Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.11.15


Saller, Richard P., Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman family. Cambridge: 1994 . Pp. 249 + xiii. ISBN 0521-32603-6.


Reviewed by Lee, A.D., Classics, University of Wales.

The last decade or so has seen a remarkable upsurge of interest in the study of the Roman family, which has now established itself as a major subject area within Roman social history. One of the leading figures in this development has been Richard Saller, responsible for a steady stream of important and illuminating papers on various aspects of this field. While the titles of some of the chapters in the volume under review resemble those of some of these earlier articles, and a number of its paragraphs duplicate paragraphs from those articles, this book is not a mere reprinting of them. It is much more, and in a variety of respects.

First--to begin at the least consequential level--in those chapters or sections of chapters which seem most obviously to reproduce the original version, careful comparison shows that apparently duplicate paragraphs have frequently been expanded by the addition of a further sentence or more, or completely new paragraphs have been inserted among the familiar, with a view to strengthening the argument or pursuing its implications in a new direction. So, for example, S.'s discussion of the term domus is further developed on p.82 by a new paragraph on the penus, the 'stores' of the house. Secondly, whole new sections, while recognisable descendants of earlier work, have nevertheless been written de novo so as to deploy new arguments in combination with earlier ones--thus the discussion of patria potestas in Chapter 5, or that of 'the whip and discipline in the household' at pp.142-50 in Chapter 6.

Thirdly, S. has provided a series of 'bridging' mechanisms designed to integrate the more detailed arguments into a broader overview of the Roman family. Most chapters have a new introduction and conclusion, the chapters are grouped into parts, each also with an introduction, and the first and final chapters present an introduction and conclusion to the volume as a whole. Fourthly, S. has taken the opportunity to incorporate the results of significant new research by others (e.g., work on the Babatha archive and David Johnston's study of trusts), and to respond to criticisms of particular points in his own earlier papers (doing so, it is worth adding, in a courteous style that is exemplary). Last but certainly not least, Chapter 8 comprises a previously unpublished discussion of the important but neglected subject of the guardianship of children.

In short, then, this volume includes significant new material (though much of it is secreted in the interstices of the text), together with S.'s considered views on a range of subjects in the light of a decade's reflection. By and large, the passage of time has not caused him to revise his original views significantly, but even those long familiar with S.'s work will want to see the ways in which he has developed and nuanced his arguments, as well as reading the important new Chapter 8.

Many of the features which distinguish S.'s work owe much to the influence of his postgraduate training at Cambridge. The impact of successive Professors of Ancient History at that institution is evident, firstly, in S.'s general interest in social history and openness to interdisciplinary approaches--part of the legacy of Moses Finley--and secondly, in S.'s appreciation of the value and limitations of the legal sources as evidence for Roman society, where his debt to the rather different style of John Crook is apparent. A third Cambridge presence is Peter Laslett, whose work in establishing and maintaining the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure has done so much to stimulate the study of the family in other periods of history.

Laslett's influence, and that of other members of the Cambridge Group, is particularly evident in Part I (Chapters 2-3)--'Roman life course and kinship: biology and culture'--in which S. sets out in a rigorous and sophisticated manner his understanding of the demographic character of the Roman family. Accompanied by more than 20 pages of statistical tables based on Roman epigraphic data and on model life-tables--enough to daunt any traditionally-trained ancient historian--these chapters do not always make for easy reading, despite the clarity of exposition, and may deter the less persistent reader from progressing into the much more accessible subject matter of Parts II and III. This is not to question the need for these demographic chapters, or their placement near the beginning--many of the arguments later in the volume presuppose the conclusions of this part. Moreover in a book which is pitched not just at ancient historians, but also at scholars working on the history of the family in other societies and periods--it is published in the series 'Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time'--it was clearly important for S. to establish his demographic credentials with this latter group. Nevertheless, I wonder whether it might not have been advisable to relegate the majority of the tables to an appendix, even at the expense of hampering cross-reference between text and tables. At any rate, those ancient historians without the stomach for demography can perhaps afford to skim through Part I. Parts II and III, on the other hand, should be required reading for anyone interested in Roman social history and how to write it.

Part II, entitled 'Roman family and culture: definitions and norms', begins with a chapter (4) on 'Familia and domus: defining and representing the Roman family and household'. The first three-quarters follows the text of S.'s 1984 Phoenix article on the same subject fairly closely, providing a wide-ranging discussion of the Latin terminology pertaining to family and household, but in addition to smaller refinements and revisions, he has now added to it a concluding section (pp.95-101) which brings to bear more fully the results of his joint-article with Brent Shaw on tombstones and family relations which appeared in Journal of Roman Studies in the same year. This defends their emphasis on the fundamental significance of the husband-wife-children triad in the Roman conception of the family against the view of Keith Bradley that the frequency of divorce and remarriage and the ubiquity of slaves in elite households must have diluted the strength and significance of such bonds.

