BMCR 2004.06.55

Amor – Roma: Liefde en Erotiek in Rome

, , , Amor-Roma : liefde en erotiek in Rome. Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2003. 279 p. : illustrations. ISBN 9058262030 €24.50 (pb).

This Dutch language anthology devoted to the theme of “Love and the Erotic in Rome” falls into three distinct parts: 1) “Parents and Children” (with Laes responsible for the introductory essays and both Eyben and Laes for the selection and translation of the ancient texts); 2) “Love, Sex and Sexual Roles” (introductory essays, van Houdt; the anthology itself, Eyben and van Houdt); and 3) “Marriage and Family” (introductory essays, Eyben, Laes, and van Houdt; the anthology itself, Eyben and van Houdt). Of these three scholars, who are all Belgian, Eyben is probably the best known as a Roman social historian, with, as is shown by the bibliography, numerous publications dealing with the Roman family to his credit.

There are excellent English-language source-books on the Roman family available. This anthology caught my eye because, somewhat unconventionally, it is focused mainly on the affectional aspects of the relationships within the Roman family and, in addition, includes sexual love in this focus. The introductory essays are generous with guidance and insight, providing sophisticated, nuanced, and up-to-date discussion of the affectional and erotic relationships that could flourish within the bounds and on the periphery of the Roman familia. The Dutch translations are both modern and fluent, and the annotation is ample and helpful.

Amor-Roma covers roughly seven centuries, from the second century BC to the sixth century AD; thus in some of the essays and many of the selected texts we are also made aware of the impact of Christianity on Roman society and culture in Late Antiquity. Most fittingly, especially given the increasing cultural convergence of Greece and Rome during the Roman Imperial period, Greek sources, such as the historians, philosophers and medical writers, are judiciously anthologized.

The first introductory essay raises the question of whether Roman children were subject to widespread neglect and even abuse or whether we can construct a positive picture from the sources. The thesis that the former was indeed the case is rhetorically and vividly formulated in what is, as it were, a statement for the prosecution presenting “the negative dossier” (16: all the translations are my own), followed by a statement for the defense putting forward “the positive dossier” (22). The latter concludes with a caution against a “Western ethnocentrism” which would hold that the poor (and their children) in the Roman world led a “wretched existence” (25). “Even without schools and institutions of care, without money and material comforts, the poor are certainly capable of happiness” (25). The following essay, “The Interpretation of Feelings: a Risky Undertaking,” warns against a confusion of the establishment of fact and the interpretation of motive in the study of the ancient sources; a “cautious agnosticism, although not one that is “strict and dogmatic” (27), is thus called for, together with a thorough consideration of “the socio-cultural realities that can shed light on attitudes towards children in Roman antiquity and early Christianity” (27). A series of essays follow, each focused on a different facet of children’s lives: the demography of mortality and fertility; material living conditions; customs of mourning for deceased children, especially the very young; the impact of slavery; the “elite ethics” (37) of the Romans, which generally underestimated children’s moral sense and reasoning powers; slave or former-slave children cherished as mignons and deliciae in upperclass households, where the affection might indeed be colored with eroticism and border on outright pedophilia (in the anthology for this part, Statius, Silvae 2.1 is offered as a literary example of the expression of such feelings); the facts of child-labor; and finally, the question of whether Christianity brought about a “revolution” (45) in adults’ perception of children — here the conclusion is that the “changed attitude towards pedophilia and the more exclusive emphasis on the nuclear family … represented the most important changes effected by the new faith in attitudes towards children” (48); a bit earlier on, it was argued (rightly, I think) that the Christian doctrine of original sin (held, of course, to greatly varying degrees by theologians) had little practical effect on attitudes to and treatment of children.

The anthology for this part is exemplary, offering a large variety of well-chosen texts drawn from a wide range of historical, biographical, poetic, medical, educational, philosophical, theological, and epigraphic sources. As I already observed, Christian authors — Lactantius, Eusebius, John Chrysostom, and St Augustine, just to mention the most important ones — receive well-merited attention. Also noteworthy is a lengthy citation (84-86) from a unique document, a fourth century Greek-Latin conversation book in which a Roman aristocratic schoolboy recounts his daily activities.

