, and hopes were attended by risks. Psychologically, an adult male whose father was alive found himself in an intolerable situation. He could do nothing without his father's consent: he could not sign a contract, free a slave, or draw up his will. He possessed only his peculum, like a slave, and even that could be revoked. Apart from these humiliations there was the risk - quite real - of being disinherited. ...

Sons had one last yoke to bear: without their father's consent they could make no career. ... I should add that the eldest son enjoyed no legal privilege, though tradition encouraged younger sons to respect the priority of the eldest.

Posted by bob76 on 2018-11-14 18:30:00

If we'd been living under Roman law I wouldn't have dared to defy my father as I did in the incident described at https://www.misterpoll.com/forums/304479/topics/307311/pg/3. I prefer the modern American system in which children legally become adults at age 18 and there is equality between men and women.

Posted by bob76 on 2019-10-08 18:22:30

Fathers had similar authority in medieval Italy. From "A History of Private Life II: Revelations of the Medieval World":

In Italian tradition power belonged uncontestably to the husband. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries his authority, identified with that of the king, continued to grow in the eyes of the jurists, especially those at Bologna. The general view was summed up in the popular thirteenth-century adage, "Every man is king in his own castle" (Quilibet, in domo sua, dictur rex). The father exercised his authority, called the patria potestas, over his children. It was his alone; as the jurist Azzo explained, "neither mothers nor maternal grandparents have power (potestas) over the children." The father's power extended to all his descendants, in particular his grandchildren, no matter how old he was, even over sixty (etiam sexagenarius), and no matter how old his children were. This doctrine was not confined to jurists' manuals. Worked out in response to vital questions, it had an impact on everyday life, in part through statutes and customs adopted by cities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to regulate private life, among other things. Through these statutes the jurists' thinking impressed itself on people's minds.


The father was master not only of the family property but also of all family members. His wife and children were subject to his potestas and obliged to show him obedience and respect. ... Communal statutes like those of Gello in Tuscany (1373) authorized men "to punish their children, their younger brothers, and also their wives." Legal texts, laws, and moralistic writings accorded a father even greater authority over his children, who were obliged to treat him with respect and total reverence, as though he were sacrosanct. Whatever public responsibilities a son might have, they vanished in private. The father's authority and priority were total (Palmieri). Any failure to respect one's father. any rebellious behavior insult, or neglect (of an elderly father) could lawfully be punished by either the father himself or the public authorities. As late as 1415 a Florentine statute authorized fathers or grandfathers to have wayward offspring thrown into prison. ...

Law and policy reflect custom, and the known facts about Tuscan family life confirm various aspects of the precepts and doctrines reviewed above. The statute allowing fathers to imprison sons was applied in Florence as late as 1463. ...

Obedience and respect please the master; rebelliousness and arrogance provoke his anger. Legislation gave him the right to punish members of his family. His use of this right, particularly with regard to his wife, met with general approval. ... As for children, the motto was spare the rod and spoil the child, and Giovanni Dominici pointed out that "punishment, frequent but not furious, is of great benefit to them."