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Historical Development Of The Family

( Originally Published 1915 )

WHILE we cannot enter into the historical evolution of the family as an institution among the different civilized peoples, still it will be profitable for us to consider the history of the family among some single representative people in order that we may see the forces which have made and unmade the family life, and incidentally also to a great degree, the general social life of that people. We shall select the ancient Romans as the people among whom we can thus best study in outline the development of the family. While the family life of the ancient Hebrews is of particular interest to us because of the close connection of our religion and ethics with that of the Hebrews, yet in the family life of the ancient Romans constructive and destructive factors are more clearly marked and, therefore, the study of ancient Roman family life is best fitted to bring out those factors. The ancient Romans were among the earliest civilized of the Aryan peoples, and their institutions are, therefore, of peculiar interest to us as representing approximately the early Aryan type. What we shall say concerning Roman family life, more-over, will apply, with some modifications and qualifications, to the family life of other Aryan peoples, especially the Greeks. The Greeks and the Romans, indeed, were so closely related in their early culture that for the purpose of institutional history they may be considered practically one people. Without any attempt, then, to sketch the history of the family as an institution in general, let us note some of the salient features of the family life of the ancient Romans.

The Early Roman Family. (i) Ancestor Worship as the Basis of the Early Roman Family. What we have said thus far indicates a close connection between the family life and religion among all peoples. This was especially true of the early Romans. It may be said, indeed, that ancestor worship was the constitutive principle of their family life. Among them the family seemed to have lost in part its character as a purely social institution and to have become specialized into a religious institution. At any rate, the early Roman family existed very largely for the sake of perpetuating the worship of ancestors. Of course, ancestor worship could have had nothing to do with the origin of the family life among the Romans. The type of their family life was patriarchal, and we have already noticed the causes which brought about the existence of the patriarchal family. But while ancestor worship had nothing to do with. the origin of the family, once it was thoroughly established it became the basis of the family life and transformed the family as an institution.

The early Romans shared certain superstitions with many primitive peoples, which, if not the basis of ancestor worship, powerfully reenforced it. They believed, for example, that the soul continued in existence after death, and that persons would be unhappy unless buried in tombs with suitable offerings, and that if left unburied, or without suitable offerings, the souls of these persons would return to torment the living. Inasmuch as in the patriarchal family only sons could perform religious rites, that is, could make offerings to the departed spirits, these superstitions acted as a powerful stimulus to preserve the family in order that offerings might continue to be made at the graves of ancestors.

Thus, as we have already said, among the early Romans the family was practically a religious institution with ancestor worship as its constitutive principle. It is supposed by de Coulanges that in the earliest times the dead ancestors were buried beneath the hearth. At any rate, the hearth was the place where offerings were made to the departed ancestors, and the flame on the hearth was believed to represent the spirit of the departed. The house under such circumstances became a temple and the whole atmosphere of the family life - was necessarily a religious one.

(2) The Authority in the Early Roman Family was vested, as in all partiarchal families, in the father or eldest living male of the family group. Under ancestor worship he became the living representative of the departed ancestors, the link between the living and the dead. Here we may note that the family was not considered as constituted simply of its living members, but that it included also all of its dead members. Inasmuch as the dead were more numerous and were thought to be more powerful than the living, they were by far the more important element in the life of the family. The position of the house father, as representative of the departed ancestors, and as the link between the living and the dead, naturally made his authority almost divine. Hence, the house father was himself, then, almost a deity, having absolute power over all persons within the group, even to the extent of life and death. This absolute power, which was known in the early Roman family as the " patria potestas," could not, however, be exercised arbitrarily. The house father, as representative of the departed ancestors, was necessarily controlled by religious scruples and traditions. It was impossible for him to act other than for what he believed to be the will of the ancestors. Disobedience to him was, therefore, disobedience to the divine ancestors, and hence was sacrilegious.

