In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Family

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sourcebooks and English Translations
  • Defining the Family
  • Demography and the Life Course
  • Roman Marriage
  • Marriage, Adultery, and Inheritance in the Augustan Marriage Laws
  • Children and Childhood
  • The End of Marriage: Remarriage, Divorce, and Widowhood
  • Households and Domestic Space
  • Slave and Freed Families
  • The Family in Roman Art

Classics Roman Family
Mary Harlow
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0080


The history of the Roman family was “reinvented” in the last half of the 20th century by Beryl Rawson, followed closely by scholars such as Keith Bradley, Suzanne Dixon, Brent Shaw, and Richard Saller and others. The 3rd and 4th generation of scholars are now creating views of the Roman family that are markedly different to those imagined even in the 1980s. This change in the way the Roman family is viewed is a reflection of the way classics and ancient history have evolved as disciplines. Students of the Roman family have always been aware of studies of the family in cognate disciplines but for a long time remained focused on classical literature and descriptions of the family in legal sources. More recent work has asked questions about groups outside the elite; the effects of demography; life course and marriage patterns; the tension between social ideals as represented in laws, literature and art, and social reality; the lives of those who do not write their own histories (women, children, slaves, and former slaves). The history of the family is inherently entwined with histories of women, of gender and sexuality, of the emotions. The history of childhood has become a discipline in itself. In the 21st century we are constantly aware of a multiplicity of family structures in any society but the notion, and ideology, of two parents and children as the core grouping remains strong, even in a world where single parents, same sex parents, and “blended families” with sets of step-parents and step siblings, are more and more common. In 2011 Beryl Rawson published what was to be her last book, A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. The use of the plural in the title is a sign of how far research has now reached into the diversity and complexity of family structures in antiquity. This article offers introductory, survey, and more individually focused studies under a series of relevant sections.

General Overviews

The publication of Beryl Rawson’s first Roman Family conference in 1986 (see Rawson 1992) created an impetus for new research. Since then a series of conferences (Roman Family II–V; Rawson 1991, Rawson and Weaver 1997, George 2005, and Dasen and Späth 2010) and volumes of collected articles that cover all aspects of family life, and exploit a huge range of ancient evidence, have been published. They demonstrate the range of methodological approaches to the subject and are excellent for research. Together with Rawson 2011, these volumes also provide a recent historiography of a fast evolving discipline moving from a very classics orientated subject, focused on Roman law and literature, to the much broader scope archaeology, material and visual culture; and explicit engagement with associated methodologies such as sociology and anthropology. They are listed here for economy of space, and some specific chapters will also be listed under relevant sections. Bradley 1991 and Dixon 1992 are key research monographs that can serve as textbooks.

  • Bradley, Keith. 1991. Discovering the Roman family: Studies in Roman social history. Rev. ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Addresses the problem of terminology, and the idea of the “nuclear” Roman family; a collection of Bradley’s early influential work on wet-nursing, non-parent child care, child labor, effects of divorce and remarriage, and a case study of Cicero’s relationships with his family (see also The End of Marriage: Remarriage, Divorce, and Widowhood and Cicero and His Family).

  • Dasen, Véronique, and Thomas Späth, eds. 2010. Children, memory and family identity. Selection of the papers delivered at the Fifth Roman Family Conference, “Secret Families, Family Secrets,” which took place in June 2007 in Fribourg (Switzerland). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582570.001.0001

    Roman Family V. Chapters by various scholars on family identity and traditions: the creation of family memory through ancestors, inheritance and material culture; the problems of maintaining tradition in non-traditional families; children on the margins: vernae (slaves born in the household), deliciae (children as “pets”) and expositi (exposed or abandoned infants) (see also Children and Childhood).

  • Dixon, Suzanne. 1992. The Roman family. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    All aspects of family life: definitions, legal, marriage, parenting and attitudes to children, family rituals. Dixon also addresses the emotional side of family life, as far as the sources allow. Excellent all round introduction.

  • George, Michele, ed. 2005. The Roman family in the empire: Rome, Italy and beyond. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199268412.001.0001

    Roman Family IV. Chapters on imagery and the family, conflict in the family, the sick child. The first volume to examine family structures in the wider empire outside direct Roman influence (Gaul, Egypt, Pannonia, Judea, Spain, and North Africa) (see also Families in the Wider Roman Empire).

  • Rawson, Beryl, ed. 1991. Marriage, divorce and children in ancient Rome. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Roman Family II. Focuses on the tension between ideals and social realities: adult-child relationships, effects of divorce, remarriage and adoption in elite families, sentimental ideals, relationships between fathers and sons and issues of authority and obedience, children of freedmen, the impact of domestic architecture on social dynamics of the family.

  • Rawson, Beryl, ed. 1992. The family in ancient Rome: New perspectives. Papers from a three-day seminar held at the Australian National University, Canberra, in July 1981. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    The first volume in the Roman Family Conference series (originally published in 1986), which set the tone for the discipline in 20th century. Chapters on the law, on family finances, on patria potestas, on children and childcare, including children outside the elite family.

  • Rawson, Beryl, ed. 2011. A companion to families in the Greek and Roman worlds. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

    The section headings reflect change in the focus of research: Houses and Households; Kinship, Marriage, Parents and Children; The Legal Side; City and Country; Ritual, Commemoration, Values.

  • Rawson, Beryl, and P. Weaver, eds. 1997. The Roman family in Italy: Status, sentiment and space. Canberra, Australia, and Oxford: Clarendon.

    Roman Family III. Chapters on kinship structure, lower class and slave families, growing old, family conflict, iconography of childhood, regional variation of family structure, the value and problems of inscriptions, and three chapters on domestic space and use domestic artifacts.

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