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Patriarchal Structure of the Greco-Roman World in the Second Century

Although legal status was determined by the mother, the paterfamilias determined much more, including whether or not the child would be kept or exposed at birth, whether or not to punish his child by death (as it was legal for a paterfamilias to do so), and whether or not the child would receive an inheritance. Even after his death, a father could tell his pregnant wife to expose or to keep the child when it was born. Thus, it is necessary to examine the role of the paterfamilias to get a feel for the patriarchal structure of the Roman world.

Legal Aspects of Patriarchy:

Roman law largely sanctioned the social structure of the Roman world. Patria potestas, or the power of the father, was a legal term. The following are some powers granted to the father under Roman law:

· Power to sell children into slavery.
· Private control over the life or death of all children.
· Power to expose or kill unwanted children.
· Power to disinherit or adopt.
· Guardianship over his wife.
· Power to arrange marriages.
· Power over the finances of the family.

The legal benefits of patria potestas, however, applied only to citizens. During the second century, citizens were a minority of the population of the Roman Empire. However, judges in legal disputes between non-citizens would still have this patriarchal frame of mind in dealing with these disputes. Obviously, the strictness of the application of this law would vary depending on location in the empire. Many conquered peoples would retain many of their own customs, in addition to adopting Roman law. Thus, the severity of this law would vary. Many of the conquered peoples, however, such as the Greeks in the eastern half of the empire, already had a patriarchal framework of society in place, so this was not a major change for them.


1. Shelton, Jo Ann, ed. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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