Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.02


Maurizio Bettini, Anthropology and Roman Culture. Kinship, Time, Images of the Soul. Trans. J. Van Sickle. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Pp. xiv + 335. ISBN 0-8018-4104-6. $36.95.


Reviewed by Matthew Slagter, Ursinus College.

Bettini's work consists of three distinct essays (each of several chapters) examining three different aspects of Roman culture, all of which prove both interesting and thought provoking. The first and longest is concerned with reconstructing "for the archaic Roman family the system of prevailing attitudes (p. 1)." The second examines the manner in which Romans expressed time in spatial terms. The third and shortest essay discusses the nature of the bee, moth and bat as symbols of the soul within the Roman cultural context. These three disparate essays are linked only in the sense that B. chose to examine these matters within an anthropological context and not purely from a philological or literary point of view (although a great deal of the analysis is philological).

B.'s first essay ("Uncle Me no Uncle!": Relatives in the Archaic Roman Family) examines the "particular patterns of behavior which are expected to govern the personal relationships that define one's role in the family." To achieve this goal he discusses five individuals (devoting a chapter to each): the pater, patruus (paternal uncle), avunculus (maternal uncle), matertera (maternal aunt) and amita (paternal aunt). He deals with the pater only in order to establish that the father had a harsh and distant attitude towards his children. Thus, he can contrast this ideal paternal pattern of behavior with those of the two uncles and the two aunts. It is in these four individuals that B. is most interested. In each case he undertakes a thorough examination of the available evidence for the accepted pattern of behavior as portrayed in literature, legend and historical sources. B. conclusively show s that the agnatic relatives (patruus and amita, although he quite rightly indicates that evidence concerning the latter is scarce) were expected to maintain an attitude of discipline, harshness and aloofness (i.e. reproducing the attitude of the father). In contrast the cognatic relatives (avunculus and matertera) were expected to maintain an entirely different relationship that was supposed to be warm and affectionate even to the point of indulgence.

B. clearly advances our understanding of the aristocratic Roman family and its inner workings. There are two points, however, that detract from this admirable essay. First B. gives specific treatment of the "expected pattern of behavior" of the mater. Since he contrasts the paternal side of the family with the maternal and clearly implies that the attitudes on the maternal side reflect those of the mother just as the attitudes of the paternal side reflect those of the father, the argument seems to call for an explicit examination of the maternal attitude. Second, I have strong reservations about B.'s assertions that he is reconstructing the attitudes of the "archaic" Roman family. The basis for this reconstruction seems to be a belief that the legendary stories found in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy and other sources actually reflect the conditions of the archaic period: "The time has come to look back toward the confused mass of myths and legends which conceals the history of archaic Rome (p. 22)." Although it is clearly possible that B. is correct and that the patterns of behavior which he reconstructs are indeed "archaic," it is far from certain. Even if one allows that the myths and legends are quite old, nonetheless they are quite likely to have changed over the centuries. The attitudes reflected in those stories are more likely to be the ideal attitudes of the period in which they were written down rather than those of "archaic" Rome. There are simply too many intervening years and too many significant changes in Roman society to assert that we can recover "patterns of behavior" from the archaic period. Despite these two reservations, however, B.'s first essay is quite valuable. His examination of the interrelationship of the various maternal and paternal siblings leaves the reader with a strong sense of both how a Roman child would expect his adult relatives to behave and how those relatives would see their own position.

The second essay ("The Future at Your Back": Spatial Representations of Time in Latin) examines the spatialization of time by Roman culture. B. notes (Chapter 7) that all cultures deal with time by conceptualizing it as space and (Chapter 8) that it is only within the specific cultural context that this spatialization has value. In spatial terms ante/post indicate "before" and "behind," and they continue this contrast as temporal terms: "before" and "after/then." B., noting that it is a great mistake to treat these concepts as obvious, goes on to show that when one moves from the realm of "before"/"then" to that of "past"/"future," the relationship may become reversed. Normally one looks ahead to one's future and back at one's past, but when one wishes to know the future, one has to look back to see it. It must be "behind" if it cannot be seen, whereas the past is "before/ahead" because it can be known. It is an equally important choice whether one views time as moving towards the subject or the subject as moving forward in time. One model or the other is chosen "according to whether we want to underline the active part of the subject in the temporal process or his detachment from it (p. 129)." B.'s exposition of these models leads to a fascinating discussion (Chapter 9) of the narrative use of time in the Iliad and Odyssey, which is then reversed by Virgil in the Aeneid.

