The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World
edited by sabine r. huebner and christian laes
cambridge, 434 pages, $130
Americans increasingly live alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the single-person household is now the second-most-common living arrangement in the country, encompassing more than a quarter of Americans. Living alone is among the risk factors for loneliness and premature mortality. Millennials and the elderly, who are more likely to live alone than other Americans, are especially prone to loneliness. Similar patterns are observable in Europe.
These trends provide the background for The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World, the first sustained study of singleness in the Roman world. The book’s nineteen contributors discuss singleness in Republican and Augustan Rome, Judaism and the New Testament, and Late Antiquity, especially the fourth to seventh centuries a.d. Christianity is shown to have transformed the single life by presenting it as a way of living out higher forms of community.
Can one speak of “singleness” in the Roman world? One contributor, Stephanos Efthymiadis, argues not: Singleness as a form of identity or a social-status marker did not exist in pre-modern Greece and Rome. Efthymiadis reminds us that an important difference separates the Roman world from modern liberal societies. Whereas liberal societies invest legal, social, and political freedoms in the autonomous individual subject, the Romans typically regarded the family, represented by the oldest living male relative (the paterfamilias), as the primary legal personality bearing rights and freedoms. Greek and Latin lack a generic term for “single” that covers the same range of associations as the English word.
Elite Romans valued marriage for its economic, political, social, legal, and familial benefits. Marriage helped elites strengthen and broaden their social and political networks; it furnished them with children who would be their social security as they aged and their legacy when they died. Cicero wrote of a woman bribed to have an abortion by relatives who stood to profit by a childless marriage: “She had destroyed the father’s hope, the continuity of his name, the family’s support, the household’s heir, and a future citizen of the republic.” For the Romans, marriage was not fundamentally about romantic love, fulfilling sexual desires, or finding a soulmate. It served the needs of state and family.
Elite Romans practiced monogamy, but they did not expect sexual exclusivity in marriage, at least not from men. Roman women were supposed to be faithful to their husbands; indeed, in the late Republic and early Empire there emerged the ideal of the widow who, as “a one-man woman,” remained unmarried. But Roman men were not expected to reciprocate.
Roman marriage ideology had its critics, and “singleness,” especially of young men and older widows, was common enough. Cicero and Catullus mocked young unmarried men for living frivolous and immoral lives. Horace and Ovid valorized the freedom young men enjoyed before marriage. The Epicurean poet Lucretius satirized romantic love, and the Stoic Epictetus argued against marriage as a hindrance to the autonomous, anti-conventional life of the Cynic. (Epictetus’s argument was an outlier among Roman Stoics, most of whom supported marriage as “a preferred indifferent,” something the philosopher should undertake provided he did so virtuously.)
Singleness may have been more widespread among non-elites. Some of the most careful and creative essays in this volume tease out from archeological evidence or census records the number of singles in Rome or other cities and regions in the Roman world. Drawing on Roman census records (which did not record marital status), Sabine Huebner calculates that in pre-Christian Rome there was one unmarried man or woman aged fifteen or older in almost every household. And in Roman Egypt, where marriage is usually seen as having been universally practiced, Huebner estimates that more than two-fifths of the adult population was unmarried at any given time. (Given the limitations of the sources, all these conclusions must be considered tentative.)
Prior to Christianity, marriage and sex were largely unregulated by law. The lack of regulation made all the more striking the legislative efforts of Emperor Augustus to ensure legitimate offspring. But social and cultural expectations could bind even where the law allowed freedom. Though female procuresses of prostitutes were exempt from Augustus’s law against adultery, they were barred from the economic and social status of matron. Social and cultural expectations surrounding marriage and singleness persisted into Late Antiquity, after the Augustan legislation had been (largely) repealed. This is evident in Raffaella Cribiore’s account of three men of the fourth century whose social and economic status allowed them to defy conventions and evade traditional marriage arrangements: the orator Libanius, his friend Olympius, and the emperor Julian. Libanius’s struggle to embrace fully his illegitimate son Cimon shows the limits of flouting traditional norms.
Libanius, Olympius, and Julian were members of what Edward Watts calls “the final pagan generation”—men abiding by the traditional elite values that were in the process of being transformed by Christianity. Christianity challenged elite Roman attitudes toward marriage, provided new motivations for remaining unmarried, and developed forms of community to sustain unmarried lives.
Yet readers should not turn to The Single Life for a full and balanced picture of the early Christian understanding of marriage. An essay by John Martens draws on the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas to argue that by welcoming children, Jesus “proposes a return to the primeval state of the Garden prior to gender or sex.” This view is absent from the relevant passages in the synoptic Gospels (Matt. 19:13–15, Mark 10:13–16, Luke 18:15–17), and it is difficult to reconcile with Jesus’s affirmation of marriage as a lifelong covenantal union, a position he supports by quoting the creation account in Genesis 2: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female? . . . For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined together with his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt. 19:4–6; Mark 10:6–8). More generally, the absence from the volume of any sustained engagement with the Pauline letters, the pastoral epistles, or 1 Peter leaves the misleading impression that the first Christians were hostile to marriage, the household, and the natal family. This was certainly not the case.
