Monday, May 21, 2012

The Roman Family VI conference was held at the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae from May 16-19, 2012. This was a terrific conference from beginning to end, for which the organizers, Katarina Mustakallio, Christian Laes and Ville Vuolanto are to be thanked. I want to report on the papers, including my own, which ultimately will be published in their complete and final form, to give people a sense of the research that is taking place on the lives of ancient people, in this case primarily children.

Photo of Mosaic in Hagia Sophia taken by John Martens, January 18, 2010


The first two papers I want to report on were by Bernadette Brooten and Reidar Aasgaard. Brooten’s paper was titled “Enslaved Families in Early Christianity,” while Aasgard’s was called “Children and Childhood in Late Ancient Constantinople.” Both of them engaged in a fascinating experiment of “imaginative historical reconstruction” in which each scholar took the wealth of historical knowledge they possess, textual, inscriptional and physical, and reconstructed how an ordinary slave family (in Brooten’s case) or an orphaned child (in Aasgaard’s case) might have lived their lives.

For Brooten’s paper the starting point was Colossians 3:18-4:1 (and Ephesians 6:1-9) and how this text would have been heard and experienced by Christian slaves, as individuals, parents and children, and as families. The reality is that slaves could not marry legally as could freeborn citizens and their family life was tenuous at best, as the family could be broken apart if a master decided to sell one of the family members to another master. Slaves also did not have control of their own bodies, including sexually, and so their ability to live out the Christian moral life was not dependent upon their own choices. How would they have heard these “Household Code” texts when they were unable of their own accord to remain an intact family or to follow Christian morality? Brooten “created” ancient Christian slaves, with names, and gave us insight, based upon her vast knowledge of Christianity and ancient slavery, to create life through the eyes of ancient slaves.

Aasgaard took his knowledge of Constantinople in the 5th century AD, combined this with his study of ancient childhood and daily life and constructed a “day in the life” of a 9 year old orphan boy Constans and his sister. We followed Constans from morning to night, from his life at the orphanage, to his work at the palace, to public spectacles at the Hippodrome, to church services at the Hagia Sophia. We were shown his clothing, told what food he would eat and practical things of this manner, but also introduced to his thoughts and ideas.

Both of these papers were intriguing as they introduced us to the “minds” of the people they were discussing, who were “imaginative creations” based upon knowledge of historical texts and other data by experts in the field. One can disagree, of course, with the particular reconstructions in the sense that a “day” or a “life” could be reconstructed in numerous ways and remain faithful to ancient evidence, but because Brooten and Aasgaard know the historical evidence so well, these reconstructions were faithful to the ancient data and provided a model for thinking with ancient people.

What is the value of such reconstructions? I think it is a process of reminding us that even though we do not have texts from slaves or children from the ancient world, they were “real” people, with hopes, thoughts, fears and joys and to try and “think” with them makes them not just “historical data” but brings them to life. What this does, to my mind, is allow us to return to ancient data refreshed and attentive to all that it can tell us about the silent majority in the ancient world.

Next entry on the conference, I will talk about children on the boundaries in the ancient world with respect to labour and sexual practices.

John W. Martens
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