Thursday, October 26, 2006
Two things i've been reading recently have talked about fathers in Rome.
The Roman father had absolute power - the power of life and death - over his entire family: this is what paterfamilias meant. It was an absolute power over his legitimate children, over his slaves and his wife... In Rome, so long as one's father were alive, no one could act as fully independant, in particular in financial matters and in contract law. An adult son could own property only be means of a peculium, a sort of trust guaranteed by his father, but revocable at any point. While his father was alive a son could not make a will, nor inherit property in his own right. That son might be a magistrate, even consul, but if his father were alive he was still under his patria potestas.
This attitude can be seen in the following declamation:
A father was accused of treason. One of his sons deserted, the other fought heroically. The father asks the hero to ask for suppression of his trial as his reward. The hero asks instead for impunity for his brother, and represents his father at the trial. The father is acquitted and disowns his son.
My son may say: ‘I am brave.’ What good is that to me if you defy your father all the more? He says: ‘The choice is mine.’ Is anything really yours while I am alive? I sent you into battle: it is my courage, my law, my choice. I should not be asking too much if I said: ‘Help with my friend’s trial.’ What if I said ‘Help with your father’s’?
‘But suppression is dishonourable,’ he says. What is that to you? I am the judge of my own situation. ‘But it was superfluous,’ he says. ‘You were innocent.’ So what? Had I asked you because I was guilty? I was afraid of the luck of trials. Conspiracy is hard even on the innocent.
‘But I chose my brother’s life,’ he says. You preferred someone else to me, a guilty man to an innocent, a convicted man, who certainly deserved death, to an accused man. If you pity your kin, at least help those on whom the judge has not yet decided. ‘What then?’ he says. ‘Should he have died?’ If you’re asking me, I am busy, I don’t hear; if you ask our country, he is a deserter. In itself it would be a cruel thing for your brother to die, but compared to me it is tolerable.
‘I saved my brother,’ he says. And now your father disowns you. He owes you gratitude for a good deed, I punishment for a wrong. But what if you were not doing it out of respect, but to kill me? ‘I represented you,’ he says. If you had not, would you have been merely disowned?