Ancient Rome: A State Born From Patriarchal Societies

November 17, 2011

Fustel de Coulanges

The classic work of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, initially welcomed with enthusiasm, came under criticism over the course of time. Some, for example, faulted it for being too “systematic.” Nonetheless, by its exemplary erudition, its lucidity of thought, and its clarity of exposition, The Ancient City still ranks among the true masterpieces of its genre.




The Word Pater Is Distinct from Genitor and Appears as a Synonym for the Word Rex

 Thanks to the domestic religion, the family was a small organized unit, a small society that had its leader and its government. Nothing in our modern society can give us an idea of this paternal power. In this ancient time the father is not merely the strong man who protects and also has the power to make himself obeyed; he is the priest, heir of the home, continuer of the forebears and the line of descendants, the depositary of the mysterious rites of the cult and the secret formulas of prayer. All religion resides in him.

The very name by which he is called, pater, holds some interesting lessons. The word is the same in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, from which one can already conclude that this word dates from the time when the ancestors of the Hellenes, the Italians, and the Hindus still lived together in Central Asia. What did it signify and what was its meaning for the human mind then? This can be answered, for it has kept this first signification in the formulae of religious language and that of juridical language as well….

In juridical language the title pater or pater familias may be given to a man who has never had children, who has never married, who is not even old enough to be married. The idea of paternity is not related to this word. The ancient language had another word to designate father properly, which, being as ancient as pater, is also found in the languages of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hindus (gennetér, genitor, gânitar). The word pater had another meaning. In religious language it was applied to all the gods; in the language of law, to any man who did not depend upon another and who had authority over a family and a domain, paterfamilias. The poets showed us that it was used to refer to all whom one wanted to honor. The slave and the client used it for their master. It was synonymous with the words rex, hänas, basileús. It contained not the idea of paternity, but that of power, authority, and majestic dignity.

The fact that such a word has been applied to the father of a family to the point of gradually becoming his most ordinary name is certainly very significant, and it will certainly appear important to anyone wishing to understand ancient institutions. The history of this word suffices to give us an idea of the power the father exercised in the family for a long time and of the sentiments of veneration which were attached to him, as to a pontiff or a king. (Foustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique, book 2, pp. 96-98).


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. 495-496.


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