The Gens of the Romans and the Génos of the Greeks

November 21, 2011


In the difficult problems that history often presents to us, it is good to seek all possible illumination in the terms of language. An institution is sometimes explained by the word with which it is designated. In Latin, the word gens is exactly the same as the word genus, to the point that one can be used in place of the other to say, indiscriminately, gens Fabia and genus Fabium; each corresponds to the verb gignere and the substantive genitor, just as génos corresponds to gennäs and goneús. All these words contain the idea of filiation…. Let us compare to all these words the ones we usually translate as family, the Latin familia and the Greek oíkos. Neither one nor the other contains the sense of generation or family relationship. The true signification of familia is property; it designates the field, house, money, and slaves, and it is for this reason that the Twelve Tables say, in speaking of the heir, familiam nancitor, the one who accepts the succession. As for oíkos, it is clear that it calls to mind no other idea than that of property or domicile. These are nonetheless the words we usually translate as family. In other words, is it admissible that these terms whose intrinsic sense is that of domicile or property could have often been used to designate a family and that other words whose intrinsic sense is filiation, birth, paternity, designated only an artificial association? Certainly this would not be consistent with the precision of ancient languages. It is beyond doubt that the Greeks and Romans attached the idea of a common origin to the words gens and génos.

Everything shows us that the gens is united by a tie of birth.

Painting by Stepan Bakalovich

From all this it is evident that the gens was not an association of families, but the family itself. It could either designate a single line or produce numerous branches, but it was always a single family.

It is in any case easy to understand the formation and nature of the ancient gens if one goes back to the old beliefs and old institutions analyzed in this work. One will even recognize that the gens is quite naturally derived from the domestic religion and private law of ancient times…. In observing of what authority in the ancient family consisted, we have seen that the son did not separate himself from the father; in studying the laws of the transmission of patrimony, we have ascertained that thanks to the principle of the community of the domain, younger brothers did not separate from the older brother. Home, tomb, patrimony, all this was indivisible in its origin. Hence, the family was as well. Time did not break it up. This indivisible family, which developed throughout the ages, perpetuating its name and cult from century to century, this truly was the ancient gens. The gens was the family, but the family that had preserved the unity dictated by its religion and that had attained the level of development which ancient private law permitted it to attain.

Portrait-group on Glass, of a Mother and her two children. About 250 A.D.

Once this truth is acknowledged, what the ancient authors wrote about the gens becomes clear. The strict solidarity between the members, which we noticed earlier, is no longer surprising: they are related by birth. (Foustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique, book 2, pp. 118-122 passim).
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Documents VII, pp. 496-497.

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