Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 26.

Beryl Rawson (ed.), A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Malden, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xx + 643, incl. 3 maps, 80 figures and 8 tables. ISBN 978-1-4051-8767-1. US $199.95 / £110.00 / €132.00.

Liz Gloyn
Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham, U.K.

Research into the ancient family can take many forms, as demonstrated by the wide range of topics covered in this volume; they include, among others, childhood, archaeological evidence for family life, domestic religious practice and legal issues. The field has experienced a surge of interest, particularly noticeable in the last fifteen years, and the contributions capture some of the exciting new directions in which research is moving. Authors 'were invited to indicate the central questions in the field, the points of debate, so that the reader would sense the liveliness and growing development of their topics and the overall field' ('Introduction', p. 3). As a result, the collection represents the current state of play in a shifting and developing discipline, and productively advances the academic conversation. Inevitably, the chapters vary in their quality and incisiveness, but the volume as a whole provides a stimulating and rewarding read. It would be impossible to provide an overview of all thirty-two chapters in what follows, so I have chosen to focus on chapters which represent important overall trends in the collection.

The volume is thematically divided into five sections: 'Houses and Households', 'Kinship, Marriage, Parents, and Children', 'The Legal Side', 'City and Country' and 'Ritual, Commemoration, Values'. Of these, the largest section is 'Houses and Households', containing twelve chapters, while 'City and Country' and 'The Legal Side' contain only three and four chapters respectively.[[1]] Within sections, material is organised partially chronologically and partially thematically. Chapters move beyond an exclusive focus on Athens and Rome, expanding their remit to include areas like Macedonia, Roman Egypt and the Roman provinces; chronologically, material begins in around the fifth century B.C. and continues to the early Christian period, ending in the second century A.D. The evidence used is primarily archaeological and historical, although literary evidence is put to good use, for instance in Daniel Ogden’s discussion of the royal families of Argead Macedon and how their familial lives are characterised in the narrative sources.

There is an 'imbalance between Greek and Roman offerings' ('Introduction', p. 4), in that there is much more material treating Roman evidence; Rawson’s introduction notes that this reflects the current state of scholarship rather than an editorial decision. The disparity is quite noticeable -- fourteen chapters examine Roman sources, seven concentrate on Greek, while six offer comparative discussions of the available Greek and Roman evidence. One can only hope that students and scholars specialising in the Greek world will take up the challenge of advancing the study of the family offered by this volume.

One of the collection’s aims is 'to recognize problems in evidence and methodology and to stimulate further questioning and progress towards better understanding' ('Introduction', p. 3). Each author works with their own methodology (including literary analysis, anthropological archaeology and analysis of artistic iconography), and as a result some contributions are very theoretically orientated. For instance, Lisa Nevett provides a useful consideration of ways in which to integrate ancient historical and archaeological evidence in the study of domestic space, Jérôme Wilgaux looks at questions of ancient Greek kinship and incest from the perspective of David Schneider’s theoretical analysis of American culture, and Janett Morgan convincingly argues for the need to reorientate the framework in which we view Greek domestic religion. There is no overall shared scholarly approach applied over the chapters, which is sensible given the range of material discussed and the impossibility of establishing one fixed definition of what ‘family’ meant in the Greco-Roman world; contributors have used the best approaches for analysing their material, and thus produce a better volume overall. The collection is strengthened by its interdisciplinarity, both within individual chapters and in the arrangement of the chapters. The contributors also represent the diversity of the academic community working on families, with representatives from Belgium, South Africa, Italy, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and France, as well as the UK and North America.

As is typical with Companion volumes, chapters fall into two types: those which provide surveys of their selected area and those which provide closer analysis of a particular issue. I should note that some of those chapters more easily categorised as surveys represent a selection of the strongest contributions to the volume. For instance, Penelope Allison’s collection of evidence on military families in the early Roman Empire, Hugh Lindsay’s work on adoption and heirship in Greece and Rome, and Stephen Dyson’s chapter on the family in the Roman countryside all bring together a wide range of evidence, familiar and as yet unused for the study of the family, to provide a comprehensive overview of what we know about their topics. Dyson in particular deserves credit for tackling the understudied subject of the rural family; by using innovative approaches to the sources, he has provided a much more thorough account of the rural family than has previously been available, even if his conclusions will prove controversial (p. 421).

An indication of the variety and pervasiveness of the subject in hand is that the volume is able to offer chapters on such neglected topics, and the volume provides a valuable service in addressing these more difficult, less well-known areas of study. Other examples include David Noy’s chapter, which provides the first comprehensive examination of the issues facing foreign families in Roman Italy, while Fanny Dolansky gives the first account of the Saturnalia as a domestic ritual rather than evidence for master- slave relations.

The volume is not afraid to take methodological risks, as demonstrated in Christopher Johanson’s discussion of funerary rites in the city of Rome. Johanson creates a 'speculative experimental narrative' of two imaginary funerals, one in the middle Republic and one in the early third century CE; he believes that such a reconstruction 'offers a unique and necessary mechanism for exploring the phenomenology of a landscape or, as it were, a funerary cityscape' (p. 428). The reader may be more or less convinced by the results, but Johanson makes the valuable point that it is often easy to overlook important elements of physical experience that such reconstructions bring into sharp relief. Rawson is to be commended for including this type of contribution in this kind of volume, and thus potentially opening up the range of material that is included in future companion-style collections.

The bibliography is comprehensive, and the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter direct readers to the appropriate key works. One omission I noted was Karen Hersch’s The Roman Wedding (Cambridge 2010), which probably appeared too late for inclusion. The volume is well presented, and I noticed no typographical errors.

The price of the hardback edition makes the swift appearance of a paperback extremely desirable, as this book will be of interest not only to academics and graduate students working on issues specifically related to the family, but also to those whose research touches more peripherally on the subject. Some of the contributions are suitable for undergraduates, particularly as all passages from Latin or Greek are given in translation; I would have no hesitation assigning chapters in a course reading list, such as Henrik Mouritsen’s overview of the families of slaves and freedmen or Cheryl Cox’s discussion of marriage strategies in Athens. This volume is a welcome addition to the field of family studies, and helps to acknowledge its importance as a field of study within classical scholarship; all readers should find something here to interest and stimulate them.


[[1]] A complete list of authors and chapter titles is available at the publisher's website: oductCd-1405187670,descCd- tableOfContents.html