(3) Relationship in the Early Roman Family was deter-mined by community of worship, inasmuch as only descendants upon the male side could perform religious rites, and inasmuch as married women worshiped the household gods of their husbands' ancestors ; therefore, only descendants on the male side could worship the same ancestors and were relatives in the full religious and legal sense. These were known as " agnates." Later, some relationship on the mother's side came to be recognized, but relatives on the mother's side were known as " cognates," and for a long time property could not pass to them. Indeed, in the earliest times the property of the family, as we have already implied, was kept as a unit, held in trust by the eldest living member of the family group for the good of all the family. In other words, the house father in earliest times did not possess the right to make a will but the property of the family passed intact from him to his eldest male heir.

(4) The Marriage Ceremony among the Early Romans was necessarily of a religious character. It was constituted essentially of the induction of the bride into the worship of her husband's ancestors. But before this could be done the bride's father had first to free her from the worship of her household gods, in later times a certificate of manumission being given not unlike the manumission of the slave. After the bride had been released from the worship of her father's ancestors, the bridegroom and his friends brought her to his father's house, where a ceremony of adoption was practically gone through with, adopting the bride into the family of her husband. The essence of this ceremony, as we have already said, was the induction of the bride into the worship of her husband's ancestors through their both making an offering on the family hearth and eating a sacrificial meal together. After that the wife worshiped at her husband's altar and had no claim upon the household gods of her father.

Under such circumstances it is not surprising that marriage was practically indissoluble. A wife who was driven out of her husband's household or deserted was without family gods of any sort, having no claim upon those of her husband, and became, therefore, a social outcast. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that divorce was practically unknown. It is said, indeed, that for five hundred and twenty years after Rome was founded there was not a single divorce in Rome. While this may be an exaggeration, it is historically certain that divorce was so rare in early Rome as to be practically unknown.

In case of a failure of sons to be born there was no taking of a second wife, as among the Hebrews. Polygyny was unknown in early Rome. The Roman device to pre-vent the failure of the family succession in such cases was adoption. Younger sons of other families were adopted if no sons were born, and these adopted sons, taking the family name, became the same legally as sons by birth. Inasmuch as the position of younger sons in the patriarchal household was not an enviable one there was never lack of candidates for the position of eldest son in some family group in which no sons had been born.

Not only was the early Roman family life the most stable that the world has ever known, but it must also be considered to have been of a relatively pure type. Chastity was rigidly enforced among the women, but of course, as in all primitive peoples, was not enforced among the men. Still it was expected that the married men at least should remain relatively faithful to their wives. On the whole, therefore, the early Roman family life must be judged to have been of a singularly high and stable type. While the position of women and children in the early Roman family was one of subjection, the family itself was nevertheless of a high type. But it was inevitable that it should decay, and this decay began comparatively early. Inasmuch as the early Roman family was based upon ancestor worship, a religion which was fitted for relatively small isolated groups, it was inevitable that the family life should decay with this ancestor worship. How early the decay of ancestor worship began it is impossible to say. Perhaps the nature gods, Jupiter, Venus, and the rest, existed alongside of ancestor worship from the earliest times. At any rate, we find their worship growing rapidly within the period of authentic history and under-mining the domestic worship, while at a still later period skeptical philosophy undermined both religions. Along with the decay of ancestor worship went many economic and political changes which marked the dissolution of the patriarchal family. Let us see what some of the steps in this decadence were.

(5) The Decadence. (a) One of the earliest steps toward the breaking down of the patriarchal family which we find is the limiting of the power of the house father. This took place very early as soon as the Council of Elders, or Senate, was formed to look after matters of collective interest. Gradually the paternal power diminished, until it was confined to matters concerning the family group proper.

(b) A second step was when the right to make a will was conceded. This right, as we have seen, did not exist in the earliest Roman times, but with the development of property and of a more complex economic life the house father was given the right to divide his property among his children, at first only on the male side, but later among any of his children, and still later to bequeath it to whom he pleased.

(c) Thus women came to be given the right to hold property, a thing which was unknown in the earliest times; and becoming property holders, their other rights in many respects began to increase. Originally the wife had no right to divorce her husband, but in the second century B.C. women also gained the right of divorcing their husbands.

(d) The rights of children were increased along with the rights of women, particularly of younger children.

