BMCR 1998.10.15

The Brothers of Romulus: fraternal pietas in Roman law, literature, and society


The sub-title declares the boundaries of evidence to be used in this study — law and literature — and the first paragraph of the Introduction reflects the limitations thus imposed: it will be an ‘analysis of literary and legal representations’, thus not necessarily an attempt to recreate the lived experience of brotherhood as recorded, for instance, in epigraphy or commemorated in art or deduced from demographic studies. Nevertheless, the boundaries set are very broad and the Author Index is an impressive list drawn from Latin literature and Roman legal sources, with a contribution from Greek literature. B. is sensitive to the diversity of genre and period within the literary evidence and she takes account of these aspects in her analysis. She does not squarely face the fact that her literary sources belong to the period ‘ca. 200 B.C.E. – 120 C.E.’ whereas the legal sources largely postdate this period. This is not to say that these sources cannot be used to enhance one another and to deepen our understanding of them all. But one cannot merely place them side by side, without taking account of their different contexts.

From the outset (3-4) B. claims a great deal for ‘the fraternal relationship’. It ‘held a privileged position in Roman culture’; Romans ‘considered brothers central to their public and poetic myth making, to their experience of family life, and to their ideas of intimacy among men’; their ‘experience of family, intimacy, politics, and history was shaped by their ideas about brothers’. This sits uneasily with the great importance attached to the father-son relationship in the Aeneas legend (and, according to Judith Hallett, the importance of the father-daughter relationship). B. concedes that from the late Republic civil wars and dynastic strife made Romulus and Remus ‘problematic figures’ (11). Indeed, one of the contributions of the book is to illuminate the increased importance of the Aeneas tradition in the Principate at the expense of that of Romulus and Remus. The claim for the fraternal relationship is also at odds with commemoration patterns documented by Saller and Shaw: brothers (and sisters) are infrequent commemorators, compared with spouses, parents and children.

The book focusses on five settings for fraternal interaction and symbolism: (1) ‘At home’ (property and family); (2) ‘Between brothers’ (biology, identity, emotions); (3) ‘In the forum’ (public life, case studies); (4) ‘On the battlefield’ (fraternal cooperation and fratricide); (5) At the palace’ (dynastic relationships).

In (1) B. makes the archaic institution of consortium central to fraternal relationships in the context of familial property. There seems to be some confusion in her use of ‘brothers’ (e.g. 13), either as sibling sons of the pater or as brothers of the pater. It is not correct that the brothers of a testator were privileged over sons and daughters. They might come in as agnates in intestate succession; but this does not support the claim of an ‘original fraternal partnership’ (21). And she overstates (30-31) the preference for brothers, implicitly over sons and daughters. As Champlin (126-7) stresses, kin such as brothers come in only in limited circumstances, and then as co-heirs to see to ‘the proper execution’ of a will when the heir (e.g. daughter, mother, wife or pre-pubescent son) was not fully capable of doing this him- or herself. B. speculates (17-19) on ‘the archaic extended family’, but there is no real evidence of such; and few married brothers can be found living in the one household (the freère-rêche arrangement). B. admits (18) that ‘In some ways, archaic Rome was as inaccessible to Romans in the late Republic as it is to us’. Nevertheless, she argues that ideas about consortium persisted and had relevance in the late Republic and early Empire. Her attempt (22-23) to tie the metaphorical usage of consors and consortium to fraternal pietas is strained. But her presentation (48) of the legal evidence for considering the several male members (e.g. father or son or brother of a person) of a household as a single entity for the purposes of tutela does give an interesting insight into the Roman concept of the family.

In discussing inheritance, B. makes good use of the rhetorical controuersiae to complement legal evidence. These rhetorical exercises are a fertile new source for personal relationships, and have been used to good effect in recent years by other writers on education, the family and Roman society.

