Mos maiorum – 'doing the right thing' in ancient Rome

Unwritten codes of behaviour, maintaining standards, behaving ‘properly’ are as old as the hills, at least as old as the Seven Hills of Rome.

The  mos maiorum, loosely translated as ‘ancestral custom’ was the unwritten code of ancient Rome. It included time-honoured principles, behavioural models and social practices that affected every aspect of life in ancient Rome – private, political, and military. It didn’t need explaining except to barbarians.

Of course, written law was the basis of Roman legal practice and jurisprudence, but mos maiorum was what everybody fell back on in cases of doubt or tie break, or if an orator wanted to call on core traditional Roman practice to clinch his argument. By its very nature, it was the core concept of Roman traditionalism and I suspect much eye-rolling went on by the younger generation when it was quoted at them by the older. However, going against the mos maiorum could be tricky as it was the social glue of Rome and beloved of the older generation who usually held the political and economic power in public and social power in the private sphere of the home.

Family and society
The Roman term familia is better translated as ‘household’ as it included every person attached to the owner’s family from the head of household to the youngest slave. Reflecting the patriarchal society itself, the head of a Roman household, the pater familias, was the senior male. The family hierarchy was traditional and self-perpetuating, supported by and supporting the mos maiorum. The pater familias held absolute authority over his familia including the power of death and the legal right to sell any member of his household including his own children. The familia was an autonomous unit within society and a model for the social order. However, the pater familias was expected to exercise this power with moderation and to act responsibly on behalf of his family. The risk and pressure of social censure if he failed to live up to expectations was also a form of mos. Sanctions did evolve for mistreatment of slaves as the empire grew and women gained more rights and protections, particularly in the third and fourth centuries AD.

The patron/client relationship
The defining social relationship of ancient Rome was that between patron and client. In basic terms, a patron was a person of wealth and influence for whom the client did favours and supported, especially in elections. In turn, the patron would protect the client and hand out commissions, hopefully lucrative. A client might ask the patron for assistance with seeking redress or for advancement of a family member or himself. Having an influential patron enhanced the client’s status. Both words mean different things today, but there are still echoes such as when a distinguished person becomes the patron of a charity and lends that charity status and ‘pulling power’ with the media.

Although the obligations of this ancient relationship were mutual, they were also hierarchical. A patron might himself be under an obligation to someone of higher status or greater power, and a client might have more than one patron, whose interests might come into conflict. And, of course a client of one man might well be the patron of others further down the food chain. Any patron would have several or many clients who would attend upon him each morning in the hope of attracting his attention. If the familia was the basic unit underlying society, these hierarchical networks created the bonds that made a complex society possible.

Although much activity within patron-client relations related to the law courts, patronage was not itself a legal contract; the pressures to uphold one’s obligations were moral, founded on the quality of fides (trust) and, of course,the mos maiorum. Conquerors or governors sent abroad to administer Roman territories established personal ties as patron to whole communities which then might be perpetuated as a Roman family-type obligation.

Tradition and evolution
Suetonius quotes from an edict of the censors from 92 BC, ‘All new that is done contrary to the usage and the customs of our ancestors, seems not to be right.’ Yet because the mos maiorum was custom, not written law, it did evolve over time. Perhaps the ability to keep a strongly-centralised sense of identity while adapting to changing circumstances contributed to the expansion of Rome from a peninsula town to a world power.

The preservation of the mos maiorum depended on consensus and moderation among the ruling elite, but democratic politics, driven by populares (populist leaders) such as Gracchus who favoured the interests of the plebs (plebians), potentially undermined the conservative principle of the mos.

Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, addressing the Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council) Silvestre David Mirys (1742-1810)

Reform was accomplished by legislation, and written law was introduced to replace what had been implied consensus. When plebeians gained access to nearly all the highest offices, the interests of plebeian families who joined the elite aligned with those of the patricians, creating Rome’s nobiles, an elite social status of nebulous definition during the Republic. The plebs and their support of popular politicians continued as a threat to the mos and elite consensus into the late Republic, as noted in the rhetoric of Cicero.

