BMCR 1998.08.03

The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space

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The past twenty years have seen an explosion of work on the Roman family, and studies continue to appear at a remarkable rate. Such studies have become an integral part of attempts to understand Roman society as a whole, and have implications for the ongoing discussion of the role of the family in our modern 20th century context. The present volume is a collection of papers which stem from the third international Roman Family Seminar sponsored by the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University in 1994. As the title makes clear, this volume “explicitly and systematically moves to a study of the whole of Roman Italy” (2). It expands the boundaries of the previous volumes chronologically as well as geographically, dipping into the later Christian world of Augustine. Yet in many ways the most successful articles are those which attempt to answer questions posed by earlier work in the field, including the thorny question of sentiment in the Roman family and the use of space in the Roman house. In view of the fact that the volume presents a collection of discrete, though related, essays, I will briefly review the individual contributions before offering some overall considerations of the book.

Richard Saller (“Roman Kinship: Structure and Sentiment”) opens the collection with a twin critique of past work on the family by both anthropologists and ancient historians. He argues that Rome did not have “highly differentiated roles based on opposition of sentiments towards paternal and maternal kin, except in certain limited circumstances” (10). Rather, the notion of a dichotomy between stern paternal relatives and caring maternal relatives arose in the nineteenth century from a simplistic reading of Roman linguistic and legal terminology without sufficient concern for actual practice. As has been amply demonstrated with reference to patria potestas, one must not confuse the legal situation with actual practice, and Saller effectively argues that terms such as patruus and avunculus do not define roles within the family structure. These points lead toward the conclusion that the “relative lack of stress on kin in practical matters may be related to the fundamental Roman emphasis on bonds within the household” (31). If a given family member died early, as many obviously did, others in the family could step up and perform the necessary functions of child-rearing and estate management. The argument is more complex than there is room to sketch here, but it is solidly grounded in Roman practice and contributes significantly to the continued dismantling of outdated constructions of the Roman family.

The next four chapters (Jane Gardner: “Legal Stumbling Blocks for Lower-Class Families in Rome”; Paul Weaver: “Children of Junian Latins”; Werner Eck: “Rome and the Outside World: Senatorial Families and the World they Lived In”; and Peter Garnsey: “Sons, Slaves — and Christians”) are somewhat disappointing in that they do not appreciably extend our understanding of Roman family life. For instance, after a discussion of how it might be in a family’s interests not to constitute itself as a legal familia, Gardner concedes that “many of the problems outlined above may never have arisen for mixed-status families” (51) and that “in the ordinary life of families in Roman society, what mattered was not so much the legal status of the people involved, as whether there was anyone in whose interest it was to insist on the legalities being observed.” (53). This observation limits the value of her and Weaver’s arguments, though the latter points to the Petronia Justa archive as an instance where such legalities did matter. Similarly Eck’s study of senatorial links with towns outside Rome and Garnsey’s study of Christian terminology involving ‘sons’ and ‘slaves’, though interesting in themselves, lack direct relevance for how the Roman family operated in practice.

On the other hand, the articles by Tim Parkin and Suzanne Dixon not only push us further in studies of the family, but also serve as excellent foils for one another. Parkin (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Elderly Members of the Roman Family”) notes that in contrast to Athens, Roman law made no provision for the support of elderly parents. Whatever duties children may have had in this regard found expression in the generalized concept of pietas, whose reciprocal obligations have been the focus of recent study. Rather, the “pervading mentality that one’s lot was what one deserved” should serve as “a necessary antidote to a longstanding myth that … the elderly enjoyed a life of prestige, comfort, and respect” (139). While the article presents much useful evidence and discussion, this last conclusion is somewhat misleading. As Parkin notes (131), the explanation for Roman practice is undoubtedly to be found in the principle of patria potestas, which meant that in theory the oldest male relative controlled the family’s wealth as long as he lived. For the upper classes, such control would have provided some degree of security; even an estate diminished by emancipation and/or manumission ought to have provided enough sustenance for an elderly paterfamilias. The problems of old age would have been most severe for the lower classes and for women, but the lives of both groups were hardly characterized by prestige, comfort and respect at other stages of life either. As in many other aspects of Roman life, the system served the needs of wealthy males well, to the detriment of other segments of society.

