Thursday, August 15, 2019


Sabine R. Huebner, Geoffrey S. Nathan, Mediterranean Families in Antiquity: Households, Extended Families, and Domestic Space. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2017. Pp. xii, 352. ISBN 9781119143697. $115.99.

Reviewed by Michael Flexsenhar III, Rhodes College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Mediterranean Families in Antiquity grew out of a conference on "The Mediterranean Family from Antiquity to Modern Times" held at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, in 2012. The impetus was the classic 1984 article by Richard Saller and Brent Shaw, "Tombstones and Roman Family Relations in the Principate: Civilians, Soldiers and Slaves" (Journal of Roman Studies 74: 124-156) (xi). Whether the nuclear family model was the predominant form of kin grouping in the Roman Empire was one of the guiding questions of the original conference. As an answer, the resulting volume puts on display a panorama of family formations in the ancient Mediterranean world of which the nuclear family was just one particular type.

Distinct from some recent edited volumes on the family in antiquity that are organized more around particular topics, Mediterranean Families in Antiquity has a much broader purview.1 The topics considered are diverse—e.g., blood revenge, sex ratios, and migrants—just as the approaches are—anthropological, sociological, demographic, archaeological, and ethnographic. But the organizational principle of Mediterranean Families in Antiquity has more to do with geography and chronology. Divided into five parts for a total of seventeen essays, the contributions explore Crete, Spain, Italy, Egypt (two chapters), North Africa, and Southern Gaul, along with particular cities in the Roman East such as Ephesus. A chapter on migration in the Roman world breaks the trend of discussing family ties within geographic boundaries. The essays also cover material from the second millennium BCE to the sixth century CE. After an introductory section (Part I), the volume proceeds with four essays treating the Greek and Hellenistic World (Part II), seven essays for the Roman World (Part III), all of which are from the imperial period (the Republic is not represented), followed by two essays for Late Antiquity (Part IV). Two essays make up Part VI, Outlook in Later Period of the Mediterranean, and a single essay forms the conclusion (Part VI). In the background of the volume stands the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel and the more recent work of Nicholas Purcell and Peregrine Horden, both of which offered particular conceptualizations of the Mediterranean and its peoples. Consequently, this volume not only focuses on the various ways in which "family" in the ancient Mediterranean might have been formed but also provides another lens with which to view the Mediterranean as a whole.

At the outset, Sabine Huebner emphasizes that the "family" should be understood as "an evolving process, also called the family life cycle" (3). Conjugal and kin groupings were in constant flux—breaking up, reforming and changing over time (330). The rationale here is to guard against any inclination to assume that a Mediterranean family in antiquity was single thing. So, many of the studies in the volume question the possibility and applicability of a "Mediterranean family model" (327-328). The destabilizing efforts are helpful. For example, a more particular point that Geoffrey Nathan later underscores is that we should not try to tie too closely a parallel between Romanization and predominating models of family constitution and behavior over the long term. "Rather, local conditions (whether they be political, cultural, economic, environmental or some combination thereof) and personal circumstances seem far more important factors in understanding the nature of family and household" (328). The tendency to think about 'Roman' or a specific kind of 'Roman family' as the prototype for the ancient Mediterranean is a welcome warning for scholars working in other, related fields of Mediterranean antiquity. Also interesting are the various internal and external factors in Mediterranean families, which the volume's essays bring to the fore: e.g., marriage patterns, postmarital residence patterns, ages at first marriage, non-kin household members, childcare (Chapter 14), and living arrangements of the elderly (Chapter 1)—the latter two are easily-overlooked but surely a significant aspect of ancient family life, just as they are today. By uncovering such specific factors, the volume lays promising groundwork for other scholars.

One major challenge that the volume successfully addresses is the balance between the "regional diversity of family and household structures" with certain household patterns and structural characteristics of the family that may have persisted in the longue durée (9). (For some possible examples, see Matteo Manfredini's chapter on "Later Family Forms in the Mediterranean," p. 316-319). But the volume's value is not restricted to this success alone.

Some of the highpoints include Fiona McHardy's chapter on blood revenge in Classical Athens (Chapter 4). Even for those who regularly teach classical epics (e.g., the Iliad) and Classical drama, this chapter provides an interesting legal and mythical backdrop for understanding the drive for collective vengeance that so often appears in classical literature. Peter Keegan's contribution (Chapter 6) shows 'unfamiliar' family formations in unexpected places, particularly among marginalized groups in imperial Italy—the vigiles of Ostia and Rome and the slave boys in Rome's paedagogia. Sabine Huebner's and Anna Lucille Boozer's two chapters on Egypt (Chapters 9-10) afford a wealth of material that could occupy readers for a long time. Mona Tokarek LaFosse's essay on urban women in the Roman East (Chapter 11) is also a welcome contribution, as the topic remains largely understudied.2 Teasing out the family dynamics between older women and younger women sheds light not just on social networks but on early Christianity in the Roman East. The discussion of family as it relates to Christians is, in fact, well- represented (Chapters 11, 13, 14), but by comparison Jewish material is almost entirely lacking. And while religious traditions certainly played a key part in ancient conceptions of family and vice versa, in this volume there is little examination of any religions besides Christianity.3 In a chapter on extended families in the works of Ausonius and Libanius (Chapter 13), Geoffrey Nathan offers an interesting comparative study of sorts between literati of the East and West during Late Antiquity.

