BMCR 2022.10.43

Married life in Greco-Roman antiquity

, Married life in Greco-Roman antiquity. Routledge monographs in Classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xi, 215. ISBN 9780367345044. £120.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.][1]

Centlivres Challet’s edited volume assesses the nature of married life in the ancient world, focusing on the affective characteristics of the relationship as well as normative conceptions of these unions. Equally important, most of the ten contributors attempt to understand how those in the ancient world navigated the problems that arose when real-life experiences failed to conform to social and ideological expectations.  In general, these are thoughtful and successful pursuits. This collection also makes use of a wide array of sources and approaches, but does not try to offer typologies or quantitative assessments of the institution. Rather, the authors here are focused on the qualitative aspects of the married state.

Before discussing the content in greater detail, I should begin by noting that the book’s title is slightly misleading.  While the first two essays deal with Hellenistic topics and the third with a Republican one, the rest of the contributions are chronologically set within the Roman imperial era (including two essays dealing with Roman Egypt). Those reasonably expecting contributions about the Archaic or Classical Greek periods or perhaps Late Antiquity are going to be disappointed. A more accurate title might have been Married Life in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 300 BCE – 200 CE.

The editor begins with an introduction outlining the volume’s conceptual parameters. The collection here, she begins, focuses on the conventional; that is, on legal unions and spouses rather than their many alternatives (extramarital relationships, multiple marriages, etc.).  The relationship in marriage, and its impact on husbands and wives, are thus the topics. In that context, the volume’s primary goal lies in understanding how real couples faced everyday trials and pressures while conforming to—or failing to conform to—societal expectations and gender-specific paradigms. The concept of “ordinariness” is of especial interest: how did couples understand and present themselves in a way that reinforced those social and ideological conventions?

Bonnie MacLachlan’s opening contribution about non-elite Hellenistic couples is as methodological as it is historical.  Her review of the surviving source material—including funerary inscriptions, papyri, and curse tablets—articulates the problems with attempting to interpret it.  Although she admits that we are fortunate to have evidence that survives from non-elites, her essay essentially questions how much we can actually say about “ordinary” couples.  In that sense, MacLachlan is almost a counterpoint to Centlivres Challet’s introductory remarks.

Examining Hellenistic funerary epigrams, Charlotte Golay argues that inscriptions to departed spouses provided an opportunity not only to praise the deceased, but also define the commemorator.  In that sense, these farewells emphasized the individual qualities of each, in part to reinforce the importance of marital harmony and affection. Like MacLachlan, Golay is mindful of the theoretical challenges of interpreting this material, but seems a bit more comfortable in drawing more definitive conclusions.

Judith Hallett, in analyzing the depiction of an idealized vilicus and vilica (normally a slave or freed couple responsible for overseeing a farm) found in De Agricultura, argues that Cato the Elder tied their sexual comportment to the economics of an estate. This “how-to” manual prescribes that a master select a woman for the vilicus. Once she is chosen, he should limit his sexual activity to his mate, and he should make his “wife” fear and obey him. A well-ordered, hierarchical union ensured a well-ordered property. Hallett also makes a persuasive case for the negative influence of the comic playwright Plautus on Cato’s coarser recommendations.

Ovid’s views on the marital union while in exile is the subject of Jacqueline Fabre-Serris’ contribution. She argues that as the poet realized his deportation to Pontus was permanent, his thoughts about his own wife’s love and devotion evolved.  While initially praising her as a dutiful and modest spouse, his later work takes on an increasingly strident quality, urging her to be a more vocal advocate of his interests. That he asks her to intercede on his behalf with Livia and even to mimic her ambitio is indicative of the problems with traditional concepts of marital piety (and passivity) in evolving personal circumstances.

Ida Gilda Mastrorosa looks at the writings of the intellectuals and literati of the first and second centuries CE to understand better the relationship of husband to wife in terms of hierarchy.  While these authors collectively articulate an unequal relationship between spouses—hardly surprising given that these writers are all men—the author also notes the ability of wives to negotiate their own status and agency. This came with a growing cultural acceptance of women in the imperial age more publicly engaged. Mastrorosa calls these authors “middle-class”, perhaps as a nod to the concept of the ordinary. Possibly, but it would be a mistake not to consider them as elites.

The ability of women to abstain from hedonistic pleasures and to exhibit self-control, found in the Satyrica, is the subject of Karen E. Kleiber Hirsch’s chapter. Her contribution is something of an outlier in the collection, insofar as it draws upon fictional material. Amongst the compulsive gourmands satirized by Petronius, three women are highlighted, able to control their destinies and that of their respective husbands through force of will.  The tale of Circe and Encolpius is particularly evocative, emphasizing how the success of a marriage is often contingent on the woman making it so.  While Kleiber Hirsch makes a compelling argument, one is unsure how it works into a volume that deals with real couples. Did these models of matronal strength serve as exampla, reflecting broader social mores?

