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Pompeii: The life of a Roman town.: At home with Marcus, paterfamilias

With the Vesuvius eruption on August 24, 69 AD, a Roman town was frozen in time, revealing the intimate side of a Roman citizen's life, from entertainment to homelife and personal religious expression.

roman house

The Nuclear Roman Family

If the nuclear American Family consists of a mom, dad, 2 kids, and a dog, with mom and dad roughly the same age, then the Nuclear Roman father would blow your mind. First of all, men married in their 30s to girls in their early teens. Her dad and the man negotiated a dowry price which the father gave to the prospective husband with the understanding that the husband had to return it in case of divorce. Once it was paid, the couple was free to marry, often without the girls actually meeting their future husbands before the wedding. When it comes to weddings, this wasn't a big deal, as such. It mostly consisted of husbands coming to pick up their wife and her stuff, including slaves, and taking them manfully to their homes. At this point, husbands became the Pater Familias: the father of the family, unless his father was still alive. He decided who lived or died in his home, including newborn babies. Women had no legal status, but divorces did occur, usually initiated by the husband because he met a new family, he would like to make an alliance with. In the case of divorce, a woman could initiate it by leaving her husband's home and returning to her father's house, however, the children of the marriage always stayed with the father and his family. Incidentally, the Pater Familias was the oldest male in the family. For women that could be their nephew, grandson, or even cousin. Wealthy widows who owned businesses were rare, but on occasion, they did exist, and, even though technically could not testify in court or start a case, some women without Pater Familiases did just that.


Slaves who were freed took the family name of the Pater Familias and still maintained ties with the family. Boys were usually given three names, like Gaius Julius Caesar. His intimate family called him Gaius, the family name was the Julii and Caesar was his public name. Girls were often given their father's name and a birth order name, as in the first, second, or third of the daughters. A typical name for a woman was the feminine version of her father's family name, say Claudius became Claudia preceded by her husband's family name. Say, Julia Claudia, Claudia from her father's family name and Julia from her husband's family name. Boys were educated by a tutor and went into the army in their late teens, to start the "Course of Honor" that started with being a junior attaché in the army and ended in command of legions and entrance into the senate and eventually consul of the senate. The emperor changed this system slightly, but for the most part, it continued under them, even when the senate became a largely powerless body. Retirement from the senate usually involved being granted a position as governor of a wealthy province. The lower-class men had trades that they apprenticed to at a young age, but in theory, it was the same family structure and marriage system. Even the poor and the freed slaves owned slaves.


Finally, a word about household gods. The relationship the Romans had with their gods was a Quid Pro Quo., literally "this for that". If the Romans remembered their gods, the gods with make their life easier. There were state gods, Juno, Minerva, Apollo, etc, but the Romans believed their daily lives were manipulated by other spirits. The god Janus was the god of new beginnings, but also doorways. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. Panes and Penates were the spirits of the pantry and kitchen. They protected food from spoilage but also provided the means to get the food. The family would give thanks to them before eating but also for major life events. The Lares were spirits of one's dead family, there was a cupboard shrine, called a Lararium, in the atrium, which housed their statuettes from which they worked and help the family prosper. The three spirits of Lares consisted of Famiiliares (spirits of the family),Domestici (spirits of the home) Compitales, which protected the community. Daily prayers and offerings were made daily, but special rituals were performed on special occasions. When the family moved, their Lares came with them. They were spirits of the dead family members, but also the living ones. If a Pater Familia was traveling, he would bring statuettes of his wife and children. If you've seen Gladiator, Maximus had statutes of his son and wife.


There were Priestesses of the goddess Vesta, called the Vestal Virgins. These were girls from rich families that were placed in the Vestal Virgins until the age of around 30, at which time they could retire. They tended the Vestal Flame in the temple in the Forum. Vestal Virgins held property and sat with the Senators at games. Once in every generation, a Vestal Virgin was proven to have lost her virginity. They were sentenced to death inside a crypt where they were placed alive to starve to death because they were too sacred to kill.