As with any collection of essays, distribution of content is always a concern. In this volume, the section on the Roman World (Part III) dominates. Perhaps this is to be expected, given the wealth of material that has survived from the Roman imperial period, and to its credit this section is not entirely Romano-centric. Still, there are only two essays on Late Antiquity (Part IV) with the majority of the subjects tilted towards the Western Mediterranean. Considering all of the seismic changes in Late Antiquity, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, the volume could have benefited from a bit more balance in this regard. Another quirk is that there are two chapters on the Middle Ages while all the rest are focused on the ancient world. Apparently, the publishers decided to cut the post-Classical material from the volume but still left a few behind, as it were (xi-xii). The reader should also be aware that because the theoretical underpinnings of the volume are in the vein of anthropology, the terms can at times be enigmatic at best ("affines," and "avuncular") and mouthfuls at worst: "Some men even in patrivirilocally oriented societies must have married into their brides' families, thus making an uxorilocal marriage" (14).

The plethora of maps, tables, diagrams, and photographs in Mediterranean Families in Antiquity are handy and should promote additional contemplation in their own right. The brief cross-cultural or inter-ethnic comparisons from non-European Mediterranean regions, especially with the Islamic and Arab worlds, were tantalizing (154-155, 315-319). I wanted more. But such instances were, at the very least, reminders that expanding our parameters beyond the usual "Greco-Roman" world can be rewarding. Perhaps this volume will stimulate future study in these areas.

Overall, the value of Mediterranean Families in Antiquity is its diversity. There is something for everyone. It is packed with information and robust bibliographies. It is a worthy reference work. Scholars working on social history of the ancient Mediterranean with more specialized interests will definitely want to have it.

Table of Contents

Part I Introduction
Chapter 1. Sabine R. Huebner, "A Mediterranean Family? A Comparative Approach to the Ancient World," pp. 3-26.
Part II The Greek and Hellenistic World
Chapter 2. Leslie Preston Day, "Identifying Family Structures in Early Iron Age Crete," pp. 29-43.
Chapter 3. Emily Varto, "The Idea of Descent in Early Greek Kinship," pp. 44-64.
Chapter 4. Fiona McHardy, "The Role of the Extended Family in Exacting Blood Revenge in Classical Athens," pp. 65-78.
Chapter 5. Helmut Schwaiger, "Domestic Architecture in Ephesus from the Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity," pp. 79-91.
Part III The Roman World
Chapter 6. Peter Keegan, "Traces of the Unfamiliar: Epigraphic Evidence for Extended Families on the Margins in Roman Italy," pp. 95-120.
Chapter 7. David Noy, "Extended Families and Family Substitutes among Migrants in the Roman World," pp. 121-136.
Chapter 8. Xuro M. Ayán Vila, "Household Archaeology in Mediterranean Spain: Family Forms from Iberia to Hispania," pp. 137-153.
Chapter 9. Sabine R. Huebner, "Egypt as Part of the Mediterranean? Domestic Space and Household Structures in Roman Egypt," pp. 154-173.
Chapter 10. Anna Lucille Boozer, "Towards an Archaeology of Household Relationships in Roman Egypt," pp. 174-203.
Chapter 11. Mona Tokarek LaFosse, "Age Hierarchy and Social Networks among Urban Women in the Roman East," pp. 204-220.
Chapter 12. Kai Haase and Roland Steinacher, "Family Forms and Conflicts in Roman North Africa," pp. 221-240.
Part IV Late Antiquity
Chapter 13. Geoffrey Nathan, "Extended Family in the Experience of Ausonius and Libanius," pp. 243-257.
Chapter 14. Christian Laes and Ville Vuolanto, "Household and Family Dynamics in Late Antique Southern Gaul," pp. 258-282.
Part V Outlook in Later Period of the Mediterranean
Chapter 15. Irene Barbiera, Maria Castiglioni, and Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna, "Missing Women in the Italian Middle Ages? Data and Interpretation," pp. 285-309.
Chapter 16. Matteo Manfredini, "Family Forms in Later Periods of the Mediterranean," pp. 310-323.
Part VI Conclusion
Chapter 17. Geoffrey Nathan, "Reassessing the Premodern Mediterranean Family," pp. 327-337.


1.   Ray Laurence and Agneta Stromberg (eds.), Families in the Greco-Roman World, New York: Continuum, 2012. Beryl Rawson (ed.), A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds., Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
2.   Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon (eds.), A Companion to Women in the Ancient World., Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
3.   John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan (eds.), Household and Family Religion in Antiquity., Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

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