First posted on my classics blog, Memento, on 11 October 2014.
Aulus Gellius (flourished 2nd century AD) was a Roman judge and writer who deserves to be better known than he is. He compiled a large collection of literary, historical and philosophical trivia known as the Attic Nights (he chose the name because he composed the collection during winter nights in Attica in Greece). It's fascinating stuff if you happen to be interested in the peculiarities of Roman culture.
In one of the chapters of the collection (2.7), Gellius addresses the question of the obedience owed by a son to his father. Roman culture was highly patriarchal. A son remained under his father's authority (patria potestas) for as long as the father remained alive, save where the link was broken through legal process. A middle-aged Senator or Consul might still be in the power of his father if the old man had not yet died.
The great Roman statesman Cicero thought that a son should obey his father like a soldier obeys a general or a slave obeys his master (Tusc. Disp. 2.47-48). In principle, a Roman father had the power of life and death (ius vitae necisque) over his offspring - although modern scholars have questioned how far this right actually existed in practice. Actual killings of sons by fathers are rarely attested in our sources, and where they are attested they are stigmatised. The right to kill one's son served mainly as a symbol of the importance of paternal authority - you weren't actually supposed to do it.
Gellius tells us that Greek and Roman philosophers often used to discuss whether it was right that a son must obey his father's orders "always and in all things" ("semper inque omnibus"). He reports that three opinions were current:
1. A father must be obeyed in all matters.
2. A father must be obeyed in some matters, but not in others.
3. A father need not be obeyed in any matter.
Gellius quickly dismisses option 1. What, he asks, if a father should order something unconscionable? He gives the examples of "treachery to the fatherland" ("proditionem patriae") and "the murder of one's mother" ("matris necem"). Interestingly, both of these examples involve violating a bond of loyalty. It seems that the only thing worse than violating the bond of loyalty to one's father was violating another bond of loyalty in an even more heinous way. In similar vein, elsewhere in the chapter Gellius gives us instances of observing bonds of loyalty as examples of good conduct: "keeping faith, defending the fatherland and loving one's friends" ("ut fidem colere, patriam defendere, ut amicos diligere"). This all illustrates the importance of relationships of loyalty in Roman society, and the duty of obedience that often went with it.
It is worth noting that option 1 would not have been considered as extreme as it seems today. The historian Tacitus reports that the Emperor Tiberius pardoned the son of the disgraced politician Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso from charges relating to waging civil war "on the grounds that a son could not refuse a father's orders" (Annals 3.17).
Option 3 initially seems surprising. Gellius calls it "infamis", disgraceful. The theory behind it was that any order of a father must be either good or bad. If it is bad, the son ought not to obey it. If it is good, the son ought to do the thing ordered in any case for its own sake, and not by reason of it being ordered by the father. As Gellius points out, however, this dichotomy leaves out a third class of actions which are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. In such actions, says Gellius, a father ought to be obeyed, "as, for instance, if he orders his son to marry a wife or to speak for defendants in lawsuits" ("veluti si uxorem ducere imperet aut causas pro reis dicere"). This does not apply, adds Gellius, if the wife-to-be is a woman of ill repute or the defendant is a notorious villain.
This leaves option 2. Gellius takes the view that unconscionable orders can be disobeyed, but only "gently and modestly". They should be "left undone [relinquenda] rather than rejected [respuenda]".