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The Lush Family Page/

by William D. Watkins
Author of The New Absolutes

When the Christian movement was still young, pagan Rome held sway over people's lives. For the poor, women, and children, especially, it was not a pleasant time.

The Romans promoted monogamy and regarded marriage as "a matter of agreement between partners, validated before suitable witnesses."

They also considered husband and wife as equal partners when it came to running the household. Nonetheless, women had no legal standing. They could not bring law suits, own property, or hold public office. Legally, women were property, not persons, and their parents arranged their marriages.

Not just anyone could marry legally. Roman citizens could enter into lawful marital unions with each other, but marriages involving slaves, foreigners, and close blood relatives were not legally recognized. This meant too that the children of these unions had no legitimate status before Roman law. While many slaves were not poor or ill-treated, many were. The Roman prohibition against marriage in these groups placed grave burdens on the poor.

Family in Roman society was not anything like the modern idea of the nuclear family. Their word for family came from a term that meant "band f slaves." The Romans picked it up and applied it to authoritarian structures and hierarchical orders that included people or property or both. Eventually the word was expanded to cover wives and children, natural or adopted, as well as slaves -- all headed by a single male authority figure. This man could be the biological father or simply the holder of authority. Whoever he was, his authority over his family was absolute. He headed the household, and he had the legal right to handle the family's affairs any way he chose. He could easily divorce his wife, but his wife could not divorce him. He could also legally kill any member of his family, including his spouse and children.

Abortion and infanticide were widely practiced among all classes of Romans in and outside family households. The poor killed their children out of desperation, and the wealthy did so to keep them from fragmenting their assets. The destruction of children became so common towards the end of Rome's rule that legislation was passed in attempt to curb the demise of the killing and increase the birthrate. Roman political leaders feared the demise of the empire through these methods of population control. Their efforts were ineffective, however. Families continued to limit their size so severely that by the mid-second century A.D., even the many great houses that had formed Rome's aristocracy were reduced to one.

In this context, a second-century jurist named Ulpian said that Roman law designated a family as "several persons who by nature or law are placed under the authority of a single person." This sounds awfully similar to Webster's first definition of a family as a group of individuals living under one roof ad usually under one head."

Eventually upper-class women found ways of getting around some of the legal restrictions placed on them. Many ended up owning property and securing an education equal to that of men. Some ran businesses and influenced politics. Divorce finally became a matter of mutual consent, and that dramatically increased its practice. One Roman writer even talks about women who had as many as eight husbands in five years. Another writer topped that one by mentioning "one man who had buried twenty wives" and then married "a woman who had buried twenty-two husbands." For many Romans, marriage was a fragile bond often broken.

Husbands and wives also commonly practiced adultery. For wives, this often amounted to lesbian affairs, whereas men could legally choose to have sex with men or women, boys or girls. Slaveholders frequently made their human property serve their sexual fancies. Couples also often availed themselves of local prostitutes. They could even make liaisons with prostitutes as a part of their religious devotion, since in some temples sexual relations with harlots played a role in worship. Prostitution became so widespread that the state finally legalized it in order to regulate it.

Roman law recognized and allowed for various forms of life-in arrangements. All forms of cohabitation were not outside the legal or social sphere of acceptability.

Although the Romans were monogamous, they permitted local customs throughout their Empire that did not embrace this standard. In pagan Ireland and Germany, for example, men could have more than one wife at a time, although women were allowed only one husband. Called polygamy, this practice led to two detrimental consequences in their locales. As historian Robert Shaffern explains:

"First, since only rich men could afford more than one wife, females tended to drift into households of the wealthy. Poor men were much less likely to find a mate. Without a stake in established society, many single males became members of wandering bands of brigands, much like the gangs of modern American inner cities. These cutthroats, who lived in the forests on the edge of settled areas, destroyed and stole property and abducted and raped women. Even among the lawful members of society, sexual mores were lax in pagan Ireland and Germany. In both societies most people traced their lineage through their female ancestors, and many people did not know their father."

In short, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire knew nothing about a nuclear family. For them marriage was tenuous and unnecessary. Cohabitation -- what we used to call shacking up -- was common. Children were little more than chattel. And no one idea of family was normative. In these wayus, at least, the ancient Roman Empire and contemporary America have much in common.

This is the world Christianity faced and conquered. Through missionary efforts, social action, martyrdom, rising up the social and political ladders, and simply living out their faith day to day. Christians won Europe over to a single view of the family. They applied a single ethic to everyone, male and female, slave and free, young and old, wealthy and poor. This ethic included monogamy and sexual fidelity within the bonds of marriage. It also prohibited cohabitation, premarital and extramarital sex, and it severely restricted the justifiable reasons for divorce. It accorded equal dignity and worth to husband and wife and their offspring -- indeed, to all human beings. But within this state of marital and familiar equality, it also imposed an orderly hierarchy with mutual obligations. Children were to honor and respect their parents, and parents were to love and guide their children according to Christian instruction. Husbands and wives owed their deep and ever-abiding love to one another until death separated them. The church also called for moral and religious education in the home, and it rejected limiting families through sterilizations, abortion, and infanticide.

What impact did this have on Western Europe? Robert Shaffern tells us, "Christianity regularized the household...thereby making the nuclear family normative...With the gradual imposition of monogamy, the number of marriageable women increased. More poor men could find mates and raise families. They were given a stake in settled society, and the numbers of wandering outlaws decreased."

Mutual love and service replaced dictatorial male control. Marriage took on a greater significance. It was not merely the union of two people but the means to reunite society. Women, not just men, enjoyed the rights of inheritance. What had been denied to Roman and pagan women was granted to all women with the rise of the nuclear family.

Child-rearing became the focus of marriage. The Romans had recognized procreation and the proper education of children as purposes of marriage, but they also put children at grave risk through their low view of human life. Christianity changed that. For them, all human beings were God's image-bearers, and therefore had intrinsic value and worth. Moreover, the Christian view of love bound believers to love all people, including their enemies. For these reasons and others, abortion and infanticide, while not disappearing, became rare. The Christian family even "idealized" childhood "as a time of life marked by innocence, openness, simplicity, and contentment." Society finally valued children in their own right rather than regarding them as potentially disposable property.

Concluding, Shaffern states: "The spread of Christianity in the early Middle Ages radically altered European households and promoted the stability of the family...Christian teachings altered the legal underpinnings of the household and made normative the form of social organization in which husband, wife, and children were responsible to each other for survival, the fulfillment or obligations, mutual love, and respect.

Given the backdrop of pagan Rome, we can see how revolutionary the Judeo-Christian idea of the nuclear family really was.

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