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In ancient Rome, a gens (pl. gentes) was a family or clan that shared a common name (the nomen, plural nomina) and a belief in a common ancestor. In the Roman system of three names, the second name was the name of the gens to which the person belonged.

The origins of the gentes are unclear, although they are probably not as ancient as the Romans themselves thought. Few of the gens names have clear Indo-European etymologies, and some have been traced to Etruscanmarker names.

Some gentes were associated by tradition with particular cults or ceremonies, but while one's gens-identity was based in kinship, during the Republic these public religious functions were not hereditary, though sons often succeeded fathers in certain priesthoods such as the Flamen Martialis. Nevertheless, the relationships among the gentes was a major factor in politics, particularly through marriage and adoption. On rare occasions, notable members of patrician gentes had themselves adopted by plebeian families in order to run for offices not open to the patricii. Members of the same gens were usually (though far from always) political allies.

During the Republic, the gens as a legal entity owned property, including a family burial ground. There was a gens "chief", more formally in early Rome and less formally in later Rome (compare paterfamilias). Members of a gens had a legal obligation to help one another when asked. A gens was exogamous; that is, individuals sought marriage partners from outside the gens.

A gens was patrilineal and patriarchal. Originally patricians and plebeians were not allowed to intermarry, until the Lex Canuleia was passed in 445 BC.

Among the patricians, there were gentes maiores and the gentes minores. The maiores were the leading families of Rome: these were the Aemilii, Claudii, Cornelii, Fabii, and Valerii.

See also

Further reading

  • C.J. Smith, The Roman Clan: The gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Limited preview online.


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