An Italian family, Ancient Rome style
"Family: the essence of our being, the root of our ideals and the place we go back to when everything fails us. It does not really matter if it is large or small, extended or nuclear, family is the first thing that defines us and - I think most would agree with me - the only thing each and every one of us would fight without limit, if needed, to protect.
Things were not that different in Ancient Rome: just like today, family was the very foundation of society and individuals were recognized within it primarily on the basis of which family they belonged to. Of course, Roman families were formed by people who were related, either genetically or by acquisition, just as it happens today. We can easily imagine how family dynamics were then, with mothers often caring for the kids and fathers possibly busy outside the house for most of the day. Ancient Rome’s families, from this point of view, were very much like our owns, and it is simple to understand why: we have been talking about naturally occurring bonds and relationships, ties of affection and dependency that are rooted in the very nature of Man.
Bring in social and cultural norms, and things get much more complicated.
Roman families, their structure and the way they worked as social entities were strictly regulated (much more than it happens today in any country of the western world) by norms and laws rooted in the millennial and glorious history of the Eternal City. Families were larger and included people we, today, would never think of as relatives.
And do not even get me started here on the way names and surnames worked. Better start from the beginning and take things one step at the time.
Gens, Familia, pater familias, clientes: what are we talking about exactly?
The first essential concept to clarify is that of gens, because it is an idea we have entirely lost in our modern idea of family. You see, ancient Romans thought of themselves as all being related to the early founders of the city, the “founding fathers” of Rome, if you will…and actually, things are not that far from the truth, if you think that Rome's aristocratic families were also known as patrician families, that is, coming from the patres, fathers.
The gens was like a very large group formed by several different families, who all descended from the same legendary or mythical figure of the city’s history: to give you an example, Roman tradition wanted the most renowned gentes, those with the most ancient roots, as originating from the first one hundred senators chosen by Romulus to govern the city at its very inception.
Of course, to this first blazoned gentes many others were added with the passing of time.
Each gentes was formed, then, by numerous familiae, which are closer to our modern concept of family, but still not quite the same. To us, a family is constituted by people tied to one another by genetics or marriage, but in Rome things were pretty different. A Roman familia included, of course the head of the family, the pater familias, his wife, their children and all relatives, but also the family’s servants, slaves, freed slaves and anyone who had a tie of dependance from the pater familias. These were called clientes and could be anyone the pater familias had helped, financially or with professional and personal favors. The more clientes you had, the more important you were, of course…
Adoption was common in Rome, especially within the patrician familiae. It was, however, a pretty different affair from its modern counterpart: adoption could happen not only for a single child, but for entire familiae which belonged to a different gens. Sounds complicated? It was not, really: quite simply, if your pater familias decided to seek the protection of another pater familias, of a different gens, your entire family changed gens, even though you would have maintained your surname (more of it in a second).
Of course, single child adoption was more common, and it was not necessarily related to a situation of poverty or neglect, as it may be today: often, it was a simple way for powerful pater familias to selected a heir, or a way to create affiliation with someone very close. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, who was to become Augustus, the first Roman Emperor; Augustus himself adopted Tiberius, emperor himself. It is pretty obvious: there was much more at stake with Roman adoption than it seems, as even imperial titles were passed on to adopted children.
Nomen, Praenomen and other strange sounding family names
Gens, familiae, clientes… But how did they actually called themselves in the end? Simply enough, once you get a grasp of it: the praenomen was the equivalent of our Christian name; the nomen was that of the gens your family belonged to; the cognomen was the name of your familia, which is the same as our surname. There was also, although it was not compulsory to use it, a signum, your nickname. Take, for instance, Scipio, known for his victory against Hannibal: his full name was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, where Publius was his first name (praenomen), Cornelius that referring to his gens (his nomen), Scipio the equivalent of our surname (the cognomen). Africanus was his signum, a nickname he was known for because of his military victories on the African continent.
The Romans loved their family, just as much as we do today, but they also had, we can say, a very strong sense of their ancestry’s historicity, something many of us no longer enjoy today. Sure, trying to tie one’s roots to the very first people who founded the city may appear excessive to modern eyes, but is it much different from our more than legitimate desire to learn where our forefathers came from, or our necessity to find out what they did? It is, in the end, a human need, that of discovering our roots, a need the passing of millennia did not weaken. "