Placing the Early Christian Family in its Roman Context

[1] Modern Christian notions of the family have foundational roots set in the nascent period of Christianity’s earliest developments. At a time when the ELCA is currently revisiting and revising the church’s social statement on sexuality, it is fitting to return to the early roots of the family and the heart of our most foundational relationships to consider how they might continue to inform our own modern perspectives.

[2] The study of the family is at present a rich subfield within both early Christian studies and Roman history. A full survey of this scholarship is beyond the scope of this short article; however, I intend to provide here a brief primer on some of the more interesting recent assessments and to point curious readers in fruitful directions.[1] I also hope to begin combining these findings with the distinctive Lutheran perspective and the current debates.

[3] A variety of sub-disciplines has contributed to the upswing in the study of the family. Feminist scholarship has pressing interest in questions of the family, both pioneering and continuing to break ground on a range of essential issues. Growing emphasis on the social history of the Roman world has greatly expanded knowledge of the family during the Roman Imperial Period. Added to these developments, is the attention of archaeologists, some of whom are turning away from large scale monuments and great works of art to examine more closely the artifacts of simple daily life. The confluence of these academic developments produced in 2000 an “Early Christian Families Group” to be held at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. This SBL Group and the prominent scholars it draws together yearly provide a driving force behind the rich scholarship in recent years studying the early Christian family within its ancient context.

The Family According to Jesus and Paul

[4] New Testament attitudes towards the family within the setting of both Jesus’ and Paul’s ministries sets the stage for an examination of the early Christian family during the Roman Imperial Period. Jesus’ attitudes towards his own family are markedly ambivalent in the gospel accounts. The prominent role of Jesus’ mother Mary from the long birth narrative of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:5-2:52) extends into the Gospel of John where Mary is present at Jesus’ first miraculous sign (John 2:1-11) and again at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27). These Marian traditions stand sharply juxtaposed with Jesus’ frustration with his family in Mark (Mark 3:21 and 31-35; 6:1-6a; also Matthew 12:46-50). Mark sets Jesus’ critique of his family as part of his proclamation of the radical new definitions of family among his believers. Jesus’ followers abandon their families and their attendant responsibilities to follow Jesus (Mark 1:16-20; 10:28-30) and create a new community of redefined family made up of brothers and sisters. The Matthean account strongly emphasizes that Jesus did not come to overturn the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20) – and Jesus acknowledges the law to honor one’s mother and father in the synoptic gospels (see for instance Matthew 19:19; Luke 18:20; Mark 7:9-13; 10:19). The message that Jesus brought, however, and the new patterns of relationship this message created clearly challenged established family bonds (Matthew 10:34-39; Luke 12:49-53). Jesus’ brief end-times statements further underline this familial disruption. Jesus predicted a world to come in which brother would stand against brother and woe to the woman who was in childbirth (Mark 13:12 and 17; Matt. 24:19; Luke 21:16) – not exactly an inspiration for a Norman Rockwell painting. The kingdom of God brought with it a redefined notion of family and constituted a fundamental challenge to the established social order of Jesus’ times on many levels. This challenge to established family bonds in the light of a new passion to follow the way that Jesus set forth provided an ongoing motif in early Christianity. To put these changes in sociological terms, Christianity created a new fictive kinship group in contradistinction to the established kinship groups within its surrounding Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. In theological terms, Christianity with its radical and complex notions of the kingdom of God (whether future or realized) constructed a newly unified family comprised of children of God who were adopted as brothers and sisters of Christ under a divine father. Traditional familial ideas of hospitality, loyalty and shared work took on new valences within this redefined fictive kinship group.[2]

[5] Paul also serves poorly as an advertising poster for traditional family values, whether conceived in ancient or modern terms. Paul is best characterized as showing decided indifference towards familial matters. Unmarried himself, he encouraged others to remain single if they could to escape unnecessary distractions (1 Cor. 7:7-8, 28, 32-35). Marriage is only specifically endorsed to provide acceptable sexual relations for anyone tempted otherwise towards sexual impurity (1 Cor. 7:1-6, 9, 36-38; 1 Thess. 4:1-8). Within Paul’s richly apocalyptic worldview, there was little need to worry about creating, let alone raising and educating the next generation. Instead, Paul offered the very practical advice that if one was married they should stay married, if single to remain single, and if a slave to remain a slave (1 Cor. 7:12-40). Children and their ongoing care and protection were likewise of limited concern within this worldview.[3] None of these temporal states or concerns mattered much in the face of the apocalyptic urgency of the resurrection and in light of Paul’s own encounter with the risen Christ. Interest in the family and especially in proper order within Paul’s house churches only became a pressing ecclesiastical issue when internal disruption threatened to distract his communities from the more important and urgent work at hand.

[6] Like Jesus, Paul was very interested, however, in employing the language of family metaphorically to make sense of the relationships within the new Christian community. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses familial language to describe the Thessalonians’ new relationships with God, with himself and with one another.[4] Paul constructs the Thessalonians as a new eschatological family characterized by brotherly love for one another. Paul employs diverse language to describe his own relationship with the community including that of caring father, a wet nurse, and as an orphan while he is separated from them. God as father is envisioned as both creator of the whole world and also of the new family into which he draws those whom he loves. Paul is particularly fond of the parent/child relationship in describing the intimate relationships that connect the new believing community, himself, and God. He also connects the parent/child language especially with adoption and the promise of a new inheritance (Romans 8:14-23; Galatians 3:26-4:7).[5]

[7] Drawing upon contemporary ideas of the family, Jesus and Paul created a language of a newly defined idealized Christian community. To uncover Christian families and “notions of the family,” however, one is instead forced to turn to the next generation of Christians. Living within slightly muted apocalyptic expectations, these predominantly gentile Christians raised families and lived lives within Greco-Roman cities scattered across the Roman Empire. These Christian families were the first to adapt the Gospel and Pauline messages to the challenges of an ongoing familial life within their world. To understand the lives of these families we must envision them within their socio-economic and cultural setting of the Roman family and only then consider where and if Christian families may have been distinctive from their larger surroundings. We must also always hold these familial relationships in tension with the other major streams of thought within Christianity that remained critical of family life, elevating in its place celibacy and ascetic renunciation. The Pauline Pastoral letters that emphasized marriage and childbirth did so in sharp contrast with the contemporary writings of the non-canonical Acts of the Apostles which valorized instead lives of chastity and virginity. The Pastorals, with all of their emphasis on proper roles for women, and startling ideas like women saved through childbirth, deliver a message of elevating marriage and family as a means to order and control the growing society of Christians. This message, however, remained but a counterpoint, or acceptable alternative, to the higher place reserved for the ideals of virginity and sexual renunciation.

