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Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History.

Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History. By Keith R. Bradley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. viii plus 216 pp. $32.50/cloth $11.95/paperback).

Taking their cue from students of the family in more recent times, Roman social historians have in the last decade shown increasing interest in defining and describing this institution as it existed in the central period of Roman history, roughly from 200 B. C. to A. D. 200. Differences of method and the ever-unsatisfactory quality and extent of the evidence have fostered controversy. Keith Bradley's collection of eight essays, five of which appear in print for the first time, makes an important contribution to this debate.

Aspects of social role and structure are at the heart of Bradley's study: there is relatively little on demography, law, and physical setting, nothing on cult. Bradley is chiefly interested in family relationships for what they tell us about composition and sentiment. A recurring theme is the quality of family life for children.

The argument poses a serious challenge to the recent inclination to view the Roman family as nuclear in structure, a type much like that said to prevail in the modern West. Bradley's own conception of the "contemporary Western family" is not free from objection, insofar as it takes no account of such phenomena as daycare, single-parent families, and class differences. Only late in the book is the modern "divorce revolution" acknowledged. Despite this, Bradley's presentation of the pronounced variety and flexibility exhibited by the Roman family has considerable merit and should influence future discussion on the subject. His scholarship is careful, detailed, and sensible.

After an introduction in which he lays out the main lines of his approach in the context of recent discussion, Bradley presents three chapters on childminders. "The Social Role of the Nurse in the Roman World" takes up the theme of an earlier essay by Bradley on wetnursing at Rome to show that the practice was also common in the provinces. Bradley relies mainly on epigraphic evidence to demonstrate that the relationship between nurse and nursling was affectionate, and frequently extended into the latter's adulthood. Nurses' status tended to be low (slave or freed), while that of their employers varied considerably.

"Child Care at Rome: The Role of Men" again considers the status of the childminder, almost always of servile origin. The status of the children minded appears to have varied, though the best evidence concerning slaves comes from the familia Caesaris. Once charges were weaned, male and female nurses played a largely identical role. Older children tended to be supervised by a male paedagogus, a moral preceptor and protector, who in Bradley's view served as surrogate parent.

In Chapter 4, "Tatae and Mammae in the Roman Family", Bradley explains these affectionate nicknames, which were used of biological parents, nurses, and other care providers. Typically of low status, like their charges, Tatae and Mammae are associated with very young children, though here again the tie might last many years, even when they were not the child's parents. Often, they coexisted with biological parents, in a collaborative practice of child-rearing. The physical setting of the slave family discouraged the formation and maintenance of a "nuclear" structure, and opened up a role for "quasi-parents" in place of or side-by-side with natural parents.

Chapter 5, "Child Labor in the Roman World", makes another contribution to our knowledge of how family life was structured for some non-aristocratic children. The material ease and freedom of discretion enjoyed by the sons and daughters of the elite contrast sharply with the lives of lower-order children as represented in 30 apprenticeship contracts from Roman Egypt. These documents show how children were sent, at the behest of parents, to work at a given craft in a given place under conditions of some rigor.

Making the obvious point that upper-class children were better off is hardly Bradley's purpose. He is able to show once again how flexible family structure could be in the Roman world. Just as nonkin are brought in as quasi-parents, so kin sometimes exit the household. In some cases it seems as if new familial units are formed--the relationship of master and apprentice at times resembles that of parent and child--without the complete sundering of ties between apprentice and family of origin.

Chapters 6 and 7, "Dislocation in the Roman Family" and "Remarriage and the Structure of the Upper-Class Family at Rome", argue first that, although an ideal of family existed, this was largely devoid of emotional content, second that this was true of the actual experience of family life.

The thrust of Chapter 6 is that Roman family members were as a rule not warmly affectionate toward one another. One explanation lies in the system of arranged marriage: "to marry for love at Rome was to engage in a socially deviant form of behavior." The frequent dissolution of marriage by divorce or early death, followed by remarriage, had a decisive impact on emotional ties within the entire family. Numerous offspring of varying ages produced in different unions could not have enjoyed the close relationships Bradley posits for siblings in the "modern Western nuclear family." The picture was further complicated by the introduction of care-providers who themselves became objects of affection.

