The Sacred Ties of Blood
Family, Kin and City-State: the Racial Underpinning of Ancient Greece and Rome, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges and J. Jamieson, Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1999, soft-cover, 108 pp.
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) was one of France’s greatest 19th century historians. Perhaps his most influential book was La Cité Antique, written in 1864 and translated into English ten years later as The Ancient City. It is a masterful study of Greece and Rome that stressed the influence of religion on the development of classical institutions. J. Jamieson has now produced an abridged and modernized edition that emphasizes the importance of family and kinship ties in this early religion.
This volume makes clear that the central focus of the ancient faith was reverence for the spirits of ancestors and the purity and continuity of the family. It was a religion that served to bind people together by giving sacred importance to ties of blood. The authors argue that this was central to the extraordinary cohesion, vigor, and continuity of classical society:
The very base of ancient Greek and Roman greatness was in intergenerational dedication to family and kin — qualities they shared with all known Indo-European peoples of their time . . . They saw life not in terms of the present generation only, but as an ongoing succession of the bloodline: the living were the trustees of a sacred heritage which it was their duty to pass on, improved if possible, to their posterity.
This religion of the ancestors predated that of the sky gods such as Zeus and Athena, and coexisted with it without contradiction. The early religion eventually faded, but the authors clearly believe that just as emphasis on family and kinship was a crucial element in the rise to greatness, the loss of a vigorous sense of community made decline inevitable.
The Hearth Fire
From the earliest times, the hearth fire was the symbol of a family’s presence and continuity, and represented the spirits of the ancestors. Ideally it was to burn 24 hours a day, throughout the year. The women of the family tended the fire and the male head of the household was the chief priest. Every meal marked an occasion of reverence to the fire and to the ancestors. The family worshipped only its own forebears, using its own particular prayers and hymns. The authors write, “They [the Greeks and Romans] believed that the dead ancestor accepted no offerings save from his own family; he desired no worship save from his own descendants.” To worship another family’s ancestors was great impiety.
Ancestors were thought always to be present, and to lend assistance to the living — fighting beside them in battle and comforting them in distress. The spirits led a happy, sentient existence, but only if the dead had living descendants to honor them by performing the family rituals.
In the early days of both Greece and Rome, every family had a tomb, where its dead were buried together. By custom the tomb was located near the house. Euripides explains that this was “in order that the sons, in entering and leaving their dwelling, might always meet their fathers, and might always address to them an invocation.” Each man tended the graves of his ancestors, confident that his sons would continue the ritual of reverence. The ancients believed that if the dead ceased to have male descendants to worship at their tombs their restless spirits would wander the earth in sorrow.
The continuity of the family line was so important that in the early days of Greece celibacy was a crime. As the authors explain, “man did not belong to himself; he belonged to the family. He was one member in a series, and the series must not stop with him.” Marriage was permitted only within the tribe or city state, and involved the ceremonial transfer of the bride to the husband’s family. The ceremony took place at the husband’s house and amounted to an initiation of the bride into the ancestral religion of her new home.
The ritual of union acknowledged the importance of what the bride was giving up. First, she would pretend to resist leaving her own house. When she arrived at the groom’s house her attendant kinswomen would feign battle with the groom, who would wrest the bride from their protection and carry her over the threshold as if by force. The marriage ceremony then installed her as a priestess who would thenceforth tend the hearth fires of her new home. Even after the sky gods were established and a hymeneal visit to the temple became customary, this was only a prelude to the real marriage ceremony, which took place in the home.
The authors point out that the joining of families was so important and solemn that it was to take place only once a lifetime. Polygamy and divorce were forbidden. A sterile woman, however, could be divorced since her deficiency thwarted the continuation of the male line. Adoption was an unusual procedure permissible only if a couple could not produce a son, and it was customary to adopt the second son of the husband’s closest kinsman. Because of the importance of lineage, female adultery was punishable by death. A wronged husband did not even have the right to forgive; if he did not demand death he must at least repudiate an unfaithful wife.
Because only sons could properly honor their ancestors, a man who died without a son faced extinction. It was this concern for the male line that governed the selection of the Spartans who were left behind to defend the pass at Thermopylae against the Persians in 480 B.C. Only men who were married and had already produced a son stayed to face the invader.
The land on which the family tended its hearth fire and in which it buried its dead was, itself, sacred. In Sparta and probably in early Roman times it was forbidden for a man to sell his land, because it was owned not by the individual but by the continuing, intergenerational family. An early Roman could pass it on to his children and to no on else; only in later times did it become possible to will land to other than direct descendants.
In some Greek city states the land could not even be divided among children, and primogeniture was one of the causes of Greek expansion. As successful city states outgrew their original territory they established new settlements in other parts of the Mediterranean. When colonists set out it was customary to take with them a clod of earth from the ancestral lands as a symbol of continuity.
City states themselves were composed of tribes of related families, and loyalty to the city came next only to loyalty to the family. Attachment to the city was so deep that life beyond the reach of its customs was unthinkable. Exile was therefore tantamount to death, and it was often offered as an alternative to execution. Under Roman law, exile was considered a form of capital punishment. An exile was no better than a foreigner and could not be buried in the tomb of his fathers.
There was nothing universal about the early religions. A city could have gods of its own who were the even more distant ancestors of all citizens, who had been deified as heroes, but these gods were likewise peculiar to the city. Even the sky gods did not have universalist pretensions but protected and received sacrifice only from their people. As Aeschylus has one of his characters say, “I fear not the gods of your country; I owe them nothing.”
The authors point out that aliens had no status at all in early Greek and Roman society. They had no religion, could not become citizens even by marriage, were not protected by law, and in some cases could be killed with impunity. A foreigner could be the guest of a citizen but he was not part of the family or the city-state.
As ancient societies expanded and absorbed aliens, provision had to be made to accommodate them. Slaves, for example, could be accepted as junior members of the family and in some cases were entitled to burial in the family tomb, but in return they gave up their freedom for life.
Like all successful societies, Rome and the Greek city-states eventually attracted large numbers of alien hangers-on. They were not allowed to live within the cities themselves and clustered on the periphery. Eventually, it became necessary to give at least some of them legal status and this gave rise to a system of patronage. An alien could gain certain rights and enter into the commercial life of the city by becoming the recognized client of a citizen. Although it became common in the later Roman Empire, naturalization was extremely rare among the Greeks, and required successive votes of large majorities of citizens.
This volume argues that a burgeoning alien population contributed directly to the decline of Rome. Plebs, or aliens who were not clients of citizens, eventually became so numerous they demanded legal status and even political rights. Their alien customs and uncertain loyalty changed the character of Roman institutions and irreparably weakened the Empire. As the authors explain, “Rome declined because Rome fell short of Romans through constant warfare, and also morally through an excess of wealth and a decline of traditional nationally-oriented and nation-building traditions, mores and religion, and finally through the rise to power of non-Roman elements within the vast cultural empire . . . Rome decayed because it lost both is cultural and its genetic heritage.” This book has an important message for those able to heed the lessons of history.