[8] One of the fundamental challenges in studying the early Christian family is the difficulty of separating Christians during this time period from their larger Greco-Roman context. While we have writings by some of the early church fathers from the second through the fourth centuries that address issues of marriage and the family, these writings are typically far more interested in establishing prescriptive boundaries and constructing ideal forms than in describing realities of family life.[6] These writings effectively excluded the vast majority of Christians, the silent majority who lived less extreme lives.[7] To recover the early Christian family, then, we must rely instead on envisioning them first in terms of the Roman family of which they remained a subset. Christians by and large remained outwardly obedient, where possible, to the demands of Roman law and tradition and to present themselves as faithful Roman citizens.[8] With a few notable exceptions (such as with divorce and child exposure), Christians seemed willing to follow the lead of Roman attitudes towards the family. So what were those Roman attitudes toward family? What follows is a run-down of the top five important issues regarding the Roman family and a suggestion of how each connects with contemporary debates such as those of the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality.

Top Five List for the Roman Imperial Family

One: Definitions Matter!

[9] There is no single term in Latin for family as we mean it in modern terminology.[9] The closest cognate, familia, was used for a range of extended relationships organized under the pater familias (father). Familia most particularly described the grouping of individuals under the power and authority (potestas) of the pater familias organized often in hierarchical terms such as slaves, children, and mother. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the emphasis on power and authority, the term familia is used often to describe slaves and even groupings of slaves within a household. The word familia worked as a legal construct that did not necessarily define or describe social realities.[10] At stake in this legal usage were economic issues such as rights over the household and household property. The ambiguous place of the mother within the familia provides an important caution of the complexities and limits with using the word familia in relation to the modern family. If the mother had married sine manu (“without the hand” – see marriage discussion below) as was common during the Imperial Period then she remained part of her father’s familia (and under his potestas) rather than becoming part of her husband’s familia.

[10] The term domus may be more useful for referring to the family in relation to modern notions and was increasingly employed by Romans during the Imperial Period to describe the “family.” Domus indicated the physical building of the “house” as well as the grouping of people living together under one roof. In poorer families without attendant slaves or freedmen, the people who comprised the domus were often co-terminus with the nuclear family, possibly connecting to a few additional close family members living with them. But in wealthy families the term would extend to the vast number of people who could be tied together within one “household.” The term domus could also extend to the wider group of kin that originated out of a single household. The domus extended still further to incorporate the dead, as well as the living. Busts of deceased family members and imagines (wax images of ancestors’ faces that were worn especially by actors in funeral processions for the family) were displayed prominently within the home. Family tombs mirrored this ongoing connection through the domus, replicating the household symbolically and serving as places for living members to share ritual meals with their dead relatives.

[11] The domus possessed a powerful sacred and symbolic character. The essential sacred role of the household was manifest in the family lars and penates and with household altars on which the pater familias made simple regular offerings.[11] The physical structure of the domus demarcated essential boundaries of power and social hierarchy. The ability to defend one’s own household was a fundamental statement of a man’s power. The physical layout and artistic expression of the domus were carefully controlled by aristocrats to impress and even overwhelm their guests with their power and wealth.[12] The domus also served as a place to enact and reinforce the Roman system of patronage. The social system of patrons and clients was a defining feature of Roman political and economic life. Clients would come daily to the domus of their patrons to seek favors and protection and to find what was expected of them in return.

[12] The Greek term oikos which is employed frequently in the New Testament is roughly equivalent to the Roman term domus. Emphasizing the physical house or dwelling place, oikos extended to ideas of home, family and even civic life.[13] In the Greek East, earlier notions of the Greek family persisted during the Roman period. Concepts like the importance of the hearth and guest-friendship still had power. However, ruled by the Roman Empire, the Greek East was increasingly bound by Roman notions and definitions, particularly with the power and constraints of the ideas surrounding familia.

[13] Each of these specific terms for “the family” – familia, domus, and oikos – possessed fluidity and ambiguity. They dealt with the complexities of blood and kinship ties but also with the large number of non-kin such as slaves who were part of the household. They combined issues of power and organization, of legal rights and social responsibilities. Bound by physical location and by ties of affection, these terms incorporated a wide diversity of complex social realities. These terms and categories also remained open-ended. The domus or oikos, for instance, were not simply fixed structures or grouping of people but were ever shifting and always under construction.[14]

[14] Reflecting on the terminology of familia, domus and oikos may have useful implications both for understanding the context within which early Christians defined the family but also for our modern constructions of “family.” For us family is also often defined by the state in terms of taxes and tax benefits, inheritances, legal protections and responsibilities. The reality of family life, its functioning, power (both internal and external), and even sacrality, however, may well elude these externally imposed definitions. The complex relationships that are formed by people living together under one roof as a single unit may most meaningfully describe “family” both then and now. We may also be wise to keep our own definitions ambiguous and open-ended, recognizing that the family unit remains both complex and ever changing.

Two: Back to the sources! What can we really know?

[15] It is essential with any topic in the ancient world that we remain sensitive to the sources: to what we know, how we know it, and what the limits of our knowledge are. For the study of the family, modern scholars have drawn from a wide range of ancient sources to try to reconstruct this elusive social reality. Daily life can be partially envisioned from the ground up thanks to archaeological finds of preserved houses and from the small finds of simple domestic items.[15] At the opposite end of the spectrum, laws reflect imperial attempts to define and control families from a top down perspective – the success and enforcement of these laws is, however, a very different matter, especially in a world with a responsive legal system and with no standing police force. Marriage and divorce documents preserved on papyri further reflect the legal aspects of marriage, while underlining the economic transactions that occurred between families in creating and dissolving these ties.

