Case Studies, Research

Family archives and the Romans

liz gloynOne of the really exciting things about this project is the wide time span that we cover between us. I’m the one who goes furthest back to the past – I’m a classicist with an interest in Roman social history, who thinks a lot about how families work in the ancient world and the sort of things they’re concerned about. What I’m finding particularly interesting at the moment is how the idea of a ‘family archive’ has a totally different meaning when we look at the classical world. I’m hoping that thinking about the term more broadly will help us appreciate ways in which the Romans used different techniques to build a ‘family archive’, and to use Roman ways of building that ‘archive’ as a way of interpreting contemporary patterns of archive keeping, deliberate or otherwise.


A fragment of papyri, featuring the New Testament, found at Oxyrhynchus

What jumps out when you look at the literature on this is how the term ‘family archive’ is mainly used by papyrologists. These scholars work mainly on caches of papyri that have been preserved in the Egyptian desert or other favourable locations – the most famous of these come from the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus, and there’s an on-line exhibition with more information about the site here. So the sort of ‘family archive’ that you tend to find in this context are documents belonging to particular families which have been kept for some particular useful reason. Katelijn Vandorpe, building on Pestman, identifies four kinds of document that you might keep in this kind of archive:

  1. Legal documents that could be submitted in case of a trial, like title deeds, loan documentation and marriage contracts.
  2. “Odd notes without any juridical value and kept for sentimental reasons”, such as personal correspondence.
  3. Literary works.
  4. Documents now no longer needed but kept in the files for second-hand paper, or for other reasons we do not understand.

This approach focuses mainly on trying to understand the sort of document that gets kept and seeing the archives as a very functional item, with these objects ‘kept for sentimental reasons’ singled out as being somehow weirdly divergent from the primary purpose of an archive, which is record keeping – much in line with the official governmental archives which also turn up in these areas. When we move away from Graeco-Roman Egypt, the phrase ‘family archive’ more or less disappears. If people are interested in documentation at all, the research looks much more at the concept of the library and how we move from individuals holding private libraries to using public ones. The idea of where a family archive might be situated in a house at Rome, and what might be in it, doesn’t seem to get a look-in. One of the things I want to do is trawl through some of our authors who write letters and thus often mention little details of daily life to see whether they offer any indications of what those people living in the city are doing with the sort of material that a citizen would want to hold on to practical or sentimental reasons.

That said, it’s not as if the Romans aren’t concerned with family history – in fact, you might say they’re obsessed with it. Particularly among the elite, it was very important to keep the memory of your ancestors alive both in terms of what you kept in your house and how you yourself behaved. For instance, we know that the upper classes kept ancestor masks made out of wax, called imagines, in their halls, as well as decorating the hall with ‘family trees’ which had annotations explaining the achievements of each ancestor, called tituli.  Veronique Dasen has recently argued that we may have evidence of lower-class families making masks of their family members, particularly children, out of plaster rather than wax, signalling that while these practices started with the elite to reinforce their political position, the importance of familial commemoration for perhaps more ‘sentimental’ reasons trickled down the social system.

The Romans were also very big on exempla, or stories recorded about famous ancestors and told to young men (and sometimes women) to show them how to behave properly. Some figures from exempla became part of the Roman state’s narrative – Lucretia, for instance, exemplified chaste female action against an oppressive state for the nation’s women, just as Gaius Mucius Scaevola became a shared cultural icon who represented bravery after thrusting his hand into a brazier to demonstrate how little the Romans cared for their bodies in the pursuit of freedom. But families also used their own ancestors as exempla, with a particular imperative for a young person to imitate the behaviour of those who had gone before. This was not, however, without its problems – the story of the Manlii, particularly the conflict embodied in Manlius Torquatus between filial obedience and fatherly sternness, illustrates this best, but I’ll talk about that in another blog post.

What emerges from this brief survey of Roman culture is that there are more ways to keep a family archive than on paper. Family histories can be preserved in objects, in stories handed down through generations, in behavioural expectations. I’m looking forward to unpicking the Roman evidence for this a bit more, and to seeing whether these different modes of archival practice manifest themselves in modern families as well as ancient ones.



Dasen, Véronique. 2010. “Wax and plaster memories: children in elite and non-elite strategies.” In Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth, eds. Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 109-145.

Vandorpe, Katelijn. 2009. “Archives and dossiers”, in R.S. Bagnall, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford: 217-255.


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