The summary (61) of the argument for consortium as a basis for fraternal pietas leads on to the role of fraternal cooperation in ‘a reciprocal definition of self’ and in public life, the topics of Chapters 2 and 3.

Chapter 2 deals with fraternity in its biological and metaphorical usages. There is an obvious similarity with the French fraternité. It presents the historical examples of Marcus and Quintus Cicero, Catullus and his brother, and Seneca’s family. It then discusses the overlap between biological brotherhood and other close male relationships. Two literary excerpts are used to show ‘the varied symbolism of fraternity’ (77): Nisus-Euryalus and Pandarus-Bitias in Aeneid 9 and the Encolpius-Ascyltus-Giton trio in Petronius’ Satyricon. The latter is a particularly good analysis, providing more complex interrelations between these metaphorical fratres than emerge from the military pairs in the Aeneid.

Chapter 3 provides historical examples of fraternal cooperation in public life but acknowledges (93) that there were limits to what society considered acceptable. Such cooperation and mutual support had to be ‘within the bounds of civic duty’; there could be ‘tension between personal and public interest’ (100). This is well illustrated in the example of the Gracchi brothers (127-135): Romans felt uneasy about ‘political collusion’ between such brothers. The Cicero brothers are used again, and the Scipiones Africanus and Asiagenus are discussed with Africanus’ friend Laelius. A useful sub-plot in the Scipiones’ story is that of the adoptive brothers Fabius Aemilianus and Fabius Servilianus, who are shown (123-4) to have cooperated more closely than the biological Servilii brothers. But the sons of Aemilius Paullus show that natural brothers could continue to be close even after adoption out of their natal family. There is a useful comparison (125-6) of Livy’s and Polybius’ treatment of Philip V’s speech to his sons about their responsibilities as royal brothers. Where Polybius uses the Spartan kings as an example of constitutional monarchy, Livy ’emphasises the fraternal relationship between these two rulers’. The Scipiones are then used by Livy to exemplify personal and political concordia : the brothers were ‘as devoted to Rome as to each other’ (126).

At the end of chapter 3 B. raises, interestingly, the relationship between fratricide and civil war. But when this is taken up in chapter 4 the focus is on how Roman writers dealt with it.

Roman writers ‘often formulate social and moral questions in terms of fraternal pietas‘ (137). B. begins chapter 4 with a story about non-Romans: the Numidian royal house and Jugurtha and his adoptive brothers (sons of Micipsa). This illustrates Sallust’s perceptions and treatment of fraternal strife (and of Roman degeneration) rather than illustrating Roman fraternity directly. But, as B. says, it did have ‘contemporary resonance’ for Romans in the 40s BC.

Lucan, like Vergil, gives an important role to brothers in battle, but Lucan deals with civil war and brothers on opposite sides. B. refers briefly (152-6) to Caesar’s silence on this theme, commenting that Caesar would not want such a theme to ‘interfere with the justification of his own actions’. She might have made this point more forcefully: Caesar’s silence reveals the fratricide-civil war link at least as clearly as does the explicit mention by other writers.

The Romulus and Remus foundation myth illustrates ‘the two poles of fraternal symbolism, cooperation and violent conflict’ (158). B. discusses how late Republican treatments of the myth differ from earlier versions: civil wars changed the perspective. After that, Augustan poets tend to focus on reconciliation rather than fratricide. B. brings in Cicero’s De officiis effectively to illustrate a preoccupation with the true nature of honestum and utile and the apparent conflict between self-interest and the common good. Thus Cicero ‘pulls the rug out from under the traditional justifications for the fratricide’ (163).

B. shows (168-73) how Vergil’s Aeneid incorporates Romulus into the Trojan Aeneas foundation story and comments briefly on the replacement of fraternity with father-son relations in Augustan ideology. She might have made more of this: the promotion of intergenerational kinship, and hence the Anchises-Aeneas-Ascanius triad, over the brothers Romulus and Remus better suited a post-civil-war society and Augustan emphasis on ‘the family’. Hence the Trojan legend became embedded in the Romans’ concept of their past.

