POWER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Pater and Res Publica
Through the course of the Roman republic, power was diffused both within the institutions of government and beyond them. In many ways, managing and providing stability for an ever expanding and ever more complex civitas1 was beyond the capacity of republican government alone. The limited capacity of republican government will be considered in more detail in the next two chapters. Suffice it to say here that institutions outside the government compensated for its limited power and scope. One of the most important and pervasive of these nongovernmental institutions was to be found within the Roman family. The father in a Roman family had many legally defined powers over those subject to him. Among these was the vitae necisque potestas or the power of life and death: the pater had the legal right to kill those under his potestas. Although the pater’s power to kill was limited to those within his own family, and thus was a tool for the management of the family, it was also a tool used by the father for the benefit of the res publica.
My argument that the vitae necisque potestas had a role to play beyond the confines of the family has been inspired in part by recent scholarship that has shifted our understanding of the role of the pater and of the function of patria potestas (paternal power) in the Roman family. The picture of an authoritarian father with absolute rights over other members of the family and household, which vitae necisque potestas implies, has been brought into question by recent studies of the role and perception of the pater in the family. In Roman literature and art, it has been argued, the pater is often illustrated more as a nurturing figure than as an authoritarian one.2 This interpretation suggests that the exercise of paternal power was not a