The mos maiorum could be evoked to validate social developments in the name of tradition. Following the collapse of the Roman Republic after the death of his adoptive father Julius Caesar, the ever astute Octavian disguised his radical program as piety toward the mos maiorum on his way to becoming the powerful individual, Augustus.


During the transition to the Christian Empire, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus argued that Rome’s continued prosperity and stability depended on preserving the mos maiorum.  The early Christian poet, Prudentius, dismissed this blind adherence to tradition as “the superstition of old grandpas” (superstitio veterum avorum) and inferior to the new truth of Christianity. Which brings us nicely to Roma Nova.

In a way, it’s an irony that the traditional senatorial families who left Rome in order to preserve their equally traditional religion and way of life had to abandon much of the mos maiorum fairly rapidly and adopt a radical solution in order to survive. Roma Novan basic tenets and laws were written in a new Twelve Tables of law which evolved over the centuries, yet cultural and guiding aspects of the mos maiorum remained. Service to the state, the family as basic social and economic unit, interdependency, ‘doing the right thing’ and a strong belief in the Roma Novan identity and values wouldn’t seem out of place to a late Republican Roman.

RETALIO wins a 'Chill with a Book' Readers' Award

The most fearsome reviewers of your book are readers.

They are the ones who shell out their money and, more importantly, devote their precious reading hours to consuming your writing. And if they like your offering and give it a review, they have connected with and appreciated the random thoughts and wierdnesses that inhabit your mind. Can there be any better reward than that?

I was therefore delighted to learn that RETALIO had won a ‘Chill with a Book’ Readers’ Award set up by the indefatigable Pauline Barclay. Dance around the room and open the bubbly!

Here’s what they said:

A unique and thoroughly thought out alternative Roman history concept, which combined with a good plot makes this book an absorbing read.

A taut action drama ranging over politics, military and espionage, set in a plausible Roman society that has survived to the late 20th Century.

This book is fast paced, the military details are realistic and engaging. All of the characters are well developed. The ending had been building for years for the protagonist only to have an almost anticlimactic resolution. It was true to the lead character, but it left me wanting just a bit more violence towards her abuser? But I cannot fault the writing – excellent and gripping.

All I can say, in a slightly choked voice, is “Tibi maxima gratias Paulina!”

Where you can buy RETALIO


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

100 years of women at war (in uniform)

Alison in the 1980s

It’s been a hundred years since women were allowed(!) to join the armed forces in the UK. I was very proud of serving my six years and doing all sorts of exciting and interesting things!

Of course, women have been attached to or even commanded armies and navies in historic times since at least the ancient Greeks. Some women war leaders have defeated the best armies in the world at least on one occasion (Looking at you, Boudicca, Artemesia of Caria, Lakshmibai, Joan of Arc) but this anniversary celebrates formal integration into British uniformed services.

Back in 2014, they let us go into front line combat roles which raised a lot of interesting discussion. Of course, I blogged about it!

This is, in my eyes, a normalisation. No person willing to die for their country should be barred from any role purely on gender grounds. I served in a mixed unit with mixed education, abilities and temperaments. The esprit de corps and bonding were based on shared purpose, experience and achievements. The only criterion was ability to do the job.

A video from the BBC looking at then and now. A fresh recruit and a former sergeant, who served in World War II, discuss the changing role of women in the British army.

Photo: BBC video

And BBC’s Newsbeat met three women who served their country in very different times.

‘We served our country, 70 years apart’ (Photo: BBC)

I raise a glass to all these women and to those currently serving.

For the girls (sorry, chaps) – do you have any memories of uniformed service in the military?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Sex and marriage in Roma Nova

Author photo, Venus and Mars, House of Mars And Venus, Pompeii, Naples Museum

Well, yes to sex – they are Romans – but not so much marriage, more informal family arrangements.

