Husbands and wives: Family life in the Greco-Roman world (Ephesians 6)

Bilderesultat for ancient husband and wife

The Latin phrase pater familias, which means “father of the family”, signified the Roman father’s place at the head of the family. Roman writers commonly discussed family life in terms of three sets of fundamental relationships: husbands and wives, prents and children, and masters and slaves. This organizational pattern, called “the household code”, was strictly hierarchical. By following the code, the patriarch/householder adhered to the generally accepted, “propper way” to rule his household. In Roman culture people understood that society’s structure and stability were rooted in the family’s structure and stability. The empire itself was viewed as a great family in which the Roman emperor stood at the top and everyone else had a predetermined, designated place.

Fathers were expected to provide for their families, although mothers often imparted the most direct moral influence on young children. As soon as a son grew up, however, the father would assume primary responsibility for his education and discipline.

The Roman mother held a place of high honour in society and was expected to behave with honour and chastity. She handled day-to-day responsibilities of her household, held the household keys and managed any domestic servants. Beginning with the Augustian Age, a Roman woman who had at least three children was free to conduct business on her own. Some Roman women were renowned for their wisdom and virtue. For example, the Roman statesman Cicero read and admired the letters of a famous Roman matron named Cornelia.

Moden Bible students do well to be cautious of popular but false generalizations stating that women and girls, even in the upper echelons of Roman society, were regarded as little more than property, on a par with domestic animals, or that Roman men had no love for their wives and daughters. Roman women definitely had fewer legal rights than men, but they and their children (including to some extent their daughters) still had rights and often enjoyed deep affection from their husbands and fathers. Cicero maintained a close relationship with his daughter Tullia and was devastated when she died.  Pliny the Younger, another Roman, wrote tender love letters to his wife, Calpurnia.

Greek and Roman epitaphs often record great sorrow and affection for deceased wives and daughters, and eitaphs written for departed husbands are often equally tender. One mourning widow described how she and her husband had been bound by love from the moment they met.

We are unwise to attempt to project attitudes/cultural perspectives onto ancient people simply because their social order was hierarchical or their marriages often arranged. For additional information on women during the New Testament period, see The role of women in religious life in the Greco-Roman world under 1 Corinthians 14 and The demeanour of wives under 1 Peter 3.

Paul, in Ephesians 5:25-6:8, not surprisingly assumed a top-down, male dominated social order. Still, people of the Roman world would have perceived his injunction that a husband was to love his wife (5:25-33) as contrived, peculiar or revolutionary.


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