Family Values in Ancient Rome

by Richard Saller

n politics we hear a lot about family values. That is hardly surprising, because the family is fundamental to our sense of social well-being. Trends in divorce rates or in numbers of single-parent families are serious causes of concern and also sources of heated political rhetoric. The well-being of the family is so basic that it is a good not reducible to impact on gross national product, though our economistic rhetoric today sometimes tries to make it one. I was shocked by a report on National Public Radio in which the harm done by abusive husbands beating wives was measured by the dollars lost to the economy. I would have thought that the harm done by spousal violence cannot be captured in dollars--at least, the ancients would never have dreamt of applying such a measure. The value of historical knowledge is that it gives us a sense of perspective to understand and assess our own condition and values.

A historical perspective is especially useful in thinking about the family and the moral values that contribute to our ideals of family life. In ideas about the sad state of the contemporary family, there is almost always some explicit or implicit historical narrative. When we lament the fact that families today are falling apart, it is generally understood that this represents a deterioration from a better past when families were healthy and whole--the image of the Cleaver family in "Leave It to Beaver," with a gentle father, a wise housewife-mother and two basically decent but mischievous sons. The politics of such an image of the family are powerful. In the conservative view, if families were healthy and whole again, government wouldn't have to have a good many social support programs. In the feminist view, this image of the family idealizes a subordinate role for women as housewives.

I have no intention of entering these contemporary political debates. My point is that these debates, and the social issues underlying them, look different depending on your historical perspective--that is, whether you believe that history is a long struggle against patriarchy or a development toward fragmentation of the family, or whether you believe women have always been in the home until the aberration of the last few decades.

Now, I am not a sociologist, able to comment authoritatively on trends in family life over the past three decades. Rather, as a Roman historian, I take a longer historical perspective. Though 2,000 years distant in time, ancient Rome is still relevant to our debates and assumptions today, because it was a formative period in European history; it was the time when Christianity emerged with a set of moral doctrines that are still with us today. The Romans also developed a body of law from which important elements of family law in the United States and Europe are descended. Furthermore, Rome was the starting point for some of the standard historical narratives about the evolution of the family and state that inform our modern assumptions.

Let me sketch what I take to be the standard evolutionary narrative, which might be summarized as a long-term shift from the patriarchal family of early times to the contemporary democratic family. There are numerous strands to this narrative, some happy and some not so happy. By patriarchal family I mean a large family unit dominated by a male elder who sternly wielded authority over women and children. By democratic family I mean the smaller family of today in which father, mother and children all have rights, all have a voice, and where children's needs are lovingly tended to. To the great nineteenth-century social theorists, such as Henry Maine, the patriarchal family was the starting point for their story of the evolution of society. In primitive times, before the existence of the state, family and kinship were the organizing units of a simple society.

Before the invention of the state, Henry Maine imagined, it was the father who wielded authority and kept order. And the prototypical father for Maine and other nineteenth-century social theorists was the Roman paterfamilias. The Roman father was a powerful type, because he possessed almost unlimited powers within the family, according to later Roman law. He had the power of life and death over his children, meaning that at birth he could choose to raise them or kill them, and later he could punish them by execution. (The celebrated legendary founder of the Roman Republic, Junius Brutus, had his sons executed for disobedience.) In addition, the early Roman father owned all property in his family; his children, no matter how old, were unable to own anything in their own name as long as the father lived. A 45-year-old senator could hold the highest office of the state, the consulship, but if his father was still alive he couldn't own a denarius' worth of property. The father also had the power to make or break his children's marriages. In early times, fathers ruled their households, and their authority maintained order and stability.

Then, in a broad social-historical evolution, patriarchy declined, as paternal authority and control were weakened by the increasing independence of wives and children. Fathers were no longer able to use limitless force arbitrarily against family members. Wives and children were no longer the property of the paterfamilias, and came to enjoy the right to own and dispose of their own property. Children began to be allowed to choose a spouse, and those choices were more influenced by romantic love. As a result of this historical evolution, we now live in an age of the affectionate family, an age when women have more independence, financial and otherwise, and when children are loved and less apt to receive corporal punishment.

I want to suggest that this story makes for dubious history, though it makes for powerful political rhetoric. It is not that all of the strands of the story are completely wrong. Rather, it is a story that is grossly oversimplified to serve the political rhetoric of the ages. One of the reasons that I say it is dubious history is that family historians of widely differing periods seem to be able to find in their own age the decline of patriarchy, the growth of individualism, and the invention of family affection characteristic of the democratic family. How many times can family affection have been invented? The modern historians Edward Shorter and Lawrence Stone placed the invention in modern Europe; the Roman historian Paul Veyne placed it in Rome in the first century after Christ; and the medievalist David Herlihy placed it in his own period of study, the Middle Ages.