[16] Perhaps the most fruitful evidence for the study of the family has proven to be funerary monuments. Recording in written and artistic form idealized notions of real families set up by a particular individual at a particular moment of familial dislocation, these monuments provide both individualized perspectives and a wealth of demographic data for the study of the family. Some of the challenges with working with this material, however, include the highly formulaic language that distorted individual social realities to fit with idealized virtues and societal expectations. Both visual and written formulations shaped these remembrances into their best and most appealing light for passerby. This large body of funerary monuments has made groundbreaking demographic study of marriage patterns possible and has also begun to reveal the distinctiveness of regional practices in different parts of the empire.[16]

[17] Letters between family members offer fascinating windows into family life. These momentary written expressions are especially useful for considering the interconnections between family members and the ties of affection and concern that bound them together. Among our best correspondences are the letters of Pliny the Younger in the early second century CE expressing his notable fondness and longing for his accomplished wife Calpurnia and the letters of Cicero to his wife Terentia in the first century BCE expressing his concern over domestic matters, his attachment to his daughter Tullia, and his despair over her death. Unfortunately, despite the value of these two writers’ correspondence, we have a limited number of preserved letters from which to reconstruct family life.[17]

[18] A significant number of ancient authors address aspects of the family within a diverse array of genres. While it would be tempting to construct our dominant images of the family out of these writings, the treatments often prove misleading with extreme crafting of descriptions of the family and family life to suit their own literary needs. So for instance, historians like Livy describe the rape of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia, two events that were foundational for the history of Rome and also helped to define the ideals of female behavior as well as threats to marriage.[18] In other sources, such as plays and poetry, we find significant misogyny. Juvenal’s sixth satire provides a strikingly unflattering picture of women. Roman comedy loved to depict the extreme types of shrewish and conniving wives, libidinous women, and misbehaving domestic slaves, among many others. More recent study of the family through other sources has thankfully helped to balance the extremes that much of this literature might suggest about the Roman family, even as it has helped to clarify the real tensions that this literature explored and exploited.[19]

[19] Contemporary Christian authors also wrote about the family, with particular interest in the place of married life within Christianity. These writings by the early church fathers focused on such issues as the need for purity and the limits that this placed on sexuality along with the thorny problem of divorce.[20] While many of these writers acknowledged the value and necessity of marriage they were hardly praising of it.[21] Nor were they particularly sensitive to the pastoral needs that could emerge out of real marital struggles, holding rigidly to extreme ideals of purity and the absolute permanence of the marriage bond. Views of married life in the early church fathers were constructed in close relation to the higher ideals of virginity and asceticism. “Orthodox” attempts to draw a careful line that incorporated both marriage and virginity within Christianity labeled movements towards extreme views that excluded either practice as “heretical.”[22] Despite attempts by Christian leaders to define marital practices and familial life, actual practice may have remained far closer to Roman practice than their ideals represent. In the fourth century, despite the increasingly prominent role of Christian leaders in shaping Roman society, actual marital practices retained much of their earlier Roman forms. No less an authority than Jerome in 384 CE found himself attending a funeral of a Christian husband. This husband had been married 22 times and his wife 20 times. Despite Jerome’s harsh letter denouncing the situation, the extremes of Roman marital practice clearly persisted despite Christian attempts to redefine marriage.[23]

[20] For our current purposes, this recounting of the sources for Roman families provides a useful reminder of how elusive the realities of family life can be, where idealized notions shape expression and so much of what takes place within families remains buried beneath the surface. To make matters worse, both then and now we must consider who is doing the writing… just as almost all of the sources about the family in the ancient world came from men, so too modern discussions of the family are frequently dominated by very charged and particularized perspectives. This discussion of the sources also serves as an important caution of extreme and external attempts to define idealized notions of the family that are disconnected from the needs and situations of families in their day to day lives.

Three: The Marriage Bond

[21] For the Romans, as for us today, the marriage bond was the defining relationship out of which the family was created. Marriage was highly valued by the Romans as the foundation of both the city and the larger Roman state.[24] Marriage and the family that came out of it formed the essential social units that held the fabric of Roman society together. Political, economic, and religious life all were fashioned out of and around the family unit. One might expect from the centrality of the family in Roman life that the marriage bond would be protected at all costs (much as the early Christian leaders attempted to do in their writings). Instead, there was limited control of marriage with little external intrusion except where the state perceived its vital concerns as threatened.[25] Marriage was marked more by custom and tradition than by either official oversight or religious control.

[22] Marriage in the Roman world is best described by its Latin designation as affectio maritalis.[26] The defining aspect of marriage was when two people intended to be married and acted in a married way such as by living in the same place and functioning together as one economic and social unit (parallel in some ways to the modern categories of common law marriage and domestic partnerships). To be considered “married” by Roman law, both people had to possess conubium with one another, or the official right to marry. Limits to conubium between two partners were based especially on differences in social class or overly-close kinship while many men and women were incapable of legally marrying anyone – such as slaves and active soldiers (until 197 CE). People who lacked conubium did sometimes have other options. Men often chose to have a lasting and officially recognized concubine relationship with a woman who was their social inferior. Slaves could form marriage-like relationships of contubernium. These bonds of slaves were official enough that should both slaves be freed they were automatically considered married to one another.[27]

[23] Marriage could be marked by legal or religious transactions, but these transactions were supplemental, rather than necessary, elements for creating the marital bond. Marriage and divorce documents could be drawn up, but these documents, rather than reflecting the formation of the bond between the two partners, detail the economic interconnections between the two familiae connected by the marriage and reflected concern over the exchange of property centering on the dowry. The extent of this economic focus can be readily expressed by the difficulty of distinguishing between marriage and divorce documents.[28] Both types of document give detailed recounting of the specific items exchanged and their value and detail the family members who were overseeing the transactions, particularly on behalf of the woman.

[24] Religious ritual could also mark the formation of the marriage bond. Marriage was a fundamental rite of passage for women, and what we know about marriage ritual connects closely to the woman’s shifting roles. The wedding would typically begin at the bride’s house with auspices, sacrifices and a dinner. A procession with torches led the wife, accompanied by obscene songs and symbols of fertility, to her husband’s house. Once she arrived, the new wife was passed by her attendants over the threshold and into her new home.[29] Arriving in her new home, she would begin the challenging process of negotiating her relationships with existing members of the household, often including a resident mother-in-law and children born from previous marriages. In the Roman world, marriage fundamentally dislocated women, shifting them from the world of one domus to another. Marriage also employed women as intermediaries to form an exchange that bound familiae together.

