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Family and Gender in Ancient Rome

I mentioned below that Prof. Diane Lipsett delivered a wonderful lecture on the conversation currently taking place between New Testament scholars, family historians, social archaeologists and the like. The title of this post is actually the title of en entire semester-long course taught by Prof. Lipsett, so for our, geez, ninety minute session she condensed her focus to Men, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome. With her permission, I am posting my notes from this lecture below, tweaked a little for readability.

Prof. Lipsett is interested in studies of gender formation among non-elites as well as elites, those people about whom we know much less because they did not have the resources or clout to commemorate and study themselves, generally speaking.

Roman households were much broader than we conceive of in modern terms, with a wide spectrum of people connected by family and employment living under one roof (the terms domus/eikos/ikea capture this idea of an indiscriminate household)

Christian texts growing in importance as voices of largely non-elite family populations, and are newly central in a cross-fertilization between field. A Crossroad of Scholarship, one might say.

To examine theology in terms of embodied social relations is a partial goal of Prof. Lipsett's session, and with this overreaching goal in mind we examined four excerpted texts.

Romans 16: 1-16

Paul writes so many names because he is uncertain of the success of his mission to come to Rome, and is looking for folks to vouch for him. [Prof. Bovon also talked about this letter, and thinks that Paul was feeling insecure about taking his evangelizing mission to a place where the Jesus-following movement was experiencing such success, and therefore lists so many as a kind of preemptive strike against critics--either way (and probably, of course, it's both) it's a demonstration of Paul's unease and insecurity. Meanwhile, back at the ranch...] So what can be learned from this list of names & relations about family/gender in ~50 CE? Clues in references to geography and places of origin; references to households and house churches; to names of women; and the personal qualities Paul raises up and honors.

***Rome at this time was a city of immigrants. Prisca and Aquila, who are mentioned more often in the New Testament than any other couple, seem to have been patrons of house-churches all over the Mediterranean Basin-->evidence of missionary work at many levels. Number of blood marriage connections [? In the list? Can't get em all...] There were a number of churches in Rome, separate but in communication with each other [another strike against the Universalizing myth of the once-unified proto-Christian church. Another knock on that myth is the tendency of people to imagine it as being fundamentally like their own tradition: I think it must have been very justice-oriented and overlook the evangelizing aspect, the fellow we spoke to at the Vatican Museum I'm sure sees things differently--indeed, the whole justification of Catholicism as the true Mother Church is the idea of Apostolic succession, that the current Pope is just the most recent in an unbroken chain of Bishops all the way back to Peter, the "First Bishop of Rome," who was personally appointed by Jesus himself. There is no historical evidence for this kind of hierarchy in antiquity--there were Bishops, but they seem to have been more a council of co-equals than today's first-among-equals-style papacy. It just goes to show how tricky it is, all this scholarly objectivity. At any rate...] Paul also may be using Phoebe to repair bonds between groups. Did Paul have blood relations who were in Christ before he was (Andronicus and Julia)?

***Women-->Phoebe the Deacon--probably this was not a specific office, but was synonymous with the office of Minister. Deacon in this context is a flexible and highly-valued word, and there is no feminization of the term in the original Greek as it is applied to Phoebe. She also has been a benefactor/patron who has provided help and support to many, including Paul. Charging her with duty implies patronage going both ways. Also, Prsica/Priscilla usually listed first when named with Aquila. She might have been higher status, or means, or more honor from her ministry. Junia could be a man or woman, but one of the rules of textual criticism is, when evidence is otherwise even, to choose the more difficult and less typical reading. Paul usually talks about lower-case "a" apostles. There are 10 women in this list, which is a high concentration.

***In this portion of Romans, we see that Paul values: hard work (physical, but especially missionary); risk-taking and sticking necks out (literally--gulp!); assisting others (which was not gender-specific); and people who have turned their homes into churches.

This list of names shows a great deal of geographic mobility, strong presence of women (representative of churches of the 50's, we hope), women in the Roman West had greater freedoms than back East; a mixture of Jewish names and Roman names, and a few common Latin slave names--provocative, range of social constitution of Roman churches (possibly).

