what did the romans ever do for us?

apart from bequeathing the world a handful of languages, some philosophical ideas and legal traditions, a bunch of fr*cking awesome ruins, a few really straight roads, and the wine, what did the romans ever do for us?

well, i think we (northern europeans) may have gotten the idea to avoid cousin marriage from them!

here from “Agnatio, Cognation, Consanguinitas: Kinship and Blood in Ancient Rome” in Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present [pgs. 24-26]:

The early republican system of structuring marriage…essentially prevented agnatic *familiae* from remaining exclusive family units…. Neither agnates, nor cognates, were allowed to enter marriage within the sixth degree, i.e. the fourth degree by modern reckoning [third cousins or closer-h.chick]. Such alliances were considered *incestus* and *nefas*, defiled and contrary to divine law, and were forbidden.[29] Marriages to stepchildren, children-in-law, and parents-in-law were also prohibited, even after the spouse who had brought *adfinitas* had died.[30] In contrast, in classical Athens, members of the *anchisteia*, the legally defined kinship group including first cousins once removed, were the preferred marriage partners. In order to protect the continuity of the household (*oikos*), even marriage between half-siblings was allowed. The Greek practice of endogamy has been interpreted as an attempt to strengthen the *oikos* and to guarantee that its property was transmitted intact. This family strategy is most notorious in the case of the daughter as heiress, the *epikleros*. Usually women were not able to inherit or hold property, but when an Athenian died without male issue, his property was attached to his daughter, who then had to marry the closest agnate, often an uncle or first cousin. In this way the *oikos* remained linked to the agnatic lineage.[31]

Roman society, in a strategy unique in antiquity, proscribed familial endogamy, opting instead for exogamy and the building of large kinship groups, even if this meant that property was diffused and the agnatic lineage thus weakened. Prescriptive marriage regulations were never developed, but Romans still knew perfectly well the boundaries distinguishing acceptable marriages alliances from misalliances. Familial exogamy was combined with social endogamy. Though it was forbidden legally to choose marriage partners from among agnatic or cognatic kin, it was nevertheless expected that spouses would be selected from a specific social group: matrimonial matches were judged on these grounds as *dignus* (worthy), *splendissimus* (most spendid), *par* (of equals) or *impar* (of unequals), or even *sordidus* (sordid).[32] Unlike aristocrats in early Greece, who married beyond the limits of their *patris*, Roman aristocrats concentrated on Rome. Given the limited number of appropriate families and the strict marriage regulations, the options of a Roman aristocrat seeking a marriage alliance were rather few. This ‘merry-go-round’ within the peer group led to the building up of a complext network of intertwined familial relations and ultimately to the creation of one overwhelmingly aristocratic family….

“Strains on aristocratic cohesion, however, as well as the beginning of the disintegration of the Roman elite during the third and second centuries BCE, coincided with changes in Roman marriage regulations. There is not enough source material to reconstruct precisely the relationship between changes in the building of kinship groups and in socio-political structures during the Roman Republic, but it is known that during the third century BCE, marriage restrictions were relaxed up to the fourth degree, thereby allowing first cousins to marry. Kinship groups could thus become more exclusive and refuse intermarriage with other families…. The most famous examples of this practice can be found within Rome’s most illustrious family, the Cornelii Scipiones, where the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, married her first cousin once removed; and Scipio’s adoptive grandson, Aemilianus, married his first cousin, Sempronia, herself a granddaughter of the famous general. Despite such examples, however, marriage between cousins never became frequent within the Roman aristocracy.

“[29.] Cf. Gaius ‘Institutiones’ l.59-64; Paul ‘Digest’ See also Tacitus ‘Annales’ 12.6. During the second half of the third century, marriage between cousins became possible; see Livy, fragment 12, in Livy, ‘History of Rome, vol. 14, Summaries. Fragments. Julius Obsequens. General Index’, trans. A.C. Schlesinger (London and Cambridge, MA, 1959). On Livy, see Maurizio Bettini, ‘Familie und Verwandschaft im antiken Rom’ (Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1992), 164-54; Philippe Moreau, ‘Incestus et prohibitae nuptiae. L’inceste a Rome’ (Paris, 2002), 181-86; Carla Fayer, ‘La familia Romana, vol. 2, Aspetti giuridici ed antiquari, sponsalia, matrimonio, dote’ (Rome, 2005), 393n216; Harders, ‘Soror’, 23-25.

