Roman Families


Gut reaction, without thinking about it too much: Which are better, multi-generational households or nuclear familes? Why?

Iphigenia mosaicA big controversy in scholarship on the Roman family (and history of the family in general) is whether multi-generational households or nuclear families were the norm. At stake, as so often, is not simply accurate reconstruction of historical reality, but coded policy prescriptions for the present. Scholars from the left and the right have been curiously united in arguing that a) in the pre-modern/pre-industrial period, multi-generational households were standard, and b) that was way better than the situation we have now. Those on the left see multi-gen. units as a healthier, more supportive way to live; Marxists in particular regard the nuclear family as an artifact of the rise of industrialism, which separated the locus of production (the workplace) from the locus of reproduction (the home), with all sorts of negative consequences. Meanwhile, right-wing historians envisage a golden age of multi-generational families headed by a strong patriarch, in which a strong division of gender roles was maintained, children respected and obeyed their elders, and everyone was generally less individualistic, materialistic, and selfish than they are now. Also, they had less (of the bad kind of) sex. (Apparently this image of the Roman family provided crucial support for the family policies of Mussolini’s Italy.)

If you spend a while reading this stuff, you can start to wonder what anyone ever saw in the nuclear family. I put the same question to my students, and got an interesting range of responses, from the woman who had grown up in a multi-generational household and loved it (more support for everybody), to the one who came from a large nuclear family and so didn’t feel the need for any more people in the house (this is a Catholic school, after all), to those who thought that adding grandparents to their homes would create intolerable authority conflicts. We all thought it could be nice to have the extended family close enough to rally around in times of crisis, but we had different estimates of how close was too close — much like y’all.

P.S. Current consensus, again in case you were wondering, is that nuclear families have been the norm in most times and places, in large part due to simple demographic reality. In ancient Rome, roughly 2/3 of adults would have lost their fathers by age 25; it was difficult enough to keep two generations alive at once, much less three. Of course, there’s more to it than that — isn’t there always? — but this post is probably long and boring enough already.

*To give proper credit where it’s due, I should note that most of this is drawn from Suzanne Dixon’s The Roman Family. Full treatment of the demographic data is in Richard Saller’s Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family.

This is a guest post by my undergrad Roman Religions professor, Adfamiliares, and she is – as you have obviously noticed by now – the bomb diggity. She has her own blog type thing at adfamiliares.livejournal.com, too!


One response to “Roman Families”

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