Of course, the institution of patria potestas meant that a filiusfamilias had to wait for his father’s death before he could fully control his own affairs. Dixon (“Conflict in the Roman Family”) picks up this point by repeating her suggestion that “for all the artistic stress on generation conflict between the adolescent and the middle-aged parent, the power struggle between the middle-aged and the elderly is more serious” (153). On the whole, Dixon argues that while conflict is endemic to family life, “much of the conflict is an almost ritual renegotiation of family roles over a fairly predictable life-course pattern and does not threaten the family or its individual members, but some of it is more dangerous and involves grave losses for some” (151). Cicero’s letters illustrate one family’s experiences, but Apuleius’ Apology also shows how conflict could escalate between grown children and their parents. Parkin’s observations on senility seem relevant here, for he notes that a filiusfamilias could obtain control of the estate while the father still lived by applying to the praetor under the institution of the cura furiosi et prodigi. While the institution might properly be intended for the situation where the father was truly incapable of managing his own affairs, a son who felt oppressed by his father might try to utilize this loophole to turn the tables. Such a move would be an extreme measure, representing a complete breakdown within the family. Dixon concludes by offering the salient reminder that while some social and legal mechanisms might help to contain family conflict, others would have served to escalate it.

Perhaps the most intriguing article in the volume is Hanne Sigismund Nielsen’s chapter on “Interpreting Epithets in Roman Epitaphs”. By looking at which epithets were most commonly used in which relationships and by examining the literary uses of these epithets, Nielsen outlines the feelings which may have lain behind the use of the different epithets and offers some suggestions as to the nature of the various relationships. For instance, it has long been recognized that bene merens appears more frequently on tombstones than any other epithet; Nielsen points out that patrons and clients are commemorated with this epithet more frequently than with any other by a wide margin, while for children it runs a distant third. Both the literary sources and the epitaphs support the notion that bene merens“seems primarily to have been used to characterize relationships based on obligation” (185). A similar analysis of epithets on children’s tombs, discerning the distinctions between carissimus, dulcissimus, and pientissimus leads into a discussion of the theme of mors immatura in Rome and the role of foster children. Nielsen returns to pietas as the center of family relationships; she concludes from the epigraphic material that “the expectation or lack of expectation of pietas is of the greatest importance in estimating which relationships were considered the most important to the Romans, and here the relationship between parents and their children seems to have played the most important role” (204). This study is full of implications for the study of the Roman family, and points the way towards a new method of utilizing the abundant evidence of the epitaphs.

The articles by Beryl Rawson (“The Iconography of Roman Childhood”, with a response by Janet Huskinson) and by Paul Gallivan and Peter Wilkins (“Familial Structures in Roman Italy: A Regional Approach”) offer glimpses of works-in-progress. As such the conclusions are rather tentative, and more work needs to be done before any conclusions can be accepted with confidence. The latter article is based on a database created of all non-Senatorial families attested in Italy outside Rome. Their method of utilizing literary, iconographic, and epigraphic evidence has its merits, but the eliding of distinctions between these different types of evidence may present its own problems for the eventual interpretation of the database.

The last three articles pick up on the theme of space and in particular on the recent work of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in focusing on domestic space. Lisa Nevett (“Perceptions of Domestic Space in Roman Italy”) analyzes the literary evidence for perceptions of household space. Nevett’s sketch is rather broad, and thus perhaps not as useful as it might be, concluding merely that the two major characteristics of Roman town houses were that “a range of symbolic elements established and reinforced the identity of the occupants” and that “a range of practical requirements meant that the organization of space was flexible and could constantly readapt to the changing needs of different social situations and, in particular, to seasonal changes in the weather” (289). In itself this finding is unremarkable, but Nevett uses it to highlight contrasts with rural villas, where the symbolic element seems significantly diminished, and rural farms, where the practical requirements of a working farm dominate. As with some of the earlier chapters, this article points the way towards further work and future results.

