Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Good Old Days of Patriarchy

A Typical Roman Family

If you've been following my reviews on Read Room, you'll know that I've been on a Lindsey Davis kick for the better part of this year, reading sequentially through her Falco detective series set in Ancient Rome. The books give a tongue in cheek portrayal of Roman life combined with exciting murder mysteries and family drama. Falco, the satirical narrator of the novels, often laments the fact that his sisters and wife don't respect his authority like women did back in the good old days. Instead of working at their looms in silence, his womenfolk interfere with his work, wander wherever they please, argue with his ideas, and generally dismiss his position as head of the family.

The children in the novels are no more respectful than the women toward Falco and the rest of their elders. Falco's nephew Larius runs away from home to become a painter despite his mother's protests. His brother Gaius refuses to babysit for Falco and Helena unless rewarded with a substantial bribe.  Every one of Falco's nephews and nieces echo their mothers' scornful opinions about their uncle's character and incompetence.

Although the Falco novels are rich with historical details from antiquity, they also have a contemporary feel to them since Lindsey Davis peppers them with British slang and humorous anachronisms. (For instance, in one mystery centered around a theater troupe, Falco pens the play The Spook Who Spoke, an early version of Shakespeare's Hamlet.) This causes one to wonder: how much of Falco's dysfunctional family is a product of historical research and how much is a product of our own contemporary society? Do the women and children of Lindsey Davis' Rome more accurately reflect the first century A. D. or the sitcom The Simpsons?

In an article titled "Family Values in Ancient Rome," Richard Saller of the University of Chicago provides an interesting look at Roman families during the early part of the Roman empire. He argues that many people have an evolutionary view of history. In the early part of recorded history they see a patriarchal family, "a large family unit dominated by a male elder who sternly wielded authority over women and children." The common view of history is that this patriarchal form of family government continued throughout the ancient world and even into the Middle Ages. As the centuries and millennia rolled by, however, patriarchy declined.
[P]aternal 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.
Some may think that the good old days of paternal authority were better. Some may be happy to live nowadays where women and children have more independence. But whichever preference they hold, most people would agree that this story of the evolution of the family is more or less historically accurate.

But Saller, as a professor specializing in Roman history, calls this story arc "grossly oversimplified" and says it "makes for dubious history."  Rather than lumping the whole ancient world together as sternly patriarchal, he shows how the Roman civilization has its own fluctuating history of family values.

The Romans had their own evolutionary story about family mores, and it had nothing do 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 of 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 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. 
Just like some of us today, the Romans of the late Republic and early Empire looked back to the good old days when paternal authority was strong and respected. The writers--all men, as Saller points out--regretfully saw themselves in a period when family values had become lax, women had become headstrong, and sons had become rebellious.

Saller makes another interesting point when he notes that the very "earliest" Latin authors are "already deploring the moral decline of their own time." Plautus and Cato, writing in the second century B. C., satirize and complain of loose-living sons, indulgent fathers, and independent women. If the earliest works that we have are "already writing of the breakdown of the good, orderly family in which the paterfamilias maintained authority over his wife and children," how should that inform our historical understanding?

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.

So, when Marcus Didius Falco complains that his womenfolk don't hold him in the proper esteem as paterfamilias, Lindsey Davis is not only channeling contemporary issues into her work, but also staying true to the historical milieu of the first century A. D. Falco's observations that families aren't like they were back in the good old days fit nicely with Cato's rants and show that Lindsey Davis has the Roman man's mindset down to a "T".

But do Cato's rants fit well with history as it actually was? Saller's article raises an important question: did the good old days of unbridled patriarchy ever really exist?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

The last seven days have been as busy as a barbershop on Saturday morning. They have also been bereft of any communication between myself and the Internet. I came home today to 157 e-mails, dozens of Facebook notifications, and a ream of blog posts to read through. Having caught up on those things with as much thoroughness as can be reasonably expected, I'm now ready to write my own blog post about all the happenings of the past week.

Sunday morning, we woke the twins early and left the house by 7:30am to head up north for my sister-in-law Jessica's college graduation. Jessica now has a degree in early elementary education. She is moving to our neck of the woods for the summer and looking for a teaching job down here so she can stay on through the school year. I'm hoping that she finds the perfect job to keep her in the Portland area!

Jessica and my three other sister-in-laws: Amy, Rebecca, and Nancy
After the graduation we enjoyed a wonderful celebration at the Ives' home. Since all of the Spears family was there, it was a good time to snap a family picture.

Right before we left Jessica's party, David and I shared our big news: baby number 3 is on the way! Or is it babies 3 and 4? Twins again? I should probably schedule an ultrasound.... Approximate due date is January 31, 2012.

It was almost 10pm when we got home Sunday night, with two very cranky little boys. But there was no sleeping in the next day--we got up early again and loaded up the cars to go to the beach for our annual church camp at Twin Rocks Friends Camp in Rockaway, OR.

Yes, I did say "cars," plural. Now that we are a gigantic family of four (soon to be five), we can no longer fit all of our vacation gear into one vehicle. Two cars gave us enough room to bring down the twins' Exersaucers, which made life at camp much happier for both them and us.

Oliver and Adam scrutinize a daisy - "Is it edible?"
Going to camp with children was an entirely different experience than going as just a couple. But thanks to all the help we got from family and friends, it wasn't horribly difficult. Probably the best part about our time was watching the twins enjoy new experiences in the great outdoors.

