Romanitas and the Roman Family: The Evidence of Apuleius's Apology(1)

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At the turn of the third century Tertullian claimed that the pallium traditionally worn at Carthage was altogether being replaced by the Roman toga, a change of taste the theologian found irritating enough to provoke in the De pallio an acerbic assault on what he perceived as an all-pervasive Romanitas around him. The issue was one that went far beyond the trivial level of an item of dress, for adoption of the toga was symbolic of the growing dominance of Roman ways of life in Carthage at large. Roman imperialism, it emerges, involved not merely political subjection, but also submission to Roman patterns of culture that threatened to destroy local traditions and eradicate all sense of national consciousness and identity. An important aspect of Romanitas was urbanitas. By the early third century, the provinces of North Africa had become in many material ways emblematic of the triumph of Roman imperial civilization, and it is from their urban remains that the character of the Roman city is still generally best understood today. Tertullian lived in a Carthage that with its temples, porticoes, and basilicas, its amphitheatre, theatre, and circus had been consciously constructed and embellished over the first two centuries of the Principate as a veritable showplace of Roman urban design.(2)

My concern in this paper is with the socio-cultural impact of Rome half a century earlier on an African city and its inhabitants far less celebrated than Carthage, namely Oea in Tripolitania. In 158/9, at the neighbouring city of Sabratha, a criminal trial was held before the provincial governor Claudius Maximus. The defendant was Apuleius, the author of The Golden Ass, who was accused of having used magic to entice a wealthy widow into marriage so that he could acquire her considerable fortune for himself. The suit was brought by members of the widow's late husband's family, her brother-in-law Sicinius Aemilianus and her younger son Sicinius Pudens. They and the widow, Aemilia Pudentilla, were all residents of Oea. At the trial the defendant spoke in his own defence, and a version of what he said (either the original or a later elaborated version) has survived. This speech, the Apology, is of interest for many reasons, but because of the personal information it contains it is of special interest to historians of the Roman family. It is of course a tendentious document, and, obviously enough, it presents only one side of a dispute. It is, however, an important historical document and cannot be ignored. Nor has it been. Pudentilla, the focus of the family history the speech recounts, has attracted much attention since hers is the fullest historical record of a Roman widow available. My object, however, is to ask how "Roman" the case-history of Pudentilla actually was -- to ask, that is, in what sense the Apology can be used as evidence of Roman family life. In answering the question I shall want to stress the importance of examining the events Apuleius records within their immediate geographical and cultural context.(3)

I raise the question against the background of the recent rise to prominence of Roman family studies in general, which has led among other things to a much clearer understanding than had ever been the case before of the demographic structure of Roman society, the nature of marriage and the roles played by children in family life, and the importance of determining in terms appropriate to antiquity itself how the family was conceptualized. Predictably, the first wave of this work has been highly Romanocentric in character, by which I mean that when provincial evidence has been used for family history -- epigraphic evidence for instance -- its local context has not received a great deal of attention and families have tended to be assimilated one to another as if the effect of regional context on their history did not matter. The result is that the Roman family has been treated as an undifferentiated monolith. …

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