The Roman Family and Roman Civilization

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Even though Romans inherited much culture from the Greeks, yet it is the Roman family, with its distinct set of values, which shaped Roman civilization in the end, and lent to it greatness. The family was not only the integral unit of society; it was indeed the focus and setting of Roman worship. We will examine the areas of religion and politics in order to discover in what manner they were shaped by family values. In both these areas the Romans ostensibly took from the Greeks, and yet modified what they took to such an extent that in becomes distinctly Roman in the end.

The overwhelming importance of the family comes to light when we examine Roman religion. In its primitive form it was essentially ancestor worship. The gens was viewed as a spirit that passed from generation to generation, and imparted to the family its particular genius, which becomes the focus of worship. Representative of the gens, each household had a set of hearth gods, and a certain quarter of the house was set aside for their worship. In these rites the father led as priest. As the paterfamilias, he was regarded as the absolute ruler of the household, and was also the role model for the others to emulate. From here derives the Roman conception of ‘virtue’. The Latin word ‘vir’ denotes man, so virtue is literally ‘manliness’. It was suggestive of such qualities as honor, valor, integrity, moderation, and so on. The father figure was seen as an embodiment of these qualities, and Roman religion was meant to instill such values.

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In time the hearth gods came to resemble Greek deities. Before the rise of Rome Italian life was predominantly rural, and the gods and goddesses were associated with natural locations, such as springs, rivers or hills. In the highly urban setting of Rome roots to the land were severed, and religious syncretism took hold, just as it had done in the Greek city states. The colorful Greek pantheon was indeed result of syncretism, when diverse religious traditions met and mingled in the Greek polis. To accommodate a similar environment in Rome the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon wholesale, but with Latinized nomenclature. The crucial consideration is that Greek syncretism was a step towards irreligion. The same urban forces that fostered it also promoted free-thinking and philosophy, which ultimately discredited the fundamental religion, and proceeded to replace it with philosophical disciplines such as Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism. The same did not happen in Rome. Firstly, because philosophy was not the Roman bent, but more importantly because the core Roman values, based on the family, were too deeply ingrained.

In due course the democratic governing body of Rome came to be built around the same family values, and allegiance to the father in the household found its parallel in allegiance to the state. This is expressed in the conception of patria potestas, or the absolute rule of Rome. Therefore it was quite natural that Rome adopts the new Hellenized religion and makes it an integral part of state affairs. Recounting the biographies of eminent Romans, Plutarch offers many examples were religious training takes on an essential role in forming the statesman. In describing the political ascendancy of Emilius Paulus to the Senate, Plutarch gives a glowing account of his religious instruction, and commenting that such training is “the science of worshiping the gods” (Lives, 156). This can be contrasted with the Greek experience, where the spread of rationalism dissolved both religion and state. The Romans made each work to the other’s benefit, and thus made a science of religion. The state, in effect, became a macrocosm built around the unit family.

Plutarch’s biographies are essentially showcases for Roman virtue, such as his entry on Marcus Cato. He is very much a self made man, of common birth, who rose to be Consul of Rome, thus a glowing example of what was possible in Roman democracy. He was an embodiment of Roman virtue, and also highlights how such virtue clashes with the Greek sensibility. He campaigned fiercely against the incursion of Greek culture, which was a particularly strong influx at the turn of the second century BC, result conquest of Greece. Cato was expressing a distinctly Roman attitude when he expressed the opinion that Greek culture bred effeminacy in the Romans. To the Greek influence he attributed the spread of luxury and hedonism among the urban well-to-do, and the vices of theatre-going among the lower orders. He set himself up as an example by living frugally, saying that “he thought it more honorable to conquer those who possessed the gold, than to possess the gold itself” (Noble Grecians, 413). Plutarch portrays him as an ideal Roman in the mould of the paterfamilias. He stamped his manly dignity on Roman society at a time when it was threatened by the influence of effeminate Greek culture.

In the practice of democracy too the Roman statesman displayed the influence of the family. Greek democracy was essentially an aristocratic affair, limited to the well-to-do urbanites and practiced within the wall of the city state. Roman democracy, on the other hand, bred great champions of the people, and Plutarch provides us with two glowing examples in the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Caius. Tiberius was entered into the school of augurs on the strength of his virtue, says Plutarch, and not by dint of his noble background (Lives, 509). He was an exemplary Roman, proving himself on the battlefield as well as in politics, where his goal was to empower the people, especially the impoverished farmers. His younger brother by 9 years, Caius, followed in his footsteps. He agitated for the specific reforms of enlarging the franchise and the land ownership of the poor. Plutarch makes note that in his oratory he caused a revolution just by adjusting his posture. When making speeches in the People’s Assemblies is had been the custom to face the consul on the podium when delivering the key proclamations. Caius took the bold step of adjusting his posture at this critical point in his speech so that the faced the people. “An insignificant movement and change of posture,” says Plutarch, “yet it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate” (Ibid 537). The concern that Caius shows for the people is reminiscent of the father’s care for his children, and this was only possible in Roman democracy.

Through all his biographies of eminent Romans Plutarch paints the picture of the ideal citizen. He is expected to possess the three foremost qualities of pietas (sense of duty), gravitas (purposefulness) and dignitas (self-respect). The father not only set an example, but he also instructed his children. Originally the Romans did not rely on formal schooling, which only came later with the Greek conquest, and Greek slaves were employed as tutors to the rich. Despite the authoritarian status of the father we believe Roman household to have been generally happy and congenial places. Divorce was practically unknown in the second century BC. Roman women did not enjoy the rights that men claimed, but they were highly respected. Few restrictions were imposed on them, and they generally attended to festivals in numbers. Regarding the influence they wielded in social life we have the following quip of Marcus Cato, quoted by Plutarch. “Men usually command women;” he used to say in his speeches, “but we command all men, and the women command us” (qtd. in Plutarch, Lives, 325).

To conclude, though the Romans adopted many ideas, cultural elements and institutions from the Greeks, they infused them with native Roman values and made what they adopted thoroughly their own. The distinctive Roman value system was rooted in respect for the family. It is derived from the veneration bestowed on the father as the undisputed authority. Through the example of the father was inculcated such manly qualities as honor, valor and integrity. This constituted Roman virtue, and it was instrumental in transforming the Greek heritage, so that whatever was adopted was made peculiarly Roman.

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