Where, however, does this leave B.’s argument that fraternity was a continuing force in the Roman ethos beyond the Republic into the Empire? B. admits in chapter 5 that the politics of succession in the imperial family resulted in more attention to power struggles and conflict between brothers in that context. But she sees ‘traditional Roman notions about brothers’ (175) as underpinning even stories of conflict, providing the emotive power of ‘long-standing cultural and moral norms’.

Other aristocratic families are intertwined with stories of the imperial family, e.g. the three Iunii Silani and the Younger Agrippina’s role in their relationship; but most attention is given to Tiberius and Drusus, Germanicus and the Younger Drusus, and Titus and Domitian. B. claims that Castor and Pollux were exploited as symbols of fraternal pietas, and she uses Augustus’ renovation of the temple of Castor and Pollux to support this. But she does not develop this theme beyond this point. She does not make her case for imperial use of brotherhood as a powerful symbol in public image-making. She may be right in seeing Statius’ choice of the theme of fraternal rivalry in his Thebaid as a reflection of Romans’ continuing interest in brothers’ relationships; but imperial literature reflects interest in a great variety of family relationships.

B. posits the impossibility of two brothers’ succeeding their (emperor) father as a reason for discord and inequality. She might have gone on to consider the succession of M. Aurelius and L. Verus on the death of Antoninus Pius. Was this Pius’ plan, or Marcus’ initiative? In either case, what was the motivation? Was it tapping in to a deep-seated need in Roman society for fraternal pietas and cooperation, which would strengthen B.’s argument, or is it to be attributed more to Marcus’ own personality and philosophical outlook? B. has missed an opportunity here.

The book overall is well written, and Princeton has produced attractive pages with clear, readable type and (congratulations) footnotes at the foot of each page. There is an extensive Bibliography, including useful comparative works (but the details for The Roman Family in Italy, cited under Saller’s name for his chapter in that book, need updating: the date should be 1997 and the editors B. Rawson and P. Weaver). There are some gems of scholarship in the notes, e.g. on adoptive brothers n. 14 p. 66.

The reception of the book will depend on the expectations of the reader. It provides an excellent interweaving of literary and legal material, but those who, like me, looked also for the workings of brotherhood in Roman ‘society’ will feel some disappointment. There is a recognition, from time to time, of the importance of demographic factors, e.g. mortality rates which reduced the number of siblings at different ages. But she does not consider the age gap between many siblings which made less likely a close partnership ‘in family life, from childhood education through their adult years’ (190). The neglect of epigraphy is typified by the offhand reference to ‘an epitaph’ (79) with no source citation. There are no illustrations to allow the reader to assess the visual evidence. (The jacket cover, which will not be available to library users, shows a ‘mosaic of a wolf’ but without indication of date or context.) If such evidence is rare, that in itself is significant.

Some of my comments are, I concede, criticisms for the book’s not being the sort of book I expected. They should not be seen to dismiss the value of what the book actually does, but they reflect a wish that the author had made her aims more explicit from the beginning and had not seemed to claim more for her thesis than the evidence will bear. I am reminded of the phrase used by Thomas Falkner in his review of Barry Strauss’ Fathers and Sons in Athens : ‘a study in social history less as practice than as discourse’. Peter Garnsey has given an excellent example of this approach in his Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (1996), complementing existing studies of slavery as a social phenomenon. Such work is important methodologically and as a contribution to cultural and intellectual history of an ancient society. But there is no other study of Roman brotherhood, so there may still be more to be said about brothers in Roman social history.

Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society. Women and the Elite Family 1984. Richard P. Saller and Brent D. Shaw, ‘Tombstones and Roman Family Relations in the Principate: Civilians, Soldiers and Slaves’, JRS 74 (1984) 124-156. BMCR 94.6.5, 5/6/94.