“All the single ladies” will not be surprised nor will their male and gender fluid counterparts: there was never a time in history without persons who lived the single life, however defined. What is surprising is that the single life has received comparatively scant scholarly attention, especially in the premodern period. Indeed, as Christian Laes observes, “sociocultural research on the single life in the Roman empire has been virtually absent so far” (21). Once one considers how to define “the single life,” however, the relative scarcity of scholarly investigation becomes easier to fathom. What is “the single life?” In his detailed and sophisticated introduction to this important volume Christian Laes makes it clear that Christian asceticism is not what is primarily at issue (though it does of course play a role), but rather something akin to “not married and not in a sexual partnership” without a religious motivation to forgo either and while of an age at that allows for both. In other words, many human beings experience such a situation at some point in the course of their life, for example while not yet married or no longer married because of being widowed or divorced. But does that mean they live a single life? After all, they could be part of an extended family; does that count? In short, analyzing the single life in premodern societies such as the Roman and Later Roman world poses significant conceptual and methodological challenges. As Laes points out, even in today's Western industrialized societies that form the basis of his comparative analysis (3–5), the single life encompasses such potentially contradictory elements as “the legal fact of not being married or not being in an exclusive relationship” (whereby being in an exclusive relationship is only sometimes a legal fact); “living alone and the possible economic and emotional consequences of this loneliness,” (see also 7); “and a happy-go-lucky lifestyle mostly associated with youth” (4), when in fact many who lead a single life are elderly. It is evident that the single life is experienced differently depending on age, gender, region, and cultural and economic factors.
Once transposed to the premodern period, the conceptual problems facing social historians increase because our sources offer no readily identifiable or uniform descriptors of what one might call the single life. Even today official forms request a single answer to one's marital status and hence reveal little about widowed or divorced persons, persons who live in family or other units, or cohabit as an unmarried couple with (or without) a household (5). The very fact that this volume places the issue on the table and begins to sketch methodological avenues to address it makes it invaluable. Added to this are the many important findings of the 18 individual contributions, which have a diverse regional focus encompassing Egypt, Rome, and the Greek-speaking part of the empire; varied methodological approaches that range from demography to archaeology, epigraphy to literary analysis; and an appreciation of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian perspectives.
Central to most of the contributions to this volume is—and this might come as yet another surprise—marriage. Because marriage patterns determine the behavior of the majority of the population and dominate our sources, it is methodologically inevitable that marriage shapes how the single life is conceived and hence analyzed. As Sabine Huebner points out, the Roman and Later Roman world conforms to the so-called Mediterranean Marriage Pattern characterized by nearly universal marriage, early marriage for women, a significant age gap between spouses, “patrivirilocal living arrangements,” high fertility and mortality, and no limited term employment for young women (“life-cycle service”, 39). The volume includes three comparative chapters that address these issues, one illustrating a case study from a (North) West European Marriage Pattern and two variations of the Mediterranean Pattern in early Islam and 19th-century Italy. As a consequence, the contributions to this volume seek out the single life in the spaces between, at the margins, and outside this Mediterranean marriage pattern.
The purest form of the single life, at least for women, might be the lena or procuress of Augustan literature so wonderfully brought to life in Mina Petrova's chapter. Her procuresses made money and were defiantly single; no male figures exercised control over them. Consequently, the elite male elegiac and satiric authors who depict them usually characterize them as outside all marriage pattern: old and hence infertile, ill, repulsive, aligned with the world of magic. Singleness understood as female economic independence was not a societal ideal; nor were unencumbered bachelors the object of praise (see Kiiskinen). Petrova's chapter highlights yet another centrally important component of the Roman marriage pattern and hence of the single life in the Roman world: status. As is well known, Roman marriage was a private, civil legal arrangement where status was central. In essence, legal marriages were a privilege of the elite and most of the lenae Petrova discusses were freedwomen or libertinae (170). Freedwomen could and often did live as concubines, a semi-legal marriage-like arrangement that made their children illegitimate but did provide advantages. Concubines therefore did not lead a single life in the strict sense of the term, but were not legally married either. Freedmen faced similar challenges if and when they attempted to contract “legal” marriages, as did the slaves (discussed in greater depth in Wim Broekaert's chapter). Slaves, much like the soldiers, temporary field workers, and apprentices in Anna Boozer's excellent chapter on the archaeology of the single life in Egypt, were often engaged in labor that precluded the formation even of the marriage-like cohabitation recognized for slaves, the contubernium. As Broekaert points out, slaves on large estates were predominantly male and single, as were the slaves and freedmen that worked as commercial agents and sailed the Mediterranean as sailors; here marriage-like arrangements were rare, which was not necessarily the case among slaves in urban households, where contubernium was more frequent. And everywhere, female and male slaves were sexually available for their masters. In short, “many stumbling blocks thus prevented slaves from enjoying a stable and rewarding family life. They must have longed for manumission, hoping that freedom would finally improve their chances of having a proper family. After all, once manumitted they would be free to choose their partner, engage in lawful marriage and have legitimate children. Things were however a little more complicated than that” (95), for example because manumission could easily be constructed such that freedpersons as Junian Latins could only contract “marriages” insufficient to produce legitimate children, so that any property of such a freedperson would returned to his or her former masters (96–97).
