Adoptees and exposed children in Roman declamation: Commodification, luxury, and the threat of violence

Neil W. Bernstein (Ohio University)

Roman adoption resembles other forms of aristocratic exchange in that the participating families hope to create long-term, affective relationships (Verboven 2002). This paper examines declamatory texts that represent adoption as a practice that risks deforming the normal conventions of thought and behavior that should obtain between aristocratic Roman family members and friends. I focus in particular on two conventions of thought regarding the commodification of adoptees and exposed children in Roman declamation: (a) the involvement of members of the adoptive triad in discourses of luxury and (b) the subjection of the exposed child to the threat of subsequent violence from his fostering family.

Sen. Contr. 2.1 presents excerpts of declamations on the theme of adoptandus post tres abdicatos. The speakers describe the proposed adoption as a needless exchange with questionable motives. The rich man is accused of trying to pressure his birth sons into a reconciliation, or seeking to acquire a luxury commodity, or presumptuously attempting to supersede the works of nature, or all of the above. The commodification of human beings is represented as a a manifestation of a vicious pattern of overconsumption (Casamento 2002, Tabacco 1978), which can be easily associated with a general failure or refusal to engage in socially approved modes of exchange.

A common declamatory situation establishes the relationship between exposed children and their newly discovered birth parents as a commodified one. Following a declamatory law, birth parents may reclaim their exposed children from the fosterer if they pay the costs of nurture (solutis alimentis). Sen. Contr. 9.3 employs this scenario in order to set the biological and social definitions of paternity in competition. The birth father argues that his blood tie with his children supersedes any sort of commodified relationship, while the foster father claims that he has performed the “work” of paternity over a long period. In declamation, as in real life, exposed children are also subject to violence from their nurturers (Sen. Contr. 10.4, [Quint.] DMin. 358, 372). Speakers advance the claim that foster parents will do violence more willingly to dependents known to be biologically unrelated. Through these scenarios, the declaimers examine the meaning of in loco parentis in the context of commodification and violence.

The introduction of an adoptee changes not only the composition of a family but also the way that all family members think about their roles, purposes, and identities (Modell 1994). When declamatory texts accuse the members of an adoptive triad of attending primarily to economic interests, they run counter to the aristocratic ethic of exchange and reveal the asymmetries of power underlying an adoptive transfer. The speakers of Roman declamation, a genre which employs the family as “an argument magnet, drawing all topics back to itself” (Bloomer 2007, 304), employ the adoption scenario as a means of talking not only about familial behavior but also about proper performance in other spheres of aristocratic life.

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