Plutarch Lives and the history of Rome in the 2nd century BC.


Family and Society are alternative beats of the same heart. Many aspects contribute to the making and evolving of a healthy society, and family is the fundamental unit of the society. It is the foundation on which the superstructure of society is built. If the foundation is weak, the overall structure, howsoever decorated and ornamental it may be, the danger of is collapse exists. Family is the product of the union of two individuals, the male and female. Such unions are mostly through marriage. A beautiful definition about ‘Vivaha’ (marriage) is often quoted in Sanskrit language. This word is beautifully composed. “Vaha’ means ‘to flow’ and ‘Vi’ means ‘harmoniously together.’

Therefore, ‘Vivaha’ means ‘to flow together harmoniously.’ Two distinct individuals, two separate personalities, born, bred and brought up in two different set of circumstances try to come together from the day of marriage, to find the common identity, the common goal and to be precise the common all. Such a healthy unit of family contributes to the making of a healthy society. Fortunately or unfortunately, the concepts of marriage and family have different interpretations now. Children are born before marriage; Male/female living together is common. Divorce rates are staggering. People marry divorce, remarry and divorce again. The institution of marriage has become the musical chair.

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In the 2nd century BC, adventure was the watch word in Roman families. The important training for the Roman youth was that life is to be lived in its trials, its tribulations, its duty and in its beauty. They learnt the practicalities f life in the college of self-education.

The Roman Family

It is necessary to understand the Roman Social History briefly, before understanding what the constitution was and the mode of functioning of the Roman Family. Rome was identified with urban culture. The population of 75,000 constituted the city. With no agreement between the various scholars about the population  of Rome, the estimate swings   between 500,000 to one million, it could have been much like the modern metropolitan cities.( of course without the skyscrapers!).

Let us forget the historians, and take cue from the poets, whose observation, they say, beats the observation of the rays of the sun. ‘….the things that the sun doesn’t see, the poet sees.’ Rome was another congested city with worst living conditions, according to the Roman poet, (60-131) Jevenal.

The pollution problem was acute as well, though it was mostly smoke-pollution from the residential quarters. Water shortage was a serious problem. Houses were wooden structures, and therefore fire meant major disaster. Juvenal’s satire describes the conditions beautifully: “If you don’t make your will before you go out to have dinner. There are as many deaths in the night as there are open windows Where you pass by, if you’re wise, you will pray, in your wretched devotions. People may be content with no more than emptying slop jars.”

Coming to the Roman family proper, paterfamilias tradition was followed. The head of the family possessed the patria potesas, the power of a father on his children, of whatever age. This power meant, the father was the owner of all properties acquired by his sons. This led to peculiar and serious social tensions—the impatient son murdered his old father, who would not die!

The law permitted paterfamilias to kill his wife if he found her practicing adultery. He had rights to sell the children for slavery or even kill them. Roman practiced infanticide. Arranged marriages were in vogue. Divorce was introduced in 2nd Century B.C. It was an easy procedure, no proven grounds needed. Legal age for the marriage of girls was twelve.

By convention, they were married at the age of fourteen. Roman women were socially visible. They were the centre of the domestic social life. They were free to talk in public, visit religious places and attend cultural events at the theatres. They were not allowed to participate in public life and remained the custodians of the children. To give moral shape to their psyche was their main responsibility. Rich and influential women had business interests and ran big establishments. Politics was barred for them but they influenced their husbands, who were political figures.

When there was a decline in the number of children, imperial laws were passed requiring parents to produce more children. Contraception and abortion were practiced. Potions, amulets, oils, ointment, formulas, magic potions etc. were the family planning methods. Expensive condoms made from the bladder of goats were also used. With no system of public education, vocational training was provided to children at the house itself. Herbal medicines were used and such medicinal skill was transferred from generation to generation. Slavery was part of the Roman Family. A bankrupt individual sold himself as a slave.

The prestige and index of status of a family was also linked to the number of slaves owned. Such was the high status of some the slaves, they served as doctors, managers of business and architects. Many slaves were highly educated. The loyalty of the slaves to the master was absolute and had strange parameters. If the master was murdered, all his slaves may be in hundreds or thousands were murdered, without trial.

Plutarch’s efforts to understand and write about the Greek and Roman identities were no ordinary ones. His study related to all ages and character. To that extent he can be termed as an intelligent psychologist, he grasped the best in the human being.  He defined one’s role in this world. He knew the art of lending history with biography. His specialty was to pair a Greek with a Roman, of identical careers and status. How the cross currents, personal ambitions and valor interplayed and influenced their lives. Aemilius Paullus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus are all characters in the above scheme of characterization by Plutarch. How they faced the impossible situations in life and how the family background influenced their lives.

“Almost all agree that the Aemilii were one of the ancient and patrician houses in Rome; and those authors who affirm that King Numa was pupil to Pythagoras tell us that the first who gave name to his posterity was Mamercus, the son of Pythagoras, who, for his grace and address in speaking, was called Aemilius. Most of this race that have risen through their merit to reputation also enjoyed good fortune: and even the misfortune to Lucius Paulus at the battle of Cannae gave testimony to his wisdom and valor.” (Clough, 2006)

Aemilius Paulus died in 160 B.C. His biography indicates how he sailed against the social and familial trends then in vogue as for the youngsters, and how he pursued the path of valor, justice and integrity, and scored the march over all his equals.

The character of Caius Gracchus also indicates how he evolved himself into a self-made personality. His generous education helped his grit and determination to face the odds against him. During his time, the greatest virtues the Romans valued were honor, noble actions. Gracchi was slain fighting with their fellow citizens as they were making plans to escape. No cowardice is seen in this action, he was merely trying to save the lives of others.

Cato the Elder belongs to the family of Marcus Cato. Cato the Elder is the self-made man. What he achieved in his life is due to his own merits. Cato was sort of an unofficial title, for those who did not belong to noble families, and rose in public life with their own achievements. How the familial traditions, values count during the formative years of the growth of the child, and ultimately shaping the career of youth, by introducing him to ambitious growth projects, are the lessons to be learnt from the life of ‘Cato’. They say, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. ‘Cato’ belongs to the second category, and this was the category mostly encouraged in Roman Empire.

Tiberius Gracchus (legendary, died 133 B.C.E.) Tiberius and Caius were the sons of Tiberius Gracchus, who though he had been once censor, twice consul, and twice had triumphed, yet was more renowned and esteemed for his virtue than his honors. Scipio, who overthrew Hannibal, died and his daughter was con considered the befitting match for his daughter Cornelia .She bore him twelve children.

How Cornelia chose to remain widow, showing exemplary loyalty to her departed husband is an interesting part of the story. She looked after her children well and brought them up with dedication. She refused the marriage offer of King Ptolemy. The comparison between Tibeius and the traits of his children is beautifully described. In a campaign led by him against he enemy, Tberius is credited with saving hen lives of twenty thousand roman citizens, camp followers and attendants.


The highlight of the Roman Era was that each man, each family thought big, had great ambitions and worked to achieve it tirelessly. That was an era of fighters and achievers. Each day saw yet another adventure, and for the sake of honor the Romans were ready for the ultimate commitment-the life itself! They had principled approach to individual, social, economic and political issues small or big. Each and every molecule of their being was surcharged with adventure. They lived and died for a cause.

References Cited

  1. Plutarch: Book: Plutarch’s Lives: Volume 1 (The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) Arthur Hugh Clough (Editor), John Dryden (Translator), Clayton Miles Lehmann (Introduction)

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