Thus, the gravitational pull of marriage was enormous, be it legitimate or semi-legitimate marriage or a marriage-like form of cohabitation or an otherwise “proper family”: for our sources and for most of the contributors to the volume marriage is the norm from which the single life deviates. Judith Evans-Grubbs’ exciting dissection of the Augustan (in)famous marriage legislation ostensibly targeting single persons highlights how ancillary to the central concern celibacy was. At issue was rather tighter control of the top-tier of the senatorial aristocracy, its freedom to bequeath their estate to whomever they wished, and to ignore adultery by their wives if they so choose (an impetus also visible in Constantine's later abolition of these laws). The laws decreed that women between 20 and 50 and men between 25 and 60 had to be married and have children to be eligible to inherit from a person not related to them within the sixth degree of kinship, a broad exception that affected only the truly rich (from the third century CE onward these unclaimable portions became part of the imperial fiscus). Further, spies or delatores were encouraged to denounce illicit legacies as well as adulterous acts of elite women whose husbands these laws forced to divorce them: acts that caused fierce opposition because they permitted the emperor to curtail patria potestas (107, 109, 111, 113, 116–117). Legitimate marriage, status, and inheritance are at issue because these are the concerns of those who own things to bequeath. How relevant then was marriage for those inhabitants of the Roman and late Roman world who were neither elites nor had a significant amount of property to bequeath? Or, if legitimate marriage as a matter of private law was the concern of only relatively few, who else cared?
Sabine Huebner's analysis of nearly 400 Egyptian census returns that have survived on papyri dating from the period of Augustus to about 267/258 CE seems to address that question head on: “The census returns from Roman Egypt offer the best available source for studying the proportion of singles in ancient society or any other population prior to the Renaissance” (39). “One issue, however, thwarts our desire to learn more about singles in Roman Egyptian society: the absence of any indication of marital status. Marital status is not given in the census or in hardly any other documentary evidence” (40–41). In addition, Huebner does not find terminology that denotes “single”; both men and women were denoted by relational terms as daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, widows, widowers, or as man and woman which also means wife and husband; “being adult and being married was therefore literally synonymous” (41). The sources’ disinterest in marital status, as Huebner emphasizes, reflects the private character of marriage; cohabitation sufficed and contracts were optional (43). Here, things get complicated. As Huebner observes, there were a good number of women with children over 30 who owned property and ran their own households, some with slaves. Some of these households included men; in one case, a widowed woman lived with the widowed brother of her deceased husband. “So the two thirty-somethings lived together under one roof—unmarried but probably still as a couple” (44). This raises a methodological conundrum when searching for singles in the census records: should one count a person as single “who was apparently cohabiting with his or her life-partner but was not formally married to him or her?” (45). These are difficult questions for us, because they force us to challenge our own assumptions regarding definitions of marriage. If the Roman Egyptian sources suggest that cohabitation suffices to consider a union a marriage and if being an adult person and being married are synonyms, then two adult persons cohabiting are married. If they are married, they are not single, even if their entirely private and contract-less “marriage” does not conform to our notions of marriage as the legal contract dominating modern census forms (5).
In other words, as Huebner's chapter and indeed all the chapters in the volume stress, focusing on the single life demands a clear definition of what marriage should mean. Here, many of the contributions slip a little (e.g. 67). The default position appears to be “legitimate” contract-based marriage, even though the pattern analyzed and described appears to encompass (and hence should perhaps be broadened to include) all forms of cohabitation of two adults. Yet in order to claim that marriage in the Roman and Later Roman world was ubiquitous one must define it as “legitimate” marriage plus all other marriage-like arrangements. This includes, I think, the arrangements of slaves. Persons not in such arrangements are then single even if living within a large household; according to Huebner's analysis, a large number of persons in Egypt fell under that category (46–56). Data from other regions and periods support her findings (see for example the chapters by Boozer, Cromwell, Goessens, or Vuolanto). Many households included single persons, aunts, uncles, widowed parents, nieces, nephews, children of others for apprenticeship purposes, and so on. This leads to another important insight. First, Christian ascetic life provided an enormously influential reevaluation of widespread existing patterns, since all those single persons could now achieve unprecedented honor and praise in a systematic and widespread fashion as sponsa (male and female) Christi, by gaining “a holy purpose” (Efthymiadis, 313). And second, these patterns explain at least in part why much of early ascetic life evolved within and drew upon family structures (see again Vuolanto's excellent chapter).
In sum, this rich and stimulating volume highlights beyond doubt that the Mediterranean Marriage Pattern encompassed a multitude of different forms of life in marriage-like arrangements and a host of different “single lives.” This should not, in fact, come as a surprise. After all, one of the most central exemplars of a successful and widely praised legitimate marriage in the Roman and later Roman world was that of Penelope and Odysseus: that is to say, a single mother heading a household full of bachelors while her spouse led the single life elsewhere for a significant period of time until they returned to a more “proper” form of married cohabitation.