The Romans had their own evolutionary story about family mores, and it had nothing to do with the invention of affection, which they took to be natural and eternal in the family. However, their story did contain elements of the decline of paternal authority and the stable family. Roman authors--all men--often lamented that in the late Republic wives no longer played the ideal role that they had fulfilled for centuries. According to the Roman writers of the first century BCE and first century CE, divorce became increasingly frequent after 200 BCE, initiated easily by the husband or the wife. In addition, wives had their own property, which they could sell, give away or bequeath as they liked. As a result, women became more liberated and less dependent on their husbands. In fact, by the late Republic a rich wife who could divorce and take her wealth with her had a real threat against her husband and could wield influence over him. The sense of independence also showed up in increasing sexual promiscuity and adultery.

Roman men deplored the fact that these rich women were more concerned with their own figures and luxuries than with their families. Unlike the good, old-time matrons, according to the historian Tacitus around 100 CE, these modern women did not spend time with their children and did not nurse their infants but left them to slave wet nurses. Furthermore, children were handed over to be raised by child-minders, usually the most useless slaves of the household.

Roman authors don't say much about daughters in general, but they wrote about the moral decline of sons. In the age of degeneracy, sons in their youth no longer obeyed their fathers the way they used to, they spent profligately on women and wine and they became increasingly sexually promiscuous. This moral degeneracy took an ugly turn in the social chaos of the civil wars that brought the Republic to an end after Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE: Roman authors reported that sons turned on their fathers during the violence.

After Caesar's successor, Augustus, won the civil war in 31 BCE and established his autocratic rule over the empire, he sought to establish his political legitimacy by reversing the moral decline of the past century. To do so, he passed a body of moral reforms, most of which were directed at the restoration of family values. In particular, Augustus made adultery a public crime and tried to force Romans to marry and to have a certain number of children, by establishing financial penalties for failure to do so. Augustus apparently didn't believe in the dictum that "you can't legislate morality." According to Tacitus, these laws didn't have the intended improving effect, and they certainly aroused the resentment of upper-class Romans at the intrusion into their private lives.

Whatever the effects of Augustus' family laws, they demonstrate a perception on the part of Augustus and his contemporaries of a serious moral decline that needed to be remedied. But had the Roman family really declined in the final century of the Republic--that is, the period from 146 BCE to 49 BCE--or was the decline a figment of Augustus' ideological imagination? In fact, the historical reality of the decline is very hard to demonstrate. The problem for us historians is one of accurate sources. The Romans emerged into the full light of history only in 200 BCE, at the time the first Roman historian wrote; for the period before 200 BCE we have virtually no contemporary written evidence. By 200 BCE, Rome was already the ruler of Italy and a world power. The earliest contemporary Latin writings date from the years immediately after the Second Punic War and just before the supposed moral decline; these texts date from 200-150 BCE and take the form of comic plays by Plautus and Terence and prose treatises by Cato.

What is interesting about these earliest Latin authors is that they are already deploring the moral decline of their own time. The stern, self-righteous moralist Cato, writing in the decades before his death, in 149 BCE, was already decrying independently wealthy women; he complained of wives who were rich enough to loan money to their husbands and then hounded them to repay when they became unhappy. A standard character type in the comedies of Plautus, written not long after 200 BCE, was the loose-living son who was smitten with love, often for a prostitute. In the plays--ancient versions of sitcoms-- there is a debate about whether fathers should be strict or indulgent toward the moral failings of their sons--usually they were indulgent in the end, just as in modern sitcoms. In fact, sons in these plays are never beaten for their disobedience, as slaves are. Plautus' errant sons are not a fictitious type invented by his imagination but are characters that had their counterparts in reality. The historian Polybius, who lived in Rome around 160-150 BCE , described the lifestyle of his senatorial friend, Scipio Aemilianus. According to Polybius, Scipio was an unusual youth precisely because he did not indulge in the fast living of his peers.

In short, the earliest Latin authors were already writing of the breakdown of the good, orderly family in which the paterfamilias maintained authority over his wife and children. If there was ever a better age before the decline, it must have been in the prehistoric era. An alternative interpretation--one that I lean toward--is that the golden age before the moral decline never existed in reality but was a later invention by Roman authors who certainly had no reliable historical evidence for moral trends. That is to say, the narrative of moral decline of the family was based on a historical mirage of a better past, and it was no more than a mirage. It is fascinating that one of Plautus' comic characters, an unusually introspective father, is made to wonder out loud whether the sons of his day really are worse behaved or whether fathers just like to imagine that in their own youth they were more obedient and morally virtuous.