That there was an ideal of affectionate marriage at Rome was first adumbrated by Paul Veyne over a decade ago and has of late been conclusively demonstrated by Suzanne Dixon and Susan Treggiari. Bradley concedes the existence of an ideal, but argues that its content was quite mild.

The evidence is admittedly difficult. Yes, the cases of affectionate marriage offered by the moralist Valerius Maximus are few and atypical, but in fact these are intended as instances of an almost heroic affection, an extreme or, if you will, an ideal of an ideal. True, the legal phrase bene concordantia matrimonia is passionless, but what does one expect from lawyers? It merely means to describe "successful marriages" and says nothing about actual or ideal sentiment: the jurists wanted a formula that would embrace a large number of unions of varying emotional content. The same holds for affectio maritalis, a term which denoted the subjective requirement for marriage, i.e. the necessary consent of the partners. This has the virtue of being somewhat less dry, and is ignored by Bradley.

Next Bradley holds that marriages did not live up to the bland ideal he sets for them. In his view, the high rate of divorce was caused in part by a lack of emotional investment by spouses. Given the paucity of evidence, one might also argue that the lack of emotional investment was caused by the high rate of divorce. Better still, we can say the existence of an ideal was one reason for the divorce rate. High expectations, when unsatisfied (the higher the expectations, the more likely the dissatisfaction), often contributed to the disintegration of unions. In other words, when marriages turned loveless, they foundered, which may suggest existing unions were by and large affectionate. It does not prove this, but the reader will see on what uncertain ground we stand.

We can know little about the impact of serial marriage on the emotional life of Roman children (p. 138). I find it difficult to accept, as Bradley does, that the inscriptional record proves strong affection between children and members of the familia (slaves and freedmen), but does not for parents and children or husbands and wives.

The theme of remarriage and its effects on family life returns in chapter 7, which begins with an inquiry into the frequency of this practice among the Roman elite (a version of this chapter now appears in B. Rawson ed., Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome [Oxford, 1991]. Bradley takes as a test sample the consuls in office from 80-50 B. C. and their wives. Even for this high-profile group, crucial information is lacking and the size of the sample (59 consuls) is too small to allow the easy inclusion of cases that are not certain. The attempt to chart the consequences of the "familial blending" generated by serial marriage is again hindered by lack of information on the emotional texture of the families in the sample.

Bradley goes on to explain how the situation of domestic staff in the Roman household differed from that found in more recent European societies. The special status of slaves and freedmen influenced the organization of their labor, length of stay, and consequently the formation of affective bonds with other members of the household. When this factor is combined with other prominent attributes of the Roman family (including neo-local marriage, frequency of divorce and remarriage) it becomes difficult to fit this institution into any of the typologies developed for other historical periods, in particular Laslett's "Mediterranean" type, proposed for Rome by Richard Saller and Brent Shaw.

Bradley prefers as a possible model for the Roman elite family the "contemporary Western family, under the impact of the modern 'divorce revolution' ". Serial marriage created an intricate pattern of familial relationships, which Bradley describes in detail. The result was a dynamic entity, which "embraced both kin and nonkin members within a single household and beyond, and combined elements of nuclearity with more extensive associations of vital importance."

The final chapter, "A Roman Family" concentrates on Cicero's family relationships, a relatively well-documented case thanks to the survival of the orator's letters. Despite the limitations even of this evidence (which are freely acknowledged), Bradley's argument is cogent overall.

Cicero's idea of a family--derived from casual references to his own and others'--emerges as fairly extensive. Cicero acts in effect as a surrogate parent for younger brother Quintus and later for Quintus's own son of the same name, arranging a marriage, intervening in spousal bickering, dispensing discipline, sponsoring a coming-of-age ceremony. Bradley concludes that for adult family members "children were a collective responsibility." In sum, quibbles aside, this is a very important book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in the Roman family or related fields.

T.A.J. McGinn Vanderbilt University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:McGinn, T.A.J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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