[25] Romans distinguished between two principal types of marriage – marriage cum manu (with the hand) and sine manu (without the hand). In marriage cum manu the wife passed fully from the power (potestas) of her father into that of her husband. She became a part of his household and her dowry came under his control. Upon her husband’s death she could inherit from his estate. In marriage sine manu, the wife remained under the power, and within the household, of her father and her dowry was retained under her supervised control. In marriage sine manu, the wife’s potential for inheritance was tied to her father rather than to her husband. During the early Republic women primarily married cum manu, but the practice shifted by the time of the Empire to that of sine manu.

[26] Either party could initiate divorce at any time. Remaining married, on the other hand, was expected to include ongoing consent by both parties.[30] Failure to produce children could result in divorce, and couples who remained married despite infertility depicted their choice to stay married as highly unusual.[31] Marital fault by either party could affect the resolution of a wife’s dowry with the full dowry returning to the wife if the husband erred greatly or with the husband retaining some portion if the wife was at fault.[32] The dowry could be quite sizeable given that dowries were expected to provide for the woman’s needs within marriage and as security should she divorce.[33] Husbands who divorced their wives could find themselves in significant financial straits as they struggled to repay money within legally specified time limits.

[27] Women first became legally eligible for marriage at twelve years of age.[34] In the upper classes, women married quite young, with marriage by the age of fourteen to sixteen common.[35] Men were not expected to marry until they officially became adults at the age of sixteen or seventeen and they often chose to wait until age thirty or later.[36] For aristocratic marriages, men were typically ten or more years older than their wives. Among the poorer classes, women tended to be older at the time of marriage and closer in age to their husbands.[37] In non-aristocratic marriages, women also may have served more fully as partners alongside their husbands in economic pursuits. Non-aristocratic women often chose to marry husbands who had professions with which they themselves had extensive experience. Aristocratic women certainly could and did take part in their husbands’ own strivings towards political and economic advancement, but they tended to do so outside of the public sphere that was seen as the prerogative of their husbands. Women were typically expected to remarry soon after divorce or the death of a husband for as long as they remained of childbearing age, but women could also be praised in funerary epitaphs as retaining their devotion to their husbands by remaining as widows.[38]

[28] A woman’s situation would change significantly if she were to become sui iuris (or freely in charge of her own legal transactions). This freedom could be attained with the death of a husband or father. After Augustus’ marriage legislation it also was offered as an incentive for women to marry and bear children. Under Augustan Julian laws a free-born woman with three children or a freedwoman with four children was exempt from having a legal guardian and could dispose of property and make wills.[39] These women could choose their own future mates and should they choose to remain widows could become powerful players in charge of their own extended families.

[29] Throughout marriage, there was a strong emphasis on wives as partners to their husbands. Harmony (concordia) within a marriage and mutual support through misfortune were particularly praiseworthy. Monogamy throughout life was set as the ideal, and a woman who was wedded to only one man was celebrated as univira (a one-man woman).[40]

[30] Romans did possess ideals of romantic love, and even of love at first sight, as is evident in sources like the ancient romance novels composed and circulated in the first to fifth century CE Mediterranean. However, these ideals were probably never intended to be normative. With marriages usually arranged and the significant age spread between partners, notions of romantic love were not at the forefront in guiding the formation of marriage unions. What we do see from the preserved evidence is a wide diversity of expressions of attachment between partners that reflect the close partnerships that were often attained. This attachment usually emphasizes wifely devotion and faithfulness, chastity, frugality, and obedience; namely the social expectations for an ideal marriage. Despite this often formulaic language, the tender expressions in visual and written forms break outside of these expected formulae to offer some examples of striking connection.[41] Other expressions remain cold and lifeless, possibly reflecting the stark reality that many marriages seem to have been cold and loveless places marked instead by rigid formality, control, and limited intimacy.[42]

[31] Attention to the marriage bond within discussion of the Roman family has tended to focus on the place and role of the wife within marriage. The husband certainly played a critical role, as well. Where discussion has addressed the role of the husband, it has tended to emphasize his power, both its extent and its limits. In theory the husband (whose own father was deceased) had absolute power, extending even to life and death, over his entire familia.[43] The pater familias’ absolute power tended to be exaggerated in earlier scholarship. In more recent treatments, there has been considerable questioning of the extent of that power in actual practice. Bounded by tradition and by responsibility for those under his care, a husband may have been much more limited in his exercise of power than was previously assumed.[44]

[32] Discussion of Roman marriage raises a number of important issues for us to consider today. Romans emphasized marriage and the family unit that emerged out of it as the central and defining unit of society. While we also recognize the importance of marriage and the family, the centrality of marriage is often displaced instead in favor of the individual. Individuals are projected as the fundamental societal unit in our culture with paramount focus on personal decisions, individual fulfillment, and individualized economic advancement. The Roman family, in contrast, offered marriage as the original bond out of which a much larger family was created; a unit which then functioned as a single larger economic, political and religious unit bound together by ties of mutual obligation. This more corporate sensibility that stretched across the generations may serve as a ready challenge to extremes of individualism to which our society often succumbs. Similarly, our modern elevation of romantic love and sexual passion over the Romans’ typically simpler emphases on partnership and harmony can as often inspire destructive behaviors as create marital bonds to be celebrated.

[33] Consideration of Roman marriage also underlines the very real power and hierarchical relationships that can dominate family life. Too often, women (and men) can become the objects and victims in this equation. While we may find some cause for self-congratulation that there is greater equality in marriage today, power dynamics within marriages continue to provide frequent vehicles for abuse and victimization. The exact role and place of both partners within the marriage bond remains an ongoing issue of creative debate.[45]

[34] Roman marriage, with its limited intrusion by official state and religious authorities, may also offer a useful perspective on the values and limits of external attempts at control. The complex bonds and internal relationships within marriage defy external definition or oversight both then and now. Ideals can be offered and encouraged by the larger society and by religious authorities. Marriage can also be supported from the outside with help offered especially in times of distress. But it is only after the marital bonds are broken that external forces have the clearest role, with the necessity to step in and protect both parties from further harm and allow for the healing necessary to create new relationships This is a role the church has often been hesitant to play with its conflicted attitudes towards divorce.

