A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds

Beryl Rawson, editor Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK January 18, 2011
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This is another book in a growing series of overviews on various topics in the ancient world. This volume includes thirty-two articles by competent scholars on numerous aspects of Greek and Roman family life. The articles are organized into five sections: households (including houses), kinship (including marriage and family), legal issues, family in the city and country, and ritual issues.

Because of most readers’ familiarity with families, they may mistakenly assume that ancient families were identical to families today. In spite of some similarities, significant differences exist. Since family life is so basic to any society’s existence, one must seek to understand it in its own context and thus avoid unnecessary assumptions that can lead to misinterpretations of the Scriptures. Most family experiences are lost to history, of course. However, what is known is significant, and this volume gives New Testament students a basic knowledge of much of this subject matter and suggestions in each article for further research.

The topic is enormous and thus selectivity is necessary (pp. 2–3). Articles cover households, social relationships, monogamy/polygamy, the family as an economic entity, slaves, soldiers, kinship, marriage, childbirth, children, adoption, grieving dead children, law, city families, rural families, Christian families, and religion. In “Monogamy and Polygyny” (pp. 108–15), Walter Scheidel notes that “Greco-Roman monogamy may well be the single most important phenomenon of ancient history that has remained widely unrecognized” (p. 108). His point is well taken. We take monogamy as the norm today; however, this has not always been the case. The Jewish culture was polygamous. Christians maintained the Greco-Roman practice against the Jewish. This was not necessarily a “forgone conclusion” (p. 115). In fact some Christian sects have practiced polygamy (e.g., some Anabaptists and Mormons) (p. 115). Scheidel describes the cultural evolution that occurred from polygyny to monogamy. This included outlets for males that permitted sexual activity outside of marriage. Greeks and Romans had plenty of such opportunities (e.g., it was not adultery for a married man to have sexual relations with his slaves). It may be best to see the Roman world in a “transitional position” toward full monogamy (p. 109). Interestingly, “the incidence of polygyny is positively correlated with male inequality as well as female mate choice” (p. 113). Equality between the sexes results in less polygamy.

Richard Saller’s article, “The Roman Family as Productive Unit” (pp. 116–28) is a nicely detailed description from sources that reveal the types of work roles family members held. As expected, males filled more roles than women, but the limited sources reveal that “skilled service” positions were held almost equally (males, 53 percent; females, 47 percent; p. 124). In trade positions men were often paired with women, suggesting that they worked together in many situations (p. 123). One interesting fact in this article is that given the high mortality rate the average marriage did not last more than fifteen years (p. 119).

Carolyn Osiek wrote “What We Do and Don’t Know about Early Christian Families” (pp. 198–213). She says that Christians (until the fourth century) were much like their non-Christian neighbors, though Christians were unique in some ways. Osiek provides a general survey of the life of women, children, elderly, and slaves in the Roman world. Christian views against divorce, abortion, and infant exposure were apparently in place early. The question of whether Christians should attend games seems to have remained open in the third century (p. 209). Overall this chapter is a great overview of Roman families, including those of the earliest Christians.

These articles are of a high academic standard, and are easy to read. One should remember, however, that this collection covers a large time period as well as a wide geographical area. Thus caution must be used in applying insights from this work to biblical studies.

The volume concludes with a glossary, a massive fifty-seven-page bibliography, and a general index. Finally, although the volume is rather expensive, if this follows earlier works in the series, a less expensive paperback edition may be released soon (under $50). This is an excellent collection and will be of interest to those engaged in the study of the New Testament, classics, history, or family life.

—Joseph D. Fantin

April 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2013 vol. 170 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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