Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.05


Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 279, 24 plates. ISBN 0-8018-4199-2 (hb). $38.50. ISBN 0-8018-4200-X (pb). $13.95.


Reviewed by Laura Abrahamsen, Bryn Mawr College.

In The Roman Family, Suzanne Dixon has produced a useful overview of the basic functions and expectations Romans associated with familial roles. She has clearly written the book for the non-specialist as well as the specialist; the in-text quotations are in translation, with the Latin in the notes; she also appends a "Chronological Guide to Roman History". The subject of each chapter could conceivably fill a volume of its own (or more), but that is precisely this book's great value. It is an excellent general volume to use as an introduction to the subject. At the same time, The Roman Family is not merely for the non-specialist. It is solid scholarship, with an up-to-date bibliography and notes providing all the information a specialist would seek on any particular point.

The work is organized into six chapters, each treating a different aspect of family life. As in her 1988 work, The Roman Mother, Dixon begins with a survey of the scholarship on the Roman family. Her reading is broad; among others, she cites the demographic work of Saller and Shaw as "virtually dissolv[ing] the image of the three-generation agnatic household with a tyrannical patriarch at its head" (6). She is also keen to utilize conceptual work being done by historians of the family in other periods and apply it to Roman family studies. It is one of her central theses that the Victorian notion of the family as "haven in a heartless world" can also be found in the literary evidence of the Late Republic. Her second chapter gives an overview of Roman law regarding the family; and then in chapters III-V Dixon follows the chronological development of a family: Marriage, Children, and the "Family through the Life Cycle". The sixth chapter offers general conclusions. Each chapter contains several sub-headings treating a particular aspect of the topic.

The second chapter, "Roman Family Relations and the Law", examines the discrepancies between the picture of family relationships as portrayed in the legal texts and what we know to be actual practice. She concentrates her discussion on five areas of law: the concept of patria potestas, inheritance law, marriage and dowry law, legal treatment of slave and soldier families, and the legal obligations derived from the notion of pietas, noting the development of praetorian law and imperial statute as a tempering influence on ius civile.

It is in the chapter on "Marriage" that Dixon's usually solid arguments become weaker. She joins Susan Treggiari (Roman Marriage, 1991; see BMCR 3.3 1992) in disagreeing with the "emotionally unrewarding" view of Roman matrimony recently espoused by Paul Veyne, among others, but some of her evidence is suspect. In the section entitled, "Inside Roman Marriage: Feelings between husband and wife", she cites Cicero's four letters to Terentia from exile (Ad fam. 14.1-4) to illustrate the extent of devotion and tenderness between husband and wife. Cicero's superlatives and poetic vocatives are certainly affectionate. Indeed, the letters from exile stand out in their amorous vocabulary in comparison with the 20 other surviving letters from Cicero to Terentia. Dixon's comparable example, Ovid's verse epistles from Tomis to his wife, suffer from the same contextual problem. Neither example offers an everyday expression of marital warmth. Both men were relying on their wives to support their best interests back in Rome and to supply them with news and information. Perhaps it is too cynical to suggest that Cicero had to cultivate Terentia just as any other political ally, but the circumstances of these letters were nonetheless extraordinary.

To compound the problem, we have no first-hand literary expressions of affection from wives to living husbands -- unless one assumes, as Dixon does, that Sulpicia's love poetry is addressed to a husband. Dixon revives this quaint Victorian notion in reference to the literary conventions of passion used by married authors, (86-87). Such a statement is untenable in light of the first poem's thematic emphasis on fama and pudor, let alone the second poem's assertion that Messalla forced her to spend her birthday apart from Cerinthus. Sulpicia's poetry is simply not evidence for conjugal affection, and it is unfortunate that Dixon cites it as such.

Dixon is right in her cautious assessment of epitaphs as evidence of conjugal affection because of their conventional nature; her caution should extend to emotions expressed by husbands to or about wives. We are limited in our ability to get "inside" the emotions of Roman marriage. We lack half the picture, and the sources we do have are either written under extraordinary conditions, or are products of conscious literary intention. I agree with her that the evidence for marital satisfaction does exist, but it is one-sided at best. We can safely say only that a number of Roman men were satisfied with their wives.

Dixon's chapter on "Children in the Roman Family" moves beyond the material she handled so well in The Roman Mother. New in this work, and particularly interesting, is the section on "The Function of Children in the Family". She discusses the means by which the childless could obtain for themselves some of the benefits gained by having children. Within this idea she covers legal adoption, the "co-option" of slave children and foundlings, the obligations of slaves and freedman to their masters, and the collegia formed by the poor and servile for mutual support. All of the topics have been treated separately many times, but Dixon's great contribution is juxtaposing them as strategies for dealing with childlessness.

"The Family Through the Life-Cycle" begins with a section on the religious rituals and holidays in the Roman calendar which involve the family and would occasion a gathering. Dixon also addresses familial conflict, claiming that "there is a strong literary tradition of generational conflict at Rome but a dearth of attested examples" (148). There are plenty of such stories from the historical period of the Roman Republic, e.g. C. Flaminius, (tr. pl. 232) whose father dragged him from the rostra when he promulgated his agrarian bill (Val. Max. 5.4.5); or L. Cornelius Scipio, the degenerate son of Africanus, whose relatives (propinqui) prevented him from exercising his praetorship (Val. Max. 3.5.1). These examples are not merely the stock comic conflict between senex and adulescens; that "strong literary tradition" is borne out by historical fact. Dixon is better with her analysis of conflict centered on step-relationships. It is the stepmother (noverca) who bears the brunt of hostile humor in Roman society, rather than the mother-in-law (socrus). The last section of the chapter deals with the definition of old age and the attitudes towards it.

The Roman Family is quite appropriate as a course textbook, and its organization lends itself well to topic areas for a syllabus. While some of the technical intricacies of Dixon's scholarship may daunt the non-major undergraduate, The Roman Family is still an excellent core text for a general studies course on the Roman family/Roman women. Supplemented with Gardner and Wiedemann's The Roman Household: A Sourcebook, and the pertinent sections of Lefkowitz and Fant's Women's Life in Greece and Rome, there is now enough material available for a course on Roman social history alone. No longer can we say all there is to say about "Women in the Ancient World" in a single-semester course; our knowledge, and the accessibility of that knowledge, has advanced to the point that "Ancient Women's Studies" can now separate Greek from Roman, pagan from Christian. We'll need two semesters at least.

In The Roman Family, Dixon continues to offer valuable explorations into Roman social history. Less specialized than The Roman Mother, her latest work is nonetheless a stimulating introduction to the legal, economic and emotional functions the Roman family performed for its own members and society.

The volume includes 24 black and white plates of generally excellent reproduction; only Plate 12 is too murky to illustrate adequately the point Dixon wishes to make. With its availability in soft- as well as hardcover, there is no reason why anyone interested in The Roman Family should not purchase this book.