Four: Children

[35] The primary purpose of Roman marriage was procreation and the begetting of new heirs to serve as citizens and soldiers. Children were officially under the father’s absolute power and control. Ritually, the father officially accepted the child by acknowledging them and even by picking them up off of the ground after they were born. Upon accepting the child, the father bore responsibility for seeing to their education and preparing them to take their place in the world. In practice, much of the raising of children fell on the shoulders of slaves and servants. Wet nurses were frequently employed, and we have a number of preserved contracts, which set the duration of the contract for eighteen months to two years. The practical aspects of regular oversight and education of young children fell primarily to slaves, especially after the late Republic (at least in the wealthier households, about which we are best informed). Cultivating education had very practical purposes for young boys, but also served to increase the value of slaves and could be seen to add to the charms of a young girl. Within a household, all children (whether slave, free, male or female) were often educated together in their early years. Children could form significant attachment to their wet-nurses and tutors. In sharp contrast, scholars have questioned the extent of emotional attachment between parents and their young children.

[36] The most extreme expression of this lack of early attachment by parents may be found in the practices of infanticide and exposure. For families unable or unwilling to raise children, it was an acceptable (if undesirable) practice to abandon them. Exposed especially on the garbage heaps outside of cities, many of these children survived as slaves or occasionally were taken in and raised by other families as their own.[46] This practice of exposure was repugnant to some Roman moralists and denounced by Jewish thinkers like Philo and by early Christians. Child exposure remained a social reality and was not criminalized until 374 under the emperor Valentinian (after more than half a century of “Christian” emperors). Even once it was criminalized, the practice likely continued, when it was not simply replaced by the alternative of giving the children to monasteries.[47] In 529, the emperor Justinian declared for the first time that all such children could not be made into slaves, but were free.

[37] If parents did appear to lack affection, it may well have been in an attempt to protect themselves emotionally from the harsh realities of life and especially of death with young children. Mortality rates were shockingly high to our modern sensibilities. Roughly one quarter of all children born alive died before their first birthday, while half of them were dead by the age of ten. Put another way, a woman would have to bear approximately five children to make it likely that two would live into their adult years.[48] The death of young children was not a shocking tragedy in the ancient world but a grim reality in the life of families. Despite this high mortality, and even in the face of it, parents did form strong attachments to their children. In fact the treatment of children in death seems to belie any assumptions that parents lacked affection for their children. Family graves often depict children who died very young as part of the family grouping. Child graves include small finds of value as well as items of touching poignancy like favorite dolls and toys. Inscribed epitaphs lament the loss of beloved children and of their remarkable lives cut short.[49]

[38] In contrast with all of these concerns over affection, many Greek and Roman writers seemed keenly aware of the behavior of small children and of their stages of development. Childish antics were frequently seen as a source of delight, and the protection and nurturing of children was considered of significant importance. Plutarch’s letter to his wife upon the death of their two year old daughter captures the very real attachment parents could feel, celebrating the delight that she brought to them and the joy of embracing and watching her which was now matched by an equal sorrow.[50]

[39] Another critical element to be aware of throughout treatment of the Roman family, but especially as it affected children, was the frequent disruptions to the family. Mortality for men was also quite high thanks to illness and military service, with the result that many children grew up without a living father. For women mortality was similarly high, especially surrounding the dangers of childbirth. Where parents did survive, the high divorce and remarriage rates in the Roman world meant that the family unit was frequently reconstituted. These disruptions often placed children in liminal and vulnerable positions.

[40] Again, Roman attitudes towards children and their place within family life offer some fascinating insights to modern thoughts on the family and sexuality. Can and should children be the primary purpose of marriage? For Romans the answer was clearly yes, with failure to produce children likely to end in divorce and remarriage. For early Christians the issue was more difficult to answer. Divorce and remarriage were unacceptable because of the strong emphasis on retaining sexual purity. Children were seen in a mixed light; they could be represented as a blessing (in the language such as that of the Abrahamic covenant, or even as a type of immortality) but they could just as easily be seen as a further burden and distraction that provided one more argument in favor of the celibate life.

[41] The question of affection towards young children is also interesting. In our culture, there is a clear expectation of close affection of parents for their children from the moment of birth with exceptions to this cast as deviant. Actual patterns of affection may however be more complex. With the need in many modern families for both parents to work and spend long hours away from their children, affection patterns can become complicated. As with the Romans, close ties of affection often extend to those who care for the children on a daily basis, and these often are not the parents. These ties of affection in many ways extend the family unit to partially incorporate non-kin especially during intensive child-raising years. Parents forced by the demands of the working world can also all too easily become managers of their children and disciplinarians, missing out on opportunities to form close bonds of affection and to share in the best parts of their children’s day to day lives.

[42] This issue of affection also underlines one of the ongoing issues with children, namely their vulnerability. Children’s worlds are constructed by those who have power over them, with their needs and desires often placed distantly behind the needs and desires of others. While nurturing relationships within environments of trust and security may represent the ideal, all too often children grow up instead in environments marked by brokenness: whether that of divorce, neglect, or abuse. Families can as easily generate hurt and alienation that must be overcome as create any foundation of trust. Making sense of and ministering to this brokenness within families is vital if children are to be able to develop successful relationships later in life.

[43] The Roman family also may offer an optimistic example of the surprising resilience of both the family and of the children within it.[51] Despite patterns of frequent disruption, incredibly complex formulations of the family unit, and often limited connections with children in their early years – both the family and the children raised within it proved remarkably vital. Indeed, it would seem that it was the very complexity of the family unit, its extended definition, and the many strategies within it which provided such enduring strength in the face of such adversity.

Five: Sexuality Within and Outside of the Family[52]

[44] Male sexuality within the marriage bond had relatively few limits placed upon it when compared with what we assume today. Men were expected to produce children with their wives and to abstain from intercourse with married or marriageable women (or at least not get caught doing it). However, a wide range of sexual relationships were otherwise permissible. An entire class of women were labeled as disreputable or infamis and were considered below the attention of the law and thus fair game for male sexual attention. Men could largely act as they pleased with their own slaves, while sexual involvement with another’s slave was unacceptable and treated as damaging to property. Same-sex relations (which Romans represented as a Greek influence) were also acceptable, particularly with involvement with an adolescent male who was not freeborn. Serving as the passive partner in same-sex acts, however, could bring into question one’s masculinity and power and functioned as a popular attack in Roman satire. Incest was also repugnant and served alongside accusations of passive same-sex acts for accusing a man of sexual misconduct and as an effective slur on his whole character. Overall, men were allowed significant freedom in their personal sexual gratifications as long as they fulfilled their familial obligations and acted properly within the public sphere. The example of Cato the Elder serves to illustrate both the freedoms and constraints embodied by a famed moralist of the late Republic. Cato harshly condemned adultery, demanding that women be put to death for it. He likewise expected men to fulfill their marital duties and to restrain from adultery. However, Cato approved of married men visiting brothels as a means to satisfy their sexual desires without transgressing their marital obligations. Cato himself was described as keeping a slave specifically for his own sexual gratification and of marrying a young woman in his old age to satisfy his undiminished sexual desires.[53]

