Saturday, July 27, 2013

Paterfamilias – The Father in Roman Society


Republican Era Portrait
Over the past months, I’ve been editing Killing the Hydra – Eagles and Dragons Book II. It’s been enjoyable delving into a story again after having stepped away for a long time.

It’s funny, but I had forgotten all the years of research that went into these books. I take for granted the world I immersed myself in to write them because now it all seems normal to me.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the characters – the good, the bad, the savage, the honourable, the beautiful, the mysterious etc. etc. One character that I had a difficult time dealing with was Lucius’ father, Senator Quintus Metellus Anguis.

Quintus is a spiteful, hard man who is quick to anger and jealous of his son’s successes. He is of a mindset that was born in the very early days of the Republic when there were no emperors, when kings were killed and when the father held supreme power in the family.

In some ways, Quintus Metellus could not be more out of place in early 3rd century Rome.

Imperial Family of Augustus
As I’ve been reading through the book again, some of my research into family life has come back to me and I thought I would share it. In particular, I would like to look briefly at the father in ancient Rome and his role as paterfamilias.

First we should have a look at the word familia. In ancient Rome, a familia did not only include a father, mother and children. The word also referred to other relatives (by blood or adoption), clients, freedmen and all slaves belonging to the family. It included all the family houses, lands and estates and anyone involved with running those holdings.

The Roman familia went far beyond the nuclear family and the paterfamilias was the head of it all.

Roman with images
of his ancestors
During the early days of the Roman Republic, the role of the paterfamilias was largely determined by an unwritten moral and social code called the mos maiorum, or the ‘ways of the elders’. These governing rules of private, social and political life in ancient Rome were handed down through the generations. Because these rules were unwritten, they evolved over time. Values and social mores change, as is natural, and successive generations come into their own with ideas different to their predecessors.

The generational differences form a large part of the conflict between Lucius and his father Quintus. Here is an excerpt from Children of Apollo in which Lucius speaks with his father after his years on campaign:

His father looked old, tired, beaten. Lucius had decided to reach out, extend to him an olive branch of peace. Then, a mistake. He pitied the proud Roman before him.
       “Father, I know that you hated being in the army, that that’s why you didn’t want me to join. But, hear me when I say that I love it and I excel at being a soldier-”
Quintus Metellus jumped to his feet, his face suddenly red with rage, his anger swelling. “What in Hades do you know? You’re nothing but an ignorant, self-indulged swine hiding behind your Emperor. The best place to serve your family is in the Senate, not the Legions. I will not be there to watch you in three days, for I have no son apart from Quintus. How dare you storm in here, dribbling virtue like a salivating cur! You know nothing of the world, of men, of character. You disgrace our family name and make our ancestors cringe from beyond. I suppose you would like to be called ‘Africanus’ for decimating Romans across the sea.” Lucius stepped to the edge of the desk, his strong fists resting on the table.
       “I’m a Metellus Anguis, father! And I know who I am and that our ancestors are proud. Can you say the same of yourself?” Lucius did not give his father a chance to retort. “The world changes and so men must change with it. You can’t long for the days of a time that won’t come again. Our ancestors lived in their time with honour and I live now, with honour. Unlike you I don’t live in jealousy and bitterness of the past and present.”
       “Get out of my sight!” Quintus’ fist slammed down on the table, scattering several scrolls. “By the Gods if ever you speak thus to me again I’ll box your ears so hard you’ll wish that-”
       “Wish what, father? That I were dead? I’m not the little boy you used to beat around when I wouldn’t do your bidding. You can’t hurt me.”
“You’re a swine, an insult to the family…”
(Children of Apollo; Chapter XIV – Pater et Filius)

Roman Youth
Quintus Metellus, as a Republican, is against the Emperor Septimius Severus. He has had a vision of his son’s social and political progress since before he was born. He has tried hard all his life to breathe life back into ancient name of Metellus, but without success. Now, all the pressure is placed upon his son whom he wants to become a senator of renown after he completes his minimum number of years in the military.

But Lucius has other ideas. He does not want what his father wants. Lucius has found success in the Legions and has been praised and promoted by Emperor Severus, a man he is happy to serve. Unlike many equestrian youths, Lucius Metellus Anguis is not interested in pursuing a political career. He wants to be a career officer in Rome’s Legions – something that causes his father no end of embarrassment and frustration. In his opinion, it is not the way to further the family name and better their fortunes.

In the early days of the Republic, Lucius would have had to do as his paterfamilias dictated. There would have been no choice in the matter, no influence from his mother or older sister to help his cause. The paterfamilias’ word was law within the familia.

Roman Family Banquet Scene
In ancient Rome, the paterfamilias had to be a Roman citizen. He was responsible for the familia’s well-being and reputation, its legal and moral propriety. The paterfamilias even had duties to the household gods.

And this is where Quintus Metellus fails. He has lost faith in the gods that have watched over them. In fact, he fears them and their apparent favour of his son. Quintus clings to the archaic role of the paterfamilias like a dictator with power of life and death over the members of his familia. He forgets that the paterfamilias’ role is also to protect his familia within the current world they live in, and to honour their ancestors and their gods through his behaviour, his example.

This is where Lucius fills the void in duties neglected by his father.

But it is never as easy as that. The Empire is large and all men are susceptible to corruption. Lucius fights for honour and goodness in a world that has no qualms about dismissing honour, virtue and family in the interests of greed and political advancement.

Quintus Metellus is the paterfamilias of their branch of the Metelli gens, but his own shortcomings and archaic notions are at complete odds with his son and the times they live in.

It is always interesting to compare previous ages and practices with those of our own. Certainly the role of the father has changed over the centuries, though it certainly varies from family to family and culture to culture.

Roman Husband, Wife and Children
Fortuna smiled on me with my own father who, thankfully, bears no resemblance to Quintus Metellus. But it was interesting to write such a character as Quintus, to explore his relationship with Lucius and the rest of the familia.

By the 3rd century A.D. the paterfamilias’ power of life and death over his family was restricted, the practice all but dead.

But old habits and ideas die hard, and for Quintus Metellus there are other ways to kill a member of your familia and maintain your power as paterfamilias.


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