Patria potestas

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Patria potestas

Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Tue Jul 29, 2003 9:25 pm


I have a question about the infamous patria potestas.

Many modern books and sites claim that the patria potestas, which, at least in theory, seems quite devastating and reflects a mindset that many would consider abhorrent (esp. the fact that the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members), was in fact rather limited by social customs and kept in check by other laws. Kind of like the constitutional monarchs of Europe have no real power although it may seem that way at first glance in laws and constitutions (e.g. the UK).

Now, my question is if this is really true? Or is it just a wishful projection to "modernise" Roma? I can imagine that in a society where education was not abudant (does anyone know the literacy rates in Rome?), certainly in the lower classes, this "right" was not always kept in check.

Any opinions?

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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Wed Jul 30, 2003 11:11 am

Salve Gnai

Custom more than anything did keep such powers in check. There were also laws. A father could only sell his son into slavery three times until the boy was considered free of his father's authority. The paternal powers also extended over wives, who were viewed as children and often were compared to their husbands. Women were not allowed to drink wine without their husband's permission and if so he had every right to kill her. Such cases are noted but are treated in a way that show they were exceptional and thought rather extreme, although not quite in a disapproving manner either. Exercise of such rights do not seem to have been used often. In the case of deformed children, unwanted infants, yes, but that was not really the same matter. Children who had reached age might be so dealt with when their behavior discredited the family, but even that seems rare. It should be kept in mind, too, that a man was thought to be a youth until he reached about age forty to forty-five, and so still under his father. By then he would already have begun his career, speaking in the law courts before age twenty, and could actually oppose his father politically. Or he might have engaged in business on his own, and there were all sorts of laws on this regarding the father's liability and obligation. Such things potentially could cause strained relations between a father and an older son, yet we still do not hear of the exercise of the father's powers very often occurring.

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