Patria potestas was a form of family organization practiced in ancient Rome. Under this system, fathers had absolute authority over the family unit, including children, wife, and property.
This authority extended to the family’s social position and reputation within Roman society. A father could impose corporal punishment or even death upon his children as punishment for disobedience.
Children were considered possessions of the father under patria potestas. A father could transfer ownership of a child to another individual, such as a prospective husband for his daughter.
Under this system, wives were considered property of the husband. Wives had no rights or legal standing independent from their husbands and therefore had no means of protection from abuse. This made it difficult for wives to pursue divorces or obtain protection from domestic violence.
The concept of patria potestas has its roots in ancient Roman law. The Twelve Tables, which governed Roman society during the middle and late Iron Age (550–275 BC), included provisions that established this practice.
Could sell their child to slavery
The Patria Potestas law dictated that a father had the ability to sell his children into slavery. While this may sound incredibly harsh, there was a reason for this law.
Ancient Roman families were very important. The family unit was the foundation of society, and so the family unit had to be strong in order for society to be strong.
The problem with slavery is that it can render someone powerless. By allowing a father to sell their child into slavery, it prevented them from having any kind of influence in their life and put them on the path to becoming a strong member of society.
By having this ability, families were also strengthened as potential problems with children were dealt with quickly and effectively.
Could disinherit their child
If a father chose to disinherit his child, he could do so by simply not mentioning his child in his will.
However, according to the Patria Potestas Provision of the Twelve Tables, if the father did not make a will, his children would receive equal shares of his property.
This could be problematic if the father didn’t like one of his children, as he could leave him or her nothing. Only if the father explicitly mentioned a child in his will could they receive something.
Disinheritance was relatively common, with one study finding that 1% of elderly people were disinherited. This statistic suggests that disinheritance was more common among children who were estranged from their parents.
Could beat their child as long as they did not die from the beating
The Patria Potestas Provision of the Twelve Tables gave Roman fathers the right to beat their children. According to this law, a father had complete authority over his children.
Although it was not written in the law, it was understood that a father could also have sexual relations with his children of either sex.
In fact, if a child refused their father sexual relations, they could be accused of being unfaithful and then punished.
This law dates back to around 450 BC and was abolished around two hundred years later. Although it seems outrageous today, at the time it may have been more common sense than we think.
For example, it was very dangerous to leave children unsupervised which could lead to them getting into trouble or even hurting themself. By giving the father authority over them, he could keep an eye on them and make sure they were safe.
Could have multiple wives
Patria potestas, or “fatherhood,” was a powerful institution in ancient Rome.
Not only did it determine a child’s lineage and social status, it also gave the father complete legal control over his children until they married and had children of their own.
Children weren’t legally independent until they contributed to the family coffers. This could mean having a job and earning an income or owning property. Children who didn’t have property of their own were still considered dependent on their parents.
In most cases, only the father could disinherit his children. If a mother was married to the father, however, she could not disinherit her children unless he consented to it. This was because mothers did not have legal rights over their children in ancient Rome.
If the father died before his children were adults, however, a mother could act as guardian until her child(ren) were able to take care of themselves.
have sexual relations with his slaves
This was considered acceptable, even if the father was in a monogamous marriage. If the father had other wives, he could have sexual relations with his slaves as well.
However, if the father had a wife, she had the right to prohibit her husband from having sexual relations with his slaves. If he did so anyway, she could take him to court.
Although it was legal for fathers to have sexual relations with their slaves, it was not legal for husbands to do so. If a husband forced himself on his slave, he could be charged with assault and possibly fined depending on the case.
In ancient Rome, there were no laws against rape or marital rape. If a woman refused sex with her husband, he could take steps to prove that she was not refusing and force himself on her.
Was responsible for his children until they reached legal adulthood at age 14 for boys and 12 for girls
This included providing for them, disciplining them, and deciding their future. He could even disinherit his children and choose another child of his to inherit his property and position in society.
If a father did not have a son, he could adopt a male member of his family or another person who was worthy. If he did not have any worthy members of his family, then he could adopt someone from outside the family who was worthy.
If a father abused this power and was harsh with his children, then the children could go to court and try to get away from him. The children had the right to leave their father’s house when they reached adulthood. If they stayed after that age, then they were considered to be agreeing with what their father was doing.
This provision also stated that if the mother was the one raising the children, then she had equal authority as the father.
Had complete control over his family household
The Patria Potestas Provision gave complete authority to the father of the family over all members. This included children, slaves, and wife.
In regards to children, the father was able to punish his children as he saw fit. This included corporal punishment such as spanking or flogging. In more severe cases, he could disinherit or even kill his child.
With respect to the wife, the father had complete control over her. He could disown her and take away property and wealth she acquired during their marriage. She had no legal standing outside of the home during this time.
Slaves were also subject to the father’s authority. He could punish them as he saw fit under this provision.
Could choose his heir
Under this provision, a Roman father was able to choose who would be the heir of his property. If there were no male heirs, a daughter could inherit property and wealth, though she could not vote or serve in public office.
In most cases, a father would designate his oldest son as his heir. This was due to the fact that the oldest son would have experience working on the farm and with business dealings due to watching his parents.
He could also designate one of his daughters as his heir, if he felt she was experienced enough to handle the responsibility. This case was rare, however, since most believed that women were not capable of handling such responsibility.
The problem with this provision is that it allowed for corruption and abuse. A father could choose his heir based on whether he was corrupt or abusive, for example.