[45] Female sexuality was more constrained by marriage. Women could roughly be divided into two categories, those who were marriageable women and were highly controlled in their sexuality and those who were not seen as marriageable and did not have constraints placed on their sexuality. Married and marriageable women acting sexually outside of marriage risked accusations of stuprum.[54] Most often describing adultery, stuprum included any illicit and disgraceful sexual activity.[55] Stuprum brought dire shame upon the family and was punishable by the pater familias under whose jurisdiction the woman lived. The pater familias always in theory had the power of life and death over those under him, and adultery is one of the few occasions that truly harsh punishments may have been exercised. Notably, while a man should not have engaged in such adultery either, he was not necessarily shamed by the act. It was only if he was caught in flagrante within the domus that his offense to the authority of the husband was so threatening as to require reprisal. The emperor Augustus enacted a series of important marriage reforms. One of these reforms made adultery a public crime that was a threat to the larger state, requiring that it be tried in a court of law rather than dealt with as an internal matter of the household.[56]

[46] Romans projected an image of themselves as restrained in their own sexuality, particularly in their earlier origins and in contradistinction to both Etruscans and Greeks. However, the ideal of chaste wives at home weaving wool and hardworking temperate husbands out in the field dutifully returning home after farming or fighting to create children for the needs of the state seems to be lost with the expansion of Rome in the late Republic (if it ever truly existed). Romans in the early Empire possessed an odd mix of longing for an ideal of a perceived earlier morality and an embracing of the joys of more permissive sexuality. While Augustus engaged in moralizing marital reforms with laws that attempted to constrain the sexual activities of the aristocrats, poets like Ovid and Catullus extolled the joys of sexual longing and gratification that often transgressed these very ideals of appropriate sexuality.

[47] One of the shifts that Christianity offered with marriage was an attempt to control more fully the sexuality of both partners within the marital relationship. Men and women were both expected to hold themselves to ideals of purity, a purity that looked towards models of virginity and asceticism recast into the acceptable if undesirable outlet of procreative sex within marriage. Christian ideals of purity could effectively build upon internal critiques within Roman expectations of sexuality and married life. Setting themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum from the problematic and periodically outlawed practices of Bacchic worship, Christians represented themselves as models of sexual temperance. Christians could claim to aspire to even higher standards than popular philosophers like the Stoics, who cautioned against seeking too strongly after desire even within the confines of the marital relationship.

[48] This brief discussion of sexual limits and license with Roman and early Christian marriage again connects to ongoing issues. Roman Imperial practice seems to mirror some of the extremes of double-standards that our society still tolerates in male infidelity as well as the voyeuristic fascination projected onto women of their taking every available opportunity to transgress appropriate marital bonds (think “Desperate Housewives”). The misuse of power with sexual intimacy also remains a vital concern, with an ongoing need to protect those who are most vulnerable to victimization, be they children, husbands, or wives.


[49] Having addressed a range of important sub-topics within the Roman and early Christian family and some of their possible implications for current deliberation, I wanted to turn briefly to address the proposed sexuality statement more directly.

[50] One of the areas where the sexuality statement is most successful is in placing the issue of sexuality within the larger issue of relationships. The family becomes important in this setting as a foundational place for the constructing of relationships. The nurturing environment of trust and mutuality is emphasized within this family unit, but there is also acknowledgment of the brokenness. Throughout this treatment, emphasis on the theological underpinnings of all relationships in a world redrawn by God’s grace remains paramount.

[51] Whether by accident or design, the complexity of metaphorical and anti-family language in the New Testament is often eschewed in favor of the less problematic relational language of the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, the real tensions that shaped sexual attitudes within early Christianity where married life and acceptable sexuality were constructed as an acceptable middle path between the ideal of sexual renunciation and the dangers of sexual depravity is replaced with the more marital and sexually affirming language of the Hebrew Bible.

[52] The richly metaphorical language of Paul and Jesus, which drew upon the power and complex relationships within the family to convey the newly defined community, remain of great value.[57] We should not try to oversimplify this language – in which Paul can be an orphan when separated from his community, a fellow brother in Christ adopted by God, a father to their fledgling community and a wet-nurse in his care for them in their infancy. Because of our own experiences with family, many have shied away from language like God as father, but there is a richness and power to all of this language that we need to claim, even sometimes in opposition to the reality of families that can be places of brokenness as much as foundations of trust.

[53] With Christian ideas of redrawn fictive kinship, there is also intriguing potential for greater protection and nurturing created by extending familial relationships. Church communities can serve as vital embodiments of “family” that can strengthen existing family relationships while expanding the boundaries of traditional families. Perhaps the Clintonian emphasis that to raise a child “it takes a village” should instead be replaced with “it takes a church.” Such expanded familial boundaries can sadly bring with them new opportunities for abuse as well as protection that must be carefully guarded against.

[54] Early Christianity offers a tension between married life as a necessary and occasionally valued way of life and a calling to extreme versions of purity in the forms of virginity and asceticism. While virginity and asceticism have become de-emphasized particularly in the Protestant tradition, there is a fascinating tension here that continues to inform and shape our attitudes towards family and sexuality within Christianity. I might caution against too quickly removing this tension as we seek to elevate the values and realities of married life. Striving for extremes of purity certainly has its place within the Christian life, even as our inevitable failing and brokenness must be acknowledged. This is one area where I would argue against simply remaking the tradition in our own more modern image.

[55] The Lutheran tradition is particularly well-suited to address both this striving towards perfection and inevitable failing, given the tension Lutheran theology holds between law and gospel, sin and grace. There is neither a need to relativize the ideal of Christian families to suit current cultural trends, nor the need to fixedly project or guard impossible ideals. Instead it is possible to hold out the potential for families as a place of trust and protection and of striving to create loving relationships that help to recreate God’s creation as it was meant to be, while also extending God’s grace to the broken realities that families can all too often become.

