Avoiding Modern Judgments on Ancient Families

History is the story of the past. The past is recorded and studied by individuals who possess their own biases. To get a whole read of this “story”, historiography, what historians report about the past, and historicity, historical authenticity, must be considered as well. Carol Neel’s course, “Women, Children, & Men in a Historical Perspective,” forces us to look beyond our modern window and consider ancient families in the reality of the time period.

During week one, we looked into the life of Regilla, a woman born to a wealthy Roman family in A.D. 125. At the age of fifteen, she married Herodes, a wealthy Greek. While such a marriage is illegal today, young Roman brides were productive in continuing the husband’s family name at a time when life expectancy was half that of today’s.

When we look at women in the Roman Empire, we often view them as oppressed by our modern standards of equality. In a patriarchal society, women were generally confined to the home and religiouso life. Regilla, for example, found power and influence through spiritual space. She was selected to serve as Priestess of Demeter Chamyne, a highly respected position responsible for executing esoteric and ancient rituals. As Priestess, she was the only woman allowed a seat at the Olympics. Though she functioned in a more private domain than did her husband, her influence was still considerable. By only considering women only as oppressed, historians neglect female participation and achievement  in their separate sphere. When we overlook achievement in the home and church, some scholars argue, we submit to patriarchal thought that only participation in politics and economics is worth noting. Feminist historical perspective considers and appreciates the private lives of women. Carol emphasizes the importance of shedding modern perceptions of equality when observing women in deeply patriarchal ancient worlds.

In a discussion about Regilla’s husband, Herodes, a question was raised about his sexuality. Was Herodes gay because he had sexual relations with various men? Categorization of people as homosexual didn’t begin until the 19th century when homosexuals were identified as such, “othered” and discriminated against. Herodes had sexual relationships with men, but he would not have identified himself as gay. Relations between men were viewed as sacred transfer of knowledge and were common in the ancient world. From a modern perspective, Herodes might be considered a homosexual, but in a culture where the intention of marriage is reproduction, not love, sexual preference did not have the same valence. As we further examine childhood, parenting, and gender roles of the past, we will continue to look past our modern biases in order to glimpse into the reality of ancient families.