Marriage in the majority of cultures has meant one man and one woman, with the woman leaving her father’s family and joining the man’s family, often taking his name. Her property rights would, until recently, be transferred from her father to the new husband, the head of household; in law and practice she would be regarded as an adjunct to the husband. Organised religion reinforced this, often fiercely, sometimes punitively. This is not a political statement, just fact through most of history.

In Roma Novan society there has never been any automatic right of men taking precedence. Indeed, although basically egalitarian it’s tilted the other way with women leading. They inherit first, they choose their sexual and marriage partners, and their children belong to the women’s families.

How has this happened?

Firstly, as Roma Novans were steadfast pagans from AD 395, worshipping the traditional Roman goddesses and gods, no incursion of paternalistic monotheistic religions was permitted despite strong efforts by the early Christians and later Ottomans.

Secondly, in the early history of the Colonia Apuliensis Roma Nova in the fraught period of the late 4th and early 5th centuries men of all ages took up their traditional role and defended the borders  Attackers who succeeded in reaching  the  mountain valleys of Roma Nova met the ferocious, well trained and disciplined troops, to their cost.

Photo courtesy of Britannia

But soon young women had to fight with the men to protect the colonia. It was purely a matter of numbers; there were not enough men to patrol, fight and defend Roma Nova, so daughters and sisters had to strap on armour and heft a gladius alongside their fathers and brothers. Such defence was needed for centuries, particularly during the Great Migrations of peoples across Europe. Fighting danger side-by-side with their menfolk reinforced women’s status and roles and they never looked back.

Thirdly, as men and young women were away most of the time, older women worked in the fields, or as artisans and conducted trade.They adjudicated family squabbles, negotiated marriages and ensured their children of both sexes were literate and physically fit. They spoke at public meetings, represented their families and neighbourhood groups and formed trading alliances. In practical terms, they developed social, economic and political networks to keep the small country functioning.

Lastly, founder Apulius had four strong daughters born and bred by Julia Bacausa, a Celtic chief’s daughter from Noricum where women managed property, took decisions in the political process and, when necessary, hefted a blade. Julia’s hair burned bright red; so did her spirit and temper.

But where did all this history and fighting leave Roma Novan women?
The families and households of Romans who trekked out of Italy to found the new colony only numbered around four hundred so marriage partnerships were inherently tricky. Many ties and links already bound the twelve senatorial families who made up the bulk of the population. Senior women in each family started keeping precise records so that a girl didn’t marry her half-brother, nephew, uncle or double cousin. Whatever past emperors had done, these traditional patricians, even though transformed into materially poor pioneers, couldn’t stomach that idea.

Roma Nova desperately needed children to increase the new settlement’s population, a priority encountered by all new colonies. The only way to widen the gene pool (although it wasn’t called that for many centuries), was for Roman women to take foreign partners. Anxious to maintain its society’s essential Roman-ness, or romanitas, the new council allowed women to dispense with formal marriage, even to the extent of temporary liaisons. If foreign partners wished to stay in Roma Nova and become part of the community, then well and good.

Ancient Romans regarded sex and fertility differently from later civilisations and were an immensely practical people who used marriage (and divorce) as an economic and political tool rather than an emotional tie. However, many stories of devotion between spouses are obvious from Ancient Roman funerary monuments and historical accounts.

Detail from 2nd century sarcophagus © Trustees of the British Museum

Detail from 2nd century sarcophagus © Trustees of the British Museum

In Roma Nova, Apulius’s daughters led the way, although the eldest, Galla, did marry in the traditional Roman way and stayed faithful to her husband to his death. Her sisters not so. This freedom was accepted because of the need for children. Moreover, the older women who were now running the families supported these arrangements. Their council agreed that families would be the mainstay of their new society, but that women would head them as they had done in practice since the start of the new colony.

