The Roman family after the advent of Christianity has been widely discussed in Roman History. Different historians have looked at the topic in different ways. There are two articles at hand, which deal with this very topic. Brent Shaw, The family in Late Antiquity: The Experience of Augustine and Douglas ORoark, Parenthood in Late Antiquity. Both historians are looking at the family in late antiquity, after the time that Christianity was introduced to the Roman society. Through an analysis of the two essays and references to the classical period it can be seen that: The Roman family has always been an important institution in their society, its composition, roles and the functions changed little after the advent of Christianity.
Each of the historians has a solid central argument, and their essays are laid out well. Shaw seeks to show the structure and the functions of the Roman family in late antiquity. He also seeks to clear up misconceptions of the Roman family. ORoarks argument seeks to show the closeness of the parents and children in the Roman family. The important thing to realize is that both of these essays are looking at the Roman family in the same period, late antiquity, after the advent of Christianity. Also important to note is both of these essays to not specifically talk about the impact of Christianity on the family. The essays can be used to reference against each other and against the Roman family in the Classical period. Information on the Classical period is given in G. Nathans article: Two Traditions. With the three essays one can come to a good conclusion about the impact of Christianity on the Roman family.
In interest of paper length the essays have been narrowed down to include only central topics. First looking at similarities, then differences.
This is the first main aspect of the family that both historians look at. The first point Shaw brings up is that main purpose of childbearing. This was for the wife to produce a heir for the husband . The father organized the whole house around this, in preparation a son to take everything over when he died . ORoark states that a major factor in having children was to love and to care for them . He however cannot deny that before this the realization is that the father must have children to pass everything on to . In this idea ORoark says that the childs role is to live life in preparation for this transfer from the father . Initially this was the main purpose of children, especially sons, in the classical period as well .
The next idea about children concerns the benefits of having them. First, children can provide is economic support to the family. Shaw recognizes that weather intended or not, children were often needed to contribute to the family income . ORoark in a similar way says there is a common desire for many children . After a general read of the article I have concluded that one of the reasons he says this is the fact children could be an economic resource to the family. ORoark provides more detail, saying that to few children can hurt the economy of the family, while to many can drain it . Clearly he recognizes childrens economic advantage. This economic contribution of children was also very valued in the Classical period . Shaw points out the other valuable role of the child was to care for the parents in old age. This is the idea that children would be the ones who helped aging parents, and eventually buried them . Oroark points out that for parents in old age who had nothing to fall back on . Children were their supporters in old age . In the classical period children were to support the parents in old age and deal with their burial . Through these examples the reader can see that children always had some important role in the Roman family.
This is the other main area the two essays examine in common. This is a similar topic to children, but it is significant enough to be separated. The bulk of significance is put on the father-son relations. The Shaw article mainly focuses on this. Shaw subscribes to the idea of patria potestas; this is the idea that the oldest living male, in most cases the father, was master of all in the family. This included the wife, children, and other under the roof . Right from the start the relationship between father and son is one of unequal balance. The father was dominant, and if you were the son you were to obey your father . Everything that the son did and everything that he owned was subject to his fathers dominance. The son had a love – fear relationship with father . In turn what the son got out of this relationship was the fact his father was the one that took care of him, and in death he would get all that was his fathers. The father was to keep the son in line so that he will be responsible in taking over the estate. In regards to discipline Shaw says that fathers must discipline and domesticate their sons. The father was the teacher, and the son was the learner . With this information it can be seen both got something out of the relationship. The father got the benefits of his son as well as a heir, and the son got to claim all that was his fathers when he died. Shaw alludes to the fact that the father son relationship could provoke tension as well. The son may not want to wait to his fathers death to get full autonomy. This could lead to tension in which the son wants to be away from the father or may resent him for his power.
Next ORoark puts forth some of the same ideas. ORoark tends to dwell more on the emotional attachment to children, but still shows similarities to Shaws findings. ORoark says that in the time of antiquity the child was still under their father as master of the family . ORoark says it is the fathers job to teach the son and to make him proper. What the father is not able to do, he is to get tutors to help with. . I have concluded this is to get the son ready for responsibility when he is head of the family. This is similar to what Shaw implies. Shaw also talks about possible tension that may exist in the relationship. There is the notion that the father had to be careful not to put to much pressure on the son, else the son may lash out and strike the father . Once again both historians ideas are similar to those of the Classical period. In the Classical period the son was under the role of his father as the master . The sons position had always been submissive to the father . As well in the Classical period sons got all that was the fathers at time of death .
