Gens

Gens

Discussion
Ask a question about 'Gens'
Start a new discussion about 'Gens'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia
In ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

, a gens (ˈɡɛns or ˈdʒɛnz), plural gentes, referred to a family, consisting of all those individuals who shared the same nomen
Roman naming conventions
By the Republican era and throughout the Imperial era, a name in ancient Rome for a male citizen consisted of three parts : praenomen , nomen and cognomen...

and claimed descent from a common ancestor. A branch of a gens was called a stirps (plural stirpes). The gens was an important social structure at Rome and throughout Italy during the period of the Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

. Much of an individual's social standing depended on the gens to which he belonged. Certain gentes were considered patrician, others plebeian
Plebs
The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

, while some had both patrician and plebeian branches. The importance of membership in a gens declined considerably in imperial times
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

.

Origin of the gens


The word gens is sometimes translated as "race" or "nation," meaning a people descended from a common ancestor (rather than sharing a common physical trait). It can also be translated as "clan" or "tribe", although the word tribus has a separate and distinct meaning in Roman culture. A gens could be as small as a single family, or could include hundreds of individuals. According to tradition, in 479 BC the Fabii alone were able to field a militia consisting of three hundred and six men of fighting age. The concept of the gens was not uniquely Roman, but was shared with communities throughout Italy, including those who spoke Italic languages
Italic languages
The Italic subfamily is a member of the Indo-European language family. It includes the Romance languages derived from Latin , and a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, and Latin.In the past various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed...

 such as Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, Oscan, and Umbrian, as well as the Etruscans
Etruscan civilization
Etruscan civilization is the modern English name given to a civilization of ancient Italy in the area corresponding roughly to Tuscany. The ancient Romans called its creators the Tusci or Etrusci...

. All of these peoples were eventually absorbed into the sphere of Roman culture.

The oldest gentes claimed to have originated before the foundation of Rome (traditionally 753 BC), and claimed descent from mythological personages as far back as the time of the Trojan War
Trojan War
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. The war is among the most important events in Greek mythology and was narrated in many works of Greek literature, including the Iliad...

 (traditionally ended 1184 BC). However, the establishment of the gens cannot long predate the adoption of hereditary surnames. The nomen gentilicium
Roman naming conventions
By the Republican era and throughout the Imperial era, a name in ancient Rome for a male citizen consisted of three parts : praenomen , nomen and cognomen...

, or gentile name, was its distinguishing feature, for a Roman citizen's nomen indicated his membership in a gens.

The nomen could be derived from any number of things, including, but not limited to, the name of an ancestor; a person's occupation; physical appearance, behavior, or characteristics; or town of origin. Because some of these things were fairly common, it was possible for unrelated families to bear the same nomen, and over time to become confused.

Persons could be adopted into a gens and acquire its nomen. A libertus, or freedman
Freedman
A freedman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves became freedmen either by manumission or emancipation ....

 usually assumed the nomen (and sometimes also the praenomen) of the person who had manumitted him, and a naturalized citizen usually took the name of the patron
Patronage in ancient Rome
Patronage was the distinctive relationship in ancient Roman society between the patronus and his client . The relationship was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The patronus was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client...

 who granted his citizenship
Roman citizenship
Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to certain free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance....

. This meant that a gens could acquire new members and even new branches, either by design or by accident.

Stirpes


Different branches, or stirpes of a gens were frequently distinguished by their cognomina, surnames following the nomen, which could be either personal or hereditary. Some particularly large stirpes themselves became divided into multiple branches, distinguished by additional cognomina.

Praenomina


Most gentes regularly employed a limited number of personal names
Given name
A given name, in Western contexts often referred to as a first name, is a personal name that specifies and differentiates between members of a group of individuals, especially in a family, all of whose members usually share the same family name...

, or praenomina
Praenomen
The praenomen was a personal name chosen by the parents of a Roman child. It was first bestowed on the dies lustricus , the eighth day after the birth of a girl, or the ninth day after the birth of a boy...

