Historical Background for The Legacy

The Legacy cover

When Rome has taken everything, what’s left for a man to give?

Paterfamilias: The Absolute Power of the Roman Patriarch

Honor your father and mother. When God delivered His Ten Commandments to the people of Israel through Moses, this was the only one that included a promise: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12 (English Standard Version)

Respect and affection within an extended family certainly contribute to an enjoyable life. But “honor” does not mean “obey absolutely.” While a Jewish father might expect a lifetime of respect from his children, he did not exercise total control once his sons and daughters were grown.

For Roman citizens, the expectations of a father were quite different. The oldest surviving male was the paterfamilias, the legal head of the family that might include several generations. The power of a Roman patriarch was absolute within the family for as long as he lived. Under Roman law, the oldest male owned all the property and could dictate everything his sons could do, no matter how old they might be. Only a father’s death gave true independence to a son.

A man in his sixties might have sons in their forties and grown grandsons in their twenties, but those grown children were still under his control as if they were young children. All property belonged to the paterfamilias. Grown sons lived on an allowance, and any material goods they gained belonged to the paterfamilias, not them. The “family” over which he ruled included his sons and daughters (married or not), his sons’ offspring, and any slaves he owned. A wife remained under the authority of her own paterfamilias as long as he lived. Since any offspring belonged to a husband’s paterfamilias, a mother had no rights to her own children. If her husband died, she might be kept from ever seeing her children again if the paterfamilias chose to exclude her.

While a son gained independence upon his father’s death, a daughter did not. She came under the guardianship of another male relative, who was himself a paterfamilias. She could petition a judge (praetor) to have an alternative guardian appointed if the current one was unsuitable, but she was required to have one. The Emperor Augustus wanted to encourage the upper classes to have more children, so he introduced a law where a married woman would no longer need a guardian if she had borne three or more children.

The paterfamilias could tell his children what they could and could not do, and they had to abide by his rules. When a baby was born to anyone in the family, he made the decision about whether the child would live or die. If he refused to take the child when it was offered to him, the baby was abandoned to die, usually in a public place. Anyone could pick up such abandoned children and raise them, either to be their own child or, more commonly, to be a slave. During the Republic, the paterfamilias also had the right to kill his adult child without any legal penalty. Even in the early Empire, that right remained, although it was not practiced and would have been generally condemned if it were.

One can well imagine the friction that could arise when grown men, married with children of their own, had to subordinate their own desires to the will of the patriarch. The temptation to do whatever it took to break free of that control must have been great at times. Perhaps that contributed to the Roman attitude toward killing a parent and the severity of the punishment for murdering one’s father.

Patricide was considered one of the most heinous crimes, and a unique punishment for the crime was practiced. Following a flogging, the murderer was sewn into a leather sack with a snake, a dog, a monkey, and a rooster. If in Rome, he was then thrown into the Tiber River to drown or suffocate, if the bag was sufficiently water-tight. If not in Rome, another river, a lake, or the ocean could be used.

In The Legacy, Publius is the paterfamilias of the Claudius Drusus family. When he becomes a God-fearer, he adopts many of the Jewish laws for living. He commands his oldest son Lucius to give up his womanizing ways and be a faithful husband, as required by Mosaic law. Lucius wants Publius dead so he can become the paterfamilias himself and resume his licentious lifestyle. Although he is unwilling to risk the consequences of murdering his father, Lucius leaps at the chance to get his father executed for treason when Publius becomes a Christian.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby