Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.38

Michele George (ed.), The Roman Family in the Empire. Rome, Italy, and Beyond.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 0-19-926841-X.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Aglaia McClintock, Università degli Studi del Sannio (
Word count: 1603 words

Table of Contents

"The Roman Family in the Empire" is a collection of essays edited by Michele George set in the wake of the Australian conferences, begun by Beryl Rawson in 1981, that produced three volumes published in 1986, 1991 and 1997. As the editor points out in her Introduction (pp. 1-8) "quite coincidentally a number of scholars in different parts of the mainly Anglo-American world were beginning to focus on the topic of the Roman family as a distinct theme in ancient social history." This book dedicated to Beryl Rawson collects the proceedings of a fourth Conference held in Canada in 2001. George recalls as a starting point Keith Hopkins's pioneering application of demography to the ancient context and particularly the demographic study of Saller and Shaw on the Roman family. Saller and Shaw, using funerary inscriptions from Western Europe, arrived at the conclusion that the Roman family was essentially nuclear, similar to our modern family based on solidarity and affection. The editor gives an outline of some of the criticisms of this view that have been expressed. Two of the main arguments are that the Roman term familia cannot be translated as "family", but has other meanings such as "household" and that there is widespread evidence through the Roman empire territories of extended families with a more complex structure than the nuclear one. But for George, the last generation of scholarship that has focused on the component elements of family life, "rather than resolving the question of structure", has complicated it "by enhancing our understanding of the many dimensions of experience which fall within the category of 'family life', but for which the issue of structure has only minor relevance." The stated aim of the collection is to extend research beyond Italy to investigate regional diversity. The approaches of the essays vary but are very centered on criticizing, furthering or detailing the theories of Saller and Shaw. After an overview of the book's contents we will come back to these strong opening statements of the editor.

The first three contributions feature general problems. Susan Treggiari (pp. 9-35) focuses on how the idea of family was used by Cicero in his forensic works to influence judges and audience. Treggiari analyses Cicero's efforts in depicting favorable portraits of his clients with the aid of examples drawn from their private lives. She observes that these digressions of the orator concentrate on mutual affection and on the 'proper behavior' that family members should uphold. The author's conclusion is that Cicero's powers of influencing the general public are based on a common idea of mutual affection (father-daughter, son-father) among Roman social classes.

Michele George (pp. 37-66) analyses family portrait groups of the Republican and early imperial ages. Although somewhat distant in time and space these portraits reflect the image of a stereotyped family due to the desire of the emerging Italian middle class, ex-slaves from the city of Rome, and Cisalpine Gaul mixed citizens to position themselves in the mainstream culture.

How parents dealt with important issues such as the health and sickness of their children, and the fear of losing them, is discussed by Keith Bradley (pp. 67-92) surveying a large number of literary texts. Given the great infant mortality and consciousness of the inadequacy of doctors in solving medical problems, Romans--"when survival was all that mattered"--fell back on every expedient including, charms, amulets and prayers.

Judith Evan Grubbs's essay (pp. 93-128) introduces us to an ideal second part of the book centered on examining family life in the Roman world outside Italy. The author examines cases of 'improper' family conduct, namely of parent-child conflict, through the evidence of the Justinian Code focusing on the third century imperial rescripts, to try to understand to what degree the Greek east families mentioned therein fitted a Roman pattern.

Richard Alston's contribution (pp. 129-157) on the Egyptian family, by evaluating a vast array of sources (census returns, archives and private letters of the first three centuries AD) arrives at the conclusion that it is not possible to sketch a homogeneous family structure for Roman Egypt. Altson discusses endogamous marriage in Egypt as a degree of insecurity felt by family members in respect to a harsher outside world. Although families appear to have had a fairly tight-knit centre "often concentrating on a single conjugal relationship" they could extend to include others that were not kin for social and economic purposes. In some cases the author underlines that family was so extended as to dissolve into community (an aspect particularly shown by the letters).

