Ancient Near East

The absence of depictions of families in the visual record of the ancient Near East in the late periods (Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian/Achaemenid) forces any description of family structures to depend heavily on the textual record. The enormity of that documentation—one could easily count upward of 50,000 Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian texts in museums, libraries, and collections worldwide—means that this overview of a complex and fascinating topic survey needs be selective in its approach. Thus, an unfortunate omission here must be contributions from the emerging field of household archaeology (Foster and Parker, 2012; Herrmann, 2011), which not only considers the material evidence of individuals and their aggregations into families and households but also seeks to explain human processes that reflect the activities that related or closely associated individuals perform in the spaces they inhabit and in which they conduct the business of their lives. It is nonetheless hoped that the broad outlines drawn from the documentary record reflect the scope of family structures in the first millennium B.C.E.

Literary documents from the Neo-Assyrian library of Ashurbanipal and the library at Neo-Babylonian Sippar contain no extensive descriptions of family life. However, they do sport insightful and sometimes compassionate sketches of divine households, filled with the same indiscretions and joys that beset their human counterparts. Episodes in the Creation Epic (Enuma eliš) detail both the roiling anger of an exhausted mother, Tiamat, at the noisy (divine) children who deprive her of much-needed sleep and Anu’s grandfatherly pride in Marduk’s prowess, which, coupled with devotion, leads him to fashion celestial toys that amuse Marduk, demonstrate his potency, and confirm him as the ultimate vanquisher of Tiamat and her vengeful plan.

Like the literary texts, the corpora of legal and administrative texts do not explicitly concern themselves with portrayals of family structure or process. Yet, in preserving details of the activities across all socioeconomic levels and of named individuals and family members marked with kinship terminology, they offer an entrée into understanding first-millennium B.C.E. family and household structures, in primarily the human, but also in the divine, realm. Brief notices hinting at the composition of divine families appear in economic and administrative sources recording the intersection and interdependency of royal (palace) and divine (temple) households. Research exploring these interconnections (e.g., Waerzeggers, 2010) continues to deepen the understanding of the social organization of both institutions.


While the terms “Neo-Assyrian” and “Neo-Babylonian,” founded in temporal and geographical criteria, impose constraints on some research agendas, here they serve well enough as rubrics by which the documentation may be defined. The bias that inheres in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian sources stems from their origins in the documentation of imperial and cultic administrative practices, thus privileging study of upper-class families and family structures. Nonetheless, concerns with proper administration of society’s economic foundations mean that those documents do not preclude glimpses of the composition and conditions of lower-class families. A comprehensive study of nearly 450 Neo-Assyrian texts (Galil, 2007)—legal transactions, administrative records, court decisions, letters, and ration and census lists originating from six cities, including three imperial capitals (Nineveh, Aššur, and Calah)—shows that socially and economically constrained families were organized along the patrilineal family lines that characterize all ancient Near Eastern families. The fifteen Harran census texts tally households, taking account of land and animals in addition to inventorying people. While the exact purpose of the census texts remains unknown, these administrative records make explicit the makeup of 101 families, first noting male, then female, adults, followed by the number, sex, and age groups of children in each household. Neo-Assyrian slave sale records indicate that families could range in size, from a two-person childless couple to a family of ten persons. Ages of children can be approximated when, for example, children are termed “suckling” (ša šizbi/zizibi) or “weaned” (pirsu). No documentation confirms the age at which this transition from a state of dependence on the mother occurred, yet the lack of additional descriptors associated with young children suggests that, once weaned, they were reckoned among the productive members of a household. Another indirect indicator of a child’s young age is a notation concerning his or her height: those said to measure 3–5 “spans” (rūṭu), equivalent to approximately 21–47 inches, must have been infants or toddlers.

While the administrative documentation concerned with lower-class families offers insights into the statistical composition of the Neo-Assyrian family, the extensive epistolary record originating from the Assyrian court (State Archives of Assyria—SAA) offers more intimate glimpses of aspects of royal family life. From a correspondence focused primarily on matters of succession, political engagement, and other affairs of state, a number of tender scenes emerge. Anxiety about royal infants’ elevated fevers (SAA 10 213) and sleeplessness (SAA 10 214), documented in letters between the king and royal doctors, would be familiar to modern-day parents. Another letter (SAA 10 188) reports that Ashurbanipal’s dead mother, Ešarra-hammat, returned as a ghost to ensure her son’s claim to the throne—a dramatic, if fictional, expression of maternal devotion growing out of tensions that beset the royal family following the elevation of Ashurbanipal to crown prince over his older brother, the rightful heir.

Similarly, tens of thousands of Neo-Babylonian legal and administrative documents focus on the upper-class urban elite and their interactions with palace and temple. Although abundant details of the day-to-day functioning of civic and cultic enterprises are not intended to document families and family structures, the preservation of personal names in standardized naming conventions enables the creation of onomastica (lists of names) and prosopographical notices (family and social connections) from each city and throughout the long sixth century (a construct that reflects the continuity of social and economic trends from the late seventh to the early fifth centuries B.C.E.; see Jursa, 2010). Together, these support an increasingly comprehensive understanding of family structure in the Neo-Babylonian period.


Attested in sources throughout the first millennium, the vocabulary of family relationships identifies members of the nuclear family as well as individuals incorporated into households through sanguineous (blood) and affinal (legal, typically marriage or adoption) ties. In Akkadian, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and wife are designated abu, ummu, māru, mārtu, aḫu, aḫatu, aššatu, respectively. Names of grandfathers and great-grandfathers followed mārmāru, “son of the son,” and liblibbu, “descendant,” the penultimate term in sequences such as “personal name (PN), son of PN2, mārmāri PN3” or “PN, son of PN2, grandson of PN3, liblibbi PN4.” Akkadian possesses a limited vocabulary of terms for affinal relatives: father-in-law, emu; son-in-law, ḫatanu; daughter-in-law, kallatu, are those most frequently attested. Other relationships, including brother-in-law and sister-in-law, are expressed through periphrastic expressions, e.g., “daughter of the father-in-law.” Daughters-in-law are identified by both blood and marital lines: “PN, daughter of PN2 (and) wife of PN3, son of PN4” establishes PN as the daughter-in-law of PN4.

Terms for kin groups in historical inscriptions, as well as in legal and administrative texts, include kimtu, nisūtu, qinnu, and salātu. Each of these can embrace a broad range of meanings; for example, qinnu designates animal lairs, human families of low social status, urban elites, and foreign royalty, as well as groups of individuals linked by social or professional rather than biological ties. In addition to these terms that identify specific family members and familial connections, a variety of naming practices provide insight into the organization of families and their place in a variety of social contexts.

Sociology of the Family.

The notion of “family” encompasses networks extending across sanguineous and affinal lines and longitudinally through time, beyond the nuclear family and the generations that immediately precede it. Neo-Babylonian onomastics permit identification of members of families and provide markers for discovering individual agency and native conceptions of family organization. In legal and administrative texts, transaction participants’ names appeared in two- or three-tiered filiation statements that also included the name of the participant’s father (or ancestor, in the two-tiered genealogy) and ancestor (Nielsen, 2011). This standardized naming pattern makes it possible to identify progenitors who, unless they were themselves principals in transactions, would otherwise disappear from the documentary record. In the Hellenistic period, expansion of filiation statements to four or five generations, combined with the practice of papponymy—the naming a child for a male ancestor (typically a grandfather)—makes possible recovery of family trees to a depth of as many as eight generations and provides both evidence and a framework for exploring the impact of cultural hybridity on family structures in Hellenistic Babylonia (Langin-Hooper and Pearce, 2013).

In those dense genealogies, some men and women bore “double names,” a secondary appellation in Akkadian, Aramaic, or Greek. Akkadian names paired with Aramaic or Greek reflect the multicultural composition of some families. The agency of women is proven by the documentation of women acting as principals in legal or economic transactions, representing their own economic interests or those of their husbands. Naming a female child for a grandmother known to have participated in economic and legal transactions validated the significant roles women played in the community’s social and economic life, even as they served, through marriage, to link important branches of urban families.

Naming practices recorded in the genealogical lines of these women show them to have been transmitters of familial and cultural identity as well. Documented cases of maternal-line papponymy (a child named for a male ancestor on the maternal line) indicate that children born in marriages between women of Greek background (as determined by their fathers’ Greek names) and men whose Babylonian names point to Babylonian identity were nearly as likely to bear Greek names as they were to have Babylonian names. To the extent that the linguistic origin of a personal name is an indicator of cultural identification (a point still much discussed), maternal-line papponymy attests that in some culturally hybrid families, the cultural heritage of the mother was as valid as that of the father.

Urbanites’ claims of descent from putative or known ancestors offer another resource for recovering family structure within Neo-Babylonian society. The overwhelming preponderance of masculine clan names—fewer than a half-dozen female family names are preserved (Wunsch, 2006)—underscores the patrilineal organization of kinship lines in the inventory of clan names. Clan names may be derived from professions: Nappaḫu and Gallābu are Akkadian counterparts to “Smith” and “Barber,” well-known surnames in the English-speaking world. Prebendary offices lent their names to families holding these hereditary temple posts that provided income from the performance of ritual duties such as butchering, baking, or even ox herding. Certain names had strong association with particular cities; thus, a member of the Ibnaya family likely hailed from Borsippa, while a descendant of Kuri probably came from Uruk.

The patrimonial organization of ancient Near Eastern society is further evident in the institution of the bīt abi, “paternal estate.” Already documented in the second-millennium Levant (Schloen, 2001), the expression bīt abi may reflect attachment to physical structures connected to a family’s historic past. Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions and Neo-Babylonian archival and administrative documents confirm it as an agnatic (paternal line) institution that served primarily socioeconomic functions, including redeeming from strangers its members’ alienated property and, above all, maintenance of its economic contents.

Continuity of family and family lines depends on the addition of family members, with growth achieved through marriage and its expectation of offspring. When biological issue from a marriage was lacking, adoption brought children into the family. The primary motivation for the adoption of boys was the acquisition of heirs to maintain the patrimony. This applied equally in the urban sector and in Neo-Babylonian temple institutions, in which childless priests adopted sons and consecrated them into the hereditary office, thus preserving tradition and guaranteeing transmission of prebendary income to yet another generation. Although the format and content of Neo-Assyrian adoption records differ according to the gender of the adoptee, they all confirm the economic function of the institution in the preservation of the patrilineal organization and focus of ancient Near Eastern society (Radner, 1997). Clauses that confirm adoptive boys as their fathers’ heirs do not appear in texts recording girls’ adoptions, which appear to have taken place for other economic, as well as humanitarian, reasons: a transfer of assets accompanied girls’ adoptions, and the girl might provide domestic service in the household of her adoptive parents.

In spite of the limitations the documentation imposes, many features of family structures are evident in the textual record of the late first millennium B.C.E. In combination with studies of marriage and divorce, a picture of these active households, engaged participants, and enduring social institutions endures to this day.




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Laurie E. Pearce

Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible reflects the reality of the importance of family throughout all of its texts. Within ancient Israel, family provided one of the key institutions undergirding the social life of the people. In many ways, the family served as a linchpin, connecting the wider social and economic structures to the micro-sociological actions of individuals and small groups. Thus, family is important not only as an institution of its own but also because it formed the matrix in which individuals expressed and manifested much of their sexuality and gender roles. Similarly, both ancient and modern societies view sexual and gender performance in relationship to family roles.

Any study of the family in history faces the challenge of anachronism, by which we make assumptions about the ancient family because of our experiences of or rhetoric about contemporary families. This is a particular danger because terms such as “the family,” “to be a family,” and “family values” are so charged in modern discourse, infused with emotional meaning and political significance. Israelite families are strikingly different from families in the modern period in their structure, boundaries, self-understanding, values, and social function.

Although scholars operate with many definitions of “family” in ancient Israel, perhaps a consensus definition would integrate two factors: a sense of lasting relationship (whether genetic, covenantal/contractual/legal, or affinitive) that results in long-term actions of intimacy and loyalty. Such a definition has the advantage of uniting both feeling and action, as well as recognizing that the connections that form family may come from a variety of sources and may find expression in a variety of structures. For sociological purposes, however, it is beneficial to focus on observable social formations. For this reason, we use the term “household” alongside “family.” Many families are households, and many households are families, but there can be differences between the two. Two sisters, for instance, may understand themselves as family (i.e., a genetic connection with long-term loyalty and intimacy) yet may not live with each other as part of the same household. At the same time, a household may include family members (those who share genetic relationships and those who are related by legal convention such as marriage or adoption) as well as nonfamily members (such as servants and slaves). Archaeology gives us much more evidence about household than about family. The distinction between family and household is very helpful for analytic purposes, although the original source material of the Hebrew Bible often provides information that does not adhere strictly to such contemporary categories.

Ancient Israelite families and households probably evidenced significant variation in structure and composition in different geographical areas as a result of local customs, and the patterns of family and household probably changed significantly over time. However, modern scholarship cannot easily determine local or chronological variation. Archaeological evidence shows a number of specific examples of households, but it remains difficult to establish a clear pattern. Likewise, the Hebrew Bible portrays many families as well as households, but the texts do not give the reader clear indication of how much these families would be representative of most Israelite families. Since many of the families depicted in the Hebrew Bible are particularly wealthy or powerful families, they may not be very representative. We also do not know how to determine the accuracy of these portrayals. As a result, modern scholarship cannot construct a clear argument for the ways in which the Israelite family varied by region or class, or changed over time, with few exceptions.

Terminology for Family and Household.

One of the most distinctive terms in the Hebrew Bible that corresponds to family or household is the bet ’av, literally, the “house of the father.” This term is used at times in a sense that seems technical, to represent a subdivision of the population, perhaps a clan or part of a tribe. It is used both for a collection of several actual households and also a for a unit of family connection larger than a household. For instance, Abraham desires to find a wife for his son Isaac, but he specifies that the wife must come from Abraham’s “father’s house” (Gen 24:38, 40), which lies at some distance. This does not refer to the physical house where Terah (Abraham’s father) resided; instead, the term must mean something similar to “kindred.” This father’s house is at a geographical distance and it refers to more than any single household. In the genealogies and population statistics of Numbers 3, the term appears frequently, and the New Revised Standard Version often translates it as “ancestral house,” i.e., all of the descendants of a great-grandfather or some other deceased ancestor. Not all members of this bet ’av would know each other or gather regularly, but it would serve as an organizational unit within society. In other places, bet ’av seems to refer to smaller units, possibly as small as a nuclear family in a single household (2 Sam 19:28, for instance). Probably many uses of the word bayit “house” should be understood as household, in the context not so much of the physical structure but of the social unit and its ongoing function.

The analogous term bet ’im (“mother’s house”) is also used in the Hebrew Bible, although only a few times. In Genesis 24:28, a servant woman shared news with her mother’s house. This seems to be a household, although some would argue that it refers only to the female members of the household. Likewise, Ruth 1:8 refers to a mother’s house in a way likely to mean a single household, as do Song of Songs 3:4 and 8:2.