, the selection of which helped to distinguish members of one gens from another. Sometimes different branches of a gens would vary in their names of choice. The most conservative gentes would sometimes limit themselves to three or four praenomina, while others made regular use of six or seven.

There were two main reasons for this limited selection: first, it was traditional to pass down family names from one generation to the next; such names were always preferred. Second, most patrician families limited themselves to a small number of names as a way of distinguishing themselves from the plebeians, who often employed a wider variety of names, including some that were seldom used by the patricians. It may be noted, however, that several of the oldest and most noble patrician houses frequently used rare and unusual praenomina.

Certain families also deliberately avoided particular praenomina. In at least some cases, this was because of traditions concerning disgraced or dishonored members of the gens bearing a particular name. For example, the Junii
Junius (gens)
The gens Junia was one of the most celebrated families in Rome. The gens may originally have been patrician. The family was already prominent in the last days of the Roman monarchy...

 carefully avoided the praenomina Titus
Titus (praenomen)
Titus is a Latin praenomen, or personal name, and was one of the most common names throughout Roman history. It was used by both patrician and plebeian families, and gave rise to the patronymic gens Titia. The feminine form is Tita or Titia...

and Tiberius
Tiberius (praenomen)
Tiberius is a Latin praenomen, or personal name, which was used throughout Roman history. Although not especially common, it was used by both patrician and plebeian families. The feminine form is Tiberia. The name is usually abbreviated Ti., but occasionally Tib.For most of Roman history, Tiberius...

after two members with these names were executed for treason. A similar instance supposedly led the assembly of gens Manlia to forbid its members from bearing the praenomen Marcus
Marcus (praenomen)
Marcus is a Latin praenomen, or personal name, which was one of the most common names throughout Roman history. The feminine form is Marca or Marcia. The praenomen was used by both patrician and plebeian families, and gave rise to the patronymic gens Marcia, as well as the cognomen Marcellus...

, although this prohibition does not seem to have been strictly observed.

Social function of the gens


In theory, each gens functioned as a state within a state, governed by its own elders and assemblies, following its own customs, and carrying out its own religious rites. Certain cults were traditionally associated with specific gentes. The gentile assemblies had the responsibility of adoption and guardianship for their members. If a member of a gens died intestate and without immediate family, his property was distributed to the rest of the gens.

The decisions of a gens were theoretically binding on all of its members. However, no public enactment is recorded as having been passed by the assembly of a gens. As a group, the gentes had considerable influence on the development of Roman law
Roman law
Roman law is the legal system of ancient Rome, and the legal developments which occurred before the 7th century AD — when the Roman–Byzantine state adopted Greek as the language of government. The development of Roman law comprises more than a thousand years of jurisprudence — from the Twelve...

 and religious practices, but comparatively little influence on the political and constitutional history of Rome.

Patrician and plebeian gentes


Certain gentes were considered patrician, and others plebeian. According to tradition, the patricians were descended from the "city fathers", or patres; that is, the heads of family at the time of its foundation by Romulus
Romulus
- People:* Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome* Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman Emperor* Valerius Romulus , deified son of the Roman emperor Maxentius* Romulus , son of the Western Roman emperor Anthemius...

, the first King of Rome
King of Rome
The King of Rome was the chief magistrate of the Roman Kingdom. According to legend, the first king of Rome was Romulus, who founded the city in 753 BC upon the Palatine Hill. Seven legendary kings are said to have ruled Rome until 509 BC, when the last king was overthrown. These kings ruled for...

. Other noble families which came to Rome during the time of the kings were also admitted to the patriciate, including several who emigrated from Alba Longa
Alba Longa
Alba Longa – in Italian sources occasionally written Albalonga – was an ancient city of Latium in central Italy southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills. Founder and head of the Latin League, it was destroyed by Rome around the middle of the 7th century BC. In legend, Romulus and Remus, founders of...

 after that city was destroyed by Tullus Hostilius
Tullus Hostilius
Tullus Hostilius was the legendary third of the Kings of Rome. He succeeded Numa Pompilius, and was succeeded by Ancus Marcius...