Chapters 5 ('Pietas and patria potestas: obligation and power in the Roman household') and 6 ('Whips and words: discipline and punishment in the Roman household') focus on paternal power, a subject on which S. has made some of his most important contributions. The first half of Chapter 5 restates S.'s argument that pietas was not a virtue associated solely with filial obedience in the Roman mind, but was also an ideal appropriate to parents in their dealings with children and one which encompassed a broader sense of affectionate devotion. Although the text is close to that of his 1988 paper on the subject, it is particularly valuable to have it presented here since the original version appeared in a Festschrift published in Germany and not easily accessible to many. The second half of this chapter deals with patria potestas. The text here is new, as are some of the aspects discussed, but the underlying thrust remains the same--a firm and persuasive rebuttal of the notion that the extensive legal rights of the Roman paterfamilias reflected social reality. In this respect the first word in the title of the book might be potentially misleading, since it is one of S.'s fundamental contentions that the patriarchal character of the Roman family has in fact been over-emphasised. At any rate, this is one of the points where the demographic analysis of Part I assumes particular importance, since S.'s deductions about Roman mortality and the age at marriage of Roman men mean that a significant proportion of fathers will have died by the time their sons reached adulthood and the wide-ranging legal powers of the paterfamilias will simply not have been an issue for them. For those whose fathers were still alive, literary and legal sources indicate a variety of mechanisms by which tensions might be diffused. Chapter 6 pursues these themes further in relation to the specific issue of corporal punishment in the household, where S. argues very cogently that the Romans drew a clear distinction between the treatment appropriate to children and to slaves.

Part III ('The devolution of property in the Roman family') focuses on various aspects of inheritance. Chapter 7 ('Strategies of succession in Roman families') provides an admirably clear overview of the subject as a whole, from which S. reaches the important conclusion that "written instruments were used, for the most part, by Roman men and women to gain not freedom from familial obligations so much as freedom to design an individual strategy to meet both their own personal circumstances and the general conditions of unpredictable mortality and shifting family bonds" (pp.178-9). Chapter 8 ('Guardianship of Roman children') is an invaluable treatment of a neglected aspect of Roman family history in its own right, but it is also a powerful illustration of the way attention to demographic questions can open up fresh perspectives on the significance of legal and other evidence. In this case, S. suggests that perhaps as many as one-third of Roman children were orphans, so that guardianship of children assumes a previously unsuspected importance, not only with regard to family life but also for the fundamental character of the Roman economy: "any account of economic decision-making in the empire should take account of the fact that a substantial fraction of the property was owned by children and managed by guardians whose primary aim is likely to have been protecting themselves from legal liability through conservative management, rather than optimizing profits" (p.229).

Chapter 9 ('Dowries and daughters in Rome') resumes the subject of another of S.'s 1984 papers, this time published in Classical Quarterly. S. here restates in revised form the essential arguments of that earlier paper--that Roman dowries were typically moderate in size, designed to provide for the daughter's maintenance in the marital household rather than giving her her full share of the paternal estate, and that this practice reflected the frequency of divorce and remarriage in Roman society. In doing so, S. has substantially rewritten the text to take account of criticisms of the earlier version, particularly on the part of Susan Treggiari, to which he responds in a measured but effective manner. He then goes on to extend the scope of his investigation by exploring the wider implications of dowry for the independence of Roman woman, suggesting that in certain circumstances a woman's control over her dowry potentially gave her an important degree of leverage against her husband.

Finally, the Conclusion (pp.225-32) integrates the key arguments of the different chapters into a clear statement of S.'s broader understanding of the dynamics of the Roman family. It is an understanding which rejects simplistic generalisations, particularly about the role of the Roman father, in favour of a more subtle analysis based on recognition of "the complex interplay of demographic variables, a wide array of legal options, and mutual social obligations" (p.231). Herein lies the strength of S.'s work in this field.

The volume has been well copy-edited. I noted only one typographical error, on p.213 where Oxyrhynchus has been misspelt. Also, S.'s original article on dowry is referred to at p.204 n.2 but the full reference is missing from the bibliography. Very occasionally, the volume perhaps takes a little too much for granted on the part of different readers. S. obviously hopes, and rightly so, that it will find an audience among those researching the family in other contexts, but those without any classical background may experience frustration with the occasional Latin phrase which has been left untranslated (e.g., top of p.183), and may remain somewhat unsure about the meaning of marriage sine manu until they reach the explicit definition offered on p.207. As for classicists, I would imagine that many are likely to be mystified concerning the '[demographic] transition' to which reference is made a number of times. A glossary of technical terms, both legal and demographic, would be a helpful addition in any subsequent reprinting.

This is a very important book, both for its substantive conclusions and for the sophisticated, multi-faceted methodology by which it arrives at them. Its publication has enabled S. to present his work on various aspects of the Roman family in an integrated fashion, in turn enabling us to appreciate just how significant a contribution S. has made to our understanding of the subject over the past decade.


Return to reviews index
Return to main page