Apulius was the first and last imperator, or emperor, of Roma Nova. His eldest daughter, Galla, succeeded him as imperatrix and as a gesture to his status as founder kept his name. Descent and property transfer went through the female line from that point on. As Galla Apulia remarked, “You always know who a child’s mother is. The father is not always obvious.”

Of course, there were protests, even the occasional case of fathers slitting a daughter’s throat before allowing such an arrangement, but the punishment was harsh – execution. Other female children in the affected family were placed under the protection of the Twelve Families Council, the group supporting the ruling Apulians.

Children were and are treasured in Roma Nova and their care prioritised, unlike in some other countries. Roma Nova’s collective nightmare is not only losing the children they love but their society collapsing through lack of population. Rape of both women and men, and violence against children, are severely punished. If the parents separate, then the mother has to make provision for the children. If married, women pay a statutory divorce settlement to their ex-husband.

Outsiders were bewildered and sometimes angered over the succeeding centuries by having to  deal with women as war leaders, counsellors and ambassadors. In my story for the anthology about alternative outcomes of the Norman Conquest, 1066 Turned Upside Down, a Roma Novan counsellor with her own problems at home is sent to stop William of Normandy and is met by anger, admiration and scorn in equal amounts, although she does find love.

By the time of Aurelia as a young woman in the late 1960s and Carina in the 2010s, the rest of the world has nearly caught up with the idea of more open relationships. Nevertheless, in INCEPTIO Carina, still Karen, brought up in the patriarchal society of the Eastern United States, feels deceived by Conrad’s lack of honesty about his relationship with Silvia:

[Conrad speaks to Karen] ‘It was a families’ arrangement. She needed children, heirs. Her husband was infertile from the cancer. He’d died a couple of years before and she couldn’t face another marriage.’ He shrugged. ‘Lots of families make arrangements like that. It’s normal for us. Despite Caius Tellus’s treachery, the imperatrix trusted the Tellus family.’ His voice dropped. ‘I thought it would be so foreign to you.’ He paused, his face drained. ‘I thought you would be repelled.’

By PERFIDITAS, six years later, Carina is far more integrated in Roma Nova values and culture and faces an emotional and sexual dilemma of her own. While she is attempting to sort out her own feelings and wishes, Conrad admits:

‘I’m not asking if you slept with him. Your choice,’ his voice rasped. I could see he hated saying that. Like he was eating funeral ash straight from the pyre. In a society that put the procreation of the tribe first and sexual fidelity low, we were an unusual pairing – we had contracted for life. But he was Roma Novan enough to concede my freedom of choice.

Aurelia, forty years before, has made an arrangement with a partner with the object of producing an heir. She is attracted to him, has fun with him, their daughter Marina is born, but they don’t marry or ‘contract’ as Roma Novans call it. When she meets her life’s love a few years later, the idea of marriage doesn’t enter her head until… But you’ll have to read RETALIO. 😉



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Lingua latina in Roma Nova


Fear not, I’m not going to write this post all in Latin, but I thought I’d make a glossary of words used in the Roma Nova novels. Some are Latin, some derived from Roman customs or functions.

You’ll only find them sprinkled here and there in the books, something novelists do to add authenticity or atmosphere. It’s a fine line how much to include; writers can become too wrapped up in their own created world and forget that not everybody is equally obsessed!