Another term, mishpahah, is at times synonymous with bet ’av (Gen 24:38, 40), but at other times means something more generic (Gen 8:19, where birds and other animals leave the ark in their own mishpahah, which seems to indicate “species”). The word also appears in the phrase “all the mishpahot of the earth” (Gen 12:3, 28:14). In Exodus 6, mishpahah seems to be a population unit greater than a bet ’av, suggesting to some that bet ’av might be “clan” whereas mishpahah would indicate a “tribe,” or a grouping of clans. At times (especially in Joshua), mishpahah functions as a military unit, from which a certain number of troops would be sent. A larger unit of “tribe” would be the shevet or mateh, terms that also refer to a rod or a staff that may well be a symbol of authority over such a large tribe ( for example, see 1 Sam 9:21). The twelve tribes of Israel are referred to with these terms.

Social Function of the Larger Family.

The mishpahah or the bet ’av (within the larger meanings of the term) functioned as extended family, i.e., groups larger than a household and often ranging over a significant geographical area. These families were not in frequent contact with each other; they might or might not have recognized each other by sight. These larger families might have functioned as administrative units, by which a more centralized government could assess what the families owed in terms of money or people for service. At times, such as in Abraham’s consideration for Isaac, there was a desire to marry within the mishpahah or bet ’av but yet from well outside of the individual’s household or region. Thus, these larger families might have represented an endogamous grouping, a group of affinity within which people could marry but outside the close family with whom intermarriage or sexual relations was illegal (Lev 20:10–14, 17–21). Larger family units functioned as recourse for households and other smaller family units in times of crisis such as famine, war, or oppression; people turned to their more distant relatives for help in such times.

Social Roles of the Household.

Within the household, social roles were paramount in performing daily life and in establishing relationships with other members of the household. A household would consist of those people inhabiting a single physical dwelling place (whether a permanent structure or a tent). Although we do not know the average size of a household, it may well have consisted of as few as three or four individuals and as many as fifteen to twenty people. Each bet ’av had one person designated as the “head” of the bet ’av (e.g., Num 1:4). Similarly, each household was ruled by one head of the household, who was the decisive voice in internal matters as well as in relations with other households. Usually, the household consisted of a number of people who shared genetic relationships, as well as others with whom the connections were legal. Households were usually multigenerational.

For example, a household might have included an adult woman and an adult man in a long-term sexual relationship, as well as the children produced by that sexual relationship. Because marriage or sexual relationships in ancient Israel were polygynous, the household might have included additional adult women in long-term sexual relationships with that adult man, as well as the children of those unions. The adult man functioned as head of household, and likely was the oldest male of the household. The adult women all had a legal connection to the head of the household, and the children all had a genetic relationship to the head. To this group of people, the family may well have added other persons. For instance, the household may have purchased slaves or employed servants who lived within the household. These persons were probably not considered permanent members of the household, but their membership in the household was contingent on a length of time of service (possibly negotiated as part of the purchase price). Such service could have been lengthy, and slaves or servants might have been born in the household (Gen 14:14). Persons also could have been added to the family on the basis of genetic connection, if those persons were not part of another household. This could have been the result of individual death or warfare; for example, the death of a head of household (by natural causes, or by death in battle) could have caused a household to dissolve, and the members of the household might have joined the household headed by a brother, son, or other relative of the deceased. In that case, the newly added members might have been the nephews, nieces, aunts, or sisters-in-law of the new head of household. Merging households in this way after the death of a head would have depended on family loyalty to continue the benefits of household membership, necessary for survival.

The head of the household may have been thought of as “father” for the household and would have been a genetic father to many members. The head would have also been considered as the ruler and owner of all the persons in the household, as well as the owner of household property and goods. This rule by the head may have been despotic or generous, but in either case the members of the household would have had little recourse against the decisions and actions of the head. It is likely that the head’s rule of the household would have included sexual access to any member of the household, except for those members in particular relationships to the head for which sexual activity was prohibited by law and custom. For instance, sex between a male head of household and his daughter-in-law was prohibited (Lev 20:12), as was sex between that man and his full or half sister (Lev 20:17), his wife’s mother (Lev 18:17, 20:14), his uncle’s wife or his brother’s wife (Lev 20:20–21), or his granddaughters (Lev 18:10); those regulations are presented as pertinent whether or not these relatives are within the same household. However, the male head of household would have had sexual access to the other women of the household, including slaves and servants, as illustrated by a number of Hebrew Bible narratives.

For the adults within a household, parenting would have been an important social role. Men and women alike would have been expected to teach and train children. In ancient Israel, it is likely that children would have been expected to contribute to family life through their own labors at earlier ages than in modern society, but children would still have received instruction, guidance, and discipline from their parents and other adults of the household. This education would have included moral, religious, and cultural aspects alongside practical and occupational instruction. Older children and youth (including siblings) may well have shared some parts of child-rearing and child-care responsibilities, along with older adults such as grandparents or aunts and uncles.

Continuation of Family.

Family and household are not merely static realities; they continue over time. Within households, the multigenerational nature of the inhabitants allows for births to balance deaths, at least in many cases. Over time, households may grow or shrink, but many of them endure at about the same size for subsequent generations. This continuation of the household and the family is not automatic, however.

Israelite families were patrilineal. In other words, membership in the household and the family came from fathers, and their offspring lived together in one household and were members of the same larger family, attached also to the father’s father’s family. Women moved between households, and their descendants were considered part of the child’s father’s family rather than the mother’s family. By contrast, Jewish society in more recent centuries has been predominantly matrilineal, measuring membership in the community and society by whether or not the mother is Jewish, not the father. Thus, genealogies of the Hebrew Bible typically list fathers and sons in subsequent generations; women are absent or mentioned infrequently.

Women moved from one household to another through marriage, usually going from their father’s household to their husband’s. This arrangement may have involved the purchase of the woman, negotiated between the two male heads of households. Such a price, as well as the dowry, is mentioned in some Hebrew Bible texts and presumed to be a frequent practice, despite the rarity of direct references. Perhaps the practice of dowries was limited to wealthy families, especially among the royal court. It may also be true that formal marriages and weddings occurred only within the upper classes. Whether this was the case or not, it is likely that most couples were from closely related social classes; marriage was not a frequent means of social mobility. Also, many couplings were within the extended family of the clan or tribe, although it is not possible to know how frequently or consistently this was practiced.

Inheritance law allowed property to be passed from a father (i.e., a head of household) to sons, thus allowing the land and goods to stay as an economic basis for the household to continue into another generation. Usually, inheritance went to the oldest son, without the property being divided among younger sons. This kept the wealth of the household relatively intact from one generation to another.

Ancient Israel also practiced adoption, so that a head of household could designate a man other than his son as the household heir. Perhaps the best known case is that Abraham, before he had sons, named Eliezer of Damascus as his heir (Gen 15:2–4). Whether adoption was widespread is not known. If there were no surviving sons, daughters could inherit the household property (Num 26:33), although this seems to be infrequent.

Endangered Families.

Families and households faced many challenges in ancient Israel. Famine, plague, pestilence, and warfare could reduce the population of an area in a very short period of time. In such situations, an individual household could experience a collapse in its economic viability, if even a few of its members were killed or injured. Much of the warfare consisted of skirmishes between villages with the intent of stealing food or other goods; this could greatly diminish the viability of a small number of targeted households. Ancient Israel likely experienced higher mortality rates than modern society, at almost every age.

When a male head of household died, the entire household was placed at risk. Perhaps a new head of household emerged, such as the oldest son and heir of the deceased head. With a new head of household, the household may have again become economically viable and may have been able to survive. In other cases, the household dissolved, and the members scattered. Without the protection of the household and its social stability, women and children became widows and orphans. Other households perhaps added these unattached persons to their own numbers, and this may have been a common practice for neighbors or for non-household family members who belonged to the larger family such as the bet ’av or mishpahah. Individuals needed to be members of households to be economically viable and in order to be economically productive; the society could not afford many unattached individuals. Thus, the care for widows and orphans is an oft-repeated norm and value within ancient Israelite society, expressed in many Hebrew Bible and subsequent texts (for instance, Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18, 14:29, 26:12–13, 27:19; Pss 68:5, 146:9; Isa 1:17; Mal 3:5; Tob 1:8; Jas 1:27). Although families and neighbors were the predominant source of care for those without households, the society considered such care as a responsibility to be shared by all people and in many ways the foundation of all social justice.

At times, warfare and skirmishes resulted in the kidnapping of survivors, usually women, to be added to the households of the victors. Judges 21 tells one of these stories, where the tribe of Benjamin was left without women to be part of viable households. To counter this situation, Israelites raided the city of Jabesh-Gilead to capture women and advised the Benjaminites to kidnap women during the festival at the city of Shiloh, to repopulate the female portions of Benjaminite households. Such a large scale abduction is an atrocity, but the ancient Israelites probably knew of other occasions when such kidnappings occurred in smaller numbers. As Judges 21 illustrates, these kidnappings could instigate chains of violence that only served to disrupt other households. Throughout Israel’s history, such violence was one of the greatest risks to the household, whether the violence was organized or random. As a result, households would have needed to protect all of its members at all times.


Households are sites for emotional life and for education, as well as for daily life and culture, but there was also an economic aspect to the ancient Israelite household. In modern societies, especially industrialized societies, the individual is presumed to be the basic economic unit. Individuals learn skills, engage in occupations, produce goods, earn wages, buy commodities, and own property. These individuals may or may not share their goods with others, whether family members or members of the same household. By contrast, the household was the basic economic unit in ancient Israel. Although the head of household was considered the legal owner of the persons and property in the household, the lived reality may have been much more communal (although not egalitarian). The household worked together, whether in farming, raising livestock, or manufacturing goods. The household was the recipient of the foodstuffs that they produced, and shared among themselves. The goal of such distribution was to enable the household as a whole to survive and to produce more in the future, so that survival could continue. Labor was often done by the household, or by teams selected from within the household. Together, the household made a contribution to the village or city in which the members lived. In most cases, the household produced all of the food for the household, as well as most of the goods for the household (textiles, pottery, simple tools, buildings, and furniture), although some would be traded between households. The largest part of the economy was the production and consumption of goods within the household.

As Israel experienced some degree of urbanization, the economy likely became more specialized, with trades emerging, such as merchants, weavers, toolmakers, scribes, and so forth. Even in this economic diversification, the trade may well have existed within a household. Such a household would still produce many of its own basic goods but would concentrate on a special trade and produce excess to trade to other households or even other villages or cities. The bulk of goods may still have been produced and consumed within the household. Furthermore, the household (or a significant group within the household) may have practiced the trade or craft together, producing the goods as a household for sale or barter to other households. Certainly, the education for specialized trades was likely to occur within the household, with one generation passing the skill to the next generation within the household through mentoring and apprenticeship models. In this way, the household remained the principal economic unit even as economic diversification took place in ancient Israel.

Cultural Change and Adaptation.

Because the household was such a foundational reality within Israelite life, it was the primary mode of transmitting culture from one generation to another. When cultural contact affected Israel through interaction with neighboring societies, the household and the family were the key institutions through which the society processed cultural change and adaptation. Over time, this resulted in changes in family values and meanings, as well as roles and structures, but it was a very slow process for ancient Israel.

Although we cannot develop a full history of the Israelite family, we do know that certain changes transpired between the days of the Israelite monarchy and the times of imperial colonialism during the postexilic period, when Israel experienced the influence of Persian and Hellenistic (and later Roman) Empires. These large cultural powers, supported by military might and economic strength, had a significant impact on Israelite life, especially in matters such as gender roles. Some Hebrew Bible texts explain certain customs to the reader, presumably because those customs had changed between the setting of the story and time of reading. We read within the Hebrew Bible the differences between women who are unable to own property and those who can (Prov 31). This probably reflects cultural change over time. Other neighboring cultures may well have been the source or instigation for such change. If so, we would expect that change would be filtered through the family and household, with changing expectations about gender roles, age roles, and sexual performance to appear within the household as well as outside in the wider culture. Cultural contact may disturb and disrupt the household, but the household adapts and changes itself over time. Individuals who take new roles within the family and household may then enact those new roles in the rest of society, too, and may do so with the backing of the economic and emotional unit of the household, giving individuals leverage to take new roles in society and create wider cultural change. The household becomes the first realm of contact between Israel and other cultures, as well as the institution through which change occurs. Thus, the family and household, in both its structure and its roles, are vital for our understanding of the entirety of ancient Israelite society.




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Jon L. Berquist

Greek World

In his discussion of the ideal city, the Greek philosopher Aristotle describes the family as the smallest but most vital constituent of a city-state (Gk polis), comprising four elements: the male, the female, the servant, and children (Politics 1.1.3–6, 1252A–B). For poorer families the servant might be a beast of burden, for others a male and/or female slave, whose children were in turn the property of the master of the household.


The most common Greek word used to refer to what we would think of as “family” was oikos (plural oikoi), “household,” as opposed to oikia, which was the physical structure of the house. Other key terms are pater (father), me¯te¯r (mother), huios (son), thugate¯r (daughter), adelphos (brother), and adelphe¯ (sister). A very young baby might be called a brephos and a young child a teknon, which as neuter nouns might indicate subconsciously that young children were thought of as essentially asexual, or pais, which could be qualified with a masculine or feminine definite article or adjective to indicate sex. This word could also be used to mean “young slave.” A parent might be a goneus (plural goneis), which might also refer to grandparents or great-grandparents ((Isaeus 1.39, 8.32). Ancestors further back were termed progonoi (literally “born before”).

The genos.

Each household was also a member of other, wider key social groups. The first of these was the genos (plural genē), linked linguistically with goneus and progonoi above, and best translated as “family line.” The genos was the family unit that stretched backward through time to ancestors, in particular from several oikoi to one shared ancestor, and forward to descendants. As in many other ancient cultures, deceased ancestors, and indeed the living elderly, were usually treated with great respect (see Women, Children, and the Elderly below). Ancestors were honored within a private family cult, which bound the unit together on a deeper, religious level. Continuance of the genos into future generations was therefore not simply a family affair, but also had important, wider social significance. All ancient Greek families had a morbid fear of their genos dying out, so marriage and the procreation of legitimate children (and heirs) were of paramount and constant concern.

It therefore follows that Greek marriages appear not to have been based on romantic sentiment, but rather on a practical need to perpetuate the genos. This is evidenced, for example, by the classical Athenian marriage formula, which united the couple “for the ploughing of legitimate children.” This near paranoia about the importance of succession helps to explain many of the elaborate provisions that functioned in many different Greek communities to ensure, firstly, the purity of the bride; secondly, her fertility; and, thirdly, her role as a mother of legally legitimate, free children.

This concern for the genos, which overrides personal preferences, lies behind what may seem to us as callous actions by Greek men, such as Jason in Euripides’s tragedy Medea (431 B.C.E.). Medea had helped Jason to escape from his enemies, deserting her family and homeland and following him to the strange Greek city of Corinth. She had provided Jason with sons, but in the play Jason decides that he will abandon Medea in order to marry the daughter of the Corinthian king, Creon. He states that his reason is his concern for his genos (l.564): marriage to the princess will secure his children’s future. In this context, Medea is dispensable.

The genos comprised more than one oikos, so members of the same genos might not necessarily be kinspeople. Indeed, within each genos there appears to have operated a hierarchy of family units, with the land-owning, aristocratic families often playing a leading role, for example in ritual activity through hereditary priesthoods.

The phratry.

