The institution of patria potestas is the typical expression of the power and privileges of the paterfamilias of the Roman civilization and therefore may be exercised only with Roman citizenship.

The characteristic power of the patria potestas was not exercised or acquired by foreign citizens, even with the acquisition of Roman citizenship, unless a specific decision to intervene. It was an institution, a real privilege of Roman citizens as it can be seen already by the institutions of Gaius: "We have power over our children that were born in lawful marriage. This is the proper law of Roman citizens (in fact there are other men, who have power over their children, as we have)"

The patria potestas originates primarily from natural law, as the father ex lege natural (under natural law) has certain power in respect of his progeny, while on the other hand, ex lege civil includes the wide power that the pater has towards all people subjected to his potestas (2): it is a single authority or patria potestas exercised both over people and things, so the potestas exercised over filii familias, the manus maritalis or potestas maritalis exercised over women, dominium namely dominica potestas over the slaves and, finally, mancipio over sold filii familias (3).
Such power transcends any natural bond which may flow from marriage and the relationship between parents and children: the patria potestas exercised, without distinction, over all the people who are a part of the family, in any manner or way they have been aggregated to the group. The mere fact of belonging to a family is a prerequisite for being subjected to the paterfamilias.
The institute became gradual respect to its origin, through a historical process: from the absolute patriarchal power it passed to classical Roman law at the same time to logical limitations and restrictions and finally to the post-classical era and with Justinian to a complete evolution of this power (482-565).

From the age of Augustus, at first social and legal evolution, then legal evolution has reshaped the configuration of the patria potestas (4).

The absolute power of the patria potestas was originally expressed with strong power, identifiable in ius vitae ac necis, i.e. in the right of life and death that the pater had against the filius, attenuated by the general principles of correctness, morals and Roman law that the pater was bound to respect.
The pater could arbitrarily decide to recognize or expose his newborn offspring, to sell his children, or to deliver the offended for not responding personally to liability for fault attributable to a member of his family, including the decision to punish corporally or even to kill his son, all these rights were exercised arbitrarily, discussed in Chap. IV, and remained at least until the classical imperial era.
Probably this institution derives from the tendency, especially in the former law, to preserve the family heritage of the ancient gens, so that they would ensure the survival of the entire family group and avoided a possible fragmentation of the original family. As a natural consequence it was necessary and important that all members of the same family were placed under the control and authority of one supreme head of the family. This aspect characterized the strongly hierarchical relationship of family, personal, legal and economic relationships, and the tendency centralized in the hands of the paterfamilias of the ancient Roman civilization.

Ways of Acquisition of Patria Potestas

The history of the patria potestas, as it has been said, is the history of the whole Roman family, and it can be deduced the various aspects of this power that has very long roots: the interpretation of the patria potestas cannot be regardless of the interpretation of the whole family structure, from which it is deduced the quality, importance but also the weight of this power in the hands of the paterfamilias.
The meaning, the various characters, the content itself, the facets and many aspects of patriarchal power emerge from the structure of the family group, the unfolding of life and legal relationships that originate or acquire in it, subjected to the power of the paterfamilias and formed in all its aspects: parental, religious, social, political and economic.
The subjects of the patria potestas must become a part of the family, "they enter into the family aut natura aut jure. They enter natura with the fact of their birth in a lawful marriage, contracted both by the paterfamilias that are from his subjected males; jure in virtu with legislation, such as the adoption and conventium in manum "(5).
There are three titles of entry into the family, which constitute the different ways of the acquisition of the patria potestas: the first, that has a natural character, is the birth, the second, that has a legal character, is the adoption and the third that has also a legal character but a little special one, is the manus (hand) of the woman who is taken into marriage (6), that has been discussed in Chap. I.
The origin of this absolute power of the pater coincides with the formation of the family iure, and it is understood as a compact group subjected to the sovereignty of the pater that is represented in its entirety, at a parental, political and especially economic level.

- The acquisition of patria potestas for procreation.

The acquisition of the patria potestas can be primarily as a natural event: the procreation of children in a legitimate marriage (iustae nuptiae), putting the potestas over their children since their birth, the children procreated from the same pater, born from the mother (7), are not born before 180 days from the beginning of the marriage, or 300 days from the dissolution.
Filii familias are also the procreated children from another member of the family, a status that is not recognized by the descendants of a woman, because they are out of the mother's family and belong only to that of the pater.
The children born from not legitimate marriage belong to the maternal family (e.g. for lack of connubium) and consequently they follow the maternal condition.
The son after the death of the pater becomes paterfamilias, acquiring the power over his children, until that moment that they are subjected to the ancestor.
The pater familias can also take the potestas over figli naturali (natural children) (8) through the institution of legitimation (9), by means of which the natural child acquires the factual and legal status of a legitimate child.
The quality of the children, as it has been seen, gives rise to the family membership and submission of the patria potestas because of natural causes of birth, but the same power can be acquired by the pater because of legal events.

- The acquisition of patria potestas for adoption.

