In the Western culture the mother is nowadays considered a powerful character, socially and legally equalized to the father within the family. We usually think that this is one of the greatest achievement of our times, and would be astonished to discover that the Western civilization already knew an analogous developmental stage in the past centuries. Most legal historians usually say that only patria potestas (i.e. the father’s power) existed in ancient Rome, and that the women – namely the mothers – had no power over their children. This statement, usually repeated also by young historians, is not totally correct, if we look at some sources attesting that the potestas (power) over children was attributed to both parents, even from the legal viewpoint. Moreover, that view might mislead readers and listeners by making them believe that we already know everything about the Roman potestas, and that there is no reason to continue to research in this field.
“(Both) parents are builders of their children”, Plautus says.
The source which aroused my curiosity is a passage taken from the Roman comedy named “Mostellaria”, dating back between the 3rd and the 2nd centuries BCE. The playwright Plautus adapted a not well-known Greek comedy named “Phasma” to Roman customs and institutions to develop its plot, rotating around the comical deception practised by servus Tranio: during the long absence of the old Theopropides from home, the slave leads Philolaches, young son of his master, to an immoderate behaviour totally clashing with the habitual temperance of his early youth. Even if surprisingly we do not find the character of the mother represented in this comedy, nevertheless in his long monologue the young Philolaches, drawing a similitude between building a house and bringing up a child, attributes the choice of leading a dissolute life to his own mind and regrets the abandonment of those moral principles he had observed when was ‘in fabrorum potestate’, i.e. under the power of his parents: so both the mother and the father, assimilated with each other, are considered ‘fabri’, i.e. artificers or builders, of their children. Certainly the mother indirectly referred to in this passage was a Roman mother, and not a Greek one (i.e. a character taken from the Greek world), as the latter neither educated her children nor had power over them.
Innovatively, potestas and parenting duties are shared by parents.
In the comedy, Plautus describes the duties usually undertaken by the parents in Roman families; these tasks, like raising and educating children, teaching them literature and law, are not so different from those undertaken by parents in our times. In the beginning of Roman history, such responsibilities were attributed to each parent according to his/her gender, but new educational methods were employed later on by both parents, who started to share their duties towards children. In this way, for the first time in ancient Rome we find a trace of a shared parenting system within the family: the mother as well as the father are considered artificers of their children both physically and morally (through procreation and education), and in Plautus’ mind this new conception seems to justify the attribution of potestas (power) over children to both parents. To fully understand the innovative significance of this change in family relationships, we should remember not only that formerly the Roman mother, being a wife under her husband’s power, was in the position of a daughter (filiae loco) to him, within an asymmetrical relationship, but also that blood ties between mother and children were recognized by Roman law only later on.
Simply an exception to rules?
Comedy audiences were certainly acquainted with the meaning of the word potestas and also with the institution of patria potestas, which was proper of Roman citizens, not of Greek ones. Even if the potestas talked about herein has to be intended as authoritativeness more than authority (that is a legal power), however, being it attributed to both parents, we can assume that a new conception about parental roles was spreading in Roman society already at that time. In the centuries afterward, the social and legal status of the mother came to be assimilated to that of the father within the relationship with their children in many respects. So the Plautine passage, if regarded as a forerunner of changes to come in family law, has a particular significance in the history of law: indeed, focusing on the borderland existing between law and society means also highlighting the risk that is always lurking in a potential gap between law and life, and that makes the evolution a process neither linear nor irreversible, from the historical viewpoint.
So, what did go wrong in this (hi)story?
Why did the process towards gender equality stop in ancient Rome? The course of historical events is always influenced by several factors, but the key aspect to be evaluated in Roman culture is the fact that legal duties and social restraints weighing on the mother’s figure were intended to maintain anyway the overall system of family relationships, so that even the legal changes required by time and society were purposely designed to guarantee the balance of that system. As a lasting legacy lying at the roots of Western civilization, the lesson of ancient Rome reminds us that, in the history of humankind and particularly in that of women, no achievement can be considered definitive and irrevocable, and for this reason women today have to actively defend their rights in a world that makes it hard for them to build their social role while respecting their identity.
(2018) ‘In fabrorum potestate’: Plautus and the Mother’s Power in Ancient Rome, The Journal of Legal History, 39:1, 1-17,