Kate Cooper’s The Fall of the Roman Household is an ambitious and valuable study of the cultural debates among clergy and lay elites regarding the role of marriage and the household in an evolving Christian world. The title of the work references Edward Gibbon’s famous (or perhaps infamous) assertions about the devastating effect of Christianity upon the traditional civic values of the Roman Empire, most notably the desire to adopt an ascetic lifestyle at the expense of traditional household duties. In an attempt to understand precisely how Christianity transformed the Roman household, Cooper explores the cultural debate that took place regarding Christian standards and ethics, placing this discussion squarely within the tumultuous social and political context of the later Roman Empire during the “long fifth century” (from the death of Theodosius I in 395 CE to the Justinianic invasion of Italy in 535 CE). She investigates how the contemporary state of affairs facilitated—and even necessitated—the transformation of the household, as well as how clergy and lay members of the senatorial order attempted to reconcile Christian beliefs governing family and the household with classical aristocratic traditions. As a result, this book is not a comprehensive description of the realities of the late Roman household insomuch as it is an examination of the various ideas and values that Christian writers used to elucidate, and ultimately shape, this evolving institution.
To study the cultural debate and societal repercussions of this transformation, Cooper focuses primarily on the condition of women in their roles of bride, wife, and mother. In this respect, The Fall of the Roman Household builds upon on many of the themes introduced in Cooper’s previous scholarship, especially The Virgin and the Bride.1 She examines a variety of primary source texts, the most important of these to her analysis being the Ad Gregoriam in palatio, an anonymous advice manual written for the aristocratic Gregoria sometime in the late fifth or early sixth century. (Cooper also provides a very readable English translation of the full text in an appendix.)
Cooper identifies two developments that dramatically reshaped how individuals in the Western Empire understood family and household as social institutions. The first, a frequently mentioned argument that reaches back to Gibbon, is that the Christian regard for asceticism (and especially sexual continence) deterred Romans from marrying and creating households, thus weakening the institutional cornerstone of the classical civic sphere. Here, Cooper deftly analyzes a persistent cultural debate among Christians to show that, while the vast majority of lay and clerical writers did recognize the potential tension between asceticism and marriage, many also attempted to reconcile the two by classifying family life as a second-tier form of asceticism. The second development, which has been less studied by previous scholars, is the emerging theological perception of marriage as an eternal bond: not simply a relationship that ideally should not be ended, but a spiritual union that could not be dissolved. Cooper argues that these two developments contributed to a distinctly Christian vision of marriage as the creation of a new family unit founded on a unique conjugal bond rather than as the manifestation of a reproductive contract between two families.
On the one hand, I found this aspect of her argument concerning, as it has the potential to efface the significance of the conjugal relationship and the establishment of a new, discrete household wrought by marriage in classical Roman society. Nonetheless, I ultimately found Cooper’s fundamental assertions about the existence of a transformation to be persuasive, as she effectively mobilizes evidence to illustrate a shifting perception in how individuals conceptualized and idealized marriage. For example, Cooper attributes significance to the increased emphasis placed on the subjugation of a wife to her husband’s authority. This proves to be a telling contrast to the prevailing attitudes of the early Empire, where the common practice of marriage sine manu deliberately kept wives outside of the potestas of their husbands. Cooper’s arguments about these new views on marriage emerging in the later Roman Empire are also a response to academic theories placing the development of a significantly distinctive “Christian” marriage closer to 1000 CE and the Gregorian clerical reforms.2
Cooper contends that the “fall” of the Roman household was not simply the result of theological developments, but was also the strategic transformation of a critical civic institution. She argues that both lay and clerical writers drew upon Christian ethics in developing a new approach to marriage and family life that effectively reinvented the household as a social institution capable of weathering the mounting instability of the fifth and sixth centuries. For example, Cooper suggests that the perceived permanence of the marital union would have created more binding social relationships, especially between affines. In turn, these household changes would help ensure a measure of constancy in a politically tumultuous world by strengthening a vital civic institution. While it is very difficult to conclusively prove that changes in attitudes toward marriage and family were indeed the result of social necessity, Cooper’s thoughtful analysis definitely suggests some correlation between context and ideology.
Chapter 1, “‘The Battle of this Life,'” introduces the political and cultural environment that helped to shape the transformation of the Roman household. For Cooper, the key element of this transformation is the decreasing emphasis placed on adherence to the authority of the paterfamilias, which was the lynchpin of the traditional Roman household. There are two issues in particular shaping this reinvention: the changing political landscape of the later Western Empire, most notably the ongoing crisis of civil war and the growing senatorial participation in the imperial bureaucracy, and the increasing Christianization of the aristocratic senatorial order. Cooper notes how the evolution of the imperial bureaucracy effectively changed the “balance of power” within Roman families (27), as sons in this service would often have better information and political contacts than their fathers, thus creating a precedent for the exercise of independent judgment. Furthermore, as the senatorial order became increasingly involved in this bureaucracy, traditional marriage alliances between equally matched kin groups became less important. These political developments coincided with the growing emphasis placed on the moral independence of the individual by clerical writers, who urged young men and women to serve God and their conscience rather than the commands of their fathers. At the same time, these authors needed to make the establishment of a successful household compatible with Christianity’s dynamic call to adopt an ascetic lifestyle. Cooper argues that there was a widespread belief among the clergy that aristocratic men and women could bring their ascetic aspirations in line with their traditional household and civic duties, and texts that express this view, such as the Ad Gregoriam in palatio, can be read as a response to ascetic literature that categorized these duties as being at odds with true Christian values.