Each oikos also belonged to another social group, the phratry. The origin of these is obscure, but some suggest that they may have originated as military defense units. The ancient Greek word phrate¯r originally meant a brother by blood, and in classical Athenian law the members of the phratry were expected to act in cases of violence against members of an oikos, if the members of that oikos did not. The phratries were also connected in Athenian society with the villages, or demes, which held lists of citizens.

The kurios.

The Greek oikos was always headed officially by a man, which reflected the wider, often starkly patriarchal nature of ancient Greek culture. Although the treatment of women varied greatly from city to city throughout the archaic and classical periods, they were always thought to be in need of the supervision of a male, usually because of their alleged weakness of mind. The most common Greek word for the head of the household was kurios (plural kurioi), his control being called kurieia. These words have connotations of power and control, and thus differ significantly in nuance of meaning from the similar role of “guardian” in ancient Roman society, the tutor, which is based on tutus, meaning “safe,” or the “father of the family” (Lat paterfamilias).

In certain cases a woman of the oikos might hold temporary control over it. We have the example of Penelope in the Odyssey, as well as the wife of an Athenian naval official who left her in control of his estate while he was away (Demosthenes 47). Similarly, a widow might temporarily act to safeguard family property until her children reached the legal age of majority. However, in these cases it is important to note that the woman merely protects existing property; she does not have the power to dispose of it herself as she wishes. We only hear of women disposing of such property in the frequently atypical Greek community of archaic and classical Sparta, where daughters could also inherit their father’s property and the right to dispose of it, provided that they also passed this on to their children.

The Household and Land.

Along with perpetuating the genos, one of the main concerns of the Greek oikos was the preservation of its property, especially its land. The Greek word often used for this is kle¯ros (plural kle¯roi), meaning “allotment.” Most ancient Greek communities were principally agrarian, and so they fiercely protected their land, on which the financial security of the oikos relied, often engaging in generation-long violent conflicts with neighbors over ownership. The land that an oikos owned was therefore jealously guarded, and was considered important for the well-being and survival of the city-state as a whole. In several cities (e.g., Athens, Corinth, and Thebes) laws prevented such land from falling into the hands of those not of the oikos. As such the kurios can be thought of as a caretaker of land, which has been lovingly protected and transmitted across the generations.

The wider social importance of the land owned by an oikos is shown by the fact that ownership of land which was part of the city was one of the exclusive rights of the (male) citizen. Only in exceptional cases was such land given to people who were not citizens. One such example, which highlights the value of this right, was the granting “to own land” (Gk gēs enktēsis) within a city-state to specially selected individuals as a reward for civic service, especially in another city or overseas (e.g., proxenoi, “ambassadors”).

Women, Children, and the Elderly.

The kurios of an oikos had legal control over its property, and also over the people contained within it. Foremost among these were the women of the household and the children, who would usually not have any active legal identity of their own. Let us consider first his control of his wife. This would come from the day of their marriage and might last her whole life, if he outlived her and did not divorce her. The kurios would act as the public legal representative of the household in all matters, even those that concerned his wife. Women in most ancient Greek societies of the archaic and classical periods did not control large amounts of money or property. Any property that came with them as brides, in the form of a dowry, would be at the disposal of the bridegroom. The kurios could decide to divorce his wife whenever he wished. This may often have been on the grounds of possible infertility ( few Greek scientists entertained the view that infertility could be a male affliction). In such cases the divorced woman might return to a kurios in her original, natal family.

While the kurios legally represented his wife in most cases, the exception was in public and private religious activity. Women could hold public priesthoods and were responsible for domestic cult, particularly worship of Hestia, goddess of the hearth fire, which symbolized the household. The ideality of Euripides’s self-sacrificing tragic heroine Alcestis is illustrated by her farewells to her hearth fire, her marriage bed, children, and servants.

The kurios was also in control of his daughters from their birth to their marriage. The men of the bride’s and groom’s families would usually make the match. We have very little evidence for even elite women being consulted about marriage in any archaic or classical Greek society. The kurios of the bride might bestow a dowry to the bridegroom. He would then surrender his daughter to the bridegroom, who then became her kurios. Some matches, of course, were between families of unequal wealth. Hence we find traces in some Greek literature, especially comic drama and satire, of the image of the wealthy, dowered bride and the poorer husband, who might complain of being nagged by his wife (e.g., Aristophanes’s Clouds). In later classical and Hellenistic times we have evidence that some wealthy fathers might retain some kind of informal influence over their married daughters, even perhaps encouraging a divorce, if a father feared for his property or for his daughter’s well-being.

Legitimate and free sons would remain under the care of their kurios until they reached the age of majority, usually around sixteen years of age. They would then join the citizen body, which comprised only men and entitled them to serve on juries, hold political office, and participate in the citizen army. From the Hellenistic period this last duty may have begun to lapse, with the advent of professional soldiers.

A further group of women under the control of the kurios were elderly women. The old woman was termed a graus in Greek, which effectively meant “a woman past childbearing age.” A son might be the kurios for his elderly widowed mother, as he inherited his mother’s dowry on his father’s death. Indeed, Greek culture universally valued the elderly, perhaps because their survival was a sign of the goodwill of the gods. To care for the elderly (Gk ge¯roboskein) was an important social duty within the family. In classical Athenian law mistreatment of parents was a serious offense (“Aristotle,” Constitution of Athens 56.6); conversely, a defendant in court might list as a virtue his care of his parents, and anyone standing for public office was explicitly asked whether they treated their parents well (“Aristotle,” Constitution of Athens 55.3). Elderly women were especially valued for their luck in surviving the life-threatening dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, and so would have been important and valued members of Greek households.

The Household and the Law.

The relationships within a kinship group had to be clearly defined by law. In classical Athens the close kinship group was called the anchisteia, which extended to the children of first cousins. This definition is sometimes manipulated by speakers in fourth-century B.C.E. forensic oratory, but may have come into being in the early sixth century B.C.E., when the Athenian lawgiver Solon was conducting his far-reaching social and legal reforms. Members of this group had the obligation to avenge any violent death within the group, to bury the dead, and to seek religious purification, along with the right to inherit estates left vacant after the death of group members.

The central role of the family in the Greek state is illustrated by its treatment in law. In classical Athens family disputes were considered so important to the state that they were classed not as private but public suits. This meant that any male, not simply the alleged victim, could bring court action against an alleged offender.

Legitimacy and Inheritance.

Children not born in a legitimate marital relationship were termed bastards (Gk nothos, plural nothoi). Often the children of slaves or concubines, such male children could not automatically inherit property from their natural father. However, a father, or, after his death, his kinsmen, might officially recognize a bastard as heir, if there was no living male heir.

As ancient Greek communities were patriarchal, inheritance usually passed through the male line. However, issues arose when a father died with no immediate male heir but with a surviving daughter. We have evidence for very similar provision for such scenarios in the laws of classical Athens and the inscriptional law code for Gortyn, on Crete. In classical Athenian law a daughter of such a father, on his death, would become an epiklēros. This is often translated as “heiress,” but the ancient concept is significantly different: the epiklēros did not have the right to dispose of her father’s property. Her kinsmen would then arrange for her to marry her nearest agnatic relative, such as a father’s brother. Scholars believe that this system may have been established by the Athenian lawgiver Solon during the sixth century B.C.E. He also apparently required the husband of an epiklēros to have intercourse with her at least three times a month, and, if that did not produce an heir, to allow his wife to have intercourse with her husband’s nearest kinsman (Plutarch, Solon 20.2–3). In such cases it is clear that personal considerations came second to the needs of the oikos.

Similarly, male orphans who had come into an inheritance could be adopted by relatives to keep the property within the family. In classical Athens the chief magistrate, the archo¯n, was responsible for looking after orphans and their property, as well as ensuring that kurioi looked after epikle¯roi and widows.

Alternative Households.

Although it was not strictly part of a man’s oikos, he might develop a “family” relationship parallel to that with his wife with a concubine (Gk pallakē), who may in some cases have been a former prostitute (as happened, for example, in Menander’s comic drama The Samian Woman). The legal status of the concubine and her children was decidedly open to interpretation. While the Athenian lawgiver Solon, for example, passed laws to protect concubines from physical assault if they were “kept for breeding free children” (Plutarch, Solon 23.1), they might also need specific protection after the death of their male protector. In his will the philosopher Aristotle makes detailed provisions for the maintenance and support by his heirs of his concubine, Herpyllis, who survived him. However it is also significant that Aristotle also asks to be buried with his wife, who had predeceased him (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 5.11–16).

While the family unit of “father, mother, legitimate natural children” was common to most Greek states, two exceptions deserve mention. The elite families of Sparta (Spartiatai) required bachelors to marry, but allegedly placed less importance on linear legitimacy, in an effort to maintain their numbers. The same motive explains their practice of marrying girls at the age of eighteen, rather than younger, so that their bodies were strong enough to bear many children successfully. Spartan practice may also have influenced the ideal state imagined in Plato’s Republic, where children were held in common by the ruling class.

Affection within the Household.

One Greek term that is often used to refer to the family is philoi, literally “loved ones.” This can also refer to friends, but is related to philein, one of the Greek verbs for “to love,” which is frequently used to refer to affection between family members. Also used for intrafamily affection is the verb stergein. The verb pothein is used of the emotional longing for something that one once had, such as the love felt for the deceased.

While the importance of legitimate marriage to provide heirs for the oikos and genos is unquestioned, and in cultures where marriages for most sections of society were arranged by men, it is important to consider whether or not affection ever grew out of such arranged relationships. It is striking from a modern perspective that affection or companionship as a reason for or result of marriage is rarely mentioned before the Hellenistic period. The relationship between what would often be a much older man and young woman is usually not discussed in those terms. More often the husband is the guardian or, indeed, “teacher” of the wife. The most celebrated text for this aspect of family life is Xenophon’s On Household Management (Gk Oikonomikos). This work is presented as a dialogue featuring the philosopher Socrates in discussion with a young male friend, Ischomachus, on the duties of the head of the household. Among other practical responsibilities, the husband is advised to educate his young wife in household affairs.

There is no mention of them having any kind of sentimental relationship. Xenophon’s work is clearly idealizing: young girls had little formal education during the archaic and classical periods, and what they did receive would have been precisely regarding how to run a household successfully, often passed on from their mother or other older women. However, another work by Xenophon, also a dialogue featuring Socrates, Symposium, presents a male-only dinner party, where the guests are entertained by, among others, enticing young male and female dancers. After witnessing their re-creation of an erotic dance, Xenophon ends the work by noting that the guests rushed off back to their own wives. The implication is that the men were fired by lust, rather than affection. This sexual dimension of the marital relationship is also confirmed by the behavior of the husbands and wives in Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata (411 B.C.E.). The women of Greece decide to force their warring husbands to broker peace by abstaining from sex. This ploy is presented as succeeding when political means have failed. Its success as a plotline requires the audience to acknowledge marriage as a sexually desirable relationship. However, with often large age gaps between partners, marital love only really seems to get discussed from the Hellenistic period, especially with the influence of Stoicism.

Affection between parents and children, and between brothers and sisters, is much more widely attested in Greek literature. Classical Athenian tragedies abound in plots that depend on close ties of love between fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. The myth behind Aeschylus’s Oresteian Trilogy starts with a father, Agamemnon, being required, reluctantly, to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis, so he can sail to the war on Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, then plots revenge for this outrage, eventually killing her husband (and his concubine). Their son, Orestes, and daughter Electra then in turn exact revenge by killing their own mother and her lover.

Fathers in Athenian drama are usually depicted as taking care of their daughters, as would be expected of an Athenian kurios. Agamemnon is presented as reluctant to kill his daughter in both Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and, especially, in Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis, where dramatic power derives from the strong bonds of affection between father and daughter. Fathers also look after daughters in comedies (e.g., Aristophanes’s Acharnians; Menander’s Duskolos/Bad-Tempered Man, Perikeiromene/The Girl with Her Hair Cut Short, and Misoumenos/The Hated Man).

The special affectionate bond between mothers and sons is noteworthy in Greek literature. The archaic epic poem The Iliad presents several such moving relationships. The Greek hero Achilles has a constant and loving protectress in his divine mother, Thetis; the Trojan hero Hector is the dearest son of his mother, Hecuba. Similarly The Odyssey presents the love of the heroine Penelope for her maturing son by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Odysseus’s own tender relationship with his mother, Anticleia. In one of the most touching scenes in the poem, where Odysseus meets and talks with her ghost, we learn that she died of grief at her separation from her son. He tries in vain to embrace her three times, and three times she flits away like a dream (Odyssey 11.84–89, 152–224, esp. 206–208).

Family relationships between female members are not always tender and positive, however. Classical Athenian tragedy also presents several examples of mothers and daughters or sisters in conflict. In Sophocles’s Antigone (discussed further below) Sophocles creates a new mythical character for the traditional storyline in her sister Chrysothemis (meaning “Golden Justice”). When Antigone is determined to disobey the legal prohibition to bury their brother, Chrysothemis is used to voice the other side of the dilemma, that women are weak and should obey the laws of the state. Chrysothemis is depicted as loving her sister and worrying for her safety, while Antigone treats her dismissively. In Euripides’s tragedy Electra we see the bitter feelings that the daughter Electra has for her mother, Clytemnestra, vividly presented in a climactic scene, where the daughter exultantly lures her mother into an ambush to murder her. Her mother had come to help her daughter after she had been informed (deceitfully) that her daughter had just given birth. Clytemnestra’s sympathy and desire to help her daughter are rewarded with death.

Brother-sister love is clearly presented in several surviving Greek tragedies. The most notable example is the relationship between Orestes and his sister Electra in the various versions of the Oresteian myth (Aeschylus’s Oresteia, especially The Libation Bearers; Sophocles’s Electra; Euripides’s Electra; Euripides’s Orestes). As the male, Orestes is the prime mover of revenge against their mother in Aeschylus and Sophocles, whereas the Electra of Euripides’s Electra is much more proactive and murders her mother, while Orestes murders his mother’s lover. In Euripides’s Orestes, Electra cares tenderly for her brother, as he suffers the madness inflicted upon him by the Furies, who exact revenge on him for matricide. Equally influential on later Western literary tradition is the plot of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, which rests upon the deep love of a sister, Antigone, for her deceased brother Polyneices, whom she dares to bury although the king of her city has forbidden it. Her love for her brother is strengthened by her profound belief that all the dead, whatever their crimes, deserve burial rites in the eyes of the gods. Sophocles is thus able to place an examination of the tension between duties to the state and to the gods within the frame of family ties. The classical Athenian context of the writing and production of these plays helps partly to explain the focus on this particular relationship, as a brother might often have acted as kurios to his sister, so their close family relationship also had a legal dimension. This theme is also developed in later comedy of the fourth century B.C.E., where several plays by the Athenian Menander depict the care and protection of a sister by a brother (e.g., Heros/Guardian Spirit, Perikeiromene/The Girl with Her Hair Cut Short, Sikuonios/The Sicyonian).

Sources and Reconstruction.