(e) The right of plebeians to intermarry with the noble families became recognized. All of these changes we should perhaps regard as good in themselves, but they nevertheless marked the disintegration of the patriarchal family. The decay of the family life did not stop with these changes, however, but went on to the decay of the family bonds themselves.

Later Roman Family Life. By the beginning of the Christian era the relations between the sexes had become very loose. Men not only frequently divorced their wives, but women frequently divorced their husbands. Indeed, a complete revolution passed over the Roman family. Marriage became a private contract, whereas, as we have seen, in the beginning it was a religious bond. Many loose forms of marriage were developed, which amounted practically to temporary marriages. In all cases it was easy for a husband or wife to divorce each other for very trivial causes. Among certain classes of Roman society the instability of the family became so great that we find Seneca saying that there were women who reckoned their years by their husbands, and Juvenal recording one woman as having eight husbands in five years.

Women and children achieved their practical emancipation, as we would say. Women, especially, were free to do as they saw fit. Marriages were formed and dissolved at pleasure among certain classes, and among all classes the instability of the family life had become very great.

Along with all this, of course, went a growth of vice. It is not too much to say that the Romans of the first and second centuries A.D. approached as closely to a condition of promiscuity as any civilized people of which we have knowledge.

Causes of the Decadence, When we examine the causes of this great revolution in Roman family life from the austere morals and stable family of the early Romans to the laxity and promiscuity of the later Romans, we find that these causes can perhaps be grouped under four or five principal heads. (I) First among all the causes we must put the destruction of the domestic religion, namely, ancestor worship, through the growth of nature worship and skeptical philosophy. The destruction of the domestic religion necessarily shattered the foundations of the Roman family, since, as we have already seen, there was the closest connection between the family life of the early Romans and ancestor worship. But it is not probable that ancestor worship was destroyed merely through the growth of nature worship and of skeptical philosophy. As we have already seen, it was a religion which was mainly adapted to isolated groups. Changes in economic and political conditions, therefore, were to some extent prior to the decay of the domestic religion.

(2) Changes in economic conditions, that is, in the form of industry, were, then, among the more important causes of the decay of the early Roman family. The patriarchal family, as we have already seen, belonged essentially to the pastoral stage of industry, and as soon as settled agricultural life, commerce, and manufacturing industry developed, this destroyed the isolated patriarchal groups, and so also in time affected even the religion which was their basis. Again, the increase of population going along with the changes in the methods in obtaining a living destroyed the old conditions under which the family had been the political unit.

(3) We have therefore as a third cause the breaking up of old political conditions. Family groups were welded into small cities and the authority of the patriarch was destroyed. Legislation designed to meet the new social conditions often profoundly affected the whole family group, and weakened family bonds.

(4) The growth of divorce and of vice may be put down as a fourth cause of the decay of the Roman family. Some may say that this was an effect of the decay of the Roman family rather than a cause, but it was also a cause as well as an effect, for it is a peculiarity of social life that what is at one stage an effect reacts to become a cause at a later stage; and this was certainly the case with the growth of divorce and vice in Rome, in its effect upon the Roman family. Moreover, much of this came from Greece through imitation. The family life had decayed in Greece much earlier than it had in Rome, and when Rome conquered Greece it annexed its vices also. While the most radical social changes do not usually come about merely through imitation, yet the imitation of a foreign people is frequently, in the history of a particular nation, one of the most potent causes in bringing about social changes. It was certainly so in the case of the growth of divorce and vice in Rome.

