In a legal point of view, however, the family was absolutely guided and governed by the single, all-powerful will of the “father of the household” (“pater familias”). In relation to him, all in the household were destitute of legal rights – the wife and the child no less than the bullock or the slave. As it was by the free choice of her husband that the virgin became his wedded wife, so it rested with his own free will to rear, or not to rear, the child which she bore him. This maxim was not suggested by indifference to the having a family – on the contrary, the conviction that the founding of a house and the begetting of children were a moral necessity and a duty of the citizen had a deep and earnest hold on the Roman mind. Perhaps the only instance of a support accorded on the part of the community in Rome is the enactment that aid should be given to the father who had three children presented to him at birth, while their views regarding exposure are indicated by its religious prohibition, so far as concerned all the sons – deformed births excepted – and at least the first daughter. Censurable, however, and injurious to the public weal as exposure might be, a father could not be divested of his right to resort to it, for he was, above all, thoroughly and absolutely master in his household, and it was intended that such he should remain.
The father of the household not only maintained the strictest discipline over its members, but he had the right and duty of exercising over them judicial powers and of punishing them, as he deemed fit, in life and limb. A grown-up son might establish a separate household or maintain, as the Romans expressed it, his “own cattle” (“peculium”) assigned to him by his father but, legally, all that the son acquired, whether by his own labor or by gift from a stranger, whether in his father’s household or in his own, remained the father’s property. So long as the father lived, the persons legally subject to him could never hold property of their own and could not, therefore, alienate, unless by him so empowered, or bequeath. In this respect, wife and child stood quite on the same level with the slave, who was, not infrequently, allowed to manage a house of his own, and who was, likewise, entitled to alienate, when commissioned by his master. Indeed, a father might convey his son, as well as his slave, in property to a third person. If the purchaser was a foreigner, the son became his slave. If he was a Roman, the son, while as a Roman he could not become a Roman’s slave stood, at least to his purchaser, in a slave’s stead (“in mancipii causa”).
From: The History of Rome: Volume 1 by Theodor Mommsen; translated from the 3rd German edition by William P. Dickson; Cambridge Library Classics series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 61-62. The 3rd German edition was published in 1862. The first German edition was published in 1854.
Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) was a German historian and author, specializing in the history of the Roman Empire. In 1902, he became the first of only two historians to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The other was Winston Churchill, in 1953.)