Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

6

THE ROMAN FAMILY: IDEAL AND METAPHOR

Eva Marie Lassen

Metaphorical language forms an important part of any culture. 1 Its main function is, in the words of two leading linguists: ‘to provide a partial understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:154). In Antiquity, as today, metaphors constituted an efficient way of communicating religious beliefs, political attitudes, and social values. The first Christians also made use of metaphorical language to provide understanding of fundamental Christian concepts. They developed metaphorical language stemming from notions as different as pilgrimage, slavery, and warfare. 2 Metaphors of the family played a central role in this metaphorical network developed by the first Christians. The metaphors ‘God the Father’, ‘Jesus the Son’, ‘children of God’, ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’, along with a number of other family metaphors became a means by which to develop and communicate a Christian theology as well as constructing a church community with a certain kind of leadership and certain patterns of interactions between its members.

In the first centuries AD, Christianity spread throughout the Roman world. As family metaphors constituted one of the ways in which to speak about the new religion, it follows that the Romans would relate to Christianity partly by relating to the Christian use of family metaphors. In other words, the Romans would understand one kind of experience, the Christian religion, by means of another kind of experience, the family. The meaning of a metaphor, however, may change radically within a culture as well as from culture to culture (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:142). Therefore, in order to understand how the Romans related to the new Christian religion, it is important to know about the family in pagan Rome. Only then do we have the Roman point of departure, the framework within which the Romans would comprehend Christian family metaphors.

This chapter offers an analysis of some of the more important characteristics of the pagan Roman family in the Classical Roman period (from approximately the end of the second century BC to the end of the second century AD); special emphasis is on the Principate in the first century AD. Focusing on the interaction between ideal and metaphor, the first part of the

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