The Jewish family in Judea from Pompey to Hadrian is analyzed by Margaret Williams (pp. 159-182). Romanization, according to the author, was mainly restricted to the elites who had the wealth to buy the Roman status symbols, and--as far as regulation was concerned--it took place in areas where the Thora was unprescriptive as in the fields of marriage arrangements and burial. Without doubt Romanization brought changes but they were superficial as the onomastic data would prove. Williams argues that "it would not have cost non-elite Jews anything to give their children Roman names," therefore if they chose not to, preferring the names used by the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty, it is evidence of their intention of maintaining a cultural identity but also of their political attitude towards Rome.

Jonathan Edmonson (pp. 183-229) investigates funerary commemoration and family relations in Lusitania. He adopts Saller and Shaw's demographic method aiming to concentrate on regional variation thanks to the great number of inscriptions that have been published after the CIL. His conclusion is that if nuclear families were predominant there were subtle variations. According to the author, where Romanization had penetrated to a lesser degree, women appear to have played a more prominent role as commemorators.

Family structure and relations in Northwest provinces are discussed by Greg Wolf (pp. 231-254) using a comparative approach given the little epigraphic and funerary evidence that can be found in these areas. Wolf, considering the seduction of Roman patriarchy with all the powers on the members of the household that it entailed, argues that it was in the interest of the adult males (of those who had Roman citizenship or desired to acquire it) "that makes it likely that many chose to organize their families in the Roman way even if they did not have to do so."

Mirelle Corbier (pp. 255-285) examines marriages between cousins in Roman Africa underlining that close-kin marriage, as well as remarriage of a widow to her husband's brother were present and permitted until the third century. It was with the Christians that this kind of union became suspicious before being prohibited.

The peculiarities of the tombstones of Pannonia are discussed by Mary T. Boatwright (pp. 287-318). The author focuses particularly on the representation of a mother nursing her infant, found on three Pannonian stelae, an image extremely rare in Roman art. Boatwright argues that this picture is less striking in Pannonian context where usually funerary art displays great emphasis on family ties in all social groups cutting across "simplistic binary oppositions of 'native' and Roman, civilian and military." The strong idealization of the nuclear family may be connected to the harsh living conditions of a region continuously exposed to war that rendered family life especially precious.

Displaying a great array of sources the book provides useful information especially on the Roman family beyond Italy, but the lack of a unitary timeframe does not help the reader to understand the peculiarities of Roman family in the empire and the differences with the Republican period. Furthermore, at first glance the sources seem to include also the legal ones. George stresses in her Introduction how Evan Grubbs "concentrates on an undervalued juridical source". But what seems to be undervalued is in general Roman family law. The legal sources used in the book are isolated in Grubbs's study and are very scarcely used in the rest of the articles. The legal debate on the family taking place in European legal history seems to be totally missing. George's opening statement that mainly the Anglo-American world focused on the Roman family making it an autonomous topic displays how auto-referential these studies appear to the European reader. There is almost no trace in the references of the German, Italian, French, and Spanish legal bibliography on the subject. It must be said that also the European legal historiography has been at times somewhat deaf to the Anglo-American world but certainly not to the same degree. But it is difficult to think that the proposed study of the Roman family in the Empire can avoid taking into consideration Michel Humbert's social and legal study on remarriage, the analysis of Augustus' legislation on marriage by T. Spagnuolo Vigorita, and the studies of E. Cantarella on sexuality, just to mention a few. I would like to end with an example of an article that could have been particularly useful to the editor and the contributors: Famiglia romana e demografia sociale (in Iura 43, pp. 99-111 published in 1995) by Eva Cantarella on the structure of the Roman familia and its consequences on family relations using a demographic, an anthropological and a legal approach. Cantarella observes that the confrontation between different disciplines and methodologies avoids us falling into over-simplifications that take us far away from the comprehension of reality. And this is valid both for the jurist who undervalues the analysis analytical instruments of society, and for the historian or the anthropologist who does not give proper consideration to the role played by law. Unfortunately the latter seems to apply in the case of this interesting book.

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