Michele George (“Repopulating the Roman House”) succeeds in taking an analysis further along these lines. Her objective is to consider “how the house absorbed and accommodated both its inhabitants and guests” (300). She uses as a starting point the twin nature of the house as a domus frequentata and as a sanctum perfugium, examining how it could serve both functions but without creating a sharp dichotomy between them. For example, the atrium might be used in the morning for the salutatio, but would also be used by the occupants of the house in household tasks, at play, or in worshipping the household gods. A division of space might be used not only to create distinctions between guests of different rank, but also to separate guest from occupant or occupant from slave. She examines both atrium and peristyle houses, although she is rightly hesitant to draw conclusions about the social significance of these different house typologies before more work on regional and chronological differences is completed. Even at this stage, however, she demonstrates how the Roman house was designed primarily to accommodate the needs of the paterfamilias in his public affairs, but at the same time served the heterogeneous population of women, children, slaves, and others in their daily activities.

Penelope Allison offers a new methodological approach to studying Pompeii in her article on “Artefact Distribution and Spatial Function in Pompeian Houses.” In treating Pompeii as a prehistoric site, she tries to infer the function of each room from the artefacts discovered there rather than interpreting the architectural remains based on a reading of the literary evidence. Her effort is to avoid being misled by our preconceptions of what a cubiculum should be, and although she is a bit too conservative in trying not to import assumptions into her work, the results are extremely fruitful. The artefacts found in atria indicate that many household activities did in fact revolve around this area, a nice complement to George’s comments. Rooms customarily designated as cubicula in most cases lack definitive evidence for sleeping, such as a bed or couch, suggesting that these rooms “might have acted more as a boudoir than as a bedroom in the modern sense” (350). Here is where a careful sifting of the literary evidence is helpful; in order to offer any meaningful interpretations of the archaeological evidence, it is virtually impossible to avoid making some assumptions, but the assumptions must be justified. This chapter and the two preceding ones contribute greatly to reshaping the way in which we think about the use of space in the Roman house and how that might affect the life of the Roman family.

The difficulty with the publication of a volume of conference papers is often the lack of coherence among the multitude of papers presented, and such problems are only intensified here in a collection that avowedly intends to discuss three separate issues over a wide chronological and geographical space. While several of the articles do play off points raised in other chapters, the wide variety of topics explored and the wide varieties of methodologies employed leaves the reader with only a series of partial snapshots of the Roman family. The last ten years have seen a profusion of new books that have pursued some of the avenues suggested by earlier conferences and have rewritten much of the history of the Roman family. One would have liked to see some of the themes and issues that have been raised recently taken up more directly. After three conferences it seems that it might have been more useful to gather up some of the threads and try to form a more coherent picture of the Roman familia rather than continuing to point the way to still further unexplored areas of research. Some of the topics explored here move far afield of the Roman family itself, just at the point where sufficient work has been done on the core institution to allow a better understanding to emerge, the kind of understanding that will make chronological and geographical comparisons more meaningful. While the volume as a whole is therefore less satisfying than its two predecessors, many of the individual pieces do contribute significantly to reshaping our perceptions of the Roman family, and there is much in this volume for scholars in a variety of fields to contemplate.

To mention only a few, one might note R. Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge, 1994); S. Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore, 1992); K. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (Oxford, 1991); J. K. Evans, War, Women and Children in Ancient Rome (London, 1991); S. Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the time of Cicero to the time of Ulpian (Oxford, 1991); T. Wiedemann, Adults and Children in the Roman Empire (London, 1989); and S. Dixon, The Roman Mother (Norman, 1988). The two earlier conferences resulted in the publication of The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (London, 1986), which laid the groundwork for much of the current work in this area, and Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1991). See especially Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 102-132. See his article in Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome (pp. 191-227), which forms the basis for Chapter Five in Houses and Society at Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994). In a particularly fortuitous bit of timing, many of the issues explored in these three chapters were also discussed at another conference held in 1994, on Domestic Space in the Ancient Mediterranean, at the University of Reading. The papers from the Reading conference have appeared as Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond (Portsmouth, RI, 1997), edited by Ray Laurence and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and published as JRA Supplement 22. The conclusions of both sets of papers point in the same direction, and hopefully also point toward an increased synergy between social historians and archaeologists in understanding the Roman household.