Ancient Roman Politics

The rich and powerful people of ancient Rome were the patricians, who governed the city from the Senate ( the Senate was Romes governing body during the republic voted into office once a year by an Assembly of citizens ), and the equites, or men of property. All the social and most political power was in the hands of a few ancient families, such as Cornelii, the Julii ( the family of the Caesers) and the Aemilii. The Senate lost most of its power under the emperors, but the patrician families still led public opinion.

Most patricians had, beside their house at Rome, a family farm in the country and a number of villas in pleasant spots of Latium in central Italy or in the south. Town and contry houses alike were beautifully built and designed for their owner's comfort.

The Romans believed in making their sons fine soilders so after he became a Roman citizen he was enlisted on his first military campaign. On his return from military service the son of a patrician almost always entered into politics, and the sons of equites sometimes did the same. A young man first stood for election as an aedile, or city councillor. The aediles looked after the corn supply and public amusements. The next office was that of the quaestor, or a secretary of the treasury. The next step was to be elected praetor, or judge. After that, if he where lucky, a man might be offerd a province to govern ( in the days of the Empire ) or stand for consulship. Under the republic the consuls were magistrates who had the greatest power in Rome.

At any time a patrician could stand for election as a tribune, or political leader, generally one who championed the rights of the common people against the Senate. A tribuneship was a dangerous post because its holder was often in conflict with powerful nobles, but for an ambitious man it was the quickest way to success.

In Rome a successful patrician spent his days somewhat as follows. He rose at daybreak and spent an hour or two in the atrium, interviewing people who had come to him for help. In the late Republic and in the Empire these people where mostly his freed slaves and their children. The patrician felt it his duty to help out in any way he could and to plea for them in the law courts if necessary.

After a light breakfast the patrician went down to the Forum, acompanied by all the friends and clients he could assemble. The day was spent pleading in the law courts or sitting in the Senate. In the evening he ate the chief meal of the day and invited guests to it. The men reclined around the tables on couches as they ate, but the patricians wife only took her meals with him if he was alone.

Early years:

600 BC to about 1c AD - Before the Imperial Age, in very early Roman times, families were organized rather like mini Greek city-states. Everybody in one family lived in one home, including the great grandparents, grandparents, parents and children.

The head of the family was the oldest male. That could be the father, the grandfather, or perhaps even an uncle.

Each family had slightly different customs and rules, because the head of the family had the power to decide what those rules were for his family.

He owned the property, and had total authority, the power of life and death, over every member of his household. Even when his children became adults, he was still the boss.

But, he was also responsible for the actions of any member of his household. He could order a kid or a grown-up out of his house, but if they committed a crime, he might be punished for something his family did.

In poor families, the head of the house might decide to put a sick baby out to die or to sell grown-ups in his family into slavery, because there wasn't enough food to feed everyone.

A women had no authority. Her job was to take care of the house and to have children.

The Imperial Age: Late 1st century AD to about 500 AD:

Things changed very rapidly towards the end of 1st century AD. Although families still lived in one home, during the Imperial Age, women could own land, run businesses, free slaves, make wills, be heirs themselves, and get a job in some professions.

The ancient Romans tried to help their family grow through marriage, divorce, adoption, and re-marriage.

After a divorce, ex-in-laws were still important, as were their children. Adopted children had the same rights as any of the other children, rights based on their sex and age.

In addition to wives and children, wealthy ancient Roman homes supported slaves.

Old Age:

The ancient Romans greatly respected and cared for their elderly.

When the older members of a family became too tired for other activities, they could always play with their grandchildren and great grandchildren, all of whom had all been born under their roof, and would one day be honoring them at the Parentalia, the festival of the dead.


In order ot marry - both parties had to be adults.

Polygomy was outlawed.

For the first 500 years in Rome, divorce was unknown. So, a great deal of care was taken selecting a marriage partner.

The groom had to be at least 14 years old, and the bride had to be at least 12 years old.

The bride and groom could not be closed related.

In general, marriage was forbidden between relatives four times removed, and between anyone connected by marriage.

Consent to the marriage had to be shown. Consent was very important and consisted of three steps. First, consent had to be shown in public prior to the wedding ceremony. One way to show consent was for the future bride and groom to appear in public holding hands!

Consent was shown again during the wedding ceremony, and once again at the door of her new home, before she entered. More on consent below!

An engagement period before the wedding was considered good manners, but it wasn't a legal requirement. An engagement ring was usual, when affordable. This ring was worn on the third finger of the left hand, as it is today, because the ancient Romans believed that a nerve ran from this finger directly to the heart!

A woman brought into her marriage what goods her family could supply, or goods she could supply herself. The bride's family might provide slaves, clothing, jewels, furniture. These belongings became the property of her husband.

On the night before her wedding day, the bride-to-be gave her bulla (her birth locket) to her father, and gave her toys away to her family. She tried on her wedding dress, which was straight tunic, woven in one piece, which had to be long enough to reach her feet. On the morning of her wedding day, the bride was dressed by her mother. The most important part of her wedding dress was a belt, tied around her waist in the "knot of Hercules". (Hercules was the guardian of wedded life.) Only the husband could untie this knot. Over her tunic wedding dress, the bride worn a flame colored veil. The veil was topped with a wreath of flowers, which the bride had to gather herself.

The Wedding Ceremony:

Only the three acts of expressing consent were necessary. Everything else varied. The actual ceremony was held usually at the bride's father house, with guests present.

There had to be witnesses to the ceremony to make it legal, typically at least ten witnesses. The bride and groom would stand before a priest, hold hands. The bride had agreed to the wedding by appearing in public holding hands with her future husband. Once again, the bride had to consent to the marriage during the wedding ceremony, this time by saying words of consent in public. These words were a chant, and were the same words for all brides and grooms. The bride would say: "Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia." (When-and where-you are Gaius, I then-and there-am Gaia.) This chant may have been chosen for the lucky meaning of the name.

After the words of consent, the bride and groom sat on stools, facing the alter. An offering was made to the god Jupiter, which usually consisted of cake. Once the priest had made the offering, this cake was eaten by the bride and groom. Then followed congratulations by the guests.

Wedding Dinner:

After the actual wedding ceremony, there was usually a dinner at the bride's house or possibly the groom's. Dinner was ended by passing out pieces of wedding cake, as it often is today.

Bridal Procession:

After the dinner party, the bride was escorted to her husband's house. This ceremony was essential to the validity of the marriage, so it could not be omitted. Anyone could join the procession, and many people did, just for fun. In the evening, torchbearers and flute players appear at the bride's father's house. The mother held her daughter, and the groom took his bride with a pretend show of force from her mother's arms. Then, everyone and anyone paraded over to the groom's house. On the way, nuts were thrown, rather like we throw rice today.

Arrival at her new home:

In front of the open door, the bride once more recited the consent chant. Then the bride was carried over the threshold by her new husband, and the doors were closed against the general crowd. Invited guests, however, could enter. In the fireplace, wood was laid ready for a fire. The bride lit this wood with her "marriage" torch, a special torch that had been carried in front of her during the procession. The torch was then blown out, and tossed among the guests, who scrambled for it, like a bride's flower bouquet is today.

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