BMCR 2021.03.05

The discourse of marriage in the Greco-Roman world

, , The discourse of marriage in the Greco-Roman world. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. Pp. x, 269. ISBN 9780299328405 $99.95.

This edited volume started as a conference panel on marriage discourses in Hellenistic and imperial literature sponsored by the International Plutarch Society for the 2013 SCS conference. However, a new aspiration emerged as the panel discussion highlighted the importance of attaining an in-depth appreciation of “how the discourse of marriage, as found in the different genres that might have been important to Plutarch or related to his writings – philosophy, art, epithalamium, epic, and the novel – developed over time” (p. 4). This is an ambitious assemblage of source materials and perspectives that would generally be treated in separate monographs. As examples, Tsouvala points to Larsson Lovén and Agneta Stömberg’s Ancient Marriage in Myth and Reality (2010), Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres Challet’s Like Man, Like Woman: Roman Women, Gender Qualities and Conjugal Relationships at the Turn of the First Century (2013), and Nikoletta Manioti’s Family in Flavian Epic (2016).

The first paper by Rebecca H. Sinos explores parallels between wedding rites and mystery rites in the pictorial tradition. Sinos uses a small assemblage of vases to demonstrate the Attic pictorial tradition for weddings, then focuses on two fourth-century relief vases recently re-published in Zimmermann-Elseify’s Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum volume (2015)[1] that depict scenes set within the bridal chamber (thalamos), yielding rare “insight into the bridal couple’s experience of the wedding” (p. 33). The first is a relief vase in Moscow (but once part of the Berlin collection) initially published in Brückner’s Anakalypteria, showing the bride in a veil and being comforted by another woman at the end of a couch on which the bridegroom is reclining. The second is a relief vase in the Berlin Staatliche Museen that shows the bride unveiling herself to the reclining bridegroom on the bridal couch. Along with other examples, Sinos provides a nice presentation on the preparatory journey from betrothal, to procession, to the final unveiling of the bride within the bridal chamber, and how their association with divinizing or heroizing sculpture reliefs, including depictions of funerary banquets and those with Eleusinian allusions, can be read as conflating wedding rites and mystery rites.

Karen Klaiber Hersch reads the Roman wedding as a ritualization of violence that the Roman bride suffers. Antiquarian sources such as Festus (55L; 43L) and Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. 87, 285C) lead Hersch to believe that “every Roman wedding…was a reenactment of a forced mass marriage of maidens from neighboring communities to the male population of Rome” (p. 70). She says that brides were expected “to appear to be terrified and were expected to make a vocal (and insofar as possible, visual) display of sorrow” to demonstrate virginity (p. 74-75). The bride’s veil (flammeum) functionally forces her “to mime her sorrow by hanging her head dejectedly, or walking with timid, uncertain steps, or even by crying audibly” (p. 76). Plautus (Casina 922-31; Priapea 3.8-9) and Macrobius (Sat. 1.15.21-22) further lead Hersch to believe that the literary descriptions of the suffering bride were likely based on actual verbal and physical assaults intended “to make the transition to matronhood as painful as possible” (pp. 84-85). Strikingly, Hersch points out that Greek rites were known to invoke marital happiness and positive experiences of marriage, establishing a provocative contrast of cultural norms and experiences that may benefit from further exploration.

Paolo Di Meo’s chapter deals with the genesis and the nature of Plutarch’s Marriage Advice in the context of the epithalamium tradition. Passages from Claudian (Fescennines for Honorius 14.2-11, 14.16-24 and the Epithalamium of Palladius and Celerina (25.130-38) are used to demonstrate the common stock of motifs (such as plants with thorns and bee-guarded honey) that would encourage the bridegroom to carry on despite the bride’s refusals, and encourage the bride to collaborate. Deities invoked in the prologue are also explicitly linked to poets such as Statius (Silv. 1.2.3-6, 11-21) and Catullus (61.101-109), apparently in the Sapphic epithalamic tradition. Di Meo concluded that, while Plutarch followed models of wedding speeches in rhetoric, he reused the poetic epithalamium to diverge from “the utilitarian conception and the cold analyses of marriage” (pp. 110-111), purposely creating a practical but warm and passionate wedding gift for a couple. Plutarch specifically quotes the Sapphic fragment 55 in the epilogue, which is thus a natural candidate for Plutarch’s archetype, and Di Meo convincingly supports this connection with a survey of various Sapphic adherents and epideictic variations, highlighting lexical and figurative associations within the centuries-old epithalamic motifs in the prologue and the four precepts.