“[30.] Gaius, ‘Institutiones’ l.63; Gaius ‘Digest’ 38.4.3-7. During the fourth century CE, marriage prohibitions were extended to collateral affinal kin of the first degree, i.e., the brother’s wife or the wife’s sister; family exogamy was thus enforced (‘Codex Theodosianus 3.12.2’).

“[31.] Though endogamy was practiced, there is no evidence of prescriptive marriage regulations concerning cousin marriage in Athens. On the *epikleros*, see Cheryl A. Cox, ‘Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens (Princeton, NJ, 1998), 95-99; on marriage between cousins, see Wesley E. Thompson, ‘The Marriage of First Cousins in Athenian Society,’ Phoenix 21 (1967): 273-82.”

so the romans avoided close cousin marriage, established a republic based on democratic principles, had a legal system founded upon universalistic principles, expanded their polity into a vast and one of the world’s most impressive empires (iow, invaded the world), eventually extended roman citizenship to non-romans and allowed barbarians to come live inside the empire (iow, invited the world), and, then, well…oops! *ahem*

why the romans ever decided to avoid cousin marriage in the first place is another question altogether, though. one for another day. perhaps. if it’s even answerable at all.

anyway, there is a direct link between ancient rome’s and medieval/modern northern europe’s cousin marriage avoidance. that link is quite obviously the catholic church which adopted all sorts of roman institutional structures and practices; but more specifically i’m referring to several of the church fathers, the earliest of whom lived in the roman empire itself and who, no doubt, were very aware of the roman avoidance of cousin marriage and very likely, having been raised “in rome,” had even internalized the idea as a natural and good one.

here, in sequence, are the guys that i think passed the romans’ notion of avoiding close marriage down to us (by introducing the idea into canon law):

st. ambrose (d.397) – while it’s not clear whether or not ambrose disapproved of cousin marriage, he did frown upon other forms of close marriage as illustrated in this letter of his [pg. 351] from 393. ambrose was, of course, the mentor of…

st. augustine (d.430) – as shown in the previous post, augustine was very much opposed to cousin marriage. one of augustine’s students, or at least someone who was heavily influenced by augustine, was…

julianus pomerius – pomerius was a priest in fifth century gaul, and one of his students was…

caesarius of arles (d.542) – who was a BIG fan of st. augustine — in fact, many of his sermons (he was renowned as a preacher, apparently — here’s volume 1 in a collection of his surviving sermons) were based directly on augustine’s writings. it was the then bishop caesarius who presided over the council of agde in 506 which issued the earliest (known) church ban on cousin marriage. this was very much a local ban that only applied to roman catholics in the very south of france (at the time controlled by the arian visigoths), but this idea to ban cousin marriages would be picked up soon afterwards by other church councils further to the north in “france” by merovingian bishops (in fact, i think caesarius may have been in attendance at one or two of those councils). i’ll be posting more on this history soon.

the notion of banning cousin marriage eventually spread across the channel into kent first (pretty sure) and then to the rest of england and later across central europe during the ostsiedlung, etc., etc. at some point, the idea was picked up by the popes in rome, too. not sure exactly when that occurred. i’ll work on finding that out. gregory the great (d.604) was one of the major proponents of the cousin marriage bans, so it was definitely well established in hq back in rome by the late 500s.

so, if you’re one of those westerners who goes ewwww! at the thought of cousins marrying, you can thank the romans!

p.s. – here from caesarius of arles’ “Sermon 19 – Preaching of St. Augustine to the People” [pg. 101]:

“…No one should dare to marry his aunt or cousin or his wife’s sister, for it would be wrong for us to perish through evil dissipation arising from diabolical pleasure….”

previously: st. augustine on outbreeding and happy council of agde day!

(note: comments do not require an email. what have the romans ever done for us?)

st. augustine on outbreeding

here is st. augustine from his The City of God Against the Pagans on outbreeding (and a bit on inbreeding). it’s a little “I’m My Own Grandpa” in places, but augustine’s basic point is that it’s good that people marry out (eg. avoid marrying their close cousins) because in doing so, they increase the number of connections which they have with other individuals — and if everyone in a society does this, there will be larger and broader networks of individuals with common goals and interests, etc., etc., all of which will “bind social life more effectively” and, hopefully, help create the city of god here on earth as much as possible. never mind the possible evolutionary effects.

st. thomas aquinas refers to these passages in his Summa Theologica in his discussion on the merits of outbreeding (but maybe not too much outbreeding!).

source: Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans, Books 1-13 [pgs. 665-667]:

“16 – That the present law pertaining to marriage between blood-relations could not apply to the men of the earliest times