Early Christian theology did, however, challenge traditional Greek and Roman expectations for marriage. Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce required both spouses to practice sexual exclusivity. A Christian man should not, as one famous Greek aphorism held, add “mistresses for the sake of pleasure” and “concubines” for his own “daily care” to the wife who ensures legitimate children and faithfully guards the household. Some of Jesus’s other teachings challenge the self-sufficiency of the natal family, with its traditional concerns for inheritance, economic stability, social status, and legacy (Luke 9:60–62, Matt. 10:34–36, Mark 3:32–35). Whereas Roman marriage reflected de facto living arrangements—as the historian J. A. Crook put it, “If you lived together as man and wife, man and wife you were”—Paul elevated marriage to a sacrament reflecting the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32).
Though Paul wished for others to follow him in celibacy, he advised those who lacked the requisite self-control to marry and mate for the good of themselves and their spouses—although within marriage, couples might practice continence for a time, in order to devote themselves to prayer. The unmarried, married, and temporarily continent all have their places within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 7:1–9). In the family of Christ, the unmarried no less than the married may pass on a legacy through offspring: Paul claimed the Corinthians as spiritual children through the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 4:15).
First Corinthians provided ammunition for critiques of marriage by Christian ascetics. The mutuality of sexual rights and authority that Paul urged was, needless to say, not always present within marriage. Pregnancy was dangerous for women, infertility could carry shame, and raising children was difficult and—in an age of high child mortality—often grievous. Focusing on these hazards to women, the fourth- and fifth-century Church Fathers Jerome and Chrysostom argued for an ascetic alternative to marriage. Yet Chrysostom strongly affirms marriage in his homilies on Ephesians (among other writings), and Jerome cautions that he does not condemn marriage outright but compares it to celibacy as one compares silver to gold.
Against ascetic critiques, Augustine wrote “On the Good of Marriage” in 401 a.d. He drew on the creation account in Genesis, Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce, and Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians to defend marriage along the following lines: Because fidelity, offspring, and the marriage sacrament are good, marriage is good. But he begins by reprising a theme of Cicero’s On Duties: The first and closest form of human partnership is the union of man and wife. Held together by the spouses’ likenesses as divine image-bearers and by their drive to procreate, this foundational and natural partnership creates the other fellowships that make up the human race.
For Christians in Late Antiquity, religious asceticism was an honored reason to remain unmarried. The best-known ascetics are the solitary Desert Fathers made popular by Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, a Late-Ancient “best-seller” that described how Anthony renounced the life of privilege into which he was born and withdrew from society. But, as Ville Vuolanto shows by focusing on female virgins in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the ascetic devotion to the single life could take many forms. One could join an ascetic community or simply stay at home. Ascetic communities often emerged from households that expanded to include new members, a process that gradually transformed a natural family into a religious community. The household of Basil the Elder and Emmelia of Cappadocia is a good example. Several members of this household devoted themselves to personal poverty and undertaking spiritual exercises. Others, including former slaves, joined in as equals, and finally the household received “outsiders” as community members. “The household structure may have been transformed almost beyond recognition,” Vuolanto writes, but traditional features of the Roman household were transplanted into the new context. Familial titles were retained(mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister). So too were such traditional features of the household as the shared use of property, relative economic independence, and internal hierarchies. “A monastic community was to be a new household, oikeia.” This new way of imagining community opened up new possibilities for living committed, communally respected lives outside of marriage.
Not all new ways of imagining community received the support of Church leaders. In the fourth century, some male-female pairs of celibates undertook “spiritual marriages,” imitating marriage without entering into the sacrament. Church leaders such as Jerome and Chrysostom criticized such arrangements as lacking in propriety. Better for couples actually to marry and then mutually to consent to an ascetic vow. This was a possible arrangement for clergy, who were not barred from marriage in the fourth and fifth centuries but were encouraged to be celibate. Ultimately, for the Fathers, “what mattered was not living as a single person but dedication to a holy cause through persistent chastity.”
Ascetics saw themselves as members of the household of God, and so were never alone. Even hermits were understood as “living in connection with families and households” and producing spiritual offspring. And as shown by the example of Augustine—the subject of a chapter by Geoffrey Nathan—the decision to remain unmarried need not require one to withdraw from worldly, political, or ecclesiastical affairs.
Unlike ascetics, widows did not become single by choice. In the New Testament, James had urged that “pure religion . . . is to care for the orphans and widows in their distress.” More than a century later, Tertullian emphasized that the Church established social networks to build up society by caring for the vulnerable. Jennifer Cromwell’s discussion of Coptic Christians in western Thebes suggests that monasteries likewise fulfilled James’s admonitions, providing support to widows and perhaps divorcees. Widows who needed help found supporters to write to monastic elders on their behalf, and “for those truly in need, the literate may have extended their services as part of a wider support network.”
The Christian conception of “the family” was profoundly innovative. Building on Judaism and Greek philosophy, early Christianity provided new purposes to motivate “the single life,” and created communities to sustain it. (The story of how the Christian ascetic movement adapted and repurposed Greek thought is largely absent from the volume.) For those called to a life outside of marriage, Christianity offered a freedom that was not available in traditional Roman culture.
Freedom from societal constraints and expectations also characterizes the youth culture increasingly associated with “singleness” in modern liberal societies. But early Christians who pursued vocational singleness were not asserting their own individuality or autonomy. Neither freedom nor intimacy were ends in themselves, but byproducts of the pursuit of union and communion with God as part of the family of Christ. As in Christian marriage, so in other forms of Christian community, intimacy followed commitment. What we so distinctly lack today is a notion of how singleness can support, and be supported by, non-marital forms of intimacy.
Jed W. Atkins is the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies and associate professor of political science at Duke University.