To sum up and to generalize : we may say that the causes of the decay of the Roman family life were very complex, and that this is true of nearly all important social changes. It is impossible to reduce the causes of these changes to any single principle or set of causes. While we have seen that changes in economic conditions were undoubtedly very influential in bringing about the profound changes in the Roman family, still we have no ground for regarding the economic changes as determinative of all the rest. We know as yet little of the development of industry in antiquity. What little we do know, however, furnishes good ground for claiming that changes in the methods of getting a living are among the most influential causes of social change in general; but there is nothing which warrants the sweeping generalization of Karl Marx and his followers, " that the method of the production of the material life determines the social, political, and spiritual life process in general." On the contrary, the evolution of the Roman family clearly shows moral and psychological factors at work quite independent of economic causes. The decay of ancestor worship, for example, cannot be wholly attributed to the change in the method of getting a living. The very growth of population and accompanying changes in political conditions probably had quite as much to do with the undermining of ancestor worship. Moreover, while religion may not be an original determining cause of social forms, it is, nevertheless, as we have already seen, especially that which gives them stability and permanency, so much so that the life history of a culture is frequently the life history of a religion. The decay of religious ideas and beliefs, therefore, from any cause, frequently proves the important element working for social change in all societies. So, too, changes in political conditions, especially changes in law through new legislation, frequently prove a profound modifying influence in societies. Lastly, there are certain moral causes inherent in the individual, oftentimes involving perverted expressions of instinct, which lead to profound social changes. Such was the vice which Rome copied very largely from Greece, but which proved the final solvent in its family life.

In general we may say, then, that there is no single principle which will explain the evolution of the family from the earliest times down to the present. Any attempt to reduce the evolution of the family to a single principle, or to show that it has been controlled by a single set of causes, must inevitably end in failure. The economic determinism of Marx and his followers, the ideological conceptions of Hegel, the geographical influences of Buckle and his school, and like explanations, are all found wanting when they are applied to the actual history of the family. It is not different with the theories of recent sociologists, who would strive to explain all social changes through a single principle. Professor Giddings' principle of " Consciousness of Kind" and Tarde's principle of " Imitation" will not go further in explaining the changes in the family life than some of the older principles that we have just mentioned. Human life is, indeed, too complex to be explained in terms of any single principle or any single set of causes. The family in particular is an organic structure which responds first to one set of stimuli and then to another. Now it is modified by economic conditions, now by religious ideas, now by legislation, now by imitation, awl so on through the whole set of possible stimuli which may impinge upon and modify the activity of a living organism. So it is with all institutions.

The Influence of Christianity upon the Family. While we cannot study further the evolution of the family in any detail, still it is necessary, in order to avoid too great discontinuity, to notice in a few sentences the influence of Christianity upon the family in Western civilization.

Early Christianity, as we have already seen, found the family life of the Greco-Roman world demoralized. The reconstruction of the family became, therefore, one of the first tasks of the new religion, and while other circumstances may have aided the church in this work, still on the whole it was mainly the influence of the early church that reconstituted the family life. From the first the church worked to abolish divorce, and fought as evil such vices as concubinage and prostitution, that came to flourish to such an extent in the Pagan world. Only very slowly did the early leaders of the church win the mass of the people to accepting their views as to the permanency of the marriage bond. In order to aid in making this bond more stable the early church recognized marriage as one of the sacraments, and, as implied, steadily opposed the idea of the later Roman Law that marriage was simply a private contract. The result was, eventually, that marriage came to be regarded again as a religious bond, and the family life took on once more the aspect of great stability. After the church had come fully into power in the Western world, legal divorce ceased to be recognized and legal separation was substituted in its stead. Thus the church succeeded in reconstituting the family life upon a stable basis, but the family after being reconstituted, was of a semipatriarchal type. Nothing was more natural than this, for the church had no model to go by except the paternal family of the Hebrew and Greek and Roman civilization. Nevertheless, the place of women and children in this semipatriarchal religious family established by the church was higher on the whole than in the ancient patriarchal family. The church put an end to the exposure of children, which had been common in Rome, and protected childhood in many ways. It also exalted the place of woman in the family, though leaving her subject to her husband. The veneration of the Virgin tended particularly to give women an honored place socially and religiously. Only by the advocacy and practice of ascetic doctrines may the early church be said to have detracted from the social valuation of the family. On the whole the reconstituting of the family by the church must be regarded as its most striking social work. But the thing for us to note particularly is that the type of the family life created by the church was what we might call a semi-patriarchal type, in which the importance of husband and father was very much out of proportion to all the rest of the members of the family group. It was this semi-patriarchal family which persisted down to the nineteenth century.

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