[1] A brief suggested bibliography for the early Christian family includes: Halvor Moxnes, ed., Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor (London: Routledge, 1997); David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches (Louisville: KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997); and David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek, eds. Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003); and Biblical Interpretation 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2003); a host of recent articles also address the topic with the entire issue of Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007) devoted to the topic with an emphasis on late antiquity. Scholarship on the Roman family is extensive and includes especially: Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (New York: Cambridge, 1994); Sheila Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992) and eadem, The Roman Mother (London: Croom Held, 1988); Keith Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Judith Evans Grubbs, Law and Family in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); Beryl Rawson’s edited volumes The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986) and eadem, Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (Oxford, Clarendon 1991); Michele George, ed., The Roman Family in the Empire: Rome, Italy and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). For excellent sources on the family and especially women see Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Judith Evans Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce, and Widowhood (London: Routledge, 2002); and Diotima –

[2] Christians were not alone in their use of fictive kinship language. The language of God as father put within contemporary cultural terms was employed by Philo and by Greco-Roman philosophers. Collegia – Roman fraternal organizations – also employed familial language to describe their relationships with one another. For a brief description see Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: the First Two Centuries (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993), 170-172 and for collegia more generally see Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 77-80.

[3] For an intriguing treatment of children which focuses especially on placing them theologically at the center of familial discussion, see Adrian Thatcher, Theology and Families (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

[4] Abraham Malherbe, “God’s New Family in Thessalonica,” in The Social World of the First Christians, L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 116-125. The brief summary of 1 Thessalonians that follows draws especially on Malherbe’s discussion.

[5] O. Larry Yarbrough, “Parents and Children in Paul,” in The Social World of the First Christians, L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 126-141 places emphasis especially on 1 and 2 Corinthians.

[6] For a similar assessment of the situation see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). Ruether offers a solid overview of many of the critical periods of development for the Christian family and is particularly praiseworthy for considering carefully the consequences of her reflections.

[7] For consideration of these writings and their particular perspectives as well as the emphasis on a silent majority, see the excellent discussion in Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

[8] For an intriguing assessment of how Christians and Jews played upon ideals of the Roman family in their own self-constructions, particularly with the fundamental idea of pietas in 4 Maccabees and in the Pastorals see Carolyn Osiek, “Pietas In and Out of the Frying Pan,” in Biblical Interpretation 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 166-172.

[9] For discussions of this terminology see Kate Cooper, “Approaching the Holy Household,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007): 131-138; Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (New York: Cambridge, 1994), 74-101; Sheila Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 1-35; and Keith Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 1-12.

[10] For discussion of the legal emphasis of familia see especially Jane F. Gardner, Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

[11] For discussion of domestic religion see Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 Vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[12] Kate Cooper, “Closely Watched Households: Visibility, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman Domus,” Past and Present (2007): 3-33.

[13] Aristotle’s Politics sets out the Greek notion of family set within the larger social structures. Aristotle’s hierarchical organization of the family was highly influential and shaped the household codes of the New Testament in 1 Corinthians and the Pastoral epistles.

[14] See Margaret Mitchell, “Why Family Matters for Early Christian Literature,” 358 in Early Christian Families in Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) for the unfinished and open-ended character of the household playing on the common modern practice in Turkey of families leaving exposed rebar on top of their concrete homes to allow for later additions to incorporate future generations.

[15] Domestic finds include prosaic objects of day to day life such as pottery and loomweights as well as more startling erotic images on items like hand mirrors and wall paintings.

[16] Richard Saller and Brent Shaw’s groundbreaking study or Roman tombstones – “Tombstones and Roman Family Relations in the Principate: Civilians, Soldiers and Slaves,” Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984), established the value of demographic study of the materials and emphasized the importance of the nuclear family. Dale Martin’s “The Construction of the Ancient Family: Methodological Considerations,” Journal of Roman Studies (1996): 40-60 challenged Saller and Shaw’s earlier assessment of the nuclear family to emphasize larger extensions of the family based on a smaller selection of materials from Asia Minor. For emphasis on the regional distinctiveness of the family see especially Michele George, ed., The Roman Family in the Empire: Rome, Italy and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[17] The Vindolanda Tablets discovered at a fort in northern England provide a rare cache of letters including ones between family members. They are available online at Of particular interest for the family is

[18] Livy, History of Rome 1.9 (rape of the Sabine women) and 1.57-60 (rape of Lucretia). For discussion of the importance of these two mythic stories in shaping marriage and for the place of women more generally see the excellent recent treatment by Eve D’Ambra, Roman Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[19] For an intriguing attempt to use ancient fiction to reconstruct aspects of the Roman family, particularly ones that are not usually preserved in the sources that so strongly emphasize aristocratic families, see Keith Bradley, “Fictive Families: Family and Household in the “Metamorphoses” of Apuleius,” Phoenix 54 (2000): 282-308.

[20] See for instance the Shepherd of Hermas with its prohibition against divorce, and categorizing of any later sexual activity as adultery. These concerns about divorce built upon Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings about divorce (Mark 10:2-12; 1 Cor. 7:10-11; Romans 7:2-3). Early Christians were particularly concerned about making sure that those who they chose as leaders had not been divorced, with it expressed as a specific requirement for selection. For references to some of the major texts by the early Christian writers on marriage and divorce and brief bibliography – as well as an excellent resource for materials on the early church fathers more generally see

[21] Augustine offers one of the most highly praising treatments of the value of marriage within this literature. His On the Good of Marriage carefully defends the importance of marriage. His treatment defending marriage was written in direct challenge to rival views that questioned the value of marriage. Notably this work is also balanced by his writing On Holy Virginity. Strikingly, Augustine categorized marriage primarily as friendship and was highly uncomfortable with the realities of sexuality and desire, particularly as they affected the will. For a useful discussion see Peter Brown, Body and Society, 401-408.

[22] David Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[23] Geoffrey Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 2000), begins and ends his study of late antique marriage with this particular example. Nathan’s work offers a useful detailing of the persistence of Roman marital practice among Christians in late antiquity despite moves towards its redefinition by church leaders.

[24] See Cicero, On Duty 1.54; for Greek ideas about marriage and family and its place within civic life see especially Aristotle’s Politics 1 and 2.

[25] The Augustan Marriage legislation is a striking exception to this hands-off policy, but was presented as a response to a dire threat within the aristocracy. The legislation also seems to have had limited effect in accomplishing its desired goals. Constantine likewise attempted a series of marital reforms, albeit with questionable effect.