In Chapter 10 B. discusses the concept of generational time and examines Virgil's use of these concepts in the procession of Aeneas' descendants in the underworld in Aeneid VI. He concludes that a unique temporal tension is created by the mingling of two spatial/temporal models: Aeneas turns around to look at his future (which follows him as he advances through time) whereas Virgil and the readers of his day look ahead at their own past coming to meet them. B. quite correctly accepts the idea that the aristocratic funeral procession was an important model for Virgil's procession. Other examples of the placing of the future "behind" and the past "in front" are discussed in Chapter 11. B. also quite conclusively shows that in a Roman social context the idea of "in front/before" has a cultural preeminence which is translated into the area of temporal relations (Chapter 12). In Chapter 13 the cultural preeminence of "before" is examined in the context of both the aristocratic stemma (a vertical model of time seen by B. as a sort of label for the imagines) and the aristocratic funeral (which he observes was the pouring out of the stemma onto the streets). By showing that the imagines preceded the bier and apparently did so in order from the earliest ancest or to the most recent, B. indicates that the funeral was a physical representation of the temporal model in which one advances into the future and ultimately to death. The procession itself served as a visible reminder to the deceased's survivors that the family would go on (just as it had), of their place within that family and also the identity of the family itself: "One finds "high" in the stemma and "ahead" in the cortege the very reason for one's cognomen (name), the origin and meaning of his family cults, the basic characteristics, traits and politics of the clan (p. 181)."

This discussion of time is extremely interesting and extremely difficult to summarize since it covers so much ground. B. undoubtedly is correct to stress the conceptualization of time in spatial terms. It is impossible to think of a society that does not represent time as space in some fashion. It is by this unconscious spatialization that members of a given society identify in part their own place within that society, just as the members of the aristocratic family determine their place within the gens by means of the stemma and funeral. B. (Chapter 14) quite correctly concludes that it is culture itself that assigns value to time. Time itself has no inherent value, and it is the cultural value assigned to time that leads members of a society to stress its importance. His linguistic analysis of the cultural preeminence of the concepts "before" and "high" (which give such weight to the past in Roman culture) reinforces my own belief that the Romans in general were obsessed with the past and felt that the past was better than the present. Thus, it is to the past that Romans look for solutions.

I found B.'s final essay (The Bee, the Moth, and the Bat: Natural Symbols and Representations of the Soul) the least accessible, although again very interesting. In Chapter 15 B. examines the cultural typology of the bee in the ancient world (giving a very thorough examination of bugonia) and contrasts it with those of the moth and the wasp. B. concludes that the bee was the symbol of the rebirth of the just soul and that Virgil's use of bee similes made explicit use of this symbolism. B. goes on in Chapter 16 to examine the bat as the symbol of soul, concluding that the bat represents the soul in the dark, desperate underworld. B. ends this work with an examination of the Aristeaus story in Virgil's Fourth Georgic. B. shows quite clearly (and in a very entertaining manner) that the Aristaeus of Virgil is fairy-tale prince and the almost exact opposite of the culture hero and god of Greek myth. Despite Aristaeus' status as a non-culture hero in Virgil, he nevertheless accomplishes a similar function: he introduces bugonia to the world. Thus, Virgil's fairy-tale Aristaeus also introduces an important element of agriculture although in every other respect he is very dissimilar to the Aristaeus of Greek myth. Although clearly the Aristaeus story of Virgil has a great deal to do with bees, souls and rebirth (especially when one includes the story of Orpheus), B. does not draw upon his earlier analysis of the symbolism of bees to analyze this episode, treating it in what is almost a separate and distinct essay attached at the end of Part Three.

The diffuse nature of B.s subject matter, I feel, must account for his title. Only under the rubric of Roman culture can all these elements be included. Thus, it is difficult to determine a single audience for whom this book might be valuable. As a historian I found B.'s first essay quite useful. His exposition of the interrelationships within the aristocratic Roman family can usefully be applied to the political history of the late Republic. The second essay led me to consider in a much more explicit manner how Romans conceptualized time. The final essay should prove interesting to those literary critics who are concerned with symbolism in ancient literature. The work as a whole offers a useful introduction to any scholar interested in how anthropology may be combined with traditional philology. In the Preface B. remarks: "Despite the difficulties, however, I willingly undertook this work. If it also gets read willingly, something will have been gained." For my part I must say that I quite willingly read this book and gained a better understanding of several aspects of Roman culture. B. has done an admirable job of making anthropology accessible to the non-anthropologist without the excessive jargon that can so often mar anthropological works. The investment of the reader's time can result in a significant gain.