Geert Roskam’s project is to come to a determination on Epicurus’ position on marriage and children. While many reports suggest that Epicurus rejected marriage and children, Roskam argues that Epicurus’ position was more nuanced than the reports of his views on marriage suggest. Roskam’s key text is a short passage from Diogenes Laertius that reports Epicurus saying in the Diaporiai and On Nature that the sage will both marry and rear children, and will sometimes marry according to his circumstances in life  (Diog. Laert. 10.119). Since Epicurus emphasized the importance of prudence (φρόνησις) when dealing with dilemmas such as “whether the sage will break the law if he can be sure that he will never be detected” (Plut. Adv. Col. 1127D) and “whether an old and impotent sage still derives pleasure from touching the fair” (Plut. Non posse 1094E), and since Epicurus is known to have discussed marriage in the Diaporiai, “he probably recognized that, under particular circumstances, marriage may well yield more pleasure than pain” (pp. 126-128). Roskam pointed to “the concrete praxis of the Epicureans themselves” that reveals Epicurus’ actual position, and Epicurus’ testamentary arrangements for his heirs to take care of the sons and the daughter of Metrodorus also suggest that Epicurus’ position was that “specific περίστασις βίου [can] occasionally persuade the Epicurean philosopher to marry” (p. 136). One wonders whether more examples of Epicurean praxis could be gleaned from elsewhere to escape the heavy reliance on Diogenes Laertius’ reports.

Alex Dressler focuses on the witty quips of virtuous wives in Seneca’s On Marriage reported by Jerome in the treatise Against Jovinian, and considers whether such remarks were criticisms “from the perspective of real women” against ancient Roman marriage as it was practiced in Rome (p. 145).  If they are, then it would be “completed” feminism, an active practice of the destruction of the institution of marriage through women’s agency (p. 161). While Marcia’s clever representation of Roman marriage (Jer. Adv. Iovinian. 1.46, 275c) embodies a woman’s self-assertion and elegant lifestyle choice, it does not consitute “completed feminism,” because in Seneca-in-Jerome such a notion remains only a possibility: women can be satirists or violent revolutionaries, “but they cannot be both” (p. 161). Dressler had to use some of Seneca’s more complete works such as the Consolation to Marcia and epistolary writings (e.g. Sen. Ep. 7.10-11) and add some modern filters, such as the mimesis e contrario taken from Torre’s Il matrimonio del Sapiens (2000); the conclusion that Seneca-in-Jerome created a space for women “to imagine freedom and equality, even if they prefer death” (p. 164) is quite convincing.

Katarzyna Jazdzewska examines three of Plutarch’s treatises that use animal stories to discuss marriage and marital virtues – On the Love of OffspringOn the Fact that Beasts are Rational, and On the Intelligence of Animals. The question asked, implicitly, is how anthropomorphized and moralized animals and their mating behaviors help Plutarch convey his perceptions of marriage, and how such perceptions differ from Plutarch’s other works. Jazdzewska identified two sets of perceptions on marriage conveyed using animal stories: the first emphasizes procreative function and the subordinate relationship female to male between mates, while the other is the mates’ love and care for each other. She then searches for similarities in Plutarch’s Marriage Advice and Dialogue on Love, showing that Plutarch deliberately chose a range of animal paradigms paraenetically – such as uxorial devotedness among female kingfishers from On the Intelligence of Animals (De sol. an. 982 E-983 B) and chaste female crows (Brut. Anim. 989A-B) – to demonstrate the universality of parental affection among animals. To Jazdzewska, Plutarch’s aim is to convince the reader “that it would be shameful if people were to be found inferior to animals in respect to parental love” (p. 189). The study is limited in scope, as it only deals with Plutarch’s works, but nevertheless throws light on Plutarch’s communication strategy.

