Late Roman family life and the survival of Roman tradition in the early medieval period
This article explores the social and cultural practices of late Roman family life, highlighting the tension between hierarchical and decorous behavior for men and the contradictions of women’s legal status. It also discusses the survival of many patterns following the breakup of the Roman Empire and the influence of the Roman past on political, social, and cultural practices in every post-Roman society for centuries to come.
Table of Contents
- Late Roman family life
- The survival of Roman tradition in the early medieval period
- The breakdown of the Western Roman Empire
- The rise of effective rulers in the West
- The political style of the East
Late Roman family life
Question: What was the state of family life in the late Roman Empire?
Answer: Late Roman family life was often loveless, with marriages arranged for property instead of love. Domestic slaves caused instability with their malicious gossip, and many women were legally subject to fathers and husbands but had full inheritance rights and controlled their property in marriage. Augustine’s account of his violent father Patricius shows that wife-beating was commonplace, though only in the Latin West.
Question: Did women have any power or agency in late Roman society?
Answer: Women were not part of the public sphere and were unable to hold office, but powerful empresses were common in the late empire. Women ran the household economy, bought and sold property, and acted as independent artisans and shop-owners.
Question: Did men face any contradictions in late Roman society?
Answer: Yes, men faced contradictions as late Roman society was hierarchical, and social mobility was constrained by law. Educated elites were trained to decorous and courteous formal behavior, even though the society was hierarchical.
The survival of Roman tradition in the early medieval period
Question: How did the political structures of the Roman Empire survive the breakup?
Answer: The political institutions of the Roman Empire continued to provide a basic governmental system for the ‘Romano-Germanic’ kingdoms in the early medieval period. The barbarian armies also ran the Roman provinces but in a more militarized, less economically interconnected, and less complex internal economy.
Question: Did the break up of the Roman Empire change religious practices?
Answer: The church structures changed the least, and correct belief remained important in both Byzantium and parts of the West. Ascetic religious commitment and religion-based critiques of secular society remained influential.
Question: How did the Vandals rule Africa?
Answer: The Vandals ruled the province as a military landowning aristocracy and adopted much of the Roman political and social practice while seeing themselves as ethnically distinct. They broke the Mediterranean infrastructure of the late empire by taking over the major grain and oil export province of the West.
The breakdown of the Western Roman Empire
Question: What led to the breakdown of the Western Roman Empire?
Answer: The population of Rome dropped significantly in the mid-fifth century, and the fiscal system of the Western Empire went into crisis, making it difficult for the empire to spend enough on troops. A significant strategic error was the failure to foresee Geiseric taking Carthage, leading to the political break-up of the western empire.
Question: Who were the political protagonists in the West after the breakdown?
Answer: Neither Honorius nor Arcadius nor their successors as emperors were effective political leaders, leading to the rise of effective rulers in the 470s. Stilicho, who faced Alaric, king of the Goths, was one of the strong-men at the start of the fifth century but was executed in 408.
Question: How did the West recover from the crisis?
Answer: The legitimist Roman armies eventually regrouped, and the crisis began to quiet down. However, the West experienced a breakdown in taxation and saw its political institutions simplify.
The rise of effective rulers in the West
Question: Who were the effective rulers in the West in the 470s?
Answer: Multiple rival emperors rose in the West in 411, most of them protégéed of different ‘barbarian’ groups, facing confusion. Slowly, the legitimist Roman armies regrouped, and the crisis began to quiet down.
Question: How did Constantinople fare during the breakdown?
Answer: The East faced less trauma, with Constantinople well defended. Sassanian Persia, Rome’s traditional enemy to the east, was at peace with the empire, probably facing its own threats elsewhere, allowing the eastern empire greater strategic security. The political and cultural style of the East was different from the West, with empresses particularly prominent in Constantinople.
Late Roman family life was loveless, and marriages were arranged for property, leading to domestic instability. Women were legally subject to men, but they had full inheritance rights and controlled their property, making them independent. Despite the breakdown of the Western Roman Empire, the political structures of the Roman Empire continued to provide a basic governmental system for the ‘Romano-Germanic’ kingdoms. Late Roman society was hierarchical, with constraints on social mobility, and yet educated elites valued decorous and courteous formal behavior. These contradictions continued to influence political, social, and cultural practices in every post-Roman society for centuries to come.