The following chapter deconstructs Plutarch’s well-known treatise, Marriage Precepts.  Examining several pieces of the philosopher’s advice, David Konstan observes that Plutarch’s broader (male) willingness to express sentiment as an ideal of marriage is perhaps indicative of a greater sense of equality between partners. He argues that such sentiment expresses a broader challenge to the asymmetrical relationship of husband and wife that traditionally (or ideally?) characterized matrimony.  This reviewer was somewhat agnostic on this point, but certainly Kostan has demonstrated a far more nuanced notion of the spousal bond.

In arguably the most interesting contribution of the volume, Mary Harlow and Lena Larsson Lovén examine the iconography of husband-wife funerary monuments.  Picking examples from the late Republic and early Empire, they consider the expression of marital ideals in the imagery and accompanying inscriptions.  They note the importance of concordia, feminine domesticity and the development of greater emotional attachment. They, too, consider “ordinariness” as outlined in the book’s introduction. It is unclear, however, whether they use “ordinary” in the sense of “non-elite” or in the sense of “not unusual”.  This takes on importance when considering these monuments: does “ordinary” refer to the people represented or to the iconographic qualities of these commemorations?

The final two contributions examine papyri found in Roman Egypt. Marianna Thoma looks at the financial aspects of marriage in the first and second centuries, focusing on sales and loans between spouses. Thoma demonstrates that women were able to use their wealth to secure greater influence and stronger legal standing in the union itself. The affluence of prospective and actual wives, legal and de facto, is a topic unto itself, but the surviving contracts show women of means could command considerable autonomy.

Finally, Maryline Parca looks at Ptolemaic and Roman papyri to understand something of the emotional qualities of marriage. She correctly outlines the challenges in this task, but argues that normative opinions and expectations about marriage may be gleaned from marriage and divorce contracts, and from surviving letters. Honor and modesty are unsurprisingly expressed, but the contracts also indicate the negative emotions thought detrimental to a successful marriage (jealousy, shame, etc.).  Many of the letters moreover indicate a complex mixture of emotional attachment and practical concerns.  As Parca concludes, one should not assume because one spouse might “want” something from the other, that expressions of affection were not honestly and sincerely felt.

One of the strengths of this collection is the degree to which the individual chapters tie in and overlap with one another.  There is considerable crossover, in terms of the sources, the individuals and places involved, and the themes surrounding the affective qualities of marriage. Too often in edited collections, connections can be tenuous, both in terms of concept and content.  This is not the case here and Centlivres Challet has done an admirable job in bringing together a focused set of essays.

A second strength of the book is the attention paid to methodology by the contributors. Understanding not just the sort of source material we possess, but also the ways in which to approach and interpret it, can be glossed over—especially in shorter pieces. This is not the case here.

This reviewer’s only concern, as is perhaps evident from above, is the concept of “ordinariness.”  It ultimately seems less clearly defined by the time one reaches the end of the collection than at the beginning. Different contributors have interpreted this idea in different ways, which is to be expected.  But that also means that the term becomes increasingly and unhelpfully malleable. Is it socioeconomic? Is it cultural? Is it a historiographic tool? And ultimately, does it have hermeneutic value?

Taken as a whole, however, this is a strong contribution to the topic of marriage in the antique Mediterranean world and each essay has considerable merit. While perhaps not groundbreaking, both the editor and the individual authors have created an eminently readable, well-integrated and highly useful volume.


Authors and Titles

Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres Challet, Life Within an Ancient Knot: The Extraordinary within the Confines of the Ordinary

Bonnie Maclachlan, Mind the Gap: Evidence (?) for Non-Elite Couples in the Hellenistic Period

Charlotte Golay, From Ideal to Reality: Married Couples on Hellenistic Inscribed Grave Epigrams

Judith P. Hallett, Vilicus and Vilica in the De Agri Cultura: The Elder Cato’s Script for a Farming Couple

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Literary Models and Social Challenges: Marital Love According to Ovid in the Tristia and Epistulae Ex Ponto

Ida Gilda Mastrorosa, For Better or for Worse: Conjugal Relationships of Writers and Intellectuals under the Challenges of the Empire

Karen E. Klaiber Hersch, Worth Her Weight: Worthy Women, Coupling, and Eating in Petronius’ Satyrica

David Konstan, Reading Plutarch’s Marriage Precepts

Mary Harlow and Lena Larsson Lovén, Looking Ordinary: Ideals and Ideologies in the Iconography of Married Couples in Roman Society

Marianna Thoma, Material Aspects of Marriage: Economic Transactions between Spouses in Roman Egypt

Maryline Parca, ‘For I Have No Other Sun But You’: Emotions and Married Life in Greek Papyri



[1] Disclaimer: this reviewer participated in the conference upon which the book was largely based.