Something worthy to note is that ORoark goes into some talk of the mother-daughter relationship, whereas Shaw does not. ORoark says that the role of the Mother was similar to that of the father, but pertained mostly disciplinarian role . It was the mother that was to teach the daughter all that she had to know . As fathers taught sons to one day take over all he had, the mother daughters to be a proper wife and the duties that went with her role . In the classical period the role of the mother was similar. In the classical period the wife was the second in command . The mother was to teach the daughter what she needed to survive in society, especially the aspects of being a good wife
Roman Family Structure
This is the first major point of contrast between the two essays. One of the central points in the Shaw essay is the layout and structure of the Roman family. Shaw first mentions that, as stated before, the father was the head of the household and all of its members were under him . Shaw mentions slaves as part of the structure of the family, and subject to the fathers rule . Slaves were also a significant part of the family structure in the classical period . Shaw says the structure of the family could exist not just of the nuclear family, but also included grandparents, slaves, in-laws, boarders, or any other people that may reside under the same roof . Shaw states that the structure of the household could contain not only a wife, but a concubine as well .
With these examples Shaw seeks to prove that the structure of the family was not just how we see the typical family today. Instead he says that the nuclear family was the core of the structure but the family could branch out much like a tree to include many other members, such as mentions above . As well in the classical period the family consisted of the nuclear family as well as extended family .
The ORoark essay is different. The difference is very simple. ORoark does not directly look at the family structure. The only family ORoark mentions is the nuclear family. His essay is one that looks at the relationships between the parents and the children; therefore there is no talk of any extended family structure. The two essays contrast on the topic not because they disagree, but rather one mentions family structure, as one of its main points and the other does not.
Husband Wife Relations
The other major contrast between the two essays is talk of the husband-wife relationship in the Christian period. Once again it is the Shaw essay that talks about the subject, the ORoark one that leaves it out. Shaw states the husband had control over the wife in much the same way that he did over the children . He was the one with the power and she was not . Wives were not permitted so much as to dispense alms or to change their clothes without the husbands permission . Again, as with the sons, the wife had a love-fear relationship to the husband .
Most all-domestic disputes were kept within the four walls of the home the wife was the most likely looser at the hand of stronger husband . Often when the husband was upset or in a rage it was the wife that was the looser, she was usually the first in his path . As well husbands were not always faithful the wives. It was almost seen as a customary practice. The husband was to have a woman outside of the marriage . The same leisure was not extended to the wife. The wife was watched over by the husband as if she were domestic property . This was to prevent her from having relationships with other men .
Maltreatment of the wife could often be a common occurrence. Often the only defense that the wife had was to promote the idea of love and respect between the partners . Shaw Concludes saying not all relationships were this way, however this was the case for a lot of married women . These ideas are similar to ones from classical times in which the wife was under the husband, and the husband acted almost as a teacher to the wife . In classical times the wife was to be pure and devoted to only one man , as Shaw states.
In the ORoark essay once again this is a topic that is left out. In the talk of parent to child relationships it can be assumed that ORoark left out husband-wife relations because they were not central to his argument. Once again it is not the case that the two historians disagreed on the subject, but only the fact that one included this information in their argument and the other did not.
Evaluation of Sources
This is a great situation for an analysis. One topic, two different historians, two separate sources of information used by each. Shaw uses one main source so often it is basically his only source. The Source he uses is a Roman church father from late antiquity, Augustine. Augustine switched over to Christianity . After he was baptized and converted he became the Bishop of Hippo until he died . Augustine wrote many important theological writings in the late fourth and early fifth century on the church, Christianity, and God .
There are a few strengths and weaknesses to Augustine as a source, Shaw points to some of these. Starting with the strengths, it can be concluded that Augustine held a privileged status within the Christian church . Augustine came from a good family and was a respected man . His accounts are usually assumed to be accurate records. Just as today we value the writings and opinions of the church heads, it seems that given his status at the time one could value his accounts based on his position. Who better to leave accounts of Roman society then a church head, who was educated and could record many of the events in society. Augustine is also a good source for the fact that most of the sources of the time are biased to the upper class ideals and practices. Augustines church based writings and opinions might be slightly different, and hence valuable as a different opinion . Lastly Augustine is valuable for the most obvious reason; he was a firsthand witness who was living at the time. As the Bishop of Hippo Augustine was able to have first hand observation of many families and parishioners to base his writings. Thanks to his position, as Bishop, Augustine had both the time and resources to observe and write. These opportunities may not have been available to those in lower, less well off positions in society.