Now, I am not suggesting that things never change; sociologists can document trends in family life today with sophisticated evidence and analysis. But I am suggesting that we should not confuse the moral and political rhetoric of decline with real evidence for trends. The rhetoric has been repeatedly manipulated through the ages--at least as far back as the Greeks and Romans--because it carries such a powerful charge.

On the surface, the terms of the rhetoric of family values have changed over the past 2,000 years, though some of the central issues haven't. Take the issue of the proper role of the wife or mother in the household. How much independence should women enjoy? In Roman literature, it was invariably represented as a bad thing that husbands had lost control over their wives, but more or less all Roman authors were males, so we get only one side of the debate. To Roman men, an independent wife or, worse yet, a superior wife represented an inversion of the natural hierarchical relationship of men and women. And men didn't like it, a feeling voiced most vehemently in Juvenal's misogynistic Sixth Satire. Juvenal didn't want a rich wife to lord it over him, and in fact he didn't like superior women at all.

Juvenal's caricature of the independent-thinking woman is so exaggerated that I wonder whether it is a parody of misogynistic rhetoric, but that may be to impose my twentieth-century values. What I, as a social historian, would really like is women's voices to say whether they accepted the male view of family values. But, as I said, the Roman woman's voice has been almost entirely extinguished.

I would not be surprised if in fact Roman women discussed and debated their role. Today, in our egalitarian age, although few would speak openly of a natural gender hierarchy, the talk of natural differences between women and men can slide from neutrality to what feminists would see as a reinforcement of the subordination of women in the household.

On the issue of the father's exercise of authority over children, the Romans did not question the value of paternal authority or propose a democratic model of the family, but they did debate how best to wield that authority. Some Romans argued for the positive effect of corporal punishment of children, but in the surviving texts the more common view is that children should not be beaten. The advice to parents not to hit their children sounds similar to advice about child-rearing today. For the Romans, however, the logic was a bit different, because it was part of an ideology of a slave society. An author of a tract on child-rearing written around 100 CE had this to suggest:

Children ought to be led to honorable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows nor by ill treatment; for it is surely agreed that these are fitting rather for slaves than for the freeborn [emphasis added]; for so they grow numb and shudder at their tasks, partly from the pain of blows, partly also on account of the hybris. Praise and reproof are more helpful for the freeborn than any sort of ill-usage, since the praise incites them toward what is honorable, and reproof keeps them from what is disgraceful.

In other words, in this slave society corporal punishment was regarded as fit for slaves, not for free citizen children. To beat free children risked making them slavelike. Around the same time, another Roman author, the philosopher Seneca, suggested that corporal punishment be used as a last resort on children before they were of an age to understand

Though the Romans themselves treated the use of corporal punishment to enforce paternal authority as a matter of discussion, modern social thinkers have characterized the Romans in this respect in a way suitable to their own political rhetoric. Let me offer two examples--one from the sixteenth century and one from the 1970s. In the sixteenth century, the great political theorist of absolute sovereignty, Jean Bodin, claimed that the coercive authority of the Roman father did indeed decline over time, and he took this to be the cause of the fall of the Roman empire, as indicated in an early English translation of Bodin's Republic.

For Bodin, extreme paternal power was essential to the maintenance of social order, and when Roman officials started messing with the family, the father's power of life and death over his children was undermined and the whole Roman empire came tumbling down. Now, Bodin's interpretation is not backed up by the evidence--neither the proposition that officials interfered much in the family, nor the proposition that sons started killing their fathers regularly, nor that this had anything to do with the fall of ancient Rome.

Why did Bodin make the argument? Because it fit with his political argument that it was essential for good social order that the French king enjoy absolute power of life and death over his subjects, just as the Roman father had over his children. If the French king lost this power, as the Roman father had done, then Frenchmen could expect disorder comparable to the collapse of the Roman empire.

In 1974, a psychologist and historian named de Mause wrote an influential book on the history of childhood. In it, he sketched five stages of evolution in the treatment of children, from the first stage--infanticide and child abuse in antiquity--to the fifth stage-- loving attention to the best interests of children today. This progressive history is no more accurate than Bodin's, and is equally political. It is no more accurate because de Mause completely ignored all of the Roman advice against corporal punishment of children. It is political insofar as it represents as retrograde the physical punishment of children.

Most of us probably have the sense that children are beaten less often today than in past generations, and that children are less obedient, but in fact those propositions are very hard to prove. We don't know how often children are physically punished or abused today, and we don't have the slightest idea how often children were beaten in antiquity. All we can do is trace the advice, and that advice over the centuries has fluctuated, rather than evolved from severity to indulgence. The earliest Latin prose author, Cato, said that a man should never lay hands on what was most precious to him--his wife and children. Then, 500 years later, the Christian theologian Augustine recommended that the father apply corporal punishment for his children's sins, on the grounds that it was far better for a child to suffer a beating than eternal damnation. Arguments for beating the sin out of children can be found into the early modern period. Today, the debate about the role of corporal punishment in the socialization of children continues, with family morality invoked by both sides.

