Monday, April 14, 2008

Domestic Violence History Lessons

In Wife-beating in Ancient Rome, Joy Connolly, professor in the Department of Classics at New York University and author of The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome, explores the issue of domestic violence and more.
Uncountable by any statistic was the abuse that might be dealt out by a violent husband. As in modern times until very recently, wife-beating was not much talked of by classical writers beyond the odd aside, as when Augustine in his Confessions recollects the bruises he saw as a child marking the faces of his mother’s friends, or when Herodotus and Suetonius report that the Corinthian tyrant Periander and the Emperor Nero beat their pregnant wives to death. Plutarch hints at the frequency of abuse in his Roman Questions, a quirky study of Roman religion and customs, when he wonders why Romans avoid marrying close relatives. He suggests three reasons: Roman men may seek to expand their influence by marrying into different families; they may fear that domestic over-familiarity breeds contempt; or they might prefer an exogamic system where sisters and daughters, should they suffer abuse, could seek help from male kin unrelated (thus under no obligation) to the abuser. The Greek preference for endogamy, Plutarch implies, caught women in a familial trap from which there was no easy escape.
One, or at least this one, cannot help but wonder if these are the very same reasons for the "moral" dictate given for marriage laws. Science has proven that marriage and its breeding practices are not harmed by offspring between cousins, for example, so there's no reason for those without knowledge of genetics to even think of such problems. (See also.) In fact, there is quite a bunch of historical documentation of such marriages, and there seems to be evidence that favors such family ties:
One of the basic laws of modern evolutionary science, quantified by the great Oxford biologist William D. Hamilton in 1964 under the name "kin selection," is that the more close the genetic relationship between two people, the more likely they are to feel loyalty and altruism toward each other. Natural selection has molded us not just to try to propagate our own genes, but to help our relatives, who possess copies of some of our specific genes, to propagate their own.
So, it stands to reason that the notion of forbidden familial marriages has more to do with something else... Perhaps it is even more horrible than the notion, expressed in Forbidden Relatives: The American Myth of Cousin Marriage, that "the U.S. prohibition against such unions originated largely because of the belief that it would promote more rapid assimilation of immigrants".

Maybe, it has more to do with the ability to control ~ and even abuse ~ women.

It certainly is a common step for abusers today to isolate their victim from friends and even their own families.

But let's get back to Connolly's article.

Using Sarah B. Pomeroy's The Murder of Regilla: A case of domestic violence in antiquity, and Caroline Vout's Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome, Connolly brings up one historical case study, if you will, and the practical matter of interpretation from our current cultural vantage point.

The case study, of sorts, in our historical lesson on the acceptance of domestic violence is the story of Appia Annia Regilla Atilia Caucidia Tertulla.

A Roman woman born into a powerful family closely linked to the Antonine dynasty, Regilla married "far outside her family, to the celebrated Greek politician and orator Herodes Atticus". Regilla died in her mid-thirties, eight months pregnant with her sixth child ~ punched or kicked in the belly by a freedman acting on orders from her husband. Regilla's brother, Braduas, brought Herodes, Regilla's husband, up on a murder charge, "but the absence of witnesses, Herodes’s insistence that he had not intended his freedman to administer such a violent beating, and his extraordinary public expressions of grief (including the dedication of the Acropolis Odeon to his dead wife) got him off."

Connolly takes issue with Pomeroy's work, saying, "Pomeroy’s reconstruction of Regilla's life, especially her education and her relationship with her husband, seizes most of many opportunities to cast the Roman matron as a victim."

I cannot fully agree. How else would you paint a woman (and her unborn child) who were murdered? "Victim" seems apt here.

However, there is, if not a twist, then at least a point to consider...

Enter Vout, whose work poses the question of our ability to "ever be able to understand the degree to which sexuality is a 'locally constructed' or a transcendent, 'trans-historical experience of Eros'". This begs the question: Is the story of Regilla's murder even true?

I must read the books in order to be close to the answer; and thanks to Connolly, I'm too intrigued not to. The wish list & reading pile grows...

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