Let us begin by thinking about what we talk about when we talk about Roman households and families. Let is start from language and concepts.
The Romans had two words that were equivalents to the English ‘household’ and ‘family’: ‘domus’ and ‘familia‘. These words are not direct translations of each other. The reason for this is that a society’s conception of ‘family’ is set by the ideologies and practices of that society. Different societies have slightly different conceptions of family. Although across a broad range of human society, there are social forms which we would recognise as family, the differences in how these social structure operate are significant. One might even say that the differences between societies are manifested in microcosm in the differences between families.
So let us start with a simple thought experiment in family, using the modern western family.
What is a family?
We might say that the archetype of a family is two adults, committed in a long-term relationship, enshrined in law and/or religious practice, and their children. This establishes the nuclear family arrangement.
Yet, we know this is an archetype. Such archetypes are useful as a starting point for thought. Sociologists sometimes call these forms ‘ideal types’, not because they are the best form, but because they give us an idea of what we are talking about when we talk about family.
How many children are there in this ideal type family? A generation or so ago (I am so old that I can remember this), the standard number of children seemed to be between two and three, which was down from a few generations earlier. Larger families were common, but families of more then four children were uncommon.
Nowadays, in much of the developed world, that figure has dropped to 1-2. In many poorer areas of the world, the norms are between 3-4.
We tend to blend the concepts of household and family. In the ideal types, families live together. If we think in economic terms, families and households are units of consumption: they shop together, the cook, together, they provide for the needs of every member of that household as a collective.
That’s the simple story, but in our lived experience, families are very diverse. There are also considerable arguments about the best arrangement of families and if families with arrangements which differ from the ideal type are problems.
You can think of divergences, but lets run through a few:
- Is an individual who lives alone a family?
- Do children have to be present for the unit to be a family?
- Can a family have one parental figure?
- Can a family have no parental figure?
- What role does generational extension play? Which means how do grandparents fit in? If a young adult has a child, do they automatically form a new family?
- Can a family have parents have the same gender?
- Can a family have parents who are not in a conjugal relationship?
- How does divorce and separation affect the familial structure?
- Can individuals who are not genetically related or adopted members of the family?
These questions relate mostly to how a family/household appears in a snapshot. If you imagine yourself as an anthropologists and appear you appear at a door of a house, those are the sorts of questions you can ask.
Family is a very important concept in our social ideologies and consequently in our politics. Politicians and community leaders are very keen to be seen to support families. They are seen as the bedrock of our societies. Augustus was no different. Yet, so often they wish to define tightly what constitutes a family and what forms of family are deserving of support. Sometimes, they exhibit hostility to forms of family that they do not like, seeing them as a threat. Individuals who think of themselves as being in a family and who are subject to odium because their family does not conform to these models are made to suffer. Imagine being in that situation.
But the snapshot approach ignores a crucial element in families. They have histories and develop over time. So, let us imagine a family of two parents and four children.
- The siblings grow up and they move out. Are they all still family?
- One of the siblings returns to the parental home. Is the family changed?
- One of the parents dies? How is the family changed?
- Three of the siblings develop partners and children of their own. What is the status of the fourth sibling? What is the status of the partners and their children?
- One of the siblings divorces and leaves their marital home. Is the family changed?
- The original living parent finds it difficult to be alone and moves to be closer to their children. Does it matter if they live in the same house or live close by?
Do these questions matter?
At one level, they don’t. Families are composed of human relations. They are mixed and messy and have regularities, but don’t follow rules. Families are also context driven. I can say ‘my family’ in one context and it includes one set of people, and in another context, it means another overlapping set of people. But everyone understands.
In other contexts, it matters a lot. If we are interested in how society works, as historians, sociologists, anthropologists, etc., then we need to know what we are talking about. Families are hugely important. They are the basis of social life. They are how we educated and bring up our next generation. They are how we live and survive from day to day, week to week, year to year.
But what this should also tell us is that families are varied and changing and multiple and disputed and although they may have had regularities, they adapted to circumstances are situations, misfortunes and fortunes. The Roman family was likely as varied as the modern family. Politicians like to imagine a golden age of regular and rule-bound families. Every single historical period and every society for which we have records shows that families within a single society exhibit enormous variety. We need to remember.
I have also ducked one of the most important questions. Who makes decisions in a family? Have fun debating that.