Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Maurizio Bettini, Affari di famiglia: la parentela nella letteratura e nella cultura antica. Saggi, 724. Bologna: il Mulino, 2009. Pp. 381. ISBN 9788815133151. €28.00.

Reviewed by Carmine Pisano, Università di Napoli Federico II (pisano.carmine@virgilio.it)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Affari di famiglia is a collection of essays, some already published, some published for the first time here, which are a testament to Maurizio Bettini's "long allegiance" to the 'forms of kinship' theme, which "has always constituted one of the focal points of anthropological studies" (p. 7). Bettini approaches the question of kinship in ancient literature and culture "under the aegis of the discipline that bears the name of anthropology of the ancient world" (p. 9). He attributes to philology the same function carried out by 'field work' in cultural anthropology, using the analysis of ancient texts as an 'informant'. Philological and anthropological study of types of kinship, and the cultural expressions which they contribute to producing, allows the author to "reach the very heart of a society" (p. 7).

The discussion is introduced by an extensive overview of Roman kinship, and is divided into three parts.

The first part ('Kinship and society') consists of six studies mainly concentrating on Rome. A careful linguistic analysis 'On the Roman terminology for cousins' is followed by a historical-anthropological study of the prohibition of marrying one's cousin, which "from ancient Rome to Grazia Deledda" represents an insuperable taboo, if not a partial definition of European cultural identity against Others. Bettini explores the attitudes of western culture to marriage between cousins, analysing the positions of Augustine, Marco Polo and James George Frazer. While Marco Polo relegates marriage between cousins to the category of sinful and bestial behaviour typical of the Others, Augustine and Frazer both make an effort to understand the reasons behind a matrimonial custom attributed by Old Testament tradition to the biblical patriarchs. The need to explain a 'naturally' repugnant practice, shared with the very fathers of European civilisation, is the basis of Frazer's theory concerning the 'bartering of women' and Augustine's notion of religiosa cura, which is believed to have led the antiqui patres to marry women of the same bloodline so as to 're-tie' links of kinship, at a time when these bonds were in danger of becoming looser as a result of the growth of humanity and of the division of human races.

The image of the kinship as a network of relationships returns in Chapter 3, in which Bettini studies the practices of the ploratio of the parens and of the consecratio of the puer to divi parentum. The scholar recognises these mysterious divinities as the group of divinised ancestors, who have the function of revenging the parentes who have suffered domestic or sexual violence. Transgressors of the family rules, consecrati to the divi parentum, are "put into the full possession" of these gods, who regulate behaviour within the family of the living in the form of their kinship with the dead. Chapter 4, instead, is dedicated to the human parentes. The author explains the semantic evolution of the term from the Latin, in which it designates 'progenitors' or 'ancestors', to the Romance languages, in which it designates the 'relatives' in general, in the light of the Roman ritual called parentatio. This rite, celebrated on the tombs of the deceased, takes its name from the expression parens!, with which the deceased person was invoked. Bettini observes how the use of such an expression shows an internal contradiction in Roman funerary ideology. The logic of the parentatio presupposes the 'natural' order of the death (iustum funus), according to which the deceased should belong to the older generations of the ancestors/parentes; in reality, however, death does not respect the iustum funus, for which reason the title of parentes was commonly extended in the practice of the ritual to all dead invoked, including collaterals and descendants. The abusio of the term is seen in vernacular outcomes of the word parentes, which originally designated 'dead relatives' and later indicated the general set of 'relatives', both dead and alive.

The first part of the book closes with two chapters of a methodological nature, in which Bettini confronts the problems posed by the transformation of ancient 'texts' into 'sources' used in the studies of social history and the question of the existence of similar beliefs among populations distant in time and space. The scholar analyses the case of the biological theory according to which the bones come from the father and the flesh from the mother: this is a widely spread belief, from Tibet to the Caucasus, from Egypt to Greece and Rome. Traditional research explains the presence of this belief in the furthest corners of the earth with the 'diffusion' of a specific notion coming from a specific place. On the basis of studies by Alexander Goldenweiser and Françoise Héritier-Augé, Bettini suggests that the belief originated independently in the various different cultural settings through the use of "limited cognitive elements" (p. 148). The anthropological theory of 'limited possibilities' (i.e. of possibilities limited by "contraintes" of situational context and cultural habits) explains how different cultures have been able to respond to the same question ("How is a foetus generated?") in a similar way, through the 'paternal bone/maternal flesh' model.