Latin Meaning Comments
 Salve! Hello  Plural, salvate!
 Vale! Goodbye, literally ‘fare well’
Macte! Well done! The first Latin Conrad ever said to Carina
Plica, Editio, Promere, Mittere File, Edit, View, Send Computerspeak
Merda! Shit!
Custos (plural custodes) Police Replaced the vigiles (singular vigilis) who had been corrupted during the Great Rebellion
Sanitas bona! Cheers! (Literally, good health!) Dexia first uses this to Carina in the Washington legation
Consiliaria (f)
Consiliarius (m)
Councillor Equivalent to a cabinet minister in the Western sense
Imagines Plaster and marble busts and masks of ancestors Often displayed in the vestibule, or hallway
Domus Mitelarum House of the Mitelae The ancestral home of the Mitela family
Senior Justiciar Rank in the custodes, equivalent to sergeant Derived linguistically from justitiarius but I changed its meaning from judge to law enforcer
Proscriptee Somebody whose civil and public rights have ben removed and whose property is forfeit. Proscription is only ordered in very serious cases. A leftover from Dictator Sulla’s time in the Republic, but no decapitations these days
Scarab Slang word for a cop Completely made up word and concept, but based on the hard-backed dung-beetle, i.e. one that processes shit.
Macellum Shopping centre/mall From the Latin for  provision market
Primipilus Senior centurion of a legion/regiment Equivalent to an RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) A tough, experienced and terrifying solder who knows everything about everybody
Novendiale A commemorative feast nine days after a funeral Derived from novem, nine
Manes The spirits of the dead As per Ancient Rome
Pluto in Tartarus! One of the strongest swearing expressions in Roma Nova (Look away now if you are of a delicate disposition.) Equivalent to ‘Fucking hell!’
Domina (f)  ‘Lady’ a form of address, from a person of lower civil rank to a higher Derives from dominus, Latin equivalent of ‘sir’ or ‘master’. Aurelia calls Silvia ‘domina‘, but Junia, Aurelia’s steward, calls Aurelia ‘domina‘.
Argentaria Prima The biggest commercial bank in Roma Nova. Handles some transactions on behalf of the state Derives from argentaria, a banking house, sometimes a silver mine. Prima means first
Nuncia (f),
nuncio (m)
Equivalent of ambassador who heads up a Roma Novan overseas legation. Nuncia literally means ‘she who conveys messages’.  Roma Novan embassies are called legations. It sounds more Latin than ’embassy’.

For  some official and legal terms and institutions comparing Ancient Rome with Roma Nova, have a look at this post.

The words in the table above are just a few plucked out of the six books. Do let me know if there are any others you’d like me to add to the list.


RETALIO London launch!

Left to right: Catriona Troth, me, Jessica Bell, JJ Marsh, Gillian Hamer. Seated in front J D Smith

I was delighted when Triskele Books invited me and Jessica Bell to join them for a joint launch. Four of the five were launching books – JJ Marsh (Bad Apples), Gillian Hamer (Sacred Lake), J D Smith (The Rebel Queen) and Liza Perrat (The Silent Kookaburra). Jessica was launching her tough memoir Dear Reflection.

Triskele Books has some fearsome talent in its ranks and commands a great deal of respect in the indie publishing world and beyond. JJ Marsh’s Cold Press was an Editor’s Choice in the same edition of The Bookseller as SUCCESSIO.

The English Restaurant in Spitalfields hosted us and provided a sense of atmosphere.  Catriona Troth masterminded the author interviews, asking questions and then inviting each of us to do a short five minutes’ reading. I chose the scene from RETALIO when Aurelia is being grilled by the Roma Nova exiles about exactly how close her relationship was with the charming but ruthless Caius Tellus…

Well, we drank fizz, we met old friends and made new ones and we sold a few books. But we had fun and that’s what should happen at a book launch.

With Anita Chapman

With Anita Chapman

In full flow

In full flow

The books

The books

With critique partner Denise Barnes

With critique partner Denise Barnes

The 2016 HNS Conference reunion! With Antoine Vanner, Anita Chapman and Lorna Fergusson

The Romantic Novelists! Denise Barnes, Carol Cooper, me Talli Roland, Anita Chapman

Milling. Debbie Young, Rohan Quine, Jane Davis

General view

General view

Catriona Troth and Jessica Bell

Catriona Troth and Jessica Bell

Hooray for RETALIO!

Hooray for RETALIO!

Interviewed by Catriona Troth

Thank you so much Triskele Books and Jessica Bell for making it such a memorable day.

(Many of the photos are by Erika Bach, Anita Chapman, Jill Marsh, Jane Davis)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.