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University Of Calgary

Analysis of Roman epitaphs alters concept of family
February 11th, 2004

If ancient Romans observed Family Day, their celebrations would have included wet nurses, slaves and possibly many others who had no blood relationship, according to new University of Calgary research.
A landmark analysis by classicist Dr. Hanne Sigismund Nielsen of more than 4,500 inscriptions on Roman tombstones shows that our concept of the Roman family needs to be broadened to include much more than just parents, grandparents and children.

"Roman families did not at all look like our family structure today," says Nielsen, who spent more than 10 years examining the Latin inscriptions. "Quite a few family relationships existed by choice and were not at all contained in the biological family." For example, slaves were often related to their masters by choice, families frequently included foster parents or children, and wet nurses were especially honoured.
"Whereas we might say, 'He has a face only a mother could love,' the Romans would have said, 'He has a face only his wet nurse could love'," Nielsen says. The bond was so strong with wet nurses because mothers surrendered their children to them for the first three years of a child's life.
Nielsen has written a book about her research titled Roman Relationships: The Evidence of the Epitaphs, which is currently under review for publication. Although the epitaphs have been documented and compiled in reference books, until now nobody has comprehensively described and analyzed them. Nielsen assembled a database of 4,500 complete inscriptions out of a total of 40,000 epitaphs, many of which are only fragmentary.
"It's not just accidental that you put up a tombstone for someone," she points out. "These people weren't millionaires and the stonecutter charged for each letter. I think it reflects real emotions and real attachment." The reason Roman families probably included so many individuals who were unrelated by birth was because the mortality rate was extremely high. With a life expectancy of not much beyond 45, a small family unit could not have survived.
"If you were a woman and you were 15 years old, you would be married to a man who was 10-15 years older than you. Then, because you had actually succeeded in living that long, you stood a good chance of living until you were 45. In that period you would give birth to five or six children, and half of them would die."
Nielsen says the most affecting inscriptions were always related to young children. "The grief is tangible: 'Here lies So-and-so, He was such a sweet little boy.' The proximity of death was so close in those times and these families probably had other children who died - it is always very touching."
Although it's expected Nielsen's book will have a major impact within the discipline by dispelling commonly held assumptions about the epitaphs, her research also tells us something about who we are now." Because our way of understanding the world is in many ways derived from the Romans, it's important that we know something about their culture. Even if we don't care about history, we can learn something about ourselves by looking at a culture where they did some things differently."
There are comparatively few researchers specializing in Roman social history, and even fewer who work with the epitaphs. One of the assumptions that Nielsen's research dispels relates to women and marriage. "Most of the textbooks we have on Roman social history will say it was normal to demand chastity from wives and that it was generally praised everywhere in the epitaphs. But the evidence points to a different conclusion."
It wasn't until about 300 CE when Christianity began to dominate that the idea of chasteness was cited in the inscriptions. Although Roman marriages before that time were monogamous, it wasn't something that was memorialized. Before then, up to about the middle of the 3rd century, wives tended to be described as 'very dear'.


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