Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Daily Life in Pagan Rome

Currently I am reading "A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium," edited by Paul Veyne. I found it on the shelf at the public library.

So far I have been reading through pre-Christian issues of birth, family, marriage, and right now slavery. All is very interesting.

For instance, abortion was a term that not only meant what it means today but also referred to contraception. Romans frequently turned out wanted children, fresh from the womb, exposing them to the streets and fate, where they usually died or otherwise were picked up by someone with compassion or a slaver.

Above all, without going into too many details here, the Romans seemed overly pragmatic in their daily life, to the exclusion of those emotional bonds we nowadays take for granted. The affairs of one's household, and even the makeup of one's house (wife, slaves, freedmen, clients) were all treated like a business venture, with the highest stakes being wealth (=social status) and manly pride.

It is interesting to note that near the same time that Christianity was making a splash the Stoics were either leading the way to a more moral Roman society or just riding the wave that effected the same thing. BC Roman society was utterly pragmatic and focused on outward duty; AD Roman society remained pragmatic, but introduced an element of inner moral consciousness that sought to give meaning to outward pragmatic duty.

For instance, marriage was made by two parties deciding they were married and living that way (though with a maiden her father is usually involved, as is a young man's father, for usually neither were free to act in their own right). There was no public ceremony, no legal document (except for the dowry), perhaps not even any witnesses. The couple might have a private ritual with a feast. It was a Roman man's duty (once he was at least age 14-16 and acknowledged by his father to be an adult) to marry and to people the society. Wives were basically servants and adult-children. However, when the Stoic morality began to take hold there appeared a moral impetus for husband and wife to live together as "friends" (which in the Roman sense meant being part of the inner circle, so to speak).

This is all to say that I am finding the whole topic interesting. This book is setting an interesting stage onto which Orthodox Christianity appeared. Hopefully, once I am farther in to the book, a fair comparison will be made between the Pagan Rome and the Christianized Rome. I am interested to get to the sections that describe religious life and Roman pastimes (like the Spectacles).

[It's interesting to note that the author of the particular section I'm reading seems rather hostile to Christianity. In one place he calls the Church Fathers "enemies of marriage."]

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