The range of sources available for the Greek family is wide: fictional, philosophical, historiographical, and medical works; inscriptions (epitaphs); and material evidence (tomb excavations and reliefs, temple reliefs, vase painting, statuary). However, certain key factors should be addressed when interpreting this evidence, factors that emphasize how selective the evidence can be. Firstly, most of what survives was produced by and for the male elite. Secondly, our evidence for some sites, especially classical Athens and Hellenistic Alexandria, heavily dominates the picture. Thirdly, although much remained the same regarding the family over centuries in the Greek world, change did occur, especially in the Hellenistic period, when women in particular developed greater financial freedom. The Roman Empire spread Greco-Roman family ideologies even farther afield. However, despite these developments, the family unit remained the fundamental building block of civilized society.




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Richard Hawley

Roman World

Discussions of the elite Roman family frequently adopt a multigenerational and diachronic perspective. In describing Roman society of the classical period, which extended from the early second century B.C.E. to the early second century C.E., studies ordinarily focus on how it functioned as a gerontocratic and aristocratic patriarchy. Thus they characteristically foreground the legal right of patria potestas, “paternal power of life and death,” possessed by male heads of households, patres familiae, for as long as they lived, over family members—legitimate offspring and often spouses, as well as slaves. Such studies also tend to emphasize the importance of agnatic relationships, kinship ties traced through male relatives on the paternal side of the family: in part because the Roman system of naming foregrounded agnatic blood bonds, in part because the ancient Roman political system itself placed a high premium on the political achievements of earlier, similarly named male ancestors.

As a result of these Roman naming practices and political values, our extant evidence on the elite Roman family from and about this historical period itself encourages such a perspective. It, too, invites attention to the similarly named agnatic kin of the individual elite Romans, from other and particularly earlier generations, female as well as male relatives, featured in its pages. This testimony is limited, both in quantity and in scope. Most of these witnesses to and chroniclers of Roman society are themselves elite Roman males involved in the workings of its political system.

Yet our most important sources on the ancient Roman family dynamics of the second and first centuries B.C.E. include the biographies of several politically eminent Roman men from this era, written long after their actual lifetimes by a Greek author, Plutarch, during the early second century C.E. When supplying memorable anecdotes that illustrate the distinctive moral qualities of his subjects, Plutarch frequently spotlights the interactions of these men with family members from their own as well as older and younger generations. To be sure, there are other ancient authors who offer valuable evidence about some of these same “noble Romans.” Some even include the very same, or at least similar, information. But even though his reliability may be debatable, Plutarch often serves as our only source for a particular incident in the lives of various, mid-to-late Republican Roman males. Although it is important to examine evidence from other ancient classical authors, it is not always possible.

Nevertheless, Plutarch’s particular interest in the familial relationships of his subjects leads him to furnish much information of consequence to studies of the structure and function of elite Roman families, including attention to issues as challenging as the interrelationships between half siblings. For example, at chapter 24.2–5 in his life of the elder Cato (234–149 B.C.E.), Plutarch reports that Cato’s grown son, informed of his aged father’s decision to remarry, inquired if his own conduct was to blame. Cato, Plutarch continues, assured his son that he found him blameless, but merely wished to leave “more individuals like him as sons to himself and citizens to the state.” Plutarch emphasizes the low social standing of Cato’s bride, his second wife Salonia, contrasting it implicitly to the aristocratic origins of her predecessor, Cato’s first wife Licinia. Like the second century C.E. antiquarian Aulus Gellius, who also furnishes details on Cato’s two marriages at Attic Nights 13.20.16, Plutarch observes that Cato’s son by this late second marriage even bore a name identifying him as the descendant of his maternal grandfather Salonius, so as to differentiate himself from his elder half brother. Yet Plutarch represents Cato himself as making no distinction between the offspring of his first and of his subsequent marriages, although his two sons were decades apart in age, and of very different maternal lineages.

What Plutarch relates about the elder Cato warrants notice for various reasons. The legal authority possessed by Roman fathers over all of their legitimate children may help explain Cato’s purported refusal to distinguish between his offspring by two different wives. Because, however, Roman mothers did not possess legal authority over any of their children, one might expect to find sharp distinctions made between the offspring that Roman women bore to different husbands, with children from a woman’s different marriages residing in different homes and having limited if any contact with one another. But both Plutarch and other ancient sources report several instances of close, mutually supportive ties between children of the same mother by different fathers. Chief among these ties, to be examined below, are the strong bonds enjoyed by the elder Cato’s own descendants more than a half-century after he sired his second legitimate son by his second wife: those of Cato the Younger, the elder Cato’s great-grandson, with his own half brother Quintus Servilius Caepio and half sisters, both named Servilia.

Plutarch’s Testimony and the Mediterranean Family Model.

Anecdotes of the kind furnished by Plutarch may tempt scholars to schematize the workings of the elite Roman family by subsuming it under a model propounded by the social scientist Peter Laslett. The characteristics of this “Mediterranean family pattern” include patri-virilocal residence for young married couples along with early and near-universal marriage for women and a considerable age gap between husband and wife. Plutarch reports that Cato’s son married his wife Aemilia, a daughter of the great Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus by his first wife Papiria, after Paullus’s victory at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.E. (Cato Major 20.8). Information that Plutarch supplies in his life of Paullus about the dates of Paullus’s marriages suggests that Aemilia would have been in her mid-to-late teens; what Plutarch relates in his life of the elder Cato suggests that her husband was several years her senior.

A few chapters later, Plutarch tells us that the widowed elder Cato made plans to take a second wife only after this son evinced his displeasure with the secret visits to his father’s bedroom by a slave girl who provided the septuagenarian with sexual services (Cato Major 24.2). Plutarch underscores that the son and his new wife occupied the same dwelling as Cato, noting, “in a small house with a young bride in it Cato’s carryings on were perceived.” So, too, Plutarch’s life of Lucius Aemilius Paullus relates that another of Paullus’s daughters resided with her husband, Lucius Aelius Tubero, and sixteen of his kin in straitened financial circumstances (5.3–5). The first-century C.E. moralist Valerius Maximus makes the same claim about these Aelii Tuberones (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 4.4.9).

Evidence for such practices seems at first glance to fit elite Roman families to Laslett’s Mediterranean pattern. Yet it is important to contextualize the information that Plutarch provides, in passing, about the residential arrangements of Cato’s son and daughter-in-law and that Valerius Maximus as well as Plutarch furnish about her sister who wed Lucius Aelius Tubero. Since Valerius Maximus and Plutarch do not say how typical these arrangements were, we cannot determine if they are to be interpreted as constituting a pattern. It is altogether possible that Plutarch and Valerius Maximus cite these living arrangements only because they were unusual among members of the Roman elite at that time. Elsewhere in his life of the elder Cato, Plutarch does make it clear that Cato possessed a great deal of wealth, including property. He thereby raises the possibility that Cato chose to live with his adult married son in a small house to advertise his austere and frugal way of existence, thereby promoting his well-polished political image as a simple-living, indulgence-hating traditional-minded Roman.

To be sure, many ancient sources, Plutarch among them, attest that early and virtually universal marriage for elite women, before the age of twenty, to men several years their senior was a common phenomenon among the mid-to-late Republican Roman elite. To judge from our sources, too, some daughters of the most prominent families married for the first time when barely into their teens. But although early marriage for women is also part of Laslett’s Mediterranean family pattern, we should observe that frequent remarriage, resulting from both spousal death and divorce, was a fact of elite Roman life in this period as well. Not surprisingly, since all marriages were arranged by the male kin of the nuptial couple, we also encounter instances of forced divorce, with elder family members ending what appear to have been successful and mutually satisfactory unions to relocate male and female children in new, more politically and economically advantageous ones.

Patria potestas allowed a Roman father to dissolve a child’s marriage. But some cases of forced divorce, described by Suetonius as well as Plutarch, involved parties other than fathers exerting pressure on married couples to terminate their current marriages and enter new unions. For example, in his life of the younger Cato, Plutarch reports that the distinguished orator Quintus Hortensius Hortalus asked this Cato to end his daughter Porcia’s marriage (25.2–5). This entreaty eventuated in Cato’s ending, albeit temporarily, his own marriage instead and giving his own wife Marcia in marriage to Hortensius. It is difficult to see how this particular Roman elite brand of “traffic in women” fits into Laslett’s Mediterranean family pattern, since religious traditions in preindustrial Mediterranean countries, many of them Catholic, frowned on divorce. Therefore, although Laslett’s Mediterranean family pattern has proven “good to think with” in trying to draw conclusions from our evidence—and about our evidence—from Plutarch as well as others on the elite Roman family, what emerges from this evidence about the elite family in mid-to-late Republican society seems too complex to fit into this, or any, pattern.

Half Sibling Ties among Roman Elite Families.

A close examination of what Plutarch, often supported by other sources, relates about half siblings among the Roman elite attests to the social complexities of family structure and function while at the same time underscoring some distinctive features of the elite Roman family. Again, we cannot extract much information from our limited evidence. For example, neither Plutarch, nor any other ancient source, happens to describe the personal interactions between the elder Cato’s two sons by his two different marriages. Such interactions, of course, were unlikely to have involved socially consequential displays of emotional, political, or financial support. According to Aulus Gellius (13.20.9), Cato’s older son died when he was a grown man about to assume the praetorship, when his half brother was still a small child. These sources likewise fail to mention interactions between the children of Lucius Aemilius Paullus by his first wife Papiria—who include not only the daughters married to Cato’s son and Lucius Aelius Tubero but also the illustrious political leader Scipio Aemilianus—with the two sons of Paullus’s second union: this may be because both of these sons died at early ages, twelve and fourteen respectively, before they were in a position to benefit from publicly supportive conduct from their half siblings.

Plutarch’s life of the younger Cato is more informative on this score. It begins by stating that the death of both his parents left this Cato an orphan, together with his “brother Caepio” and “sister Porcia.” Yet Plutarch adds, with the Greek adjective homometrios, that Cato also had “a sister of the same mother, Servilia.” Although Plutarch thereby indicates that Servilia and Cato did not share both parents, he refers to Caepio merely as Cato’s adelphos (brother) without acknowledging—through the use of Caepio’s full name, Quintus Servilius Caepio, or this same adjective—that Cato and Servilia were full siblings and Cato and Caepio half siblings.

By testifying to the extraordinarily close ties between Cato and Caepio and consistently identifying Caepio as Cato’s adelphos, the first eleven chapters of Plutarch’s life may explain why Plutarch does not initially indicate that the two were half rather than full brothers. Plutarch relates that their mother’s brother Livius Drusus reared all of this sister’s children after their mother’s death (Cato Minor 1:1). He then observes that one of Drusus’s friends faulted Cato as a child for refusing to lobby his uncle on behalf of Roman citizenships for Rome’s Italian allies, comparing Cato’s conduct unfavorably to that of “your brother” Caepio (2:1–3). Valerius Maximus relates a slightly different version of this same story (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 3:1.2).

Plutarch goes on to report that as a small boy Cato was asked whom he loved best, and he repeatedly said “my brother” (3:5). Plutarch then remarks that Cato’s affections for his brother intensified as he matured and that when Cato was twenty years old he would not dine, travel, or go out into the forum without Caepio (3.5–6). Plutarch claims, too, that Cato volunteered to fight in the war against Spartacus for the sake of his brother, since Caepio was a military tribune (3.8.1). Finally, Plutarch describes Cato’s unsuccessful struggles to reach Caepio’s deathbed in Thrace, Cato’s abundant show of grief at Caepio’s passing and lavish expenditures on his funeral, and Cato’s insistence on not seeking reimbursement from Caepio’s estate, which he and Caepio’s young daughter jointly inherited (3.11).

Later in his life of the younger Cato, Plutarch accords substantial attention to Cato’s supportive conduct toward his surviving female half siblings. He reports that although Cato prosecuted Lucius Murena for having secured election to the consulship with Decimus Junius Silanus by bribery, he exempted Silanus from prosecution because he was the second husband of, in Plutarch’s words, “Cato’s sister Servilia” (Cato Minor 21.3). A few chapters later, Plutarch describes how, during a Roman senate meeting, Cato suffered embarrassment over the torrid erotic content of a note sent to this half sister, Servilia, by her lover and Cato’s foe, Julius Caesar (24.1–2). Nevertheless, after Cato demanded to read its message, he threw the note back to Caesar with a dismissive remark and resumed the speech he was in the process of delivering.

Plutarch further relates that Cato opposed attempts by Gaius Memmius to deny Lucius Licinius Lucullus a triumph when Lucullus returned from the east in 66 B.C.E. because Lucullus was married to “the other” Servilia, a half sister whom Plutarch similarly identifies only as a “sister” (Cato Minor 29.3). Plutarch actually introduces this other half sister named Servilia earlier in his life of the younger Cato, at 24.3, where he states that Lucullus drove her from his house because of her sexual misbehavior. Yet Plutarch later relates that after Lucullus’s death Cato took this half sister and her young child by Lucullus with him to Asia, remarking that she put an end to much of the criticism leveled against her moral failings by submitting to Cato’s guardianship and willingly sharing his wanderings and modes of living (54.1).

Plutarch, moreover, represents Cato’s helpful and generous behavior toward his two half sisters and their husbands as no different from his conduct toward his full sister Porcia and her husband Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He observes that Cato evinced strong political support for Domitius by persuading him to stand for the consulship against Pompey and Crassus in 56 B.C.E. (Cato Minor 41.2–3). Cato, Plutarch states, even protected Domitius physically when Pompey’s partisans ambushed him, suffering an arm wound in the process.

It warrants emphasis, too, that Cato favored his half sister Servilia, notwithstanding her long liaison with his enemy Caesar, over his full sister Porcia in a crucial way: by showing a special interest in Marcus Junius Brutus, Servilia’s son by her first husband. To be sure, Cato’s beloved half brother—and Servilia’s full brother—Quintus Servilius Caepio accorded Brutus special treatment as well by adopting him in his will. But Plutarch reports that Brutus was invited, as a very young man, to accompany his “half uncle” Cato on a trip to Cyprus, where Brutus won Cato’s praise by taking capable charge of King Ptolemy’s treasures (Brutus 3). Brutus, Plutarch says, “had a higher esteem for Cato than for any other Roman” (2.1); Cato, of course, eventually became Brutus’s father-in-law as well as his uncle, since Brutus later took Cato’s widowed daughter Porcia as wife. Besides strengthening his ties with his own half sister Servilia through his union between her son and his daughter, Cato appears to have strengthened ties between his own offspring by his two wives, Atilia and Marcia, with Hortensia, the widow of his half brother (and Brutus’s adopted father) Caepio, through a controversial marriage, mentioned previously, that made this half sister-in-law the half sister to Marcia’s own offspring.

Plutarch further relates that Hortensia’s father Quintus Hortensius Hortalus was eager to share a bond of kinship with Cato: he thus tried to persuade Cato to dissolve his daughter Porcia’s marriage to her first husband Lucius Calpurnius Bibulus, by whom she had two sons, and give her to him as “noble soil for producing children” (Cato Minor 25.205). When Cato denied Hortensius’s request, Hortensius then asked to wed Cato’s own wife Marcia, since she was still of child-bearing age and Cato had enough heirs. Although Marcia was pregnant at the time, Cato consented to this arrangement. First, he sought and received the approval of Marcia’s father, Lucius Marcius Philippus, later the stepfather of the man who became the emperor Augustus, and agreed to join Philippus in giving the bride away.

