Early Roman Government and the Pater Familias

The early Roman government was a monarchy with a hint of democracy, and it had its roots in a very important idea of Roman family culture - the pater familias.  The pater familias -- Latin for family father  -- was the basic structure of the Roman family and society, and it became the basic structure of the Roman government in its different forms from the earliest days of Roman kings, through the republic, and all the way to the Roman Empire and beyond.  For now though, let's focus on the pater familias and the early government of Rome.

The pater familias was the oldest male and the ruler of the Roman family.  He had power over all of his children from their birth to his death.  He had the power to sell his children into slavery, leave his sickly infants on the hillside to die from exposure, or even to outright kill his kids.  The family, with the pater familias at its head, was the foundation of Roman society.

Several families with connected ancestors (sometimes related by blood, sometimes not) formed a clan.  Clans of similar religious beliefs associated to form a curia, and the curia functioned as a small government.  The curia had a chief.  He was the commander of any armed forces controlled by the curia and was also the man in charge of civil matters.  A council of elders advised the chief.

Then came the tribes.  The tribes were an alliance of ten curiae, and each tribe had a king (who was also the chief priest) and a council of elders.  All males who could defend the tribe in time of war were also members of the tribal assembly.

The three tribes of Rome eventually united to form the city's early government.  The men of the 30 curiae formed the Comitia Curiata.  This body elected a king (rex in Latin.)  The early Roman Senate acted as the king's "council of elders" like those of the tribes and the curiae, but the Comitia Curiata had some power to approve or disapprove certain decisions of the king.  The king, however, like the pater familias, had the power of life and death over the people he ruled.

I will leave you with an interesting note from Plutarch.  He said that between the first king Romulus and the second king Numa Pompilius, there was a governmental period called the "interregnum."  During this period, each Roman senator would act as king for one day, and this continued until the election of a new king.  Oh, to be king for a day.


"Outlines of Roman History, Chapter 3." Outlines of Roman History, Chapter 3. Accessed February 24, 2016. http://www.forumromanum.org/history/morey03.html.

"P307 The Life of Numa." Plutarch • Life of Numa. Accessed February 24, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.

 "The History of Rome." The History of Rome. Accessed February 24, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/historyofrome00arnorich#page/10/mode/2up.

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