Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.03


K. R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pp. xii, 216. ISBN 0-19-505857-7.


Reviewed by Christina S. Kraus, New York University.

Keith Bradley's collection of essays is part of a recent spate of interest in all facets of private life, especially the family. B[radley] himself has been a major contributor to the study of ancient social history, and in Discovering the Roman Family he has revised and collected six of his earlier papers and added a seventh, a study of Cicero's family. He argues against a recent trend that assumes that the Roman family, mutatis mutandis, was essentially like our own (i.e., contemporary Western) nuclear family. As B. freely admits (p. 5), these essays ultimately stem from an interest not in the ancient familia but in the history of Roman slavery. Yet the collection focuses primarily neither on slaves nor (really) on the family, but on children -- their caretakers, their own responsibilities, and their responses to the familial environment that B. reconstructs. Though the book is perhaps mistitled, B. demonstrates, via studies considering evidence that ranges from 200 B.C.E. to C.E. 200, that the Roman familia was not a monolithic entity but one whose components and defining characteristics shifted repeatedly.

The first four essays investigate specific problems in the history of childhood. In each B. is also interested in social class, and determines that virtually all of the "child minders" studied are of servile or near-servile status. The methodology is familiar from B.'s other work (e.g., the chapter on "The Slave Family" in Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire, which addresses similar issues): starting from a scrupulously defined question, B. presents and analyzes a table of epigraphical evidence (accompanied by notes). The final sections of each piece move into broader areas: literary evidence, socio-political considerations, etc. As well as allowing for the fragmentary and haphazard nature of the evidence B. presents his more general conclusions extremely tentatively -- too tentatively at times, as his arguments are generally persuasive.

"The Social Role of the Nurse in the Roman World" is a pendant to B.'s piece in B. Rawson, et al., The Family in Ancient Rome (Ithaca 1986), on wet-nursing in Rome. He now turns to the nutrices attested in Latin inscriptions from Italy and the provinces. These lower-class wet-nurses clearly formed close bonds with their charges, who could be senatorial or servile: dedications to nutrices by grown nurslings imply that the relationship often continued well after the wet-nurse's primary function had ended. This, coupled with epigraphical and literary indications that a wet-nurse was "a very common figure" (p. 13), leads to the more general question of the significance these women had in the familia as a social unit. B.'s conclusion -- that their presence "is a firm indication that the Roman sense of family was much more diffuse than the narrow conception that dominates the modern Western tradition" (p. 28) -- will recur throughout the book.

"Child Care at Rome: The Role of Men" investigates the men described in (primarily Roman) epigraphical and literary texts as nutritores, educatores, and paedagogi to determine their social status, the nature of their work, and the effect on children of this "obtrusive presence of the child minders" (p. 60). Their role evidently ranged from simple babysitting to moral education; B. identifies "protectiveness" as the pedagogue's principal task. Like the nutrices, the male child minders established bonds with their charges that reached into the latters' maturity; despite occasional stories of abuse and neglect, both relationships, in B.'s view, could supply a stability lacking in the immediate family (he here anticipates some of the conclusions of Chapters 6 and 7). B. further suggests, in a rare synthesizing observations, that an aristocratic nursling's emotional attachment to a child minder compensated for the older man's economic and social dependence (p. 61).

"Tatae and Mammae in the Roman Family" attempts to determine what these vexed nicknames really meant, and why they are attested only in lower-class contexts (extra-Roman evidence is presented, but not analyzed, on pp. 101-102). While the words are some times affectionately used of a child's biological parents or of the child minders otherwise described as nutritores and nutrices, they designate a larger category of people whose relationship to a child was not functional but personal (p. 89), "a natural consequence of [a] preexisting social or emotional link with the child" -- rather like American "courtesy" aunts and uncles. Together with the child's biological parents, these figures formed a "parental community" in what B. aptly calls a "collaborative style" of child rearing (p. 90). This makes particularly good sense given the flexibility of the physical boundaries both of the slave-quarters in an aristocratic house and of the insulae, where a room of one's own -- or even of one's family's own -- was unheard of.

"Child Labor in the Roman World" considers 30 apprenticeship documents from Roman Egypt dating from 18 B.C.E. through s. III C.E. All the apprentices are of lower-class status, including some freeborn males (no ingenuae at all, implying that they, like the daughters of aristocratic families, were raised for domestic work, p. 108). This chapter is less satisfactory. It seems a foregone conclusion that lower-class children would have a worse time of it than e.g., Cicero's son (B.'s introductory case study), yet B. returns to this point more than once (pp. 111-12, 118-19). Though aristocratic children enjoyed economic freedom, and certainly did not have to go to work as goldsmiths or dressers before the age of nine (CIL 6.9213, 9731), the weight of mos maiorum must have produced the same pressure in upper-class lives that B. identifies in the children of slaves (pp. 108-109). Moreover, some aristocratic teenagers did enter into a kind of apprenticeship. The Republican system of aristocratic apprenticeship to an orator (Cic., pro Cael. 9, Tac. Dial. 34, Quint. 12.11.5) is a possible comparandum to the training that B. discusses here. The last section, on the responsibilities of children to their parents, raises more interesting issues, though here, too, one feels poised on the edge of something that is never fully discussed.