“After the first marriage of the man made from the dust and his wife, created from the man’s side, the human race had need of the union of males and females in order to multiply itself by begetting offspring. But there were then no other human beings apart from those who had been born of the first two. Therefore, men took their sisters as wives. In ancient times, this was acceptable, because done under the compulsion of necessity; now, however, it is damnable because forbidden by religion. For affection is now given its proper place, so that men, for whom it is beneficial to live together in honourable concord, may be joined to one another by the bonds of diverse relationships: not that one man should combine many relationships in his sole person, but that those relationships should be distributed among individuals, and should thereby bind social life more effectively by involving a greater number of persons in them. Thus, ‘father’ and ‘father-in-law’ are the names of two different relationships; and so the ties of affection extend to a greater number of persons when each has one man as his father and another as his father-in-law. When brothers and sisters were joined together in marriage, however, the one man Adam was compelled to be both father and father-in-law to his sons and daughters. So too, his wife Eve was both mother-in-law and mother to her children of both sexes; whereas if there had been two women, one as mother and the other as mother-in-law, the bond of social affection would have operated more widely. Again, a sister also, because she had become a wife as well, united two relationships in herself, whereas if these had been distributed between two people, one a sister and the other a wife, the number of persons bound together in the closeness of fellowship would have been increased. But this state of affairs could not exist when the only human beings were brothers and sisters, the children of the first human couple. It could exist only when there was a plentiful suppoly of women who could be wives without also being sisters. Then, not only was there no longer any need for brothers and sisters to marry; it also became unlawful for them to do so. For if the grandchildren of the first human beings, who by that time could have taken their cousins as wives, were joined in marriage to their sisters, there would then not have been two relationships united in one person, but three; which relationships should be distributed among different individuals, in order to unite a greater number in the closness of affection. For the marriage of brothers with sister would then have made one man the father, father-in-law and uncle of his own children. By the same token, his wife would be the mother, aunt and mother-in-law of their shared children. And the children themselves would be not only brothers and sisters and spouses to one another, but also cousins, as being the offspring of brothers and sister. If, however, each of these relationships were assigned to a different individual, they would then connect nine people instead of three to each of them. For one man would have one person as his sister, another as his wife, another as his cousin, another as his father, another as his uncle, another as his father-in-law, another as his mother, another as his aunt, and another as his mother-in-law; and so the social bond would extend not merely to a small group, but ever more widely, to connect a large number more closely together.

“We notice also that, as the human race has increased and multiplied, this rule has come to be observed even among the impious worshippers of many false gods. For although their perverse laws may permit brothers and sisters to marry, their actual custom is better, and they prefer to shun the freedom to do this. In the first ages of the human race, it was generally permitted to take a sister in marriage; but this practice is now so much deplored that it is as though it could never have been lawful. For what achieves most in influencing or offending human sensibilities is custom; and, in this case, custom restrains us from immoderate lust, so that men are right when they judge it wicked to disregard or transgress custom. For if it is wicked to pass beyond the boundary of one’s own property out of greed for possession, how much more wicked is it to subvert a moral boundar out of lust for sexual intercourse! We have also found that, for moral reasons, marriages between cousins are rare even in our own times, because, even though such marriages are permitted by law, the degree of kinship involved in them is only one step away from that of brother and sister. Such marriages were not prohibited by divine Law, and they have not yet been forbidden by human law either;[82] but abhorrence was felt for an act which, though lawful, bordered on the unlawful because marriage with a cousin seemed to be almost the same as marriage with a sister. For cousins are called brothers and sisters even among themselves, because of the closeness of their blood relationship, which is almost that of full brothers and sisters.

“To the patriarchs of antiquity, it was a matter of religious duty to ensure that the bonds of kinship should not gradually become so weakened by the succession of the generations that they ceased to be bonds of kinship at all. And so they sought to reinforce such bonds by means of the marriage tie before kinship became too remote, thereby calling kinship back, so to speak, as it fled. Thus, when the world was now full of people, although they did not like to marry sisters with whom they had either a father or a mother or both parents in common, they nonetheless liked to take wives from within their own family. Who would doubt, however, that the state of things at the present time is more virtuous, now that marriage between cousins is prohibited?[83] And this is not only because of the multiplication of kinship bonds just discussed: it is not merely because, if one person cannot stand in a dual relationship when this can be divided between two persons, the number of family ties is thereby increased. In addition, there is present in man a certain sense of honour, which is both natural and laudable, which prompts him not to direct towards a woman whom he is bound to respect and honour as a kinswoman that lust — and lust it is, even though necessary for procreation — which, as we see, occasions shame even within the chastity of marriage.

