Relief depicting imperial succession through adoption: Hadrian (right) adopted Antoninus Pius (center left), who in turn adopted the 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius (left) and the 8-year-old Lucius Verus; the head over Hadrian’s left shoulder may represent the guardian genius of Aelius Verus, Lucius's late father

Adoption in ancient Rome was primarily a legal procedure for transferring paternal power (potestas) to ensure succession in the male line within Roman patriarchal society. The Latin word adoptio refers broadly to "adoption", which was of two kinds: the transferral of potestas over a free person from one head of household to another; and adrogatio, when the adoptee had been acting sui iuris as a legal adult but assumed the status of unemancipated son for purposes of inheritance. Adoptio was a longstanding part of Roman family law pertaining to paternal responsibilities such as perpetuating the value of the family estate and ancestral rites (sacra), which were concerns of the property-owning classes and cultural elite. During the Imperial era, adoption became a way to ensure imperial succession.

In contrast to modern adoption, Roman adoptio was neither designed nor intended to build emotionally satisfying families and support childrearing. Among all social classes, childless couples or those who wanted to expand the size of their families instead might foster children. Evidence is meager for the adoptio of young children for purposes other than securing a male heir, and probably would have been employed mostly by former slaves legitimating the status of their own children born into slavery. Roman women could own, inherit, and control property as citizens, and therefore could exercise prerogatives of the paterfamilias pertaining to ownership and inheritance,[1] but adoption was largely a male-gendered practice.[2]


A family genius depicted as a paterfamilias (1st century)

Adoption was carried out by the male head of the household, the pater familias. Marriage was not required; an adult bachelor could adopt in order to pass along his family name and potestas.[3] The adoptee acquired the social rank of the adoptive family. Although most often adoption would have been a lateral move or a modest boost to the adoptee's standing and wealth, a freedman could also be adopted. A slave might even be simultaneously manumitted and adopted by his former master, who became both his patron (patronus) and his "father". In the early Republic, a freedman through adoption gained the same status as the freeborn citizen who freed him.[4] Publius Clodius Pulcher famously subverted the usual course of "adopting up", surrendering his patrician status and becoming a nominal plebeian in order to qualify for the office of tribune.[5]

Augustus, the first emperor and perhaps Rome's most famous adoptee

Adoption was a contract between the two families. The adopted child took the family name as his own. Along with this, the child kept his/her original name through the form of cognomen or essentially a nickname. The adopted child also maintained previous family connections and often leveraged this politically. Due to the power disparity that normally existed between the families involved in adoption, a fee was often given to the lower family to help with replacing (in most cases) the first-born son. Another case similar to adoption was the fostering of children; this effectively took place when a paterfamilias transferred his power to another man to be left in their care.[6]

One kind of adoption called adrogation occurred where the person adopted was free, and consented to be adopted by another. It was done at the assembly of the people while the commonwealth subsisted, and later by a rescript of the emperors. The Roman practice of adrogation required the adrogator to be at least 60 years old, for otherwise it was expected that they be procreating rather than adopting. Exception was made for the infertile and those who wished to adopt within the family.[7] This is contrasted with arrogation, in which one claims another for oneself without the right.

Former slaves who were freed by their masters could be allowed to adopt his children to legitimize them.[8]

Imperial succession

Many Roman emperors came to power through adoption, either because their predecessors had no natural sons, or simply to ensure a smooth transition for the most capable candidate.

The Julio-Claudian dynasty

Julio Claudian Family Tree

Augustus, as he was known after he became the first Roman emperor, was adopted into the gens Julia in the will of his great uncle, Julius Caesar. He inherited Caesar's money, name, and auctoritas.

As Augustus's central role in the Principate solidified, it became increasingly important for him to designate an heir. He first adopted his daughter Julia's three sons by Marcus Agrippa, renaming them Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, and Agrippa Caesar. After the former two died young and the latter was exiled, Augustus adopted his stepson, Tiberius Claudius Nero, on the condition that he adopt his own nephew, Germanicus (who was also Augustus's great nephew by blood). Tiberius succeeded Augustus, and after Tiberius's death, Germanicus's son Caligula became emperor.[9]

Claudius adopted his stepson Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar and succeeded Claudius as the emperor, Nero.

The adoptive emperors

Denarius issued under Hadrian; the reverse shows him joining hands with Trajan with the legend ADOPTIO

The Nerva-Antonine dynasty was also united by a series of adoptions. Nerva adopted the popular military leader Trajan. Trajan in turn took Publius Aelius Hadrianus as his protégé and, although the legitimacy of the process is debatable, Hadrian claimed to have been adopted and took the name Caesar Traianus Hadrianus when he became emperor.

Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who changed his name to Lucius Aelius Caesar but predeceased Hadrian. Hadrian then adopted Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, on condition that Antoninus in turn adopt both the natural son of the late Lucius Aelius and a promising young nephew of his wife. They ruled as Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius respectively.

Niccolò Machiavelli described them as The Five Good Emperors and attributed their success to having been chosen for the role:

From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.[10]

This run of adoptive emperors came to an end when Marcus Aurelius named his biological son, Commodus, as his heir.

Adoption never became the official method of designating a successor, in part because Roman identity was based on citizenship with a visceral rejection of hereditary kingship. During the Principate, so called from Augustus's styling of himself as princeps (first among equals, in the manner of the princeps senatus), emperors consolidated their power by making use of the institutions of Republican Rome rather than overthrowing them outright. Augustus's early intentions seem to have been to apprentice and promote a successor on the basis of merit, but his longevity instead created an apparatus of centralized power from which his status as a private citizen could no longer be extricated. His fashioning of himself as "father of his country" enabled the transferral of his power over the Roman people in the same way that a paterfamilias of a family estate was bound to transfer his potestas whether or not the available successor was fully meritorious. A major transition in the means of imperial succession marks the periodization of Roman Imperial history into the Dominate, when Diocletian replaced adoption with the consortium imperii, designation of an heir by appointing him partner in imperium.

See also


  1. ^ Richard P. Saller, "Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household," Classical Philology 94:2 (1999), pp. 185, 187–189.
  2. ^ Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Taylor & Francis, 1986, 2009 ed.), n.p.
  3. ^ Jane F. Gardner, "Sexing a Roman: Imperfect Men in Roman Law," in When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity (Routledge, 1998),p.  143–144, citing Paulus, Digest 1.7.30).
  4. ^ Jane F. Gardner, “The Adoption of Roman Freedmen,” Phoenix 43:3 (1989), p. 252 et passim.
  5. ^ Connerty, Victor (2000). Tatum, W. J. (ed.). "Publius Clodius Pulcher". The Classical Review. 50 (2): 514–516. doi:10.1093/cr/50.2.514. ISSN 0009-840X. JSTOR 3064795.
  6. ^ "Adoption in the Roman Empire". Life in the Roman Empire. Retrieved 2020-03-10.
  7. ^ Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Adrogation". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1st ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
  8. ^ Rawson, Beryl (1987). The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. ISBN 0801494605.
  9. ^ Levick, Barbara (1966). "Drusus Caesar and the Adoptions of A.D. 4". Latomus. 25 (2): 227–244. JSTOR 41524520.
  10. ^ Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book I, Chapter 10.