B. continues his attack on the nuclear family in "Dislocation in the Roman Family" and "Remarriage and the Structure of the Upper-Class Family at Rome," which focus on the "mother-father children triad." These essays also have children as their emotional center. In chapter 6, B. again argues that child minders provided the real stability in families whose boundaries were constantly shifting and in which marriage for love was considered socially deviant (p. 127; the households of Sulla, Antonius, and A. Cluentius are examined). Chapter 7 considers one aspect of the dislocated family, viz., the divorce and re-marriage rate among the consuls of 80-50 B.C.E. Remarriage, he argues, occurred in nearly 50% of "the families created by the consuls' marriages" ( p. 160). Any given marriage, therefore, might bring together children from several previous unions, each of whom also had ties to the domus of their biological mother. By way of illustration, B. offers the marriage history of Pompeius Magnus. Given this demonstrably high degree of mobility, "the upper-class Roman family certainly has to be regarded as a dynamic entity, but one that in its life course had little regularity of shape" (p. 171).

In "A Roman Family" B. turns from epigraphical to epistolographical evidence, using Cicero's letters "as a guide to ... laying bare something of the essence of the Roman family" (p.178). Though his methodology is essentially unchanged, the nature of the material allows B. to address more general topics, including Cicero's views on what a family consists of and where familial affections lie; Marcus' and Quintus' attitudes toward each other's children, whose rearing they shared -- though Cicero, unsurprisingly, gave the lion's share of the advice; the troubled marriage of Quintus and Atticus' sister Pomponia. B. sees a slightly more positive picture here: despite the evidence heaped up in the previous pages that familial dislocation and the use of non-parental primary caretakers were the norm on all levels of society, the Cicero "family community" was typical in its strength: "the bonds [between various pairs in the family] remained discrete, separate threads in a densely and extensively woven fabric; and it was the fabric as a totality that dominated the Roman familial mind" (p. 201).

B. convincingly maintains that the Roman familia was different from the contemporary Western nuclear family. One should expect it to be. Yet the view that familia = "nuclear family" is not as monolithic as B. assumes; Rawson (Family p.5, cf. 31-37 on "Broken Families") clearly distinguishes between the ancient "reproductive unit" (to use B.'s phrase) and the familia, as does Wiedemann (CR 1987, 66, and cf. the texts cited in J. F. Gardner and T. Wiedemann, The Roman Household: A Sourcebook [London 1991], 1-29). More importantly, by opposing the familia to the family B. introduces complications of two distinct kinds into his call of clarity. First his characterization of the modern family is -- to me at least -- overly sentimental. His ideal picture of modern marriage (p. 6) takes no account of the stunning number of single-parent households, while the "divorce revolution" is mentioned only once at the very end (pp. 170-71). Though romantic love has certainly not fallen out of fashion, would it really seem that odd (p. 7) to describe a successful modern marriage as being full of concordia? The characterization of the modern family as a "narrow, almost exclusive social entity" (p. 89) ignores economic and class distinctions: even in late 20th-century North America some children are raised primarily by child minders, while others live in extended multi-generational families. Finally, the "binuclear family," which bears a strong resemblance to B's aristocratic Roman familiae, is now receiving a lot of attention. Models are necessarily simpler than reality, and B.'s model has the virtue of being clear and straightforward. The real problem is that it may encourage him to view negatively elements of the Roman family that are only negative in comparison to our own -- or B.'s own -- view of a modern family. If, for instance, there was no expectation that a familia would be unified and compact, would the "dislocation" of aristocratic families necessarily have had the negative effect on children that B. presumes? In the final section of Chapter 2 B. asks whether the habit of wet-nursing was symptomatic of parental indifference to children perhaps connected to the high infant mortality rates. His cautious conclusion that "[wet-]nursing implies a general disruption of contact between parent and child, and it seems plausible that physical distancing was matched by emotional distancing" (p.29) is prima facie unobjectionable. But social practice and accepted norms are important in evaluating such questions. If, as B. demonstrates, child minders were common and accepted figures in the Roman familia, then our own attitudes toward proper or reasonable closeness between parent and child may be essentially irrelevant (on the issues see most recently S. Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages [London 1991] and the discussion by M. Keen in NYRB 13, June 1991, 42-5).

Given B.'s attention to detail -- the volume is almost preternaturally well proofread -- it is surprising that the presentation of the epigraphical evidence is sometimes hard to follow. B. provides the text of many of the relevant inscriptions in the footnotes to Chapter 4 but not in Chapters 2 and 3, where it would have been useful; in the apparently identically arranged Tables 4.1 (tatae) and 4.2 (mammae) the designations of columns 4/5 and 6/7 are reversed, which is confusing. On p. 29 B. assumes that Cicero's remarks at TD 1.93 on the death of young children reflect his own belief, but characterizes as theoretical his discussion in the De Officiis on the primacy of immediate family ties (p. 130). This seems to be a matter of selective interpretation. Near the bottom of p. 182 "the younger Cicero" should be "the younger Quintus"; I am not sure what "safely controversial" (p. 201) means. There is inevitable overlap of material from chapter to chapter and the Index is not always helpful in cross-referencing these discussions. S.v. concordia, e.g., B. indexes only pp. 6-8, but treats it also at 128-29; on "children, fondness for" add 28-9, 56-60, 105, etc. In general, the Index seems half-hearted (can any work on the familia that includes a detailed discussion of the pro Cluentio resist an entry for "visits, with relatives, safety measures for"?). The bibliography, while not exhaustive, is useful and up-to-date, though in a list that includes works up to 1987 one might expect a reference to P. Veyne, ed., Histoire de la Vie Privee (Paris, 1985; English translation Cambridge, Ma. 1987); the chapter by Y. Thebert on "Private Life and Domestic Architecture in Roman Africa" is relevant to B.'s discussion on pp. 90-3, while Veyne's section on labor (pp. 117 -37) offers an interesting corollary to the Egyptian apprentice records. One misses as well a reference to the work of P. Aries, though B. cites the "modern debate" on attitudes toward children (p. 32 n. 46). But these are quibbles about a collection that makes an interesting and useful contribution to ancient social history.