On the other hand there is some noticeable problems with this source. The main one being that preaching and practicing are two different things . Augustine has no surviving writings from the time before his conversion to Christianity . This being the case we cannot compare his writings to early ones of his own. If one had access to his earlier writings they might show a change in his ideas based on his conversion, thus Christianity may bias his writings. Augustine wrote about the family and society in the way that he thought is should be. This however does not necessarily mean that this is an accurate depiction of how Roman society and family actually was. In fact what Augustine wrote about was probably not identical to what common practice. Another important weakness to Augustine is that his writings are biased in a male ideology of Roman society. His thoughts are based on male power, action and assumptions about society . Lastly Augustine lived in a religious community in Hippo. His main observed group was its religious community. Augustines writings are based on the segments of society that he could to observe, and then generalized to the larger society. One has to wonder if what applies for one group of society can be generalized to the rest.
In general Augustine was is a fairly good source, however one must remember that his writings are to be taken with some of these considerations.
ORoark, also chooses to use one main source, which is basically the only source that he uses. The source ORoark uses is a church father, John Chrysostom. Until he was the age of 50 he served in Antioch, where most of his preachings were against Judaism . In 398 he became a bishop in Constantinople and died in 407 . Chrysostom wrote about the same time that of Augustine, late three hundreds and early four hundreds.
With the similarities in status and time period we see that there are a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of the sources. As strength it is recognized that Chrysostom was a reliable rhetorician . Chrysostom was an educated man that had much experience with religion. With a more leisured life of a Bishop, and a good education Chrysostom was probably well learned and fairly accurate. His position as Bishop probably allowed him to observe the area that he practiced in. Also Chrysostom was also a firsthand witness of what he wrote about.
There are also some apparent weaknesses to Chrysostom. First most of his audience was wealthy upper class. This may not be able to be applied to society as a whole . This is similar to Augustine. It was not like either of these men could get up and travel around all of Rome to view society, instead they had to rely on those close to observe. Again, men were seen to occupy a more privileged position is society. Chrysostoms views, like those of Augustines, were probably biased by the dominated male views and ideologies about how society was seen. The analysis of Chrysostom is shorter then that of Augustine for the fact that as I mentioned they have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Chrysostom is a fairly reliable source, but we must remember to take some of his weaknesses into account. Both sources have their share of strengths and weaknesses.
The Better Essay
I do not think that either one of these essays was better then the other. The essays do not seek to prove the same arguments. The quality of the essays cannot be compared against each other, but rather in their own rights. Shaw does a good job of laying out the structure and many of the functions of the Roman family. Shaw sought out to make certain points, he was successful. Shaw leaves the reader with a clear picture of the Roman family in late antiquity.
The ORoark essay was equally convincing in his own right. ORoark sets out to prove there were close relationships between parents and children in roman society, and does a good job of this. ORoarks essay is especially well done because he not only looks at father-son relations, but also at mother-daughter relations. This is very important. Many of the sources remaining are written mainly about men. It is great that we are able to take at a brief look into one of the roles of the woman in the Roman family. The bottom line is that Shaw writes about the structure and the functions of the Roman family. From the evidence in this essay one can see he supports his purpose well.
Both authors looked at aspects of the family after the advent of Christianity. Both historians seek to prove something about the Roman family in late antiquity. In doing this they give us a reference of the family after the advent of Christianity, this in turn can be compared to the Roman family in the classical period. After comparison of the two essays against each other, and against the family in the classical period it seems obvious: The Roman family has always been an important institution in their society, its composition, roles and the functions changed little after the advent of Christianity.
Freeman, Charles. Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford, Great Britain.: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Nathan, G. Two Traditions. Readings in the Roman Family. (Winter 2002): 15-54, 196-206.
ORoark, Douglas. Parenthood in Late Antiquity: The Evidence of Chrysostom. Readings in the Roman Family. (Winter 2002): 53-81.
Shaw, Brent. The Family in Late Antiquity: The Experience of Augustine. Readings in the Roman Family, (Winter 2002): 3-51.