“[82] Marriage between cousins was, in fact, prohibited by the Emperor Theodosius I (see Ps. – Aurelius Victor, ‘Epitome de caesaribus’, 48; Ambrose, ‘Epist.’ 60,5. This is a fact that Augustine seems to remember in the next paragraph. See also Plutarch, ‘Quaest. Rom.’, 108.

“[83] See n. 82.”

previously: st. augustine and st. thomas aquinas and thomas aquinas on too much outbreeding

(note: comments do not require an email. st. augustine.)

the sun

there’s nothing new under it, is there?

just reading Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World which picks up at the end of the roman empire, and boy does a lot of this sound awfully familiar! the scenario is not exactly the same as what we’ve got today, but a lot of the elements certainly seem to be — electing a new people, debasing the currency, robbing peter to pay paul (i.e. increasing taxes to pay off one’s pals), a general lack of foresight on behalf of so-called leaders. fascinating, but a bit depressing to see the same sorts of behavioral patterns being repeated over and over again. maybe time really is a flat circle. =/ kindle locations 234-263, 278-289:

“Political power within the Empire had long been a juggling act in which participated the senate, the army, and of course the emperor, but all three institutions up to the death of Commodus in 192 had been largely Italian. Over half of the senators were from Italy, and the remainder were, with few exceptions, drawn from the most strongly Latinized provinces-Spain, Africa, and Gallia Narbonensis. Moreover, since they had to invest a considerable amount of their wealth in Italian land, were required to attend meetings regularly in Rome, needed permission to travel outside of Italy, and tended to intermarry extensively, senatorial families of provincial origin rapidly became Italian, just as at a lower level of society, military families were becoming provincial. This senate owed its importance to constitutional, economic, and social factors. First, the constitutional tradition obliged an emperor to select senators to command all of his legions except the one in Egypt, to govern major frontier provinces, and to command the armies. Second, while the senate possessed a strong hereditary nucleus, it was in every generation open to a certain number of candidates who, along with the old established senatorial families, controlled enormous wealth, principally in land. This was especially true in the West, where even in times of crisis the poverty of the imperial treasury often contrasted with the private wealth of individual senators. Finally, through their networks based on political dependents and landholding throughout the Roman world, the influence of senators reached into every corner of the Empire. When provoked, the senate could be a formidable opponent to even the most ambitious emperor.

“Prior to the third century, the military power on which rested imperial control was still primarily found in the Praetorian Guard, that elite body of approximately 10,000 soldiers who served (and sometimes selected or eliminated) the emperor and his household. They were required to be Roman citizens, and, like the senators, were, until the end of the second century, largely drawn from Italy. Thus they too maintained the centrist Latin character of the Empire.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the emperors had all come from Italian families of senatorial rank. Whatever the differences between emperor, senate, and army-bitter, bloody, and brutal as they often were-these conflicts had been among parties that shared major cultural, social, and political values.

“With the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211) [who was only half roman-h.chick], the commander of the Danube army who was proclaimed emperor by his troops, began an important new phase of Roman history. The defenders of the provinces, and particularly those of the West, now came into their own as control of the Empire passed into the hands of those who had saved it — the frontier armies and their commanders. From the perspective of the old Italian senatorial aristocracy and the inhabitants of more settled and civilized areas, this was a period of disaster and crisis. A succession of provincial military commanders, often openly scornful of the senate, were raised to the purple by their armies, fought each other for hegemony, and were usually assassinated for their efforts when they proved incapable either of bringing victory against internal and external foes or of sufficiently enriching their supporters. The senate’s attempts to control the selection of the emperor was constantly thwarted by the tendency of the provincial armies to view succession as hereditary, particularly when the new emperor had come from the military. However, from the perspective of those in the frontier and particularly from Pannonia, it was a golden age. The Western legions had demonstrated their strength and their vitality, and as the Severans sought to consolidate their position they looked to the personnel and the models of their border armies for support.