Today, family values are inextricably bound up with religious beliefs, most obviously in Catholic doctrine against abortion, divorce and birth control--some of which are shared by fundamentalist Christians. My colleague Dieter Betz, in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, describes a simple historical development from pre-Christian barbarism to Christian Enlightenment to twentieth-century post-Christian neobarbarism. The distinguished medievalist David Herlihy, a good Catholic, claimed that the Catholic Church deserves credit for the family as we know it--that is, a family unit of father, mother and children bound together by reciprocal love and obligation. These historical views contain a strong religious political message. In them there is some truth and much gross distortion.

The Christian Church cannot really be credited with inventing the family as we know it. Romans before Christ took the essential family unit to be father, mother and children. The central value binding that family together was pietas, which can be translated as affectionate devotion. Husbands and wives, parents and children, were supposed to love one another.

The kernel of truth in Betz's and Herlihy's claims is that the early Christians chose the domain of family values to mark themselves off from their non-Christian neighbors in the Roman empire. The early Church fathers preached against divorce, against infanticide and abortion, and against sexual activity outside marriage. For each of these doctrines, there were some pagan philosophical antecedents, but the early Church tried to impose these family values on its believers on a scale that pagan philosophers couldn't. With the Church and its priests came wider dissemination of these values and structures for policing behavior. It is hard to know how successful that Church was in suppressing divorce, infanticide and so on.

As for the idea that we are returning to neobarbarism today--what a depressing thought. While few of us might formulate the issue so starkly, many of us probably have the uncomfortable feeling that we live in a time of disintegrating family values. Taking the long view, I would say that it is not so simple. For example, the number of abortions today may incline us to think that we are returning to an era before the rise of Christian doctrine against abortion and infanticide (a distinction that the Romans didn't recognize). The historical realities are far more complex. The problem of unwanted and unplanned babies is age-old; Church doctrine didn't make the problem go away. David Kertzer's book, Sacrificed for Honor: Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control, makes for horrifying reading. In the strongly Catholic Italy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Church not only forbade abortion but also stigmatized unwed mothers. These mothers were forced to give up their babies to orphanages and then to nurse other women's babies. Contemporary observers described awful scenes in which these poor women were surrounded by hungry infants who were screaming because they were slowly starving. The mortality rates of these infants went as high as 90 percent in some orphanages. This was done in the name of Catholic family values, though some contemporaries denounced the practice as infanticide. To my mind, the problem with the argument that we are returning to neobarbarism is that it confuses ideals with realities and compares the ideals of the past with the realities of today. Many of the realities of today are disquieting, but so were the realities of the past.

By way of conclusion, I want to repeat that I am not suggesting that family life and values have not changed; rather, I believe that these changes do not fit into any simple evolutionary scheme, either positive or negative. Central issues, such as the disciplining of children and the independence of wives, have been the subject of debate as far back as Latin literature goes. Over the past century, we have experienced major socioeconomic changes that have had an important impact on the family. The most obvious one is the demographic transition, which has led to a great increase in life expectancy and a decrease in fertility. Because of much shorter average life spans in ancient Rome, most children then did not have a living father to impose his authority all the way through their teenage years. The second huge change is the nature of family wealth. From Roman times until this century, the economic well-being of children depended mostly on how much land their parents left them by inheritance. Today, real property has been surpassed as a form of wealth by human capital--that is, the value of the education and training children receive. These fundamental social and economic changes seem to me to offer the potential for a better future, but then, I should refrain from my own political rhetoric about family values.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Richard Saller

Richard SallerRichard P. Saller is the provost of the University of Chicago and Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History and Classics. Saller earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1978 and has developed field specialties in Roman imperial society, especially family history, Roman law and ancient economic history. His research has concentrated on Roman social and economic history, in particular patronage relations and the family. He is interested in the use of literary, legal and epigraphic materials to investigate issues of social hierarchy and gender distinctions.

Among his publications are Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire (1982) and Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family (1994). He has co-edited Economy and Society in Ancient Greece: Papers of Sir Moses Finley (1981) and The Family in Italy From Antiquity to the Present, with an introduction by Kertzer and Saller (1991). With P.D.A. Garnsey, Saller has co-authored The Early Principate: Augustus to Trajan, Greece & Rome, New Surveys in the Classics No. 15 (1982) and The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (1987).

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