Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 26, 2010

Three Steps Forward, Four Steps Back: What Families of the Past Want to Tell the Church Today (Part 2: Ancient Rome)

We’ll take the first few installments to visit the families of Rome, starting with the main character, the paterfamilias, or male head of household.  The first-century Roman family bears enough similarities with its Greek and Hebrew counterparts to serve as a case study for all three:  while women enjoyed varying degrees of freedom and/or protection, all three societies were patriarchal; slaves and extended family figured as a part of the household; and, in contrast with modern sensibilities, marriage was arranged around labor, inheritance, economic, and political concerns; love was a fortuitous development, not a given.  Of course, Roman culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks.  Additionally, because Jewish families of the Diaspora typically adopted the customs of the ambient culture, and the early church incorporated gentiles so quickly, a separate study of first-century Jewish culture is not imperative to the understanding of New Testament-era families.  In addition to the lessons these first-century families can teach us, an understanding of what terms like “family” and “household” meant to the original readers of the New Testament texts is critical to the correct interpretation of texts like Ephesians 2:19 and Galatians 6:10.

The Roman concept of familia differs in many respects from the modern American notion of family.  Although a man usually occupied his own living quarters with his wife and children, the ancient Romans would never have considered such a nuclear family in isolation from its larger network of connections, namely, the familia;  neither was the nuclear family a familia in its own right.  Nor was the Roman household simply multiple generations of a single family living under one roof.  The familia comprised everyone under the authority of a paterfamilias, or head of household.  It included a man’s wife (although in certain circumstances the wife continued to be considered part of her father’s familia even after marriage), unmarried children, and both current and former slaves and their families, plus his adult children and their families and current and former slaves and their families, as well.  The familia did not typically reside in a single home.  Additionally, the Romans would not have recognized providing love and emotional support to its members as one of the family’s most important functions (or a function of the family at all, for that matter), as we do today.  The Roman household might, in some sense, be thought of as a collection of persons allied around a common economic or political interest.

We begin with the main character of the Roman household, the paterfamilias.  The paterfamilias would have received an inheritance, or patrimony, from his father at the time of the father’s death.  One of the primary responsibilities of the paterfamilias was to augment the patrimony and prepare his children to receive and manage it prudently.  While children may or may not have been beloved members of the family, they were certainly the means to continue the family line, a source of labor, and assurance of support in old age.  Affection for one’s own children was not assumed, but considered just as much a matter of chance as developing an affectionate bond with anyone else life might bring across one’s path.

Roman families, regardless of economic status, seldom had more than two or three (legitimate) children.  Historians suggest several explanations.  Some assert that most families actually had several children, but the high infant and child mortality rate (approximately 40% for ancient societies in general) coupled with less formal burial practices for children, leave us lacking manuscript or archaeological evidence for their existence; others suggest that factors such as lead poisoning and intermarriage compromised fertility.  Still others point to the active use of birth control, abortion, and infanticide, suggesting that for wealthy Romans, keeping families small was a strategy to avoid losing wealth and power as a result of dividing an estate amongst several children generation after generation. Alternatively, husbands might cease having sexual relations with their wives and turn to slaves, prostitutes, or a mistress instead.  Children produced by such liaisons could not be acknowledged and, because they were illegitimate, had no claim on their father’s estate.  Others families were simply too poor to feed many children.  Additionally, under legislation designed to provide incentives for families to have more children, a woman could achieve emancipation from her husband by bearing three or more children.  It is possible that some men kept their families small in order to maintain control of their wives.  Parents also occasionally exposed infants en masse as a form of protest against a god or civil authority.  Although most exposed infants died, some were taken in by other families as slaves or foster children.

Childrearing was seldom handled by parents alone.  The involvement of the familia began at birth.  In addition to the midwife (who stayed to help care for mother and child for as long as a week after the delivery), as many as ten female members of the husband’s and wife’s families would be present for the birth.  In addition to the familia, friends of the husband and wife attended religious ceremonies related to the birth of the infant (lustratio).  This set of relatives and friends provided moral support to the mother in the birth, they provided social support for both parents, they filled a potentially legal function for both parents and child, and they provided the foundation for the child’s support network for the future.

A nurse or tutor was retained by the parents during infancy, and sometimes remained well into adulthood as an advisor or sort of surrogate parent (especially if a boy’s father had died while he was still young).  Both boys and girls attended school, learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and history together until age 12, when girls returned home to learn homemaking skills from their mothers.  Upper-class girls might additionally study music and literature.  Upper-class boys continued on to study literature and rhetoric, and began to accompany their father in public (most importantly to the meetings of the senate if eligible), while the rest learned a trade.  It was not unusual for sons to be given up for adoption in order to further their employment or political prospects.

In our next installment, we’ll join the familia as the children reach marriageable age.


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