[26] Dig. 50.17.30; C.Just. 5.17.11. See for instance Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage. Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[27] For discussion of these other types of relationship see Beryl Rawson, “Roman Concubinage and Other de facto Marriages,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 104 (1974).

[28] For an excellent site with marriage and divorce papyri see which can be accessed at

[29] We do not have a complete description of a wedding from the early Empire, but Tacitus, Annals 11.27 combines with a diverse array of other sources including poetry by Catullus to give a fairly full accounting of the practices.

[30] An oral statement of intent to divorce made before witnesses was sufficient typically to mark the process.

[31] See for instance the remarkable eulogy CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum) 6.1527/ ILS (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae) 8393.

[32] The distinctions of fractions of the dowry apportioned are fairly complex. For brief discussion see the useful summary article by Susan Treggiari in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988).

[33] Among aristocrats 1 million or more sesterces during the early Empire might be expected – cf. Tacitus, Annals 2.86.2; Martial 11.23.3-4; and Juvenal, Satires 6.137 – for further discussion see Susan Treggiari, Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 1348. Treggiari also briefly details the challenges men could face when forced to repay the dowry, particularly if they had used it as collateral to borrow money.

[34] Digest 23.2.4.

[35] Keith Hopkins, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage,” Population Studies 18 (1965) and Brent Shaw, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations,” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 30-46.

[36] See R.P. Saller, “Men’s Age at Marriage and Its Consequences in the Roman Family,” Classical Philology 82 (1987): 21-34.

[37] Christians appear to have married older and closer in age, but this may well correspond with a difference in social class rather than any distinctive practice by Christians – see Brent Shaw, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations,” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 30-46.

[38] Augustan marriage legislation attempted to force women to remarry soon after divorce or the death of a husband, with economic penalties for failure to do so. The pastoral epistles similarly expect a woman to marry again rather than remaining a widow, this was particularly important as widows could expect some support from the community and retained a certain status. For a particularly vexing case of a woman’s remarriage, see Apuleius’ Apology 18 – the case of Pudentilla in which her brother, deceased husband’s brother, and surviving son all have a vested interest.

[39] Augustus created the Julian Laws in 18 BCE and the Papia-Poppaean Laws in 9 CE encouraging women to produce children and punishing celibacy. See also Dio Cassius, Roman History 54.16 and Tacitus, Annals 3.25.

[40] For ideals of long harmonious marriages see for instance CIL 6.33087 (a freed couple married for 60 years); CIL 6.1779/ILS 1259 (Paulina’s epitaph for her husband Praetextatus); for similar ideals within Christianity see Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres 81, 333, 404, 3343, 4311, 4346. For additional discussion of the ideal of the harmonious, lifelong marriage and of marriage more generally see the excellent short summary by Judith Evans Grubs under “Marriage” in Late Antiquity, G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 563-565.

[41] This funerary urn praises the wife as being most faithful, most loving and most devoted and includes a fairly common image of the two with clasped hands, as in the marriage ritual – For a sterner if highly realistic depiction of a married couple see –

[42] Abuse was also sadly permissible with wife-beating sadly commonplace – see for instance Augustine’s Confessions 9.9.

[43] Remember, however, that if the wife had married sine manu she remained officially part of the familia of her father rather than her husband and was under his potestas.

[44] For a recent example of the limits of the pater familias’ power see Steven Thompson, “Was Ancient Rome a Dead Wives’ Society? What Did the Roman Paterfamilias Get Away With?,” Journal of Family History 31 (2006): 3-27; for an excellent treatment of how the ideals of pietas effectively balanced the power of the pater familias see Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (New York: Cambridge, 1994).

[45] See for instance Rosemary Radford Ruether’s concluding thoughts in chapter 9 of Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

[46] Even with exposure, parents may have clung to the hope that their child would be taken into a good family. Children were often abandoned with clothes and with birth tokens such as jewelry – see Valerie French “Birth Control, Childbirth, and Early Childhood” in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 1355-1362 for this observation and for a good brief treatment on children. Exposure rates are unclear but may have ranged from 10 to 20 percent of children with exposure most common among the poor and with female children. For child exposure see also William V. Harris, “Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 1-22.

[47] Christians may have had ready alternatives from early on with their own extended social connections and fictive kinship allowing for easier placement of children into other homes. Certainly the acceptance of children by monasteries provided an attractive alternative. For early opposition to exposure among Christians see Didache 2.2.

[48] Keith Bradley, “The Roman Child in Sickness and Health,” in The Roman Family in the Empire: Rome, Italy, and Beyond (Oxford, 2005).

[49] For a high quality, child-sized sarcophagus dedicated to their “sweetest daughter” see

[50] For this more positive assessment of Greek and Roman attitudes towards children and for the example of Plutarch, see Valerie French “Birth Control, Childbirth, and Early Childhood,” 1355-1362 in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988).

[51] For an insightful reflection on the surprising resilience of the Roman family see Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), esp. 160-163.

[52] Sexuality within the Roman World is another example of an enormous sub-topic within social history. Here my purpose is to consider the narrower sub-topic of the freedoms and constraints placed upon sexuality which surrounded the family.

[53] For Cato the Elder see Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Horace’s Satires. For a more extended discussion of this topic generally and of Cato specifically (with him cast as hypocritical) see Judith Hallett, “Roman Attitudes Toward Sex,” 1265-1278 in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988).

[54] It is unclear how often women did choose to act adulterously. Male authors of poetry and comedy regularly present wives seeking out opportunities for dalliances with young men, performers such as gladiators and attractive slaves. How much this is a projection of their own imaginations, however, is unclear.

[55] Aline Rousselle, Porneia: on Desire and the Body in Antiquity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), offers a useful discussion of the distinction between the two effective classes of women, of the range of acceptable and available partners for each sex, and of the category of stuprum. The treatment in Porneia focuses especially on the difficult place of women and the uneven expectations, but remains an excellent discussion of the fundamental issues.

[56] The Augustan Julian Laws made adultery a crime that was punished by the state. The laws also clarified that a husband or father could kill both the wife/daughter and their adulterer if they caught them in their own home.

[57] For careful consideration of some of the aspects of this metaphoric language and its intersection with and contradiction of social realities within the ancient world see Halvor Moxnes, ed. Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor (London: Routledge, 1997).