History as Past Ethics: An Introduction to the History of Morals

By Philip Van Ness Myers | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XI
ROMAN MORALS: AN IDEAL OF CIVIC DUTY

I. INSTITUTIONS AND CONDITIONS OF LIFE DETERMINING THE EARLY MORAL TYPE

The family in early Rome may more unreservedly be pronounced a seed plot of morals than in the case of any other ancient people save the Chinese. It was ancestor worship which made it such a nursery of morality, for the cult of ancestors made the family a group of co-worshipers about the domestic hearth. This worship purified and braced morality, since the tutelary spirits were believed to watch over the morals of the family and to punish wrongdoing. No impure act could be committed in the presence of the chaste hearth fire, and no one guilty of unexpiated crime dared to come into its presence.1

The Roman family: ancestor worship and the patria potestas

But it was in constituting the father the high priest of the family group that this domestic worship exercised its greatest influence upon early Roman morality. It gave a religious sanction to the fatfier's authority and made the pattia potestas for many centuries a molding force in the moral life of the Roman people.2 A little further on we shall see how, in the atmosphere of the home thus constituted, was fostered in the youth the virtues of submission to rightful authority,

____________________
1
Coulanges, The Ancient City, ii, 9.
2
The authority of the father over each and every member of the family was legally absolute, extending to life and death. Not until late in the Empire did the law forbid fathers to kill their grown-up children or to sell them as slaves. Cf. McKenzie, Studies in Roman Law, 6th ed., p. 141; and Sohm, Institutes ( 1900), p. 53.

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