1 Clement, where the Roman church hierarchies intervene in a dispute in Corinth. This letter likely dates to the 90s, and was not necessarily written by Clement--likely it was produced by a council of authorities, of whom Clement was prominent or had a special/specific authority (like an ombudsman, or Greek heritage, or something). The authorial voice demonstrates a high level of education, and is seeking peace, harmony, and concord through submission and obedience. This is a rhetorical project seeking exploration of obedience. [I think there was more to this, but I get bogged down in the specifics of rhetorical analysis sometimes. Plus it was right before the break...]

1 Clem 6:1-4 Interesting that Clement also involves female martyrs--what is meant by Danaids and Dircae? Dircae = executed by bulls [one bull tied to each limb, and sent in different directions--]/eroticization of spectacle. Danaids in myth eternally filling leaking vessels-->metaphor for sexual assault? Unending torment? Odd juxtaposition of pagan myth; also that Clem moves from female martyrdom to jealousy wrecking families to jealousy uprooting great nations
1Clem 21:6-9 -->Hierarchical--compare to Collossians; submission or reciprocity. Clement uses richness of language of character formation that is not found in other parts of the NT. Is Clement descriptive or prescriptive? The whole thing points to the diversity of social expectation in the early church.


On to text 3, The Shepherd of Hermas from the late 1st or early 2nd century. This allegorical search for faith (the title refers to the mysterious, otherworldly guide who leads the character Hermas [which may or may not have been the name of the author] through a series of long, repetitive allegories) consists of three sections, each featuring visions and dream encounters with different dialogue partners: female figures representing the church, and the aforementioned shepherd. It is a very long elaboration on sin and repentence, deeply rooted in social relations. Historically, it gets mixed reviews. Tertullian called Hermas "The Shepherd of Adulterers." The text represents a prophetic voice but is not an argument for submission to church authority.

Visions 1, 3 and 4 feature the brother/sister language indicative of Christianity. Raises questions of self knowledge of heart, problematizes... [something--must have lost the thread at this point]. As part of self-examination we must make the choice to embrace downward mobility. This is a text deeply concerned with the problem of rich Christians neglecting their responsibilities to poorer Christians and the church in general. The metaphor of the vine and elm idealizes relations between rich and poor Christians: the rich are the elm, up which the vine can climb to the heavens. Hermas uses the voice of one who has been poor, gained wealth, and then been called to task for neglecting his faith. In terms of gender construction, household control and taking care of other Christians are both highly gendered as masculine--"Be a man, Hermas." This nature of masculinity resistant to other classical constructions of masculinity. In another section, germane to the previous text, the author mentions a certain Clement, whose role in the church seems to be to send letters to foreign cities...interesting!

Apocryphal Acts of Peter

[earlier I wrote about the story of "Domine Quo Vadis"--the Acts of Peter is the text from which that story comes. It primarily deals with the power struggle between Peter and the sorcerer Simon Magus.] The book is set and revised in Rome, but was not written there, and dates from the mid-2nd century. In Romans 16, couples, single people, and women are key to missionary work; in 1Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas we see a great concern regarding the social order of women and the household. The Acts of the Apostles depicts an emphasis on asceticism that becomes highly disruptive to households, especially elite households. The Apocryphal Acts of Peter is dominated by the conflict between Peter and Simon Magus, which culminates in Simon being cast down in the Roman Forum. The book ends with the story of Peter's martyrdom. Along the way we learn how disruptive Peter's ministry in Rome was to the practice of concubinage, and then to sexual relations between married people (Peter was too successful at converting women in particular to his brand of asceticism). According to the Acts, the Apostles became disruptive rivals to extremely high-status males; and if households were disrupted, then whole cities were disrupted.

Close to the end, here--we found ourselves pressed for time, surprising given that we were only trying to cram an entire semester into one class! Professor Lipsett's closing remarks focussed on early Roman Jesus-following/Christian polycentrism, with its different churches, levels of social status, authority figures, and social roles.

Whew! So that was the lecture! This was one of the moments when the lives of non-elites in ancient Rome came alive for me a little. It is so easy to think of the Roman Empire only in terms of emperors and conquests and triumphs, and incredible engineering and public works; the people of lower and middle class get lost, not to mention slaves! In his great book Constantine's Sword, James Carroll says that the usual figure given for the population of Rome at its peak is 1 million. However, he points out, this figure ignores the huge number of slaves living in bondage, which was a further million. Professor Lipsett's lecture gave me a little feel for who these people were, what their lives must have been like, and why the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would have such appeal.

Immediately following this lecture we walked over to the Vatican for our meeting with Cardinal Walter Kaspar, about which you can read more below.


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