“Initially Severus himself was willing to work with the senate of which he had been a member, but senatorial opposition led him to rely on the provincial army, which he and his successors rewarded with considerable pay increases, donatives or special bonuses, and the right to marry. The added expenses of this military largesse were financed through the liquidation of the vast wealth he confiscated from the senatorial opposition. His son, known to posterity by his military nickname Caracalla, expanded his father’s promilitary policy, raising soldiers’ pay by 50 percent. To finance this he resorted to two measures. First, as his father had done earlier, he debased the denarius, the silver coin used to pay the troops; within a few decades, this led to the total collapse of imperial coinage. Second, he doubled the traditional 5 percent inheritance tax paid by all Roman citizens, and, to expand the base of this tax, made all free inhabitants of the Empire Roman citizens. This latter measure acknowledged a largely de facto situation, since the distinction between citizen and foreigner no longer had much real significance. However it did strengthen the relative position of provincials in the Empire who, henceforth, from Britain to Arabia, looked upon themselves as Romans with the same rights and possibilities as Italians. These measures, like the increase of military pay, tended to strengthen the position of those peoples on the periphery of the Empire at the expense of those at the center, and those in a position to benefit most from these changes were soldiers and veterans….

“These crises, which led to an even more expanded role for the military, had ironically been caused by it. Because the Severans could never trust the senate to support them, they were forced to find ways to circumvent the role of the senate in commanding the military and to constantly augment the army salary to maintain its good will. This was financed by still more confiscations of senatorial property for real or imagined plots and by drastic devaluation of the silver coinage. This naturally further alienated the senate and brought about enormous problems in the financial stability of the Empire. Exacerbating all this was the fact that the provincial armies, having gotten a taste of their power as emperor-makers, set about it with tremendous vigor, assassinating emperors and raising others at a great rate. Between the death of Severus Alexander (235) and the ascension of Diocletian (284), there were at least twenty more or less legitimate emperors and innumerable pretenders, usurpers, and coregents. The longest reign during this period was that of a pretender, Postumus, who established himself as ruler of Gaul, Britain, Spain, and at times parts of northern Italy for nine years.

“The restoration of order by Diocletian solidified the increasing role of the military. Although credited with having separated civil and military administrations, under him and his successors the civil service was reorganized along military lines, hardly a surprising development given that during the third and fourth centuries the route to high office normally meant military service. Thus many ambitious civil servants either rose primarily through the military or spent some time in it. By the beginning of the fourth century, military organization and structure, along with the soldier’s cultural and political values, had become the primary model along which Roman society was ordered. But these soldiers were no longer the Italian peasants of an earlier age-increasingly they were the very barbarians they were enlisted to oppose.

which reminds me of a passage from another (very politically correct) book — Rome and its Frontiers: The Dynamics of Empire — that i quoted in a comment a while back [pgs. 205-212]:

“[I]n the later Roman Empire frontiers became softer and immigration control more lax at the same time as citizenship and ethnic distinctions within the Empire were becoming blurred. The universal grant of citizenship by the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 AD was only a formal recognition by the state of a long process that had diminished the concept of citizenship and eroded the distinction between cives and peregrini in the provinces. By the fourth century status and wealth counted for more socially and legally than citizenship….

“To sum up, far from the homogenization of what the Constitutio Antoniniana called the patria communis, that is, the population of the Roman community, internal, social divisions became stronger. Ironically, however, the refinements of status distinctions and social divisions served as a more effective vehicle than any legal measure to allow immigrants to integrate at all levels. What mattered was not whether you were a citizen but whether you could attain equal social or economic status. In this respect, the Roman Empire of the fourth century was the reverse image of the nation-state in the nineteenth century. The juridical personality of the citizen was almost eliminated as frontier controls relaxed and as immigrants were accomodated in ever greater numbers….

“Immigrants provided substitutes for rural recruits, thus leaving agricultural workers on the land to increase state revenue, since they increased the capitation tax and added extra income through the system of adaeratio, which bought them exemption from the military levy. There clearly were concerns in the imperial chancellery for the tax regime and for the rents from imperial estates, which was reflected in contemporary legislation….

“These fiscal and economic benefits to rural production coincide with the concern expressed by the Gallic panegyricists about agri deserti and high taxes, and hence their praise for ‘so many farmers in the Roman countryside’, both as immigrants and as returning prisoners…. The essential point, however, is that…immigrants were officially perceived as good for the economy by bringing down the price of food and by servicing local markets through increased production.

“Whether the peasants of the Gallic countryside felt the same pleasure at the fall in market prices is another matter, and it may have provoked resentment. If modern experience is any guide, there is a sharp difference between economists, who calculate that immigrants are essential to economic growth, and popular opinion, which always believes that immigrants are undesirable because they depress the labor market. But there is no evidence to show that there was institutional, social discrimination against foreign-born workers, once settled inside the Roman Empire….”

(note: comments do not require an email. what have the romans ever done for us?!)