Society & Culture

Rediscovering the Paterfamilias

Cicero wrote De Officiis to his son, Marcus, a student of philosophy who had just finished his first year in Athens.  Though Cicero does not state it directly, the work is meant to supplement what, to his mind, Greek philosophy lacked most: good practical sense and the principles of action.  He sought to fuse Greek philosophy with Roman civic duty.  Marcus, being in his formative years and having the promise by birth of a prominent role in Roman politics, was an appropriate recipient for such instruction.

But Cicero no doubt had more than Marcus on his mind.  Writing in the tumultuous time between Julius Caesar’s assassination and Marc Antony’s political rise (which led to Cicero’s own assassination), Cicero sought the restoration of the Roman Republic and civic virtue, and the eager youth were crucial to achieving that end.  De Officiis was a letter to future civic leaders.

In Book I, Cicero calls marriage the prima societas.  Children naturally follow, and together they form una domus, communia omnia (“a household with everything in common”).  The desire for the domus, which he calls a “gift” of nature, comes by natural instinct, and this domestic society is the “foundation” or “nursery” of civil government.  With the formation of domestic society comes responsibility,...

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