The second part ('Kinship and literature') explores the ample presence of kinship themes within Latin literature. "Counting grades of consanguinity is a pleasure", states Ovid (Heroides 8, 47), but still more important is keeping them distinct. Or at least this is what the stories of Oedipus and Phaedra teach. In his Oedipus, Seneca presents incest through Iris' divinatory sign, thus establishing the association rainbow/incest upon the cultural logic of 'confounding', of 'knotting'or 'intertwining': incest confounds and intertwines the parental roles just as the rainbow confounds and intertwines the colours. The isotopy of 'intertwining' does not only unite rainbow and incest but also incest and enigma: the two leading themes of the myth of Oedipus. Parting from Aristotle's definition of the ainígmatos idéa (Poetica 1458a), Bettini demonstrates that incest, like enigma, links adúnata, i.e. things that, at least in appearance, cannot be linked. Incest and enigma are equivalent in that they confound opposites, joining things which the anthropological code keeps distinct. In the case of Oedipus, the elements that are confounded are the roles of mother and son. It is more difficult to understand where incestuous confounding lies in the case of Hippolytus and Phaedra, between whom there is no direct blood relationship. The words of reproof and admonishment that the nurse uses to berate Phaedra in Seneca's play ("you started to mix the bed of the father with that of the son and to welcome into your impious womb a confounded child?") reveal the existence of a 'primitive biology' in Roman culture, which viewed the female womb as "a sort of receptacle, terrain for cultivation, in which the male seed germinates and develops" (p. 233). Mixing the bed of Theseus with that of Hippolytus, Phaedra would end up mixing their respective seeds in her womb and would facilitate a 'monstrously' fecund homosexual relationship between father and son: "in loving Hippolytus," Bettini concludes, "Phaedra would so much be committing incest herself, as making it occur between others" (p. 237).

Roman culture is particularly sensitive to the dangers of altering the traditional kinship structure. This is the basis of the rule that prohibited women from drinking wine. Wine-drinking was felt to be a contributing factor in adultery, and, as such, likely to affect the entire kinship group to which the woman belonged. But wine-drinking also meant abandoning the province of Ceres, the goddess of woman's seed, and entering into that of Liber, the god of man's seed (Augustine, De civitate dei 7, 16). The province of Liber was viewed as a definitively 'male' domain, from which women were excluded without appeal: in Rome it was the male kin, up to and including the sixth grade, who, through the ius osculi (the 'rite of the kiss' on the mouth), took on the role of controlling whether women "smelled of wine".

Another problem of 'fusion' lies at the centre of Chapter 11. But this time it does not deal with the possible fusion of two kinship roles, but rather the modalities of fusion of two distinct bloodlines: Trojans and Latins. At the end of the Aeneid Juno asks Jupiter to allow the Latins, when the Trojans and Latins marry each other, to keep their own names, their own language and their own customs rather than inheriting those of the Trojans. The request of the goddess must have appeared decidedly surprising to contemporary readers, who believed that children inherited the status, bloodline and identity of their fathers. Should Juno's wish be granted, the Trojan patres would find themselves in the position of matres, destined not to transmit their own characteristic identity to their descendents. Bettini shows how Jupiter granted his wife's request, but at the same time found a compromise to save the paternal role of the Trojans. Aeneas has not one, but two, lines of descendents: a pure Trojan bloodline, from which, through Ascanius/Iulus, both the Romans and the Iulii descend; and a mixed bloodline to which the Latins belong. The genealogical stratagem adopted by Virgil allows for 'reserving' an authentic Trojan descent to Romans and Iulii, whose identity is built on their differentiation from their Latin 'cousins'. Thus, the ideological and celebratory intent of the poem becomes evident, as Bettini argues: if the Romans are of the bloodline of Iulus, it means that for them there cannot be "a better descended princely family than the Iulii" (p. 300).

The third part throws 'A glance at Greece' and contains two essays. In the first, Bettini analyses the term hētheîos "from the point of view of linguistic pragmatism". The scholar demonstrates that hētheîos is not a generic term of endearment ('dear'), but rather points to a real and concrete term of kinship, which shows a sort of oblique relationship (from low to high) between two poles of communication. The appellative hētheîos is used by someone who greets a relative considered 'more important' or 'more authoritative'. At the same time, hētheîos provides information about the kinship role of the speaker and the type of relationship which exists between the two people involved in the linguistic interaction. The second essay is dedicated to a passage of Sophocles' Antigone, in which the heroine declares the reasons that led her to bury the body of her brother Polynices "against the will of the citizens". Antigone explains that what she has done for her brother she would have done neither for her husband nor for her children: in fact, she could have found another husband; she could have given birth to new children; however, there is no way, now that her parents are dead, that she would have been able to have a new brother. The words of the Sophoclean heroine offer Bettini the opportunity for a long excursus into the universe of the "kinship dilemmas", arguing that "the reasons given for the resolution of the dilemma" can "reveal hidden aspects of the social structure which has generated them" (p. 327). The scholar recognises that behind Antigone's reasoning there is the cultural model of 'replaceability', for which certain kinship roles are considered more important than others in that they are 'irreplaceable'. Antigone thinks of kinship as "a chessboard in which some pawns may be replaced and others not" (p. 338).

The book is furnished with a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography and with an accurate index of names, which allow readers to find their way around the documentary material and the research pathways very easily. If the study of forms of kinship is one of the preferred methods of "reaching the very heart of a society", we may conclude that Bettini reaches his target with a certainty of method and brilliant results.

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