Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.42

Kristine Bøggild Johannsen​, Jane Hjarl Petersen (ed.), Family Lives: Aspects of Life and Death in Ancient Families. Acta hyperborea, 15.   Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, 2019.  Pp. 341.  ISBN 9788763546393.  $61.00.  

Reviewed by Ada Nifosi, University of Kent (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book Family Lives: Aspects of Life and Death in Ancient Families is the joint effort of a group of scholars from Nordic countries and originated with the seminar Families in the Ancient World, organised by the Danish Research Network Collegium Hyperboreum in 2015. The contributions to this volume are mostly related to the family: there are various discussions about the status of individuals within their family groups, personal relationships among family members, and family participation in religious and funerary rituals. Although the use of terms such as ‘ancient world’ or ‘ancient families’ suggests a broad cultural focus, it is clear from the contributions that the scope of the book is very much the Greco-Roman world, with a majority of papers on classical Greece and early imperial Rome. The fourteen contributions are divided into sections “according to their geographical and cultural adherence:” there are two long sections on ‘Greece’ and ‘Etruria and Rome’ respectively, and two shorter sections entitled ‘Beyond Rome’ and ‘Forum.’ The subdivision of the first three sections allows the editors to group together papers on very different themes, such as family economy, domestic religion, social status, age and gender, within the same geographical and cultural areas. A subdivision that is both geographical and cultural may not look entirely convincing for areas such as Etruria, which could be geographically and culturally paired with Rome but has strong links with Greek culture as well. Also, the section ‘Beyond Rome’ for papers on Palmyra and Greco-Roman Egypt works only if the title is intended in a geographical sense, but putting them together as a cultural grouping might suggest a Rome-centric bias. Finally, the section entitled ‘Forum’ presents two contributions on the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen that are not related to the family in the ancient world.

The introduction clearly explains the scope and limits of the book and summarises each contribution in detail, which is extremely helpful for the reader. However, more could have been done in this first chapter to introduce and discuss the themes of the book, particularly considering the absence of conclusive remarks at the end of the book. Readers might wonder which common themes brought this particular group of authors together in the first place, and which conclusions were reached at the seminar in 2015. In particular, the reader looks in vain for a definition of ‘family:’ what do the different authors mean by ‘family?’ How can one compare Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Syrian and Egyptian families? Indeed, several common ‘big themes’ could have been emphasised. For instance, the social and religious role of funerary attendants is discussed in the contribution on Greek prosthesis by Birgitta Leppänen Sjöberg and in the paper on Etruscan funerary reliefs by Liv Carøe. At least two contributions examine the status of respectable Roman women and its representation in literature and iconography. Erika Lindgren Liljenstolpe describes Roman women’s amateur musical skills as an example of respectable activity celebrated by fathers and husbands, while Bjare Purup notices that representations of young women on Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits were more frequent than those of other gender and age groupings. Other contributions focus on the status of men in relation to their family. Contributions on ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Syrian households observe the dynamics of male-dominated family hierarchies. Particularly interesting is Niels Bargfeldt’s discussion of how Roman navy soldiers maintained a relationship with distant family members. Lisa Hagelin moves away from family relationships to discuss the status of Roman men in more ideal terms: masculine virtus was related to social status and not just wealth, and therefore it was only achievable by freeborn men.

Besides discussing many common themes, the authors of another group of excellent contributions also use similar terminology in slightly different ways, and it is not clear whether they would agree with each other. In the section on ‘Greece,’ for instance, Jens Krasilnikoff defines the Athenian oikos as a working community primarily engaged with agriculture, while Synnøve des Bouvrie presents the Greek oikos in a more ‘traditional’ way as the family household. Also, it would be interesting to know why the introduction chooses to translate the word oikos into domus.

One fine quality of this book is the authors’ multidisciplinary approach to the topic of ancient family. Despite their common provenance from Nordic institutions, this group of archaeologists, classicists and historians uses varying sources and methodologies to demonstrate their arguments with interesting and refreshing results. The papers that deal with issues related to age and gender build on theoretical scholarship, and their authors make the effort to consider all relevant studies without losing sight of their own arguments. The papers concerned with material culture and iconography are based on a well-defined body of evidence: when the focus is on a small number of objects, the studies combine in-depth analysis of the specific materials with broader comparisons; when the body of evidence is larger, the studies use well-presented statistical data and tables. Only a few papers are either too descriptive or push their arguments beyond credibility based on the available evidence. However, despite the variable quality of the arguments, all the contributions are clearly written and present the materials in an original fashion.

The format of this edited book is more thematically homogeneous than a collection of conference proceedings, but its lack of thematic sections means that it is not (and does not intend to be) a companion, so readers should really not expect it to fulfill the same functions as Beryl Rawson’s A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Wiley-Blackwell 2010. The contributions all focus on various aspects, more or less loosely related, to the central theme of family, and this is the reason why the editors chose the subtitle Aspects of Life and Death in Ancient Families. One of the greatest advantages of this choice is that the authors were not asked to adapt their interests to a common theme and were allowed to write extensive (often up to 30 pages long) original contributions based on their current research. The result is that many contributions have the same quality as a good journal article, and some are even of ground-breaking importance. Some of the best works are from early career researchers, and the visibility afforded by this book will no doubt benefit their future careers.

The appearance of the book is very good overall, although a few photos are not of acceptable quality, and some of the captions should have been justified. More importantly though, none of the contributions presents any formal or factual errors. Even when arguments are brought slightly too far for the evidence available, no statements are blatantly wrong. The proof-reading and proof-editing were extremely rigorous: although the contributions were all written by non-native speakers, the English was excellent and I could not find any typos.

This book brings new excellent contributions to the study of the family in the ancient world and should be welcomed as an important updateto this field. While the absence of an in-depth critical discussion of the book’s topics is notable, the significant themes nevertheless emerge clearly from the contributions. Also, most readers will probably ‘cherry-pick’ the contributions according to their research interests, so they will not pay much attention to this aspect. I have no doubt that these studies will be inspiring and thought-provoking for many.

Authors and titles

Jens Krasilnikoff, The farming Oikos as place: reflections on economy, social interaction and gender in Classical Attica.
Synnøve des Bouvrie, Family disaster on stage: polis orchestration of Greek tragedy.
Sanne Hoffmann, Terracotta figurines as votive offerings for both the individual and the family.
Birgitta Leppänen Sjöberg, The prothesis: a ritualized construction of everyday social space in Ancient Greek society.
Anna Sofie S. Ahlén, Children in Etruscan funeral iconography: representations of families on urns, sarcophagi and in wall paintings.
Liv Carøe, Human or divine?: a new interpretation of a female image on the lid of Velthur Partunu's sarcophagus.
Niels Bargfeldt, Almost invisible: the familes of the marines stationed in Rome.
Lisa Hagelin, Roman freedmen and virtus: constructing masculinity in the public sphere.
Erika Lindgren Liljenstolpe, Women's music-making in the Roman family context: an expression of social status.
Sanna Joska, Defining social power through family: the iconography of imperial siblinghood in 2nd century Rome.
Rubina Raja, Family matters: family constellations in Palmyrene funerary sculpture.
Bjare B. Purup, A social approach to the sex and age distribution in mummy portraits.
Christina Hildebrandt, A Roman man's best friend: an exploration of the meaning of a small dog on a funerary monument in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
Amalie Skovmøller, Painting Roman portraits: colour-coding social and cultural identities.
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