Classically Inclined

January 10, 2013

Age asymmetric marriage in ancient Rome

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have spotted, just before the new year, an unscientific poll I undertook about what the average age difference between partners was among my followers’ peer groups; I asked the same question on Facebook as well. I was curious whether my perception of differences in ages was accurate – I had thought that most of my friends were within a five year gap, but Geoff countered that he thought among our peer group the difference was narrower, more like two years. What better way to check than to ask the internet?

The responses were quite interesting, not least because some people offered their thoughts about why the age gap looked like it did. In general, my sense that gaps of two, three and four years were most common seemed to be borne out, although more people than I was expecting said they felt the average among their peer group was a year or two years. People identified outliers (fifteen or twenty years difference), but tended to label them as outside the norm, either within the peer group or usual social patterns. Most people who offered suggestions about why this might be thought that socialisation had a lot to do with it – people had met partners at university, or alternatively had met through their university friends’ wider networks which tended to be roughly age-equivalent, hence the prevalence of one and two year gaps.

So why was this on my mind? Because of the Roman Life Course class I am teaching today, looking at age asymmetrical marriage in the Roman world. I’ve asked students to look through one of Plutarch’s Lives and think about what features of the life course can be traced through it; the class this evening will focus on what we can pick out about their marital habits from the texts. I spent most of my Christmas and New Year working through the Lives in question myself, and tracing the marital histories of Antony, Cicero and Pompey. Pompey is the particularly interesting example; he married five times, prolific even in a society that structured itself to encourage remarriage wherever possible. His early marriages appear to be fairly age-equal as far as these things go – for instance, his second wife (Sulla’s stepdaughter) would have been about eighteen and he would have been about 24 when they married, which is a bit wider than we’d normally see now but not unheard of.

However, his fourth and fifth marriages show a really interesting shift in perception. His fourth wife was Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar; she was about 24 and he was about 47, so there was a 23 year difference. Plutarch comments on Pompey dedicating himself to his young wife and being distracted from the political life of the state, but the impression is that this age gap at this stage is not unusual and other men have found themselves in the same situation. However, it’s a different story with his fifth wife, Cornelia Metella – while he’s about 55 when they marry, she’s only 21, making a whopping 34 years difference. Plutarch snidely observes that she would have been a more appropriate wife for a son of Pompey than for Pompey himself, suggesting that this time he’s gone just that bit too far in crossing the age boundary. The Romans can cope with a wide age difference, but there are limits; Pompey’s case demonstrates roughly where the unseen boundaries of acceptability lie.

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December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.

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August 10, 2011

Seneca’s De Matrimonio, or On Marriage – a discussion of the text

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:32 pm
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I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting quite a few hits as a result of a search for the terms “Seneca on marriage”, “Seneca De Matrimonio” and variants thereof. The problem is that those hits get directed to this post I wrote about turning a thesis chapter into a talk, which mentions the De Matrimonio briefly, but doesn’t really give much of a background into Useful Things about it. So I thought I’d write a proper post explaining a bit more about the text, and giving some useful bibliography. I know I would have appreciated such a thing when I was trying to find out more about the De Matrimonio in my M.Phil. year, when all the books I could find referred to it in passing in a footnote and never actually explained what on earth it was.

There’s a good reason for this, and that’s because we don’t actually have a proper surviving text. Our only ancient evidence that Seneca wrote a text titled De Matrimonio comes from Saint Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, which is mainly concerned with Jerome’s attempts to prove his opponent Jovinian wrong about the relative merits of virginity and marriage. Jerome is strongly pro-virginity as the appropriate Christian life choice, and writes to oppose a tract of Jovinian’s in which he has expressed the opposite opinion. (Apparently Jerome’s vitriol against marriage came as a bit of a surprise to his married friends, and his letters include a very lengthy apology to the Roman senator Pammachius.) Jerome marshalled a band of worthy writers to support his case, both sacred and pagan – unfortunately, he was not, shall we say, particularly scrupulous about how he deployed his quotations and whether he correctly represented the intent of the original authors. I think his reading of Dido as “a woman of chastity devoted to just the one husband” was my favourite gem. This is our first problem with using Jerome as a source for Seneca – we can’t be completely sure which fragments are direct quotes from Seneca, which passages are paraphrases of Seneca, and which parts Jerome made up himself or took from another source. (more…)

April 28, 2011

Turning a thesis chapter into a talk – Seneca on marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:01 am
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There is something ineffably frustrating about trying to turn a thesis chapter into a twenty minute conference-style presentation. You have a whole chapter that you have loving and thoughtfully structured so it leads the reader gently through your train of thought and argument at a leisurely but clearly-marked pace – and now you have to chop out the ‘best bits’, the strongest arguments, reframe your organisational material to provide enough background for the arguments you are going to present, and tearfully wave farewell to all the other sections you have lovingly laboured over. In fact, one colleague has told me that she’s only ever tried to do it once, and that was such an off-putting experience that she has sworn off ever doing it again.

I have only had to go through this process once before myself, when I presented a chunk of chapter one of my thesis at the Oikos-Familia conference in Sweden, and it was jolly hard then. (If you’re interested, you can read my abstract here.) That was especially tricky, because I had to explain quite a complicated chunk of Stoic philosophy to a non-philosophical audience for them to be able to understand my argument; that was quite a significant challenge for me as one of my central tenets about my work is that you shouldn’t have to be trained to the eyeballs in ancient philosophy to be able to access philosophical material in Seneca. It seemed to go alright, anyway.

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