. The last known instance of a gens being admitted to the patriciate prior to the 1st century BC was when the Claudii were added to the ranks of the patricians after coming to Rome in 504 B.C., five years after the establishment of the Republic.

Numerous sources describe two classes amongst the patrician gentes, known as the gentes maiores, or major gentes, and the gentes minores, or minor gentes. No definite information has survived concerning which families were numbered amongst the gentes maiores, or even how many there were. However, they almost certainly included the Aemilii, Claudii
Claudius (gens)
The gens Claudia, sometimes written Clodia, was one of the most prominent patrician houses at Rome. The gens traced its origin to the earliest days of the Roman Republic...

, Cornelii, Fabii, Manlii, and Valerii. Nor is it certain whether this distinction was of any practical importance, although it has been suggested that the princeps senatus
Princeps senatus
The princeps senatus was the first member by precedence of the Roman Senate. Although officially out of the cursus honorum and owning no imperium, this office brought enormous prestige to the senator holding it.-Overview:...

, or speaker of the Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

, was usually chosen from their number.

For the first several decades of the Republic, it is not entirely certain which gentes were considered patrician and which plebeian. However, a series of laws promulgated in 451 and 450 B.C. as the Twelve Tables
Twelve Tables
The Law of the Twelve Tables was the ancient legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Law of the Twelve Tables formed the centrepiece of the constitution of the Roman Republic and the core of the mos maiorum...

 attempted to codify a rigid distinction between the classes, formally excluding the plebeians from holding any of the major magistracies from that time until the passage of the Lex Licinia Sextia
Lex Licinia Sextia
Lex Licinia Sextia was a Roman law introduced around 376 BCE and enacted in 367 BCE. It restored the consulship, allegedly reserved one of the two consular positions for a plebeian , and introduced new limits on the possession of conquered land.- Authors :It is named for the plebeian tribunes Gaius...

in 367 B.C. The law forbidding the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians was repealed after only a few years, by the Lex Canuleia
Lex Canuleia
The Lex Canuleia is a law of the Roman Republic passed in the year 445 BC. Named after the tribune Gaius Canuleius, who proposed it, it abolished a corresponding prohibition in the Twelve Tables and allowed marriage between patricians and plebeians, with children inheriting the father's social status...

in 445 B.C.

Despite the formal reconciliation of the orders
Conflict of the Orders
The Conflict of the Orders, also referred to as the Struggle of the Orders, was a political struggle between the Plebeians and Patricians of the ancient Roman Republic, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians. It played a major role in the development of the...

 in 367, the patrician houses, which as time passed represented a smaller and smaller percentage of the Roman populace, continued to hold onto as much power as possible, resulting in frequent conflict between the orders over the next two centuries. Certain patrician families regularly opposed the sharing of power with the plebeians, while others favored it, and some were divided.

Many gentes included both patrician and plebeian branches. These may have arisen through adoption or manumission, or when two unrelated families bearing the same nomen became confused. It may also be that individual members of a gens voluntarily left or were expelled from the patriciate, along with their descendants. In some cases, gentes that must originally have been patrician, or which were so regarded during the early Republic, were later known only by their plebeian descendants.

By the first century B.C., the practical distinction between the patricians and the plebeians was minimal. Nonetheless, with the rise of imperial authority, several plebeian gentes were raised to the patriciate, replacing older patrician families that had faded into obscurity, and were no longer represented in the Roman senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

. Although both the concept of the gens and of the patriciate survived well into imperial times, both gradually lost most of their significance. In the final centuries of the Western Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

, Patricius was used primarily as an individual title, rather than a class to which an entire family belonged.