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  • Closely Watched Households:Visibility, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman Domus*
  • Kate Cooper

Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you!1

In the prison diary kept before her execution in the spring of 203, the 22-year-old Roman matrona Vibia Perpetua recorded a disturbing encounter with her father, who had come to visit heron the eve of her audience with the proconsul Hilarianus. The father is reduced to tears and pleading, behaviour rarely attested by a Roman father to his child. The episode is well known, yet it touches on dimensions of life in the Roman household, and of the role of the paterfamilias within it, that have yet to be fully understood.

What did Perpetua's father mean when he warned that 'none of us will ever be able to speak freely again'? That a paterfamilias should be accountable for the conduct of his dependants does not surprise. Roman men were expected to show themselves impervious to 'womanly influence'—the self-interested persuasion of wives, lovers (whether male or female) and other objects of their affection — as a way of broadcasting their willingness to [End Page 3] place the common good ahead of private interest.2 The present study considers another aspect of the calculated performance of domestic virtue by Roman men, the termson which they laid their households open to scrutiny by peers and rivals. Roman law and custom accorded far-reaching powers to the property-owner and head of household, so it is perfectly logical that mechanisms for evaluating his performance in that capacity should have evolved. Far from being contained or excluded, the dominium of the paterfamilias benefited from substantial protection. Many of the duties of a man in public office were accomplished by drawing on resources which he owned or controlled in his capacity as a private citizen. Indeed, I shall argue, it is precisely because the powers centred on the domus were so important to the Romans that the domus was placed under such intense scrutiny.

It has become a truism that to understand the Roman family, one must first of all understand the Roman institution of patria potestas. Much valuable work in recent years has cast light on this institution, calling attention especially to the multiple identity of the paterfamilias as biological father of legitimate children and as wielder of potestas over these and over his slaves.3 (From the time of Augustus to the fall of Rome his wife, as the daughter of another man, fell outside the sphere of the husband's potestas.)4 The paterfamilias was also dominus, an owner of private property, which could include slaves, buildings, land, animals and objects of various kinds.5 Indeed the meaning of paterfamilias as owner of property carried so much semantic weight that the term could be used to describe landowners who were childless men or even women.6 This said, the emblematic paterfamilias was both property-owner [End Page 4] and the father of children. This assimilation of paternity to ownership is central to Roman thought on the household. The focus of the present study, however, is the identity of the paterfamilias as dominus rather than as father in the biological sense.

The competition for authority among Roman men involved both common-sense jostling and finely judged mechanisms of honour.7 The private establishment of a dominus involved many elements that were crucial to his ability to attain high standing among his peers, leading in the best of circumstances to public office. Foremost, it was critical to have at his disposal a physical space, the domus, appointed in a way that would impress his peers and show himself and his family to advantage. Domus referred in Latin both to a physical building and to the cluster of people, paradigmatically but not exclusively kin, who lived there,8 and we have already seen that in an ideal world the dominus was possessed of the right...


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pp. 3-33
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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