Marcia’s marriage to the much older Hortensius proved fruitful, producing a half sibling for both Marcia’s children by Cato as well as for Hortensius’s daughter. Furthermore, when Hortensius died and left Marcia a very rich widow, Cato married her again, prompting Julius Caesar to accuse Cato of both greed and “trafficking in marriage” (Cato Minor 52.3–5). Plutarch defends Cato, asserting that to charge Cato with a sordid love of gain is like reproaching Heracles with cowardice. And Cato himself, Plutarch tells us, justified his remarriage on the grounds that his household and daughters, presumably by both Atilia and Marcia, needed someone to take care of them. Such a practice seems consonant with the traditions of Cato’s family, which sought to keep children from their parents’ different marriages together, in this case with either their own father, their own mother, or both. As Plutarch remarks at Brutus 7, Cato’s half sister Servilia followed similar practices in strengthening ties between her children by her two unions: one of the Juniae, daughters of Servilia’s second marriage to Decimus Junius Silanus, was married to Gaius Cassius Longinus, conspiratorial ally of her own half brother Brutus.

Contingent Kinship: The Challenges of Our Evidence.

Again, the exigent and problematic nature of our evidence for elite half sibling relationships during the mid-to-late Republic limit the inferences we can draw from it, whether about Roman society as a whole or even about the elite Roman family at that particular time. In discussing the family of the elder and younger Cato, I have tried to adduce testimony about interactions within families for which Plutarch is an important but not the sole surviving source and for which we have evidence earlier than that provided by Plutarch. But it is not always possible to find evidence of this kind. Furthermore, some sources on elite families that postdate Plutarch, such as Aulus Gellius’s disquisition on the descendants of the elder Cato, are extremely valuable in spite of their later date.

So, too, even the evidence of earlier sources supporting Plutarch’s contentions tends to be anecdotal and, with a few notable exceptions such as that written by the second century B.C.E. Greek historian Polybius, written long after the familial interactions it claims to document. Solely on the basis of what Plutarch reports in his life of the younger Cato, scholars have concluded that Plutarch’s testimony to genealogical material is vague, inconsistent, and unreliable, since Plutarch’s primary concern is moral: to illustrate the ethos desirable in the statesman. Yet however frustrating we find Plutarch’s anecdotal, vague, and inconsistent mode of exposition and the anecdotes supplied by other ancient sources, it is nearly impossible to trace relationships between elite Roman children who shared a mother but not a father, because children of different fathers had different names.

It merits emphasis as well that the evidence we have examined on half sibling ties in Roman families only illuminates the practices of the Republican political elite, who had vested interests in marrying their daughters as early as possible (and, some would add in jest, recalling the adage about Chicago, as often as possible) for the sake of forging political alliances and producing heirs. But even if they were not representative of all Roman households, elite families of this period were important in their own right as powerful political institutions and as models for less affluent and advantaged Romans in their family lives. And it is worth reminding ourselves that our slim, anecdotal, selective evidence on elite Roman half siblings, from sources often written much later than the events they describe, have special value for attempting to document feelings and behavior and for problematizing the efforts made by some prosopographical studies to extrapolate political allegiances solely on the basis of agnatic ties.

Indeed, in a society such as that of elite Rome in the mid- and late Republican period—with its arranged marriages; frequent and even forced divorces; and a high likelihood that one or more parents would die from disease, war, or childbirth—the valuation of half siblings by Roman elite families is not difficult to understand. Endeavors by family members of an earlier generation and by half siblings themselves to strengthen emotional and familial ties among offspring who shared only one parent functioned as an important survival strategy for both the families themselves and for their individual members. As we have seen, the significance accorded to promoting and sustaining bonds among half siblings also may account for such ostensibly anomalous behavior as the younger Cato’s cohabitation with his former wife Marcia after she was widowed by the illustrious orator Quintus Hortensius, along with their children from their various marriages.

Finally, the accounts we have examined and the conduct and feelings of elite Romans themselves that they describe help substantiate Butler’s contention about the socially contingent nature of kinship as strategic, shifting, and contingent (2000). Scholars such as Butler and Rubin (1996), however, argue that kinship systems sustain social structures primarily through promoting exchanges of women by their male kin, so as to effectuate marital arrangements linking men and women of approximately the same generation. Yet efforts by elite Roman Republican families to privilege and strengthen sibling ties do not involve exchanges of marriageable women by men for reproductive purposes, although often half siblings themselves, such as the younger Cato and his half sister Servilia, seem to have strengthened their ties to one another through marriages between their own offspring. In fact, the adoption of men by other families entailed the exchange of younger males by older males. An examination of half siblinghood in elite Roman society points us the significance that Romans accorded to blood relationships to and through both men and women, to the extent that ties of blood might at times be of greater consequence than paternal rights of control over offspring.




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Judith P. Hallett

New Testament

Familial language in New Testament texts appears most frequently in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline letters in which matters of everyday practice appear. In the Gospels, familial language is often mentioned in passing, with the exception of Jesus’s warning that his mission destroys familial relationships, pitting sons against fathers, daughters against mothers, and daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law (Matt 10:35–39; see also Luke 14:26). In these pairings, it is those with the least power who rise against the powerful. While each pairing is unisex, the power differentials make them useful for talking about gender as a social construct in antiquity. Those with the most power to make decisions for others who were connected to them through familial ties are often understood in masculine terms. Those who are subordinate are often feminized. Tracing gender through power networks reveals a fuller picture of how family life unfolds in the New Testament.

Given this idea of power networks, our assumptions about gender roles in ancient families should be interrogated. Prohibitions in New Testament texts against women participating in leadership often signal the historical reality of their leadership. Likewise, arguments for or portraits of women in subordinate positions are not necessarily evidence of actual subordination. For example, traditionally Jesus’s disciples were understood as exclusively male without families. Yet Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law along with many others to whom hospitality is extended (Matt 8:14–17). While the mother-in-law plays a servant role in Matthew’s version of the story, the fact of her inclusion illustrates first of all that families were vitally important to Jesus’s and the disciples’ work. Secondly, this story suggests that Peter’s mother-in-law was not an incidental person or even mere support staff in the life of the disciples. Rather she was a leader in the movement, bringing together many kinds of people under her household for the purpose of healing. To conclude that she and other members of the disciples’ familial structures were only ancillary to Jesus’s ministry assumes that textual marginalization reflects historical marginalization.


Greek does not have a word whose semantic range approximates “family” in English. There are words that describe relationships: mētros (mother), pater (father), thugatēr (daughter), uios (son), adelphē/adelphos (sister/brother), despotēs (master), klēronomos (heir), doulos (slave). These relationships are situated in particular power networks constituted by the relationship described. The word genos is sometimes translated as family, although it denotes a tribe, a familial lineage, and is often closely associated with ethnos or the larger ethnic/cultural/racial group to which a person belongs. This lack of clear vocabulary suggests that nuclear families were not the primary social units in New Testament texts. Indeed, texts that are often considered determinative for “family values” discuss relationships within a different social system.

Households and Household Codes.

The word oikos is sometimes translated as family, although it more often refers to the physical space of a house or the conceptual understanding of a household. As a concept a household signals more than a nuclear family or even an extended family tree. Rather, it signals the collective group of persons whose livelihood, religious orientation, dwelling place, and/or social status are connected to a single person or a couple who are considered the head of a household. For example, a wealthy landowner who also had a house in a city (Luke 20:9–19; Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12) may have counted myriad slaves, clients (people who work for him/her), children, adopted children, a spouse, and perhaps adult siblings or parents as part of her or his oikos (household). The household was the fundamental unit of society and with the rise of the Roman Empire became the fundamental political unit as well. All inhabitants of the empire were considered members of the emperor’s household. This shift in social structure did not dissolve existing households, but rather put each one under the patronage of the emperor. Such a move claims the power of the paterfamilias over all households, including those in the New Testament. Ephesians 2:19 claims this power instead for God, suggesting that those in Christ are no longer alienated from the household of God but rather are members.

In Acts and Paul’s letters, several examples of households emerge. Peter seeks refuge at the house of Mary, the mother of John-Mark, after his stay in prison in Jerusalem. Rhoda, an enslaved member of the household, meets Peter at the gate (Acts 12:12–17). Lydia and her household (presumably enslaved persons, employees, and perhaps children or parents) were baptized after hearing Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:14–15), and she sheltered Paul and Silas after their release from prison there (Acts 16:40). Prisca and Aquila worked with Paul, risking their lives for him, and were known in the Roman community to which he writes (Rom 16:4–5). They also sponsored a gathering in their household in Asia (1 Cor 16:19). Nympha hosted an assembly in her household, perhaps in Laodicea (Col 4:15). In Philemon, Paul greeted Philemon, Apphia, Archippos, and a gathering in a household using the second person singular, but it is unclear which of the three named addressees was considered the household head (Phlm 2). In this list most, if not all, of the households are named for the women at their head. Lydia, Mary, and Nympha seem to be heads of households. Prisca is always mentioned with Aquila. Apphia, whether or not she is married to Archippos or Philemon, could be a household head. While we are tempted to conclude that Christ-following households were more egalitarian, evidence exists in antiquity for women as heads of household across the Mediterranean.

Given these identifications of households with women, we should be careful to note that households or even physical house structures did not play the same role of dividing public and private space as they do today. First, the physical house structure was not synonymous with the concept of household, as the example of the imperial household shows. The most lavish houses, especially in the cities of Asia Minor and Greece, would have contained public spaces that were sites for economic, religious, and political transactions. Even more so, housing for tradespersons, skilled laborers, small-scale merchants, tavern operators, and other less wealthy persons would have been connected with workshops, warehouses, or shop spaces. Less lavish housing would also have provided fewer boundaries between dwellings. In addition, households were not necessarily contained in a single physical house. A wealthy head of household could maintain multiple houses in different cities or across urban and rural landscapes. Thus, households were not private domestic entities to which women were confined as opposed to public political space outside the house in which only men functioned. Instead households were the basic unit of the social and civic world in the first century C.E. The fact that the New Testament remembers women participating in economic, civic, social, and religious life as leaders of households should not be surprising.

The term oikonomia refers to the management of this collective group at the hands of the head of a household (Lat paterfamilias). Most ancient literature discussing household management in an ideal sense assumes that men are heads of households—an ideal that stands in tension with historical actualities. In these ideal portraits, householders’ wives assist in management tasks. Yet these texts betray an ideal that was possible only for the wealthiest ranks of society. In the New Testament, we find three separate lists, instructing different members of households about their proper relationship to the head ((Col 3:18—4:1; Eph 5:21—6:9; 1 Pet 2:18—3:7; see also 1 Tim passim; Tit 2:3–10). Called household codes, or Haustafeln, these texts argue for a kind of household management that draws on Aristotle’s Politics and Arrius Didymus’s application of it to imperial ideologies. The New Testament household codes draw on ancient rhetoric that creates a clear patriarchal structure for household relationships. For example, Colossians 3:18—4:1 addresses three reciprocal pairs of household relationships: husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and slaves. Interpreting Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 about the relationship of husbands to wives, the writer of Colossians suggests that those of whom subordination (hupotassō) and obedience (akouō) to husbands, fathers, and masters is required should understand that obedience and subordination as directed toward God ((Col 3:23–25). As a result, relations of subordination and obedience are divinely sanctioned. Yet we have already seen that historical practices may not have borne out the gender divisions that patriarchy implies. Some women were heads of households (Lydia, Acts 16:14–15); others owned slaves (Mary, Acts 12:12). Some slaves wielded power over others, including free persons (see Matt 21:23–35). Thus, we must consider the intersectional nature of power structures when analyzing gender, ethnicity, economic status, and social status in New Testament communities.

The household codes essentialize persons and roles, suggesting that households in the Christ community should model themselves after imperial household ideologies. Women qua women are only mentioned in husband-wife relationships, even though enslaved persons in antiquity were feminized because of their subordination and availability to their masters for sexual use (see below). These lists also implore children to obey parents. Yet for enslaved children, such obedience is ambiguous at best, as they would frequently need to decide between obedience to master and obedience to parent. Reading these lists with an understanding that identities are intersectional shows the ways in which the codes reflect an attempt to impose elite household social relationships on a community for whom such structures are much more complicated in their everyday interactions.


The lack of vocabulary for nuclear families, and particularly vocabulary denoting the same kind of emotional ties as in modern families, highlights the main reason for invoking familial language: it often describes inheritance lines for passing on property. As such, familial language is often gendered, prioritizing fathers, sons, and powerful male figures. While technically under Roman law daughters/women could not inherit or own property without a male guardian, women found ways to circumvent these legal restrictions. While some enslaved persons or freed persons found opportunity and had the resources to pass wealth to their progeny, the Roman imperial inheritance system was only available to very few. Even for households with little wealth to inherit, a person’s legal status determined the transmission lines according to gender. Scholars have noted that patrilineage (inheritance through the father’s lineage; see Matt 1:1–16 and Luke 3:23–38) was a privilege of elites, while matrilineal inheritance (inheritance through a mother’s lineage) often connoted enslaved status. Jesus’s genealogy in Matthew uses both male and female characters to trace his family lineage, including women whose ethnic heritage and sexual history do not fall into traditionally respectable categories (e.g., Rahab, Ruth, Tamar, Mary). In both Matthew and Luke, the authors make the case that Jesus’s inheritance comes from a particular kind of genealogical relationship to God, either through Abraham (Matt 1:2) or through Adam (Luke 2:38).

Children and Adoption.

Children in antiquity were an investment rather than an object of emotional attachment. As such, children of the head of the household and those who were enslaved were often perceived similarly. Once a child (including an adopted child) reached the legal age of inheritance, his or her status changed within the household. Sons (including adopted sons) became heirs. Daughters became marriageable, often with the aim of increasing familial wealth. Slaves remained under their owner’s complete control. Large numbers of children from a married head-of-household couple were not the norm; thus disputes over distribution were uncommon. Not only was infant mortality (and mortality in childbirth) very high in the ancient world, but the practice of exposure was also prevalent. Children with birth defects or who were unwanted were often abandoned. Most of these exposed children died; others were picked up by slave traders. While little is known about them, some children were adopted into households as enslaved foster children (threptoi).

Ancient biography often included a birth narrative of the person and stories of the adult-like wisdom and comportment of that child. Luke’s Gospel, in particular, follows this convention with Jesus teaching in the temple at the young age of twelve (Luke 2:41–52). The temple officials recognize and marvel at his wisdom even as his parents reprimand him for staying behind when his kin group starts the journey home. Jesus the child, then, is remarkable for his adult-like qualities. Matthew’s Jesus teaches using a child (Matt 18:1–5) and suggests that his adult followers should become like children. This teaching suggests a reversal in values rather than a celebration of childhood innocence. Adult-like wisdom is not what will earn reward in the kingdom of heaven.

Adoption (huiothesia) was prevalent, particularly among ruling elite families as a means of passing on wealth and titles. Augustus, for example was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Hadrian adopted Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, who had already adopted Antoninus Pius, creating the Antonine dynasty in the second century. The goal of adoption was not to obtain children or even to care for children in need of parents; rather, adoption was a means to ensure succession of wealth and power. An adopted son was considered the legitimate heir to his new father’s estate regardless of the existence of biological children. Single men could adopt sons without necessarily marrying. In fact, Seneca suggests that the decision process for considering a wife is similar to that for considering an adopted son. Women, however, were rarely adopted as heirs. The exception may be Livia, whom Augustus adopted (his own wife!) in order to ensure Tiberius’s inheritance, since Tiberius was a minor at Augustus’s death. There is no evidence of women adopting heirs themselves. Thus adoption is primarily a means of continuing male lines of authority.

Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans use adoption metaphors to describe the relationship between God and those in Christ who will inherit the promises God made to Abraham (Gal 3:29—4:6).). Through adoption (huiothesia) believers in Christ become heirs. Paul’s argument, drawing on adoption as a legal means for inheritance, first reminds readers that slaves and children not yet of age possess the same social status within households: they live under the authority of the head of the household ((Gal 4:3). Paul suggests that both those who are descendants of Abraham (Jews) and those who are not (gentiles) must be adopted in order to inherit the promise (Gal 4:5). The alternative is to remain a slave to the spirits of the world. In Romans 8:12–17, Paul uses this adoption metaphor again in connection with slavery and urges readers to live according to the Spirit of God, as if they were adopted children that is children who will inherit all that belongs to God. Once again, the alternative is to be enslaved. This juxtaposition of heir and slave draws on gendered hierarchies within the ancient world: heirs are by definition male children with power, wealth, and social prestige, while slavery feminizes persons, male or female. Paul continues, however, arguing that his readers are joint heirs with Christ, sharing both in Christ’s suffering (which would indicate enslavement and feminine lack of power) and eventual glory (which vindicates both enslavement and feminine weakness).

Enslaved Persons.

Enslaved persons were considered part of a household and thus were included in families. Evidence suggests that even very small households in antiquity would have owned a slave or two. In Luke 17:7–10 Jesus draws on this assumed reality when he suggests that the disciples should understand themselves as slaves to God, constantly obedient and attentive to the needs of God’s household. In the parable, the master has only one slave who works in the field and comes in for more service at the end of the day. This parable values obedience to the male householder, and by metaphorical extension to God. Some interpreters see the replacement of the male householder with God as a subversive reversal of power dynamics. Others notice that the gendered power structures remain in place with the metaphor substituting one male power figure for another (albeit a more benign one). Regardless of how one interprets power relationships in the parable, the underlying relationship between master and slave is one fundamental to representations of familial relationships in the New Testament.

While some enslaved persons whose masters were wealthy and socially well placed had access to some of that wealth, social influence, and political power, most were owned en masse with little or no power. Many belonged to households with midrange to lower-level economic, social, and political status. These households depended on their slaves for their economic health. For example, in Acts 16:16–19, Paul and Silas encounter an enslaved girl in Philippi whose powers of divination bring her owners significant income. When Paul and Silas become annoyed with her heralding of them as slaves of the Most High God, they exorcise her divining power. Luke says that her owners are so upset that they report Paul and Silas to the Roman officials. While it is possible to understand this enslaved girl as liberated from her exploitation, Luke never mentions her manumission, but rather assumes she remained with her original household. Even if she had been manumitted, freed persons remained members of their former masters’ households as clients under the patronage system. In other words, familial ties that were drawn through enslavement remained even when legal status changed.

In addition to the enslaved girl in Acts, the New Testament names several other persons who are slaves, such as Rhoda, the slave who greets Peter at the gate of Mary’s house (Acts 12:12). Onesimus, about whom Paul writes his letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippos, is another (Phlm 10). While scholars dispute the nature of Paul’s request regarding Onesimus, nevertheless his relationship with the household in which the Christ-following community meets is the main subject of the letter. Other characters in Paul’s letters bear names consistent with current or former enslavement: Tertius the scribe (Rom 16:22) and Epaphroditos, a coworker of Paul’s in Philippi (Phil 2:25–29). The power dynamics present between enslaved members of households and those who were free, particularly masters, feminized enslaved persons.

As a result, enslaved persons were understood as sexually available to their masters. Indeed, this availability was part of the macula servus, or stain of slavery, that accompanied anyone who had been enslaved at any point in his or her life. Although 1 Corinthians in particular discusses sexual morality between men and women who have choices about their sexual partners, the case can be made that sexual relations between master and slave do not count as sexual immorality (porneia) or sexual behavior prohibited in Paul’s rhetoric for its pollution of the body of Christ ((1 Cor 6:15–20). Sexual relationships between masters and slaves remained unquestioned in New Testament texts.

Enslaved family ties often extended across several households. This fact complicates the idea that households were the basic familial units in antiquity. Enslaved persons with familial relationships could belong to different households. Thus a mother might have one owner while her children and their father each have different owners. While Acts does relate that whole households (including slaves) were baptized at once (Lydia’s household, Acts 16:14–15), some enslaved persons were members of early Christian communities but not members of a Christian household (1 Tim 6:1–2). In addition, the household codes in Colossians 3:18—4:1 and Ephesians 5:22—6:5 as well as the discussions in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24, 1 Peter 2:18–25, and 1 Timothy 6:1–2 address enslaved persons directly, in the vocative case. Such direct address to enslaved persons is highly unusual in ancient literature. These passages by and large instruct enslaved persons to remain subordinate and obedient to their masters, hinting that in reality they functioned more as equal partners in the Christian community. In contrast to the instructions that attempt to solidify discrete household structures according to gendered power rules, the actual practices of early Christian communities often flowed across household and familial boundaries. Other groups in antiquity, such as the Therapeutae and Cynics, also reconfigure family without reference to the basic structures of household order (i.e., slavery, marriage/inheritance, etc.).


Enslaved persons had no means to practice celibacy or even monogamy; their role in the familial structure precludes such discipline. For others, New Testament texts are mixed about whether celibacy allows for greater concentration on Jesus’s mission or poses threats in leaving women’s sexuality uncontrolled. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8 that widows should remain unmarried like Paul himself unless they cannot practice self-control. This self-control is gendered as a male value; thus widows who exhibit male qualities of control are acceptable. The assumption that women were sexually available and unable to engage in appropriate control leads later interpreters of Paul to oppose celibacy (1 Tim 4:3–5, 5:14). First Timothy discusses widows and celibacy in the same vein, but instead of advising self-control, the text suggests that young women have little or no control (1 Tim 5:11–13). We see a significant shift between 1 Corinthian’s instructions on marriage and celibacy (1 Cor 7:7–9) and the writer of 1 Timothy. First Corinthians allows for celibate/unmarried women while 1 Timothy portrays them as silly or even dangerous. Such shifts in the portrait of women’s sexuality may reflect attempts to curtail women’s leadership in some early Christian communities.




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Katherine A. Shaner

Early Judaism

The early concept of the family, whose roots we find in the Bible, was patrilineal. The family unit was headed by a male—the father, and the sons were those who were connected to him by ties of consanguinity. During the Mishnaic period (second century B.C.E.–second century C.E.), a conceptual transformation took place as part of the new consciousness that had developed, perhaps under the influence of Roman society, regarding the significance and purpose of creating marriage ties and regarding the structure of the family. Instead of the extended family that included all of the father’s relatives, the concept of the nuclear family, consisting of the married couple and their offspring, began to take hold in Jewish society. Within the nuclear family the status of the wife–mother rose, and she was regarded as no less an essential element than the father, although his superior status was preserved, as can be understood from the Mishnah in tractate Keritot:

"The father comes before the mother in all places. You might think that it is because the honour due to the father exceeds the honour due to the mother, therefore Scripture stated (Lev. 19:3)) ye shall fear every man his mother and his father, to teach that both are equal. But the sages have said: The father comes before the mother in all places, because both a man and his mother are bound to honour the father. (m. Ker. 6, 9)"

The Purposes of the Family.

From rabbinic literature, i.e., the Mishnah, Tosefta (Eretz Israel 100 B.C.E.–200 C.E.), Talmud (Eretz Israel and Babylon 300–600 C.E.), and Midrash (Eretz Israel, parallel to Talmudic period) it may be understood that the family is grounded in three domains: existential, economic, and cultural-national.


At the existential level, two purposes may be noted: one is the maintenance of the individual’s bodily health and happiness, and the other maintaining the order that allows for life in civilized society. The individual’s health and happiness are achieved by (1) regulating sexual activity, as the sage R. Huna said: “He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin”; the Talmud took this to mean “spends all his days in sinful thoughts” (b. Qidd. 29b); and also (2) by alleviating loneliness and arousing a feeling of joy that is the result of marital life for, “Any man who has no wife lives without joy” (b. Yebam. 62b). However, the individual achieves happiness primarily because it is only through a conjugal relationship that physical and spiritual completeness can be achieved, in the words of R. Eleazar: “Any man who has no wife is not a proper man [human being]” (b. Yebam. 63a). The sense of wholeness is also associated with the ability to create continuity, that is, to produce offspring and to be certain of their affiliation for, “A man who is childless is accounted as dead” (b. Ned. 64b).

The other purpose—creating the possibility of civilized life within human society—is achieved by regulating what is permitted and what is forbidden in the field of sexual relationships. The permissiveness that is accepted in modern society was impossible in ancient society, where sexual relations were directly related to siring offspring. Numerous Talmudic sources express reservations about unbridled sexual relationships because they may produce mamzerim (progeny produced from an illicit sexual relationship).

Since producing progeny was a matter of prime importance for ancient Jewish society, it was very strict in all matters relating to illicit sexual relationships, such as sexual relations between a man and woman who were forbidden to be together, either because of a blood relationship or because the woman was betrothed or married. Engaging in illicit sexual relations is one of the three gravest transgressions under Jewish law, which a person is required to avoid committing even at the cost of his life.

This strict observance of the laws regulating sexual behavior, rooted in the Bible, was not practiced by the gentile nations among whom the Jews lived and therefore it may not be attributed to environmental influence. Some theorize that its basis was the desire to ensure genealogical purity, as may have been true during the Second Temple Period when the priestly class (kohanim) enjoyed a superior status in society. However, Jewish society during most of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods was a society of sages, and their status was not determined by family pedigree. Therefore, it is not likely that the desire to preserve the family lineage was the reason for the strict laws governing sexual behavior. It would, then, seem that the norm of having sexual relations within a family framework was related to the desire to avoid siring compromised children or unidentified, hence unprotected, children.


At the economic level, the family was intended to be a kind of work group or partnership for the purpose of producing, acquiring, and organizing the food, clothing, and housing essential for survival and managing property and money. The division of labor between the married couple was quite clear: the man worked as breadwinner, usually outside the home, as a farmer, artisan, or merchant while the woman was occupied with domestic tasks. An essential characterization of this division of labor is provided by the Talmud, which attributes it to Elijah the prophet. Elijah answers the question of how a woman helps a man: “If a man brings wheat, does he chew the wheat? If flax, does he put on the flax? Does she not, then, bring light to his eyes and put him on his feet!” (b. Yebam. 63a). Talmudic literature has few references to women engaged in crafts or commerce, and these few might have been divorced or widowed women. However, there are several accounts of women who helped their husbands with agricultural work or in storekeeping.

Jewish law laid down the division of financial responsibilities and rights in the family so that the man owned and managed his wife’s property and money. At the same time, he was responsible for her support and welfare, for feeding his young sons and daughters, and for bequeathing his property to his sons. The wife was responsible for the household and all of the work associated with its maintenance. The man’s financial obligations toward his wife, according to the Torah, include: “her food, her clothing, and her marriage duty” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Mishpatim, Masekhta de-Nezikin par. 3). In addition, according to the Mishnah, he owes her the value of her ketuba (marriage contract) in the event that he divorces her or dies (a minimum of 200 zuzim if she was married as a virgin and 100 zuzim if as a widow or divorcee), medical expenses, ransom from captivity, and burial expenses. He further pledges that after his death, she will continue to receive food and housing, as will her daughters until they are betrothed. In addition, if he marries another woman and sires children with her, the sons of each wife will inherit their mother’s ketuba separately from the rest of the inheritance (m. Ketub. 4: 6–11).

Her obligations toward him include her handiwork (from which we may infer that women engaged in cottage industries that supplemented the family income), anything she finds, assets that came to her as a gift or by inheritance, and the “seven kinds of work that a woman performs for her husband, grinding [grain], baking bread, washing clothes, cooking, nursing her child, making ready his bed, and working in wool” (m. Ketub. 5:5).


At the cultural-national level, many rabbinic sources express the view that the marital relationship upon which the family is built is directed by God and is an actualization of the original act of creation. Placing the family so high on the scale of religious values is derived from the fact that it helps maintain and develop society and the nation. The first objective of the rabbis in creating the family framework was to create cells where the content, values, and religious rituals upon which the national and religious culture of the Jewish people is based could be preserved and developed. During most of the Second Temple Period and the entire period of the Mishnah and Talmud, the Jewish nation was under foreign occupation and had no political center, or even one spiritual-religious center. The family, then, was the place where religious rituals and practices were preserved and cultivated through the celebration of festivals such as Passover and Sukkot and the weekly Sabbath rituals.

Family Structure.

In ancient Jewish society, as in other societies in the Middle East, there was a tendency to marry within an endogamous cohort group. There is fairly extensive documentation, in Second Temple literature as well as in rabbinic literature, of the preference for this type of marriage, which was not obligatory. It is possible that the tendency to endogamous marriages initially stemmed from the desire to preserve assets, particularly land, within the tribe. However, the fact that this tendency continued after the destruction of the Second Temple and the forced separation from the land that followed it shows that what began as a tribal tendency developed into a general aspiration to preserve the purity of the lineage.

In the Jewish juristic literature there are no sources that prohibit marrying more than one wife. On the contrary: there are sources from the Mishnaic period that deal with the problems that arose in families where two or more wives live alongside each other. Is this discussion theoretical or does it reflect the reality in Eretz Israel? It seems that early Jewish society in Eretz Israel was primarily monogamous, for there are few Eretz Israel sources that document concrete examples of polygamous families. However, the phenomenon of polygamy in Eretz Israel, albeit negligible, cannot be taken lightly because for the rulers of the land (i.e., the Romans) marriage to more than one woman was considered a serious crime. The instances of a proliferation of women in Jewish Eretz Israel society may be explained as a consequence of the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which caused a shortage of young men on the one hand and the proliferation of both young widows who needed levirate marriages and needy women who needed financial support on the other. It is possible that in such circumstances a man who was financially well established may have married more than one woman to redeem a woman who was widowed with no children, or undertook the support of a poor woman or even several poor women.

Babylonian Jewry lived among the polygamous Persians. Based on a number of adages spoken by the rabbis, it seems that they were influenced by their environment and did not object in principle to the system of polygamy. The Babylonian sage Rava said: “A man may marry wives in addition to his first wife, provided only that he possesses the means to maintain them” (b. Yebam. 65a). On the practical level there is only one example of a concrete case of marriage to two women simultaneously (b. Ketub. 70b). However, more than a few commentaries and sayings of the Babylonian sages attest that they knew families that had at least two wives (b. Ned. 20b; Yebam. 11a, 12a, and more). It would therefore seem that Jewish society in Babylon did not object to polygamous marriages, even though there is not enough evidence that this pattern of marriage was prevalent there.

Relationships between family members.