Jeffrey Beneker’s chapter asks how Plutarch structures the virtue of moderation (sophrosyne) with the moral example of Camma the Galatian woman in the Dialogue on Love (767C-768D) and in Virtues of Women (257E-258 C). Camma – because she was both sophron and erotically attached to her husband – was not only able to remain faithful even after her suitor Sinorix killed her husband Sinatus, but also capable of avenging her husband by suicide, tricking Sinorix into drinking poison with her from a shared cup. Beneker argues that Camma’s story influenced Plutarch’s depiction of Porcia, Brutus’s wife, perhaps with Panthea in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia in the deep background (Xen. Cyr. 6.4.5-6.4.9). Beneker then shifts to focus on Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi in the Lives (Gracch. 1.4-1.7), observing that the same model of the sophron and devoted wife was used to cast her in the character of the paradigmatic Roman wife. Beneker argues that Porcia and Cornelia were placed in such a model because they were meant to “stand alongside the great men of the Parallel Lives” as idealized individuals “whose characters might be imitated even if their accomplishments could not be matched” (p. 214). This chapter seems to speak to Dressler’s, as both deal with male-generated paradigms of women, while using different strategies of paradigmatization.

Silvia Montiglio’s paper covers “the interplay between eros and the call to institutionalize it” in two sets of imperial period Greek novels, the first including Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and Xenophon of Ephesus’ An Ephesian Tale, while the second comprises Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, and Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Story. The sortition is based on whether marriage happens before an adventure or at the end of it – a narratological manipulation (for ideological and educational purposes), creating uncertainty as to the protagonists’ faith in each other. As Montiglio moves from one novel to the other, we find that the first group’s marriage union was “required by society and the novelistic genre” (p. 223). In contrast, the second group emphasizes the notion of consent, which Montiglio suggests is in line with the historical evolution of postclassical ideals and laws. Montiglio concluded that, in Greek novels, “marriage is not a natural bond, and no novelist pretends it is,” and various figurative and narratological strategies were necessary to navigate the naturalness of erotic longing and the artificiality of marriage. Given that the five novels were sorted narratologically, much space is used to unfold at least the skeleton plot of each. As a result, the analytical aspect of the contribution could perhaps be further expanded in a separate paper.

The revised scope of the edited volume has brought a considerable number of perspectives that tap into a similar pool of traditions and genres, and it is useful to return to Tsouvala’s introduction, where some of the common themes and diachronic changes are highlighted to make the volume more coherent. Interestingly, Montiglio’s paragraph on the historical evolution of marriage points to possible supplements to the volume: how does marriage discourse change with changing historical circumstances of marriage? Tsouvala devotes a section of the introduction to covering some aspects of this question, but rather briefly. If there is anything lacking in this enjoyable volume, perhaps it would be a closer and dedicated discussion of the evolution of the discourse on marriage in the Greco-Roman world.

Authors and Titles

1. Introduction, the Discourse of Marriage and Its Context, Georgia Tsouvala
2. Wedding Connections in Greek and Roman Art, Rebecca H. Sinos
3. Violence in the Roman Wedding, Karen Klaiber Hersch
4. Plutarch’s Marriage Advice and the Tradition of the Poetic Epithalamium, Paolo Di Meo
5. Epicurus on Marriage, Geert Roskam
6. The Impossible Feminism of “Seneca, On Marriage”: Style and the Woman in Jerome, Against Jovinian 1, Alex Dressler
7. Marriage and Animal Exemplarity in Plutarch, Katarzyna Jazdzewska
8. Death is Not the End: Spousal Devotion in Plutarch’s Portraits of Camma, Porcia, and Cornelia, Jeffrey Beneker
9. Erotic Desire and the Desire to Marry in the Ancient Greek Novels, Silvia Montiglio


[1] CVA Deutchland: Berlin: Antikensammlung, Band 16: Attische Salbgefässe, bearbeitet von Nina Zimmermann-Elseify. Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag, 2015.