Family Sarcophagus from Naples: Husband and wife celebrated with garlands and cornucopia
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Family Then and Now Sept 6

In my Greco-Roman backgrounds course we are discussing the home and Roman family. It has been a fascinating journey. We tend to see the family as the building block of society– and in many ways it is. However, my preparation for class helps me to appreciate why there is confusion sometimes in our culture about family roles.

In my Greco-Roman backgrounds course we are discussing the home and Roman family. It has been a fascinating journey. We tend to see the family as the building block of society– and in many ways it is. However, my preparation for class helps me to appreciate why there is confusion sometimes in our culture about family roles.

The culprit was Aristotle, who in his work called POLITICA discusses the family and the state, early on in Book 1, as well as the general role of the eldest male as patriarch or better the paterfamilias. As the father of the family, Aristotle compares the father of the household (not just the biological relatives) as a king. He has total authority, even down to the approval of a spouse for his children, which he and his wife determine. Sons were under his authority until the father died (No leaving and cleaving into a new household in the ancient Roman world). In addition, in ancient times, the family was more than a biological grouping, as slaves and even clients (dependents) were seen as a part of the family. The father was the priest of the house leading the family in its worship to seek the protection of the household gods, which virtually every house had. His chief loyalty was to the state, which had the primary call on his life, reflecting the corporate (not individual) emphasis of ancient culture. His key responsibility was as a "wealth getter". So in the discussion of the family, Aristotle does not start with the husband and wife, but discusses the father as master to the slave and as a "wealth getter" before he comes in to discuss the family.

All of this struck me as fascinating in that many today struggle with the father’s role (or should I say the father and wife’s role) as bread winners. How can one give time to the family if one is really doing his job in bringing in the $$$$? Perhaps the struggle in part goes back to a cultural expectation that Aristotle’s emphases help to show are a reflection of cultural expectations.

I also found myself pondering how significant Paul’s remarks to fathers are about wives, children, and slaves in a context where the father held a type of unlimited power in the home. Even raising the question of limitations of authority was counter-cultural (not to mention the audacity of writing a slave owner Philemon about his slave, Onesimus, on how the slave should be treated).

The impact of the reading reminded me of how different ancient culture was to modern life. Moves that we make instinctively in marrying or in father-children relations or even in thinking about husbands and wives (what if your parents had chosen your spouse?) are vastly distinct from the world in which Jesus and Paul lived. That does not mean there was not the hope of genuine companionship in marriage, but marriage was seen in terms of efficiency for raising a family as an economic venture. Much of what we associate with marriage is very foreign to that perspective, although the shadow of its emphases may still be with many of us. It was a reminder to me of how ingrained culture is in each of us, and yet, some tensions still remain the same. If you have a copy, try reading Aristotle, Politica (=Politics) Book 1, sections 2-13 and you will see the difference.

Family Sarcophagus from Naples: Husband and wife celebrated with garlands and cornucopia


Family Gravestone from Appian Way, Rome: Father, mother and priestess daughter in a family portrait on the family grave site

 

 

 

 

 

Above I include two pictures. One is of a family sarcophagus from Naples where a husband and wife are celebrated with a garland and cornucopia, symbolizing fruitfulness. The other is an outside family gravestone with a daughter who became a priestess. So we have the father, the mother and then the young daughter. The ancient family is fascinating, is it not? Let me know what you think.

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    Paul

    Good stuff…I’m enjoying
    Good stuff…I’m enjoying reading the blog. I was deployed to Naples area while in the Air Force, so reading your comments are fascinating as I’ve been to many of these locations — needed you as a tour guide!

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