Oliver blows bubbles in the sun

Adam adores Auntie Jessica
The Pacific Ocean was one such new experience. Oliver was quite fond of wading in the frigid water. Adam, not so much.

David, Oliver, and the Twin Rocks in the background
We had a marvelous vacation, but now we're back to real life and all that entails--catching up on a week's worth of laundry, childproofing electrical outlets, painting the kitchen, and starting the manuscript for Book Two of The Chronicles of Tancred.

* * *

Many thanks to Auntie Amy for all these great pictures. I like to think that the reason we didn't take any photos ourselves is because we were too busy taking care of our kids the whole week--but it might be more accurate to just call us lazy. Oh well....

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Whole of the Human Experience

Earlier this week HistoryToday featured a podcast with Ian Mortimer, a historian known for his biographies of Sir Roger Mortimer, Edward III, Henry IV, and Henry V as well as his Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England. Mortimer's most recent venture has taken him outside the world of nonfiction and into the realm of historical fiction. His new novel, Sacred Treason, is a mystery set during the reign of Elizabeth I and it is a far cry from his previous work. To keep his readers from becoming confused by the switch in genres, Mortimer has elected to publish his fictional works under the pseudonym James Forrester (his two middle names).

In the podcast, Mortimer discusses how he perceives history and historical fiction quite differently. For him, the goal of the historian is to study and reveal the past. The writer of historical fiction, on the other hand, tries to reveal general truths about humanity. "I'm not interested in fiction in enhancing people's understanding of the past. In fiction I'm using the past to demonstrate how we can say something that is true today and more meaningful for us today." Although he does strive for historical accuracy in his novel Sacred Treason, he says that is not the primary purpose of the book. "What I'm really doing is talking about life in all time, not just in the sixteenth century."

Mortimer notes that historians, for the most part, have lost the ability to impact society. "If you want to have historians really affecting the way people think about their position in the world they need to go beyond the academic frontiers, they need to take risks, they need to pioneer new forms of history and to discover--redefine--what history is." Perhaps a part of that redefinition is the burgeoning genre of historical fiction with its ability to transcend time, reveal truths about humanity as a whole, and create layers of meaning that academic histories lack.

Mortimer's view of historical fiction is an interesting one. He doesn't write to educate readers about a historical time period, per se, but instead uses his book as a "magnifying glass" for issues such as the importance of religion, fidelity to one's spouse, and loyalty to the state. I wonder whether readers share his goals. Do you pick up a historical novel in order to learn about a specific era? Or do you read it to learn about the whole of the human experience in a way that transcends time? Can a historical novel fulfill both of these goals equally?

Friday, June 3, 2011

It Is Finished!

Road from the West now has a cover! The picture is one of Gustave Dore's engravings of the Crusades. The cover design was made by Masha Shubin. What do you think of it?

A tale of Courage, Conquest, Intrigue, and Honor.

You know the Knights Templar, you know Richard the Lionheart—now learn the story that started it all with the adventures of the First Crusade.

Haunted by guilt from the past and nightmares of the future, a young Norman named Tancred takes the cross and vows to be the first to free Jerusalem from the infidels. As he journeys to the Holy Land, he braves vast deserts, mortal famine, and the ever-present ambushes of the enemy Turks—but the greatest danger of all is deciding which of the Crusader lords to trust. A mysterious seer prophesies that Tancred will find great love and great sorrow on his journey, but the second seems intent on claiming him before he can find the first. Intrigues and passions grow as every battle brings the Crusaders one step closer to Jerusalem. Not all are destined to survive the perilous road from the West.

Release Date: September 2, 2011

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reconciling Differences

Working on the "Author's Note" for Road from the West. Here's an excerpt:

As in any historical endeavor, one of the joys of this project has been reconciling different--and differing--source material. The chroniclers of the First Crusade tend to disagree as much as the leaders themselves. Although these discrepancies can be time-consuming and frustrating, they are also eminently understandable since each eyewitness sees things with a unique perspective and each historian was attached to a different contingent of the Crusade. The case of the Armenian traitor Firuz is a prime example; here the historians give as many variations of the story as they do variants on his name.

The writer of the Gesta states that an emir named Pirus was convinced of Christianity by Bohemond and agreed to turn over his three towers to the Normans. Anna Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Alexios, avers that Bohemond persuaded the Armenian to betray his trust by means of "flagrant cajolery and a series of attractive guarantees." Fulcher of Chartres records that the traitor was a Turk, not an Armenian; he was incited to action by a dream wherein Christ commanded him to place the city in the hands of the Christians. Ralph of Caen returns to the Armenian identification and depicts the traitor as the father of a large family. When Cassian confiscated the grain that the man had stored up to feed his children, he determined to hand over the Tower of the Two Sisters to Bohemond out of desperation and revenge.

The Islamic chroniclers have their own details to add. The Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir calls the traitor an armor-maker named Ruzbih whom the Franks bribed with a fortune in money and lands. His countryman Ibn al-Qalanisi states that the betrayal was a cabal among several of the armor-makers who were unhappy about some ill-usage and confiscations at the hands of the governor. Steven Runciman, the premier historian of the Crusades, conflates several of these versions plus another rumor circulated later, that Firouz "had been hesitating right up till the evening before, when he discovered that his wife was compromised with one of his Turkish colleagues."

My version of Firuz's betrayal strives to do justice to as many of the accounts as I can while still creating a plausible story for the reader....

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