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June 08, 2005

The Evolution of Youth's Position Under the State - A Hypothesis

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

I'm still working on researching this question: What is the earliest origin of the age of majority?

My search for answers has me doing in-depth research on the laws of Rome and Greece, and has gone as far back as Mesopotamia 2000 BCE. I've finally begun to find clues for what actually happened in Greece and Rome, historically speaking... But before I get the actual details in order, I want to state my hypotheses -- to either be proved or disproved by the historical record.

It appears to me that the emergence of the age of majority -- full legal adulthood, as opposed to biological adulthood or maturity of character -- is tied to the emergence of an organized state. Thinking structurally, I see three periods that need to be addressed: (1) before kings, (2) the monarchy, and (3) the republic.


1. When agrarian societies emerge, the male head-of-households (paters) use slavery to help tend the land.

[See Aristotle's comments in "Politics" about how at its most basic, the family is composed of a man, his wife, and his servant.]

2. The slave-owning mentality permeates the society; women and children are increasingly treated like property.

[See Gerda Lerner, "The Creation of Patriarchy" for ideas about the connection between enslaving members of other tribes and the subjugation of women.]

3. Marriage is dealt with as a private contract between paters. It is essentially an exchange of human property, which creates alliances.

4. Without a strong merchant class, the land is the primary means of producing the necessities of life. Consequently, rules regarding inheritance and lines of succession are all-important within the family power structure.


1. The king's primary duty is as warlord, protecting the community from outside threats. During times of peace, this power is redirected inward, to securing the domestic peace.

2. The king establishes his rule by forging relationships with the paters. He does not interfere in the private sphere.

3. The first laws, in an attempt to create domestic peace, set out punishments for crimes against persons (e.g. homicide). Only state violence is deemed legitimate: this stabilizes relationships between paters and ends the cycle of vengeance required by blood feuds.

4. Almost simultaneously, the king creates punishments for crimes against property. Given that women, slaves, and children are largely treated as human property, this addresses rape and abduction as well as simple theft.

5. The father's right to obedience from his children is probably formalized at this point. The king essentially makes this deal: I will maintain peace in the public realm; you, paters, are responsible for policing the persons within your private home.

6. Property disputes require adjudication. As a means of preventing some disputes, the king prohibits sons from making contracts, which might later be contested. All contracts must go through the pater. (This includes marriage contracts.)

7. After the father dies, there may be disputes between siblings over inheritance of land. This leads to formalizing rules of succession. Primogeniture, by virtue of vesting power in the (presumably) next most powerful male in the family, has a synergy with the system that originally put power in the hands of the father.


1. The overthrow of the king leads to a system where paters have votes within an aristocratic parliament / congress. While there may be an executive office, the lords / senators now have significant control over government.

[Incidentally, the power of the old families begins to come into conflict with newer families. Consider the conflict between the patricians and the plebeians in Rome.]

2. The bureaucratic apparatus of the state begins to use numerical age as a qualification for holding public office.

[Look at Aristotle's Greek Constitution.]

3. Conscription of sons into the military leads to an expansion of voting rights to individuals, not just senatorial paters. The armed forces constitute a threat that concessions must be made to.

4. For females, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is (and has been) marked by marriage. Eventually, marriage becomes a status conferred by state authorities, rather than a private contract.

[How does this serve the needs of the state? Is it purely a concession to organized religion?]

5. For males, the ability to hold public office creates a tension with the power of the father. This increasingly leads to individual rights based on attaining the age of majority, instead of legal invisibility under the control of the father.

Posted by Sven at June 8, 2005 12:00 PM


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