The second part of the anthology, “Love, sexuality and sexual roles,” begins with a number of essays exploring these topics. Again, the discussion is sophisticated and nuanced, and informed by the best scholarship of the past few decades. The views of the Roman male elite stand out even more prominently here than in the first part. Much emphasis is placed on the importance of reputation in a “face-to-face” society (100, English used in the original Dutch), on social class, on physiognomy, and on “a semiotics of the human body” (102) that also helped to construct attitudes towards sex, gender, and sexuality. The thoroughly masculine man represented the highest human type to the Romans, but the truly feminine woman possessed a worth and dignity of her own. Not surprisingly, the Roman valuation of the so-called active and passive sexual roles (penetrator vs the penetrated person) and of their respective appropriateness to normative masculinity and femininity receives due attention; however, it is not subjected to the overemphasis that, I think, it has received in some recent studies. Because of the physical-biological etiology (carefully studied by physiognomists and medical authors) of their deviation from the ideal masculine type, “feminine” men ( androgyni) were less reprehensible than the molles or effeminati, but in popular thinking the two categories were easily confused. The Ovidian avant-gardism of romantic and recreational love in contrast to the traditional Roman attitudes towards adulterous or extramarital amor such as were revived by Augustus’ legislation is elegantly charted in both the essays and the anthology itself. The concluding essay on early Christianity rightfully signals both a rupture and a continuity in sexual attitudes, especially in daily life. My only serious criticism of both the essays and anthology in this part is that same-sex desire and love as concrete realities both in personal lives and relationships and in the more general social dynamics of the Roman world are almost completely ignored. In this regard, the excerpting of Suetonius’ account of Nero’s sexual outrages (146-147) creates a very distorted impression.

The anthology for this part, except for the omission just noted, possesses, on the whole, the virtues of the first. Christian authors, once more, are generously quoted. However, a judicious selection from the Pompeiian graffiti would have directed the reader’s attention also to specifically lower class perceptions and expressions of sexuality. The anthology concludes with a selection from the elegies of the little known sixth century poet Maximianus, who, in a thoroughly pagan fashion, celebrates the omnipotence and allure of male phallic sexuality.

The third part, “Family and Marriage,” starts with an essay on the principles underlying Roman marriage that make it so different from modern Western marriage and continues with an essay detailing the customs and rules associated with the engagement, the wedding ceremonies, and the dowry. The following two essays discuss “the psychosexual reality of Roman marriage” (186), drawing heavily on the correspondence of Pliny the Younger. However, with Paul Veyne and Aline Rousselle, van Houdt cautions against the notion that the Imperial period was marked by a “mental shift” (194) leading to a considerable rise in the estimation of what is often called companionate marriage. A short essay expounds the views of marriage held by Greek and Roman moralists such as Musonius Rufus and Hierocles. Not surprisingly, there is a concluding essay entitled, “Christianity: Transformation or Continuity?” (198), with a fitting quotation near the end from G. Nathan’s The Family in Late Antiquity. The Rise of Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition : “As Rome became more Christian, Christianity became more Roman” (203).

The anthology is as exemplary as those of the first two parts, illustrating almost every significant aspect of Roman marriage, drawing once more on a large variety of Greek and Roman sources, and offering a generous selection of testimonies from Christian authors. One of the most commendably excerpted texts is the story, as told by Plutarch and Lucan, of Cato the Younger’s presentation of his own young, pregnant wife in marriage to an older unmarried and childless friend: “Marcia is the willing instrument of two men of influence who are also close friends; despite her love for Cato she has offered herself to serve a higher interest” (209): the officia attached to amicitia may have to override the ties of conjugal love.

The preceding paragraphs should have made clear the excellence of this anthology. It is exceptional for the number of its illuminating introductory essays (comprising about one-third of the book’s entire length) — for which I have not seen a parallel in any other anthology covering the Roman family. The editors’ and authors’ choice of ancient texts for inclusion shows exceptional care and imagination. This is certainly a work that merits translation so that it can be used with great profit also in the English-speaking world.