As noted, the Jewish family in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud was a patriarchal family with a definite hierarchy between the man and the woman, and the woman’s total economic and functional dependence on her husband. In view of this, it is interesting to realize from a series of laws, adages, and cases brought in the rabbinic literature that there was a heightened awareness of the importance of feelings and romance in relations within the couple. The men were called upon to moderate their control over their wives and to treat them respectfully and sensitively. The requirement to limit their control is reflected in several laws in the Mishnah that threaten exercising the sanction of divorce with full payment of the ketuba against husbands who tyrannize their wives by depriving them of benefits (m. Ketub. 7:1-5). Likewise, it is seen in the laws that allow a woman to divorce her husband and receive the money of her ketuba if she cannot endure bodily defects, diseases, or odors that appeared in him [after they were married] (m. Ketub. 7:10). The expectation that men will treat their wives with dignity and consideration is reflected in the words of the sages of both Eretz Israel and Babylon. The early Eretz Israel sage R. Hiyya called upon men to pamper their wives with clothing and jewelry and to cultivate their beauty (b. Ketub. 59b), and the Talmud relates that despite the fact that his wife mistreated him, he always would bring her gifts (b. Yebam. 63a). The Babylonian sage Rav described the ideal relations between a husband and wife as friendship: “for Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: A man may not betroth a woman before he sees her, lest he [subsequently] see something repulsive in her, and she become loathsome to him, whereas the All-Merciful said (Lev 19:18)), but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (b. Qidd. 41a). Thus he recommended that “one should always be heedful of wronging his wife, for since her tears are frequent she is quickly hurt” (b. Meṣiʿa 59a). From a source dated to the Mishnah period (baraitha) cited in the Babylonian Talmud, one may learn of the expectation of romantic love for it promises a good life to “the man who loves his wife as himself, who honours her more than himself” (b. Yebam. 62b).

Women were expected not to anger their husbands with spiteful, contrary behavior and to demonstrate affection and intimacy. The Babylonian sages Abaye and Rava described a wicked woman as one who serves her husband but speaks to him rudely or turns her back on him and does not listen when he speaks (b. Yebam. 63b). From these descriptions one sees the expectation that there be verbal communication between the couple and criticism of women who may have fulfilled their duties toward their husbands but did not communicate with them or whose relationships were warped. From the response attributed to Babylonian sage R. Huna in the Mishnah in Ketubbot 5:5, which states that a woman who brought four servants with her to the marriage can exempt herself from housework, we can see that women were expected to demonstrate affection and intimacy to their husbands. R. Huna is quoted as responding to the law in the Mishnah “If four servants,” with these words: “she may lounge in an easy chair. Although it has been said, she may lounge in an easy chair, she should nevertheless fill for him his cup, make ready his bed and wash his face, hands and feet” (b. Ketub. 61a).

The sources quoted indicate that although in Jewish society in the Mishnaic and Talmudic period marriage was not based on romantic love, and despite the hierarchy of relationships between the man and the woman in the family, there was an expectation of an emotional tie and harmony within the couple.

In Jewish society, fertility was raised to a supreme level of importance religiously and morally, and was regarded as the raison d’etre of the world and of the human being. The institution of the family was the proper framework to produce offspring with clear affiliation and identity. Although the woman gives birth, the father was given authority and trust to determine who his children are and thus even to disinherit. During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, there was a trend to limit the father’s authority and to circumscribe it with fixed, delineated legal formulas. The children ceased to be the property of the father, and the concepts of ownership and property were replaced by the concept of responsibilities and rights. The father’s responsibilities toward his son are “to circumcise him, to redeem him [from the Kohen], to teach him Torah and a craft, and to marry him off, and some say, also to teach him to swim” (t. Qidd. 1:11). In addition to these responsibilities, the father is required to pay for educating his children to religious observance (b. Sukkah 42b), and for the nursing of his children in the event that the mother does not nurse them. In exchange for fulfilling these obligations to his offspring, the father is given several rights that pertain mainly to his daughters. He is entitled to annul their vows and to receive their betrothal fee and the profits that have accrued through their handiwork. In addition to the father’s special rights regarding his daughters, both parents are entitled to receive honor and care even when this involves monetary expenditures from both sons and daughters (y. Qidd. 61:3 and Peʾah 15:3; b. Qidd. 30b–31a).

Since the family identity is determined by the father, those considered siblings are sons and/or daughters who were born from one father and one mother, or from one father. The only differences in responsibilities and rights between the siblings are between the eldest brother and the other brothers, and between the brothers and the sisters. There is a difference between the responsibility of the eldest son and his brothers: it is incumbent upon the father to redeem the firstborn son of the mother from the kohen (m. Bek. 8:1). If the father did not fulfill his responsibility, the son is obligated to redeem himself when he grows up (b. Qidd. 29b). Another difference, and this time as a privilege, relates to the inheritance from his father. The first son of the father receives double what the other brothers received in his father’s estate (m. Bek. 8:1). In all other matters, the brothers from one father are equal. The main difference between brothers and sisters is the inheritance. The Mishnah relied on the biblical verse: “If a man die and have no sons, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter” (Num 27:8)) and ruled that a son has precedence over a daughter and all of his issue have precedence over a daughter (m. B. Bat. 8:2). It seems that in the Second Temple period, there were those who tried to change the ruling that a daughter does not inherit, and it was the subject of a fierce debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (b. B. Bat. 115b). Later the Jews and Christians also debated it (b. Šabb. 116b).

In any event, the Babylonian sage R. Huna quoted his teacher Rav’s harsh reaction to the attempt to institute the practice of passing the inheritance to a daughter: “R. Huna said in the name of Rav: Anyone, even a prince in Israel, who says that a daughter is to inherit with the daughter of the son, must not be obeyed; for such [a ruling] is only the practice of the Sadducees” (b. B. Bat. 115b).

Since daughters did not inherit, they were given the possibility of enjoying benefits from the inheritance their brothers received from the father. The Mishnah (m. Ketub. 4:11) determined that the husband pledges to his wife (though he did not explicitly write it out) “the female children that will be born from our marriage shall dwell in my house and be maintained out of my estate until they shall be taken in marriage.” He is liable because [this clause] is a condition laid down by the court of law and is not left to his discretion.

It is written in the Babylonian Talmud: “If anyone brings up an orphan boy or girl in his house, the scripture accounts it as if he had begotten him” (b. Meg. 13a; Sanh. 19b). Similar ideas appear in an Eretz Israel Midrash. “The one who raises him is called the father rather than his biological father” (Exod. Rab. 46 lit.). However, despite the positive view of adoption reflected in these texts, the law does not determine the legal status of the adopted child. The adoptive father, legally, is not the father of the adopted child, and therefore the restrictions against marrying blood relatives does not pertain. The adoptee does not receive the inheritance unless the father, before his death, specifically bequeathed his property or part of it to him.

Widows and orphans represent a weak, vulnerable population. Therefore, Talmudic literature (in line with the biblical injunctions that preceded it) contains many warnings about harming them, physically or emotionally. A widow, as long as she has not remarried and has not demanded the payment owed to her from her marriage by the heirs in a court of law, must be allowed by the heirs to continue living in the house where she lived when her husband was still alive, or they need to rent her another place to live that is not inferior to where she had lived with her husband. In addition, the heirs must supply her maintenance, including medical expenses and clothing, at the standard that she enjoyed in her husband’s lifetime. It appears that the practice both in Eretz Israel and in Babylon was that in return for the benefits granted to the widow by the heirs, she gave them the profits of her handiwork and whatever she found (b. Ketub. 96a). Widows were allowed to leave the state of widowhood and become betrothed to anyone except the High Priest, beginning ninety days after the death of their husband. This was the period required to determine if she was pregnant from her first husband to identify if the offspring belonged to her first or second husband. A widow who was pregnant or nursing a child had to wait until the child was twenty-four months old so that the infant would not be deprived if his mother became pregnant from her new husband and subsequently her milk supply was adversely affected (b. Yebam. 42a).

Orphans who were orphaned in childhood are the most weakened group in the population; therefore caring for them is considered charity. The Eretz Israel sage R. Samuel b. Nahmani interpreted the verse in Psalms 106:3: “Happy are they who maintain justice and do righteousness at all times” by saying “This refers to a man who brings up an orphan boy or orphan girl in his house and enables them to marry” (b. Ketub. 50a). Along with the theoretical ruling it seems that the rabbinical courts also took care of orphans. The Talmud recounts that “Rabban Gamliel and his court were the fathers (i.e., protectors) of the orphans” (b. B. Qam. 37a). From several sources of the Mishnaic period, it emerges that Jewish law was more solicitous of orphan girls than of orphan boys because they were more vulnerable. It was further ruled in the Mishnah that orphan girls who have no property at all are maintained from the public funds: “If an orphan is given in marriage she must be given not less than fifty zuz. If [charity] funds are available, she is to be fitted out in accordance with the dignity of her position” (m. Ketub. 6:5). All orphans are exempt from various taxes that the public is required to pay.




  • Albeck, Shalom. The Principles of Marriage and Family Law in the Talmud. Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2010 (Hebrew).
  • Baron, Salo W. “The World of the Talmud.” In Social and Religious History of Israel, pp. 73–88. Ramat-Gan: Massada, 1968 (Hebrew).
  • Hauptman, Judith. “Marriage.” In Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice, pp. 60–76. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.
  • Peskowitz, Miriam. “Family Ties in Antiquity: Evidence from Tannaitic Literature and Roman Galilean Architecture.” In The Jewish Family in Antiquity, edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen, pp. 9–33. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993.
  • Rabello, A. Mordecai. “Patria Potestas in Roman and Jewish Law.” In Dinei Israel: Annual of Jewish Law and Israeli Family Law, pp. 85–153. Tel Aviv: Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University, 1974.
  • Yarbrough, Larry. “Parents and Children in Jewish Family of Antiquity.” In The Jewish Family in Antiquity, edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen, pp. 39–59. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993.

Shulamit Valler

Early Church

Knowledge of family structures in the early church comes to us only indirectly, since there is no explicit early Christian data on the subject, especially compared to the numerous patristic texts on virginity, asceticism, and marriage. It is further complicated by the fact that whatever picture we can gather on early Christian families from the often fragmentary literary sources emerges from and reveals the perspectives of the male, educated, wealthy upper order, mediated by the theological and moral lenses of the church fathers. Material culture can supplement literary sources, but those artifacts are scanty and require much scholarly inference. It is instructive to remember that early Christians were part of the Roman world and largely operated within its social structures, despite the church fathers’ antifamilial and ascetic claims. Hence, drawing on Roman sources sometimes fills in the gap. However, modern readers must bear in mind inherent biases and limits of the extant sources, as well as the interpretive standpoints of modern scholarship.

The basic structure of early Christian families followed that of the contemporary Roman familia, which legally included all persons and properties under the power of the paterfamilias (patria potestas), including his legitimate children, his son’s children, and his children by adoption. The mother (materfamilias), while important as the father’s lawful wife and bearer of his children, was extraneous to this legal understanding as manus marriage, whereby the wife came under the legal control (manus) of her husband, had been in decline by the late republic. The Roman family was also based on the understanding of domus, the household, including familia, slaves, and the broad kinship group including materfamilias, patrilineal and matrilineal kin, ancestors and descendants, freedpersons, clients, and other boarders and residents of the household. While both familia and domus encompassed extended kin beyond the nuclear family (father-mother-children triad), for which the Romans had no vocabulary, the common structure featured in the patristic sources is the “nucleated” domus, that is, the household centered on parents and children with slaves, and with some variations of other extended family members (Martin, 1996, p. 58). The “Christians for Christians” funerary epitaphs from Anatolia (ca. 250–350 C.E.) show dedications made to deceased family members by surviving relatives as a group, frequently three generations based on the “nucleated domus,” with a combination of a brother, grandparent(s), grandchildren, or a sister/brother-in-law (Johnson, 1995). Augustine’s disclosure of his own family and those of his congregants in his writings confirms a similar pattern: the nucleated domus, with grandparents, (male) cousins, nephews, nurses, and family property, including slaves, as well as Augustine’s concubine and son.

Social Roles of Mothers and Fathers.

Early Christians generally adopted the Stoic idea of the household as part of the natural social order, stemming from the joining (coniugium, copulatio) of man and woman and resulting in children, and thus as the “seedbed” of the state (Cicero, De officio 1.17.54; Augustine, De civitate Dei 15.16.3). They also regarded the household as a mini-church whose members should lead lives of redemption, virtue, and holiness worthy of its head, the Christ (John Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios). As the oldest living male and formal head of the family, the paterfamilias was also the dominus, master of the household, whose legal power and authority over his descendants and householders was virtually absolute and lasted until his death. The paterfamilias functioned as a mediator of the household, church, and larger society; his chief role was to protect his household, ensure its peace and harmony, and keep it in the right order with his potestas and Christian principles as a miniature state and church (Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios). The patriarchal structure of Christian family is shown in this pivotal role and significance of the paterfamilias. As already reflected in the deutero-Pauline writings ((Eph 5:22—6.9; Col 3:18—4.1; 1 Tim 3:4—5, 12)), Augustine emphasizes that domestic peace leads to civic peace, that is, maintaining household harmony and order contributes to that of the state; therefore, the father should adopt the rules of the state in governing his household in such a way that his house fits in with civic peace, including discipline and corporal punishment for the disobedient (De civitate Dei 19.16). This kind of paternal authority will not be necessary in the heavenly household in the eschatological state, but until then the father is obliged to use his power to ensure domestic peace while he should also be concerned for the household’s spiritual welfare, namely, worship and service of God, and should treat all in his household, particularly his children and slaves, with equal affection and prayers for their salvation (De civitate Dei 19.16). Thus the coercive paternal authority in controlling and disciplining all of his householders is counterbalanced by charity and love (Shaw, 1987, p. 18; cf. Sermones 349.2), especially as he is to love, care, educate, and provide for his wife and children as a husband, father, and master (John Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios; cf. Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 2.13).

The duty of the materfamilias was to govern daily household affairs, support her husband’s career and interests, bear and rear his children, and keep family honor with her pietas, chastity, modesty, and Christian moral guidance. By the (late) fourth century C.E., in the absence of paterfamilias, materfamilias stood as a mediator between domestic and civic contexts, receiving the same honors and dignities as her husband, exercising power over the domus and interacting with the larger social, religious, and political community and leaders; daughters, even as adults, remained silent in the public arena behind their mothers’ maternal authority. For example, Emmelia, who bore nine children, including Macrina (the Younger), Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa and outlived her husband by about thirty years, raised her children (with the help of wet nurses and Macrina), ensured their education and establishment in life, and shaped religious life and devotion at home. Her matriarchal role further included administering the family’s considerable possessions as she paid taxes in three different provinces, distributing them among her numerous children, and finally blessing each of her children at her deathbed (Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae). Emmelia’s household reflected the local Cappadocian elites’ vision for civic order and harmony by ensuring her family honor and order through the virtues of her sons (Basil’s holiness) and daughters (Macrina’s chastity) and her public activities.

Roles of Parents and Children.