In Chapter 2, “‘The Obscurity of Eloquence,'” Cooper examines the contribution made to contemporary Christian ethics by senatorial Christianity, which she categorizes as an elite “sub-culture” (xiii) that attempted to reconcile classical values with a religious tradition heavily influenced by patristic teachings and ascetic beliefs. Cooper asserts that to fully understand the emergence of a powerful and influential clergy, one must understand the Christianity of the senatorial elite that they replaced, and, more importantly, the cultural negotiation by which this privileged elite accepted a new form of religious leadership. Perhaps the best illustration of senatorial Christianity discussed in this chapter is the Cento Probae, a verse summary of biblical history crafted entirely from lines and phrases borrowed from Virgil. Cooper then analyzes the Ad Gregoriam and a variety of other texts written for a senatorial audience, including the works of Prudentius, Boethius, and Cassiodorus, to illustrate not only how authors expressed a vision of Christianity in the language of the literate elite, but also how they associated the toils of daily life endured by these elites with the spiritual struggles faced by ascetics and martyrs.
Chapter 3, “Household and Empire,” considers views on the ethical responsibilities of the Christian aristocracy, particularly in their role as landowners. Cooper argues that household manuals attempted to reassert traditional senatorial values concerning the “moral burden of authority” of wealthy elites in a Christian guise (96), displaying an urgency and depth that reflected the economic downturn of the late Roman Empire stemming in part from increasing absenteeism and the employment of wage labor. Thus, she reads the emphasis placed on a domina’s obligation to her servile dependants as a possible critique of the wage labor system. Late Roman authors strengthened this association by depicting a domina‘s management of her household as being critical to her spiritual salvation. Cooper offers the intriguing suggestion that this Christianized reassertion of traditional household values may have been an attempt to solidify and enforce a framework for proper leadership and estate management that could endure the political instability of the fifth and sixth centuries.
The final two chapters shift focus to investigate Christian writers’ attempts to create a spiritual world view inclusive of traditional household roles and responsibilities. In Chapter 4, “‘Such Trustful Partnership’: The Marriage Bond in Latin Conduct Literature,” Cooper explores the increasing emphasis placed on a wife’s subordination to the authority of her husband in Christian texts. Building upon existing scholarship, especially the work of Judith Evans Grubbs, Cooper analyzes how the changing political climate made the traditional system of marriage based on face-to-face negotiation between families of equal status less useful. The growing number of aristocratic men marrying women from humbler social positions, in conjunction with the general instability wrought by the military conflict in the fifth and sixth centuries, increased the need to document marriage, which had traditionally relied simply on the witness of kin and neighbors. Furthermore, in these circumstances, a husband would have been less reliant on the money and influence of his wife’s family, thus making her more vulnerable. At the same time, Cooper contends, Christian writers attempted to strengthen these unions by establishing “the husband-wife relationship as a newly central axis of loyalty and reciprocity” (160). Moreover, authors depicted the vulnerability and potential indignities created by a wife’s subordination to her husband as an opportunity for a woman to demonstrate her spiritual endurance, and thus adhere to the ascetic ideals of the Christian martyrs.
Chapter 5, “‘The Invisible Enemy,'” continues to explore the connection between matron and martyr by analyzing how clerical authors attempted to recast marriage and motherhood as a form of asceticism. Drawing heavily from the language and imagery of warfare, both secular and spiritual, these writers articulated precisely how the domina must herself struggle with the same invisible enemies that plagued ascetics and martyrs. For Cooper, what is particularly interesting is how these authors used the idea of the reinvented Christian household as means to help craft and express late Roman spirituality.
An appendix contains Cooper’s translation of the complete text of the Ad Gregoriam in palatio, which should help bring more attention to this fascinating document. The translation also includes footnotes that effectively serve as a minor commentary of sorts, mentioning key points of translation and identifying important textual references.
In analyzing the debate regarding the relationship between Christianity and household, Cooper attempts to untangle an intermeshed and constantly evolving set of cultural and religious values, which are expressed in a diverse variety of sources. Accordingly, perhaps the most perplexing issue for the reader will be the organization of the book (a potential difficulty that Cooper herself seems to anticipate). While Cooper attempts to use the Ad Gregoriam in palatio as a “narrative thread” that will help guide the reader through “the maze of our evidence” (11), this thread is not always apparent. Occasionally it is initially unclear why Cooper introduces a particular example or element of analysis at a given point in the text, and what role this information is serving in her larger arguments. Due to the book’s organizational structure, Cooper sometimes has to introduce ideas that she will not address until later in the text. Compounding this organizational complexity is the book’s lack of formal introduction and conclusion. While the work of an introduction is done by the preface and the first part of Chapter 1, I found the lack of a discrete conclusion to be unsatisfying. Given the nuance of Cooper’s analysis, I think that revisiting the individual strands of her intricate arguments at the end of the text would have been helpful.
All primary source material quoted in the book appears in English. In cases where Cooper believes the Latin or Greek to be useful, individual words and shorter phrases are included parenthetically in the translation whereas longer phrases and sentences are placed in footnotes.
The Fall of the Roman Household is an absorbing and noteworthy study of the aristocratic household at the end of the Western Empire. This thought-provoking text will certainly be of interest not only to those scholars interested in the study of household, family, and gender, but also those interested in the more general interplay of classical and Christian ideas in the later Roman Empire. Cooper does a tremendous job bringing together aspects of religious belief with social history to contribute to our understanding of the transformation of the Roman household.
1. Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
2. E.g. Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, translated by Barbara Bray. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993 .