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  • Family Paradigms in the Roman Republican Military1
  • Kathryn Milne (bio)


The Roman tradition rooted Rome’s origins not in the nostos story of Odysseus, but in the wanderings of Aeneas, for whom the significance of home was not embedded in the return to a remembered past but a journey to an anticipated future. It was Aeneas’ task to find and establish a new home, and in Vergil’s version, this was a mission given him by no less a figure than the Trojan hero Hektor. As the Greeks spilled from the wooden horse into the doomed city, Hektor visited Aeneas in a dream. Weeping, bloody, and still mutilated with the wounds his corpse had suffered at the hands of Achilles, he warned Aeneas of Troy’s fate. Take the household gods, he said, and seek for them “great walls” (magna moenia, Verg. A. 2.289–97).

From Rome’s earliest days, the idea invoked by the new settlement’s governance by household gods—that the city itself was a home writ large—had an everyday reality. The Penates, the gods thought to have been carried by Aeneas, were tutelary deities in the household, associated with the inner part of the house or the penus, the storeroom where food and other necessities were kept. In their public incarnation (penates publici) they looked after the state as a whole, and were associated with Castor and Pollux (Orr 1562). Vesta, goddess of the hearth and its flame, was similarly both worshipped in private households and had a public incarnation, and during the Republican period, the public shrine to Vesta in the forum Romanum resembled a primitive house, an explicit reference to the parallelism between the domestic and the public expressions of that cult.2 The most important duty of the female priestesses there, the Vestal Virgins, was to keep the sacred flame within the shrine constantly burning. Called the “undying fire” (ignis inextinctus) this flame was closely connected to the survival of Rome itself. The care of the sacred flame seems to have a direct parallel with the early duties of a materfamilias, for in the early home it had been her duty to keep a flame burning in the community and so avoid the difficult task of sparking a fire anew (Beard 13).3 Vesta herself bore the title mater.

The image of the father, on the other hand, belonged not to a god but to the state itself, the res publica, which was known as the patria, or fatherland. All citizens had an obligation to it, just as they owed devotion to their own father in a household. The father figure was also a protector, and in political life, a citizen of Rome who was considered to have saved the Republic could also be styled as the father of the state. Beginning in the late Republic, several men were given the honorific title pater patriae, or father [End Page 25] of the fatherland. As the consul of 63 BCE, the famous orator M. Tullius Cicero gathered evidence against the conspirator L. Sergius Catilina. For his role in uncovering and defeating the plot, his supporters hailed him pater patriae. Julius Caesar received the title in 45 BCE, after his victory in the battle of Munda ended the civil war. Eventually the title came to formalize the paternal relationship of the person of the emperor to the state when it was voted to Augustus in 2 BCE. Augustus had already emphasized his role as paterfamilias of the city by encouraging worship of his genius (spirit) and lares (spirits of the ancestors), the latter of which were placed at crossroads throughout the city and came to be known as the lares Augusti. His famous boast that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble (Suet. Aug. 28) referred to a building program which had restored and beautified Rome, and evoked the duty of the paterfamilias to care for the appearance of his residence in such a way as to reflect the status of its owner (Favro). The notion of patria could invoke an image of the state as a family whether one originated and resided...