The exercise of the patria potestas in love reflects traditional pietas, which implied strong family loyalty, duty, and affection that in turn was expected from one’s spouse, siblings, parents, and children. Children unquestionably owed respect, duty, and compliance (obsequium) to their parents. The Christian household code emphasized the reciprocal nature of this pieta between parents and children. Parents, once the father decided his newborn child would live as his own (even as the church and Christian imperial law strongly discouraged, if not condemned, exposure), had an obligatio of raising their children—providing food, clothing, shelter, and paideia (education); establishing them in careers; arranging their marriages; and leaving them their fair share of inheritance. Both fathers and mothers were responsible for carefully monitoring their children’s progress and behavior, raising them to be good citizens and Christians (Nathan, 2000, p. 143). Wealthy Christian parents, especially in the post-Constantinian era, were concerned for their children’s advancement and success in the elite careers and in their corresponding reputations and honors through classical paideia, marriage arrangement, and inheritance/wealth, as church fathers expressed frustrations and warnings in their letters and treatises to their “worldly” congregants (e.g., Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios; De inani gloria).

Both Christian and non-Christian sources emphasize that children were to honor their parents, as their obedience was a necessary element of family life. Children’s proper conduct was critical to the virtue and honor of the family, and the rebellious son or the naughty daughter was thought to have transgressed family boundaries, thus bringing shame on the entire family (Horn and Martens, 2009, p. 86). In Christian households, however, children’s obedience to parents was to be qualified “in the Lord” as the church fathers advised them not to obey “unbelieving” or “heretical” fathers (Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios). Adult children’s filial piety mandated supporting and caring for their aging parents before any obligation to their friends or other relatives (Augustine, Ep. 243.12; Sermones 276.1–2). With increasing ascendancy of ascetic movements in the fourth century and on, the duty both to obey parents and to look after them became more complicated when some children chose virginity and religious life at a young age even against the wishes of Christian parents (e.g., Macrina, at twelve, insisted on widowhood when her fiancé died). In such cases, church fathers often supported the children’s choice against the physical fathers/parents who wanted obedience and grandchildren (Ambrose, De virginibus 1.65–66; Jerome, Ep. 24), while the fourth-century Council of Gangra condemned both parents and children who neglected their respective duties under the pretense of ascetic piety (Canon 15–16). In some cases, ascetic daughters persuaded their widowed mothers to follow similar pursuits and looked after them in a transformed relationship as sisters in ascetic communities.

Christian Paideia.

Christian parents were responsible for nurturing and disciplining their children in Christian paideia in addition to, or in place of, traditional paideia. Its fundamental element was inculcating in the child a proper sense of the fear of the Lord with the Word of God, captured in the exhortation of Polycarp of Smyrna in the mid-second century: “Train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God” (Letter to the Philippians 4; cf. Didache 4.9; Epistle of Barnabas 19.5). Fear and knowledge of God, which is wisdom (Prov 1:7), is the virtue of all virtues, and as such spurns “desires, wealth, worldly reputation, and power” (Chrysostom, De inani gloria 86, 87). Fear of God should also govern the training of their children in trades so that they would be diligent and understand labor as part of Christian paideia (Didascalia 22). Parents are likened to artists fashioning, restoring, and refining the image of God in their children by modeling a godly pattern of life and exercising “tough love” (Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios; De inani gloria 96). As such, their neglect of this responsibility, including neglecting the dedication or baptism of their children, is repeatedly threatened with divine punishment; parents are responsible to God for their children’s sins and eternal destiny (Didascalia 22; Apostolic Constitutions 4.11; Jerome, Ep. 107.6).


Fathers have specific obligations corresponding to their sex in Christian paideia. John Chrysostom in De inani gloria provides a picture of a father’s role in Christian paideia for an elite household in Antioch (ca. fourth century C.E.). Fathers must train their sons to be “athletes of Christ” and “soldiers of God” with strict discipline and moral rules. Fathers should train their boys first in controlling the tongue with “the words of God,” which should be on their lips without ceasing ((28–30). In particular, fathers should strictly enforce boys’ fair treatment of slaves not just in speaking but also in demeanor and behaviors (31, 69), so that they will abstain from ill-treating those of freeborn, and of their own elite, status. Moreover, boys should hear “nothing harmful from servants or tutor or nurses” (37), including their “frivolous and old wives’ tales” (38). Instead, parents are to tell them the biblical stories, carefully chosen for their age-appropriate moral and didactic values (39), and take their sons to church to hear those stories (41). Starting from the story of Cain and Abel and proceeding to that of Jacob and Esau, the flood, and to the stories of hell and grace in the New Testament at a later age, Chrysostom intends these biblical stories to offset the negative influence of slaves (39–53).

A father should especially guard the boy’s eyes (55), as seeing naked women in the theater might arouse desire and increase the danger of him losing his virginity; the key to keeping him from such “corruption” (lumē) is limiting the boy’s access to women until after the age fifteen when his “natural desire” arises ((56–60). The father should remind the boy that spectacles involving naked women are for slaves and thus unseemly for his status, and parents should never send their sons to the theater (79). In fact, the boy is to “see no woman” and speak only to his mother (62) even in the household, and the father should instill into him a “resolute spirit against womankind” (62). Chrysostom is especially concerned about not letting the boy have sexual relations with a slave girl or woman (62). Rather, the boy should keep hearing the story of the patriarch Joseph for the reward of living a sober life (61); it is the father’s duty to promise and procure for him a virtuous girl of similar socioeconomic status for marriage, while they are both virgins, before the boy takes up public duty (81). And the hope of meeting this beautiful and virtuous betrothed should safeguard his virtue and “ward off every evil,” as he should care about his reputation, as well as about being reported to his betrothed (81–82).

If sexual restraint (sōphrosynē) and purity were a significant way to distinguish an elite Christian boy from a slave, his father must also ensure his social and moral superiority to and difference from his slaves at all times (79). In controlling spirit (thumos) and passions (kratein toū pathou) (68), the boy, from earliest childhood, should first receive training in patience with respect to suffering wrongs, and also in courage with regard to executing justice on behalf of others (66). Again, the household is a fitting context for the boy to exercise those virtues, especially as he deals with spiteful or disobedient slaves. The boy should neither be indulgent nor harsh with slaves; when provoked by his slaves or friends, he is to show poise and learn equability “on all occasions” to the extent that if he were to strike his slave, his father would punish him (68–69). As he willingly relinquishes the “rights” of a free man, he will become “strong and simple and courteous” toward the servile (70). The boy should continually exhibit gentleness in treating slaves like brothers and forgiveness in not getting angry or abusive if a slave breaks his writing instruments (72–73); if he could control his anger from his loss, he has already displayed “all the marks of a philosophic mind” (megistēs philosophias; 73). Chrysostom knows too well that anger was a mark of weakness and effeminacy (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.18). The father makes sure that the boy’s training in these virtues heightens his “natural difference” from slaves, for he will become the master of those slaves “not by doing as they do, but by [his] habits, so that being a free man, [he is] never a slave of his slaves” (71). Chrysostom’s vision for Christian paideia is intended to groom a male heir to succeed his father, continuing his physical household and reinforcing existing social hierarchies.

Although Chrysostom’s rhetoric is idealistic, and although he was childless, he reveals contemporary knowledge of children at different ages. The father’s disciplinary technique corresponded to the Roman understanding of children as irrational, wild, “dumb beasts” that required significant energy to socialize, indoctrinate, and discipline into human society (Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 31.2.23). Children exhibit “natural” traits devoid of reason, restraint, and virtue such as greed, ignorance, anger, insolence, and attachment. Drawing on Proverbs, early Christian writings encourage fathers to use rebukes, threats, and corporal punishment for children’s disobedience and transgression and for correcting their behaviors, especially the sons (Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.25; Shepherd of Hermas, Mand. 1.2.2; Didascalia 22; Apostolic Constitutions 4.11). Chrysostom discourages fathers from using beating but encourages an effective use of its threat, stern looks, and reproaches as ways to instill fear, thus bringing boys to proper fear of the Lord (De inani gloria 30).


Although boys came under the purview of their fathers, the mother’s role in Christian paideia regarding sons was just as significant. Gregory of Nazianzus received his first teaching in the faith from his mother, Nonna, who was influential in the conversion and ministry of her husband, Gregory the Elder (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 2.103, 18.11). Emmelia led her children to the cult of the Forty Martyrs and guided their religious instruction, including Melania’s training in scripture (Basil, Ep. 223.2; Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 2). Monica’s dedication to Christian paideia for her children is well known; she not only supported Augustine’s classical paideia but also was largely responsible for his eventual conversion. She raised Augustine as a Christian against her husband’s wishes; initiated him into the catechumenate; admonished him against committing adultery, deception, and cruelty; followed him to Rome to monitor his soul; and modeled for him faith, courage, piety, and prayerfulness (Confessions 1.11.17, 2.3.6–7, 9.9.22, 9.13.36). When Augustine finally converted, Monica was ecstatic and witnessed his baptism by Ambrose; she then engaged in philosophical and theological discussions with him almost until her last days (e.g., Confessions 9.10).

Still, the primary role of mothers was bringing up daughters. They should train their daughters to “repress” their “natural” tendencies of flightiness, love of finery, personal adornment, and extravagance (Chrysostom, De inani gloria 90). Elite girls could avoid female vanities and become athletes for Christ presumably by following at least some of Chrysostom’s precepts for boys, such as controlling (sexual) desires and angers and treating their slaves fairly. Acquiring such virtues would help them to be virtuous wives fitting for virtuous men. Indeed, it was a mother’s responsibility to prepare, preserve, and present her daughters suitably for marriage, and to be watchful after marriage for her daughter’s well-being, even as the father saw to the proper marriage of a daughter and was responsible for drawing up marriage contracts (Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae).

With the popularity of asceticism and monasticism, “manly” virtues like self-control were also available to elite Christian girls, especially from the fourth century onward. In two letters on the parental education of young girls dedicated to virginity (Ep. 107 and 128), Jerome advises strict enforcement of habits of restraint in diet and behavior in those girls as early as possible, along with regular rewards for their efforts (Ep. 107.8, 128.1). As a mother’s relationship to her daughter is likened to that of Hannah to Samuel or Elizabeth to John the Baptist (Ep. 107.3; cf. Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios), her role is even more crucial as a parent and teacher (Ep. 128.3a). She is to accompany the girl at all times, including on visits to night vigils, martyrs’ shrines, and churches, and should be a stern disciplinarian in her paideia, which involves learning letters and writing, reading, and advanced study of the Bible at the age of seven (when the girl develops moral understanding and capacity), as well as spinning (Ep. 107.11–12, 128.3a). The mother should raise the girl in seclusion, having her associate only with girls, protecting her from worldly influences and slaves’ vices, and, similar to Chrysostom’s advice, depriving her of any external adornment, cosmetics, or fine clothing (Ep. 107.5, 9; 128.4). Most importantly, the mother should model virtue for the consecrated girl just as the father should for the boy (Ep. 107.9; Chrysostom, De inani gloria). Such gendered advice reflects a heavy influence of Quintilian adapted to an emerging Christian elite culture.


Roman law prohibited any close-kin marriage within the direct line of descent but still allowed a certain degree of endogamy, which had been practiced among the honestiores, including the imperial families, for political and economic alliances and protection of family inheritances. In Egypt, cross-cousin and uncle-niece marriages took place more liberally across the social spectrum well into the Byzantine period. As Shaw’s study (1987) shows, it seems that kin endogamy was generally not noticeable or significant among the Christian plebs in Augustine’s North African community. Grubbs demonstrates that late ancient (Christian) elites, like Roman elites of the earlier period, often engaged in kin endogamy despite the injunctions of church and state, such as Melania the Younger, who married one of her relatives in obedience to her parents, and Petronius Probus and his wife, Anicia Faltonia Proba (1995, p. 153).

Christian sources typically encouraged religious or community endogamy within Christian communities despite a pervasive reality of exogamy, or “mixed” marriages between Christians and non-Christians. Tertullian’s ostensible warnings against such marriages in his treatise Ad uxorem belies the complex social situation and dilemma of elite Christian women in North Africa in the early third century, given the power of their fathers to contract their marriages and the prospect of submitting to authority of their non-Christian husbands when there were no suitable Christian men of their rank in prospect. The Roman bishop Callistus’s “countercultural” policy to recognize the concubinage of an elite Christian woman with a man of inferior status (most likely her freedman) was a way to negotiate such realities in the West (“Hippolytus,” Refutatio omnium haeresium 9.12). Michele Salzman’s epigraphic study (1989) of aristocratic women’s marriage patterns shows that a majority of them practiced religious endogamy in the fourth century, suggesting a possible overall trend in the broader Christian population. At the same time, that Christian parents, whether by choice or necessity, still continued to contract the marriages of their sons or daughters with pagan partners is evident in repeated prohibitions in the canons of local, regional, and ecumenical councils (e.g., Council of Elvira, ca. 306 C.E., Canon 15). Notably, although Monica was born and raised in a Catholic family at Thagaste, she was entrusted to a pagan, Patricius, whom she served as her dominus (Confessions 9.8.17m 9.9.19). Gregory of Nazianzus’s mother, Nonna, a Christian, was given to Gregory the Elder, who was a member of a syncretistic cult in Nazianzus at the time of his marriage. Monica and Nonna could serve as prominent examples of Jerome’s triumphant rhetorical statement about Christian women converting their polytheistic husbands (Ep. 107.1).


Adoption was widely practiced in Roman society. The most significant cases concerned the adoption (adrogatio) of relatives or adults (sui iuris, “in his own power”), for reasons of inheritances, political loyalty, succession, or personal affection. While most Christian references to adoption indicate a figurative and spiritual nature, formal adoptions must have been common among Christian households of all statuses. Augustine reports that “many men” who have no natural children (sons) adopt a son in their mature age to have an heir and therefore to transmit inheritance (In epistulam Johannis ad Parthos tractatus 2.1.13). “Informal” adoption included raising abandoned children or exposed infants as demanded by Christian texts (e.g., Apostolic Constitutions 4.1) or bringing up martyrs’ children such as Felicitas’s daughter (Passio Santarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis 15.7); these children generally belonged to the informal category of alumnus (Gk threptos): the abandoned child who was brought up in someone else’s home.


Since the family was not only the fundamental social unit but also the core economic unit, securing inheritance was critical. One of the essential responsibilities of the paterfamilias was to keep family patrimony and transmit it to his descendants as a bonus. Fathers could use inheritance as a means to control and discipline sons (and daughters), warning and domesticating wayward, rowdy, and recalcitrant sons (Chrysostom, De inani gloria 71; Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 91.3), disinheriting some and favoring others (Ambrose, Hexameron 18.58). Cyprian reveals Carthaginian Christians’ concern with expanding and protecting their patrimony (De lapsis 5, 11), which eventually led to their apostasy during the Decian persecution. Thus his impassioned call for them to give their inheritance away as alms as a sure remedy for their apostasy would have been even more poignant (De opere et eleemosynis). Cyprian himself dispensed his property for the relief of the poor upon his conversion to Christianity and throughout his episcopacy (Vita Cypriani 2, 3, 15). Augustine donated his share of family inheritance to the church at Thagaste when he became bishop in 395–396 C.E. From late antiquity onward, the church became a significant competitor for family inheritances and legacies of the elite, as shown by some prominent widows who inherited magnificent family patrimonies and turned them into charities, legacies, and endowments for churches and monasteries.




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Helen Rhee