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How to be Single in the Roman Empire

Monday, August 8, 2022 - 07:00

I'm starting another collection of articles, this time with a hybrid approach: some blogged at length, some with a fairly short note, and those that aren't relevant to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project simply listed at the end of this first entry. (That doesn't mean they aren't interesting! Just not directly relevant.) Depending on how I schedule the individual articles, this may take me well into September (which would be convenient as I'll be doing some traveling then) or I may post them more frequently to get through the lot in August. I have an idea for what I want to post after this (to tie in with a podcast episode), so either option would work.

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Full citation: 

Laes, Christian. 2019. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Laes, Christian. “What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach”

The introduction begins with the definition of what we mean by “single” in this context, then looks for Greek and Latin vocabulary that carries that meaning, as well as similar meanings in other ancient languages. The modern sense is “a person not married or in an exclusive relationship.” But cross-culturally, the vocabulary of singleness may emphasize celibacy, solitariness, or loneliness, or distinguish the state for men and women. But in modern international use, the untranslated English word “single” has come into use as a general and neutral term.

This contemporary review identifies three features of singleness that need not co-occur: not being legally married (or in an exclusive relationship); living alone, with associated economic and emotional consequences; and an implication of a transitory period in youth free of obligations. There follows a discussion of modern marriage demographics.

Pre-Christian classical society doesn’t correspond to those categories well. There was no official legal registry of marriages nor was marriage expected to involve exclusivity for men. Marriage was a contract: easily created, easily dissolved. Yet there were legal consequences to marriage, including inheritance, citizenship, and there were different forms of union for which the consequences varied.

The association of singleness with loneliness is also culturally dependent. Christian ideals around marriage, celibacy, asceticism, etc. changed how singleness was viewed.

Roman male citizens may have had an expected period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, associated with a certain lifestyle, but older unmarried men might also see bachelorhood as a lifelong option.

The pattern was different for women. Practices such as female infanticide may have skewed the demographics, putting more pressure on women to marry. Household and family responsibilities may have affected options for divorced or widowed women to remarry. The legal position of women could exacerbate the economic and emotional consequences of singlehood. The normative age of marriage was lower for women than men, reducing the opportunity for an identifiable lifestyle associated with unmarried women. The positive associations that Christianity gave to female virginity, chastity, and marriage resistance were a newly emergent phenomenon.

Given all this, where do we look for vocabulary that would identify “singleness” in classical society? For women, there was a change of vocabulary when a girl reached marriageable age, and in some cases vocabulary specific to a married woman. Terms for “unmarried” include Greek “anandros (f)” / “agamos (m)” or “eitheos” and Latin “caelebs”. “Eitheos’ usually refers specifically to a young unmarried man but may have sometimes been used of a young woman. Agamos/anandros may also be used for widowed people, but female widows or more commonly called “chera” in Greek.

Latin “caelebs” refers to the state of not being married, but it’s unclear to what extent it was used for women. It could also indicate a widowed man, but a female widow was typically “vidua.”

In Christian use, “caelebs” and associated vocabulary picked up the sense of sexually celibate. This set of vocabulary picks up associations with loneliness in late antiquity, but this may have a specific association with asceticism.

Greek and Latin literature include celebrations—sometimes ironic—of the delights of a (male) single lifestyle, free of responsibilities. In contrast, there was social pressure to marry, and some cultures imposed penalties for not doing so.

Philosophical literature, both before and after the Christian era, offered arguments for and against marriage. Earlier arguments for singlehood tended to address men, while Christian arguments expanded the audience to women, arguing for virginity as the preferred state. Arguments in favor of marriage present it as the “natural” state of humanity, necessary for the continuation of the species, and—for men—providing household support and the benefits of the wife’s labor.

The introduction now provides an overview of the volume’s contents: demographics, archaeological evidence, epigraphs, legislation, literature. A couple articles focus specifically on women. Other specific topics include Jewish society, the rising influence of Christianity in Late Antiquity, and some comparative material from other eras and regions.

I plan to skim for content related to women. The following articles with little or no relevance are not blogged separately.

Demographic, Archaeological and Socioeconomic Approaches

  • Chapter 3: Looking for Singles in the Archaeological Record of Roman Egypt – Anna Lucille Boozer
  • Chapter 4: Between Coercion and Compulsion? The Impact of Occupations and Economic Interests on the Relational Status of Slaves and Freedmen – Wim Broekaert

Being Single in the Roman World

  • Chaper 6: “Singleness” in Cicero and Catullus – Harri Kiiskinen

Singles in Judaism

  • Chapter 9: (Why) Was Jesus Single? – John W. Martens
  • Chapter 10: Contesting the Jerusalem Temple: James, Nazirite Vows and Celibacy – Kevin Funderburk

Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single

  • Chapter 14: Being a Bachelor in Late Antiquity: Desire and Social Norms in the Experience of Augustine – Geoffrey Nathan

Comparative Voices

  • Chapter 17: Celibacy and Sexual Abstinence in Early Islam – Mohammed Hocine Benkheira
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