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?

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