As it is concerned the power acquired "naturally" from pater, and as a natural consequence over his procreated children, but the pater familias can also acquire the power over the people out of his family: the filii familias through adoptio are subjected precisely to his patria potestas. The legal act whose original function was to increase the political power and the ability to work in a family, which was increasingly in decline, through the aggregation of people, that do not belong to the same family and come under the patria potestas of the pater of the family, with adoptio are treated as children.
The Roman adoption "is not a pious consolation to the fathers or mothers to be bereft of children, a sentimental illusion and a moral satisfaction" (10), on the contrary, the agnatic family, is considered by most scholars of Roman law to be a criminal association put in place for reasons of defense, a political body (11): a family group is open to outsiders in order to strengthen and protect outwards, merging with other people in the legal act of adoption. This is supported by the fact that through adrogatio, a legal institution of adoption that is older than adoptio, at least before it was established that the State took over the function of the defense, aggregated in the family not only the adopted individual but also his family of origin, making the family of the paterfamilias more powerful "for a Roman, as for an old man in general, the social group to which he belongs is everything: a single individual, out of the group has no value, only if he is a member of a political community" (12).




  • Salvatore Terranova - Noto


(1)Gaio 1.55 : “Item in potestate nostra sunt liberi nostri, quos iustis nuptiis procreavimus.    Quod ius proprium civium Romanorum est (fere enim nulli alii sunt homines, qui talem in filios suos habent potestatem, qualem nos habemus)”.(2)A. Doveri, “Istituzioni di diritto romano”, Firenze,1866, p. 228.   
(3)B. Biondi,  “Istituzioni ecc…”, op.cit., p.  566 e ss.
(4) Longo G., “Patria potestas”, in Nuovissimo Digesto Italiano, V. XII, Torino, 1957, p. 575 e ss;
(5) Biondi B., “Istituzioni ecc…”, op. cit.,  p. 554.
(6)Longo G., “Patria ecc…”, op. cit., p. 575.
(7) Cfr. Sanfilippo C., “Istituzioni ecc”, op. cit. p. 140 e ss: “ pater is est quem iustae nuptiae demonstrant”.
(8) Cfr. Sanfilippo C., “Istituzioni ecc”, op. cit. p. 159: I figli nati da un matrimonio si dicono iusti, legati pertanto al pater da agnatio e sottoposti di conseguenza alla sua potestà; i figli nati da  un  matrimonio non riconosciuto civilmente, per mancanza di connubium , ma solo iure gentium, si dicono iniusti e legati al padre solo da cognatio    . I figli non legittimi si dicono naturales, fra i quali si distinguono: i liberi naturales, nati da concubinato; i figli spurii o vulgo quaesiti che non hanno pater, perché nati da unioni giuridicamente irrilevanti o da unioni illecite come l’incesto o l’adulterio.
(9) Cfr. Sanfilippo C., “Istituzioni ecc”, op. cit. p. 159 e ss.: La legittimazione è un istituto che nasce per l’influenza dell’etica cristiana, nell’età di Costantino, e si consolida nella legislazione di Giustiniano. La forma principale consiste nel subsequens matrimonium dei genitori, condizione che si verifica solo quando le nozze sarebbero state possibili al momento del concepimento, escluso quindi per i figli incestuosi o adulterini, e vi è consenso dei legittimandi. Nel caso in cui, per assenza o morte della madre, a causa della quale non è possibile il susseguente matrimonio, la legittimazione poteva avvenire per rescriptum  principis, ossia la richiesta fatta dal padre anche nel suo testamento (ciò fu permesso  da Giustiniano). Nel periodo del Basso Impero fu ammessa la legittimazione per oblationem  curiae, introdotta per meri motivi fiscali, consisteva nell’avviare il figlio alla carriera da decurione, fornendolo di un censo che garantisse la riscossione delle imposte, la cui responsabilità ricadeva sulla curiae; oppure, nel caso di una figlia, occorreva darla in moglie ad un decurione, costituendole una congrua dote.

(10) Bonfante P., “Corso ecc…”, op. cit., p. 19.

(11) Bonfante P., “Diritto romano”, Milano, 1987, p. 117.(12)Betti E. “ Istituzioni ecc…”, op. cit., p. 52.

(13) Di Marzo S., “Istituzioni di diritto romano”, Milano, 1945, p. 143
(14) Donatuti G., “Contributi allo studio dell’adrogatio impuberis”, Bollettino dell’Istituto di Diritto Romano, 1961, ISSN 0391-1810, p. 879.
(15)Doveri A., “Istituzioni ecc…”, op. cit., p. 233.

(16)Cfr. Biondi B. , “Istituzioni ecc…”, op. cit, p. 131:  è sui iuris “la persona che non obbedisce ad alcun potere familiare, cioè quella che non ha ascendenti maschi legittimi oppure è stata emancipata dalla potestas a cui era sottoposta” ; “persone alieni iuris o alienae potestati subiectae sono tutti coloro che sono sottoposti ad una qualsiasi potestà familiare”.
(17) Cfr. Sanfilippo C., “Istituzioni ecc”, op. cit. p. 160 e ss: Anche se entrambi costituiscono due sottospecie dell’adoptio in senso lato, gli effetti e le forme di costituzione delle stesse sono diverse: per l’adoptio occorreva sciogliere l’adottando dalla patria postestas del suo pater familias originario, mediante emancipatio “ avvenuta la quale, chi aveva in mancipio il figlio e l’adottante si recavano in ius e quivi l’adottante rivendicava il figlio come suo; se l’altro non contraddiceva (in iure cessio), il pretore riconosceva il figlio sotto la potestà dell’adottante”. Per l’adrogatio invece erano necessari l’approvazione dei comitii curiati e del collegio pontificale in via preventiva, con essa il pater familias arrogato sottoponeva sotto la potestà dell’arrogatore non solo sé stesso ma tutta la sua familia che veniva incorporata nella nuova.
(18)  Gaio, Institutiones, I.98-107.





Marriage and Conventio in Manum

Marriage sine manum

The weddings

The dowry

Dissolution of Marriage



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