A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which might only be available for a few days for free for non-subscribers) was mentioned on the Classics list t’other day (and doesn’t seem to have generated any response). It comprises a response by Nancy K.D. Lemon to an earlier review essay in the same journal by Christina Hoff Sommers on “Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship”. The primary focus of the response is the oft-emailed thing about the ‘rule of thumb’ which, apparently, is somehow connected with Romulus. We’ll begin with the salient excerpt from Dr. Sommers’ piece (still online):
Lemon’s Domestic Violence Law is organized as a conventional law-school casebook —a collection of judicial opinions, statutes, and articles selected, edited, and commented upon by the author. The first selection, written by Cheryl Ward Smith (no institutional affiliation is given), offers students a historical perspective on domestic-violence law. According to Ward:
“The history of women’s abuse began over 2,700 years ago in the year 753 BC. It was during the reign of Romulus of Rome that wife abuse was accepted and condoned under the Laws of Chastisement. … The laws permitted a man to beat his wife with a rod or switch so long as its circumference was no greater than the girth of the base of the man’s right thumb. The law became commonly know as ‘The Rule of Thumb.’ These laws established a tradition which was perpetuated in English Common Law in most of Europe.”
Where to begin? How about with the fact that Romulus of Rome never existed. He is a figure in Roman mythology —the son of Mars, nursed by a wolf. Problem 2: The phrase “rule of thumb” did not originate with any law about wife beating, nor has anyone ever been able to locate any such law. It is now widely regarded as a myth, even among feminist professors.
Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Lemon’s response:
In spite of my response, she wrote in The Chronicle Review that she is “open to correction,” yet she ignored my response to her and continued to complain of the same purported inaccuracies.
In regard to the rule of thumb, for example, she asserted that Romulus of Rome, who is credited in my book with being involved with the first antidomestic-violence legislation, could not have done this as he was merely a legendary, fictional character, who along with his brother Remus was suckled by a wolf.
In fact, Plutarch and Livy each state that Romulus was the first king of Rome. He reigned from 753-717 BC, and created both the Roman Legions and the Roman Senate. He is also credited with adding large amounts of territory and people to the dominion of Rome, including the Sabine women. The modern scholar Andrea Carandini has written about the historic reign of Romulus, based in part on the 1988 discovery of the Murus Romuli on the north slope of the Palatine Hill in Rome.
R. Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash, pioneers and well-respected leaders in the field of domestic-violence research, discuss Romulus in their 1979 book, Violence Against Wives. They state that the marriage laws passed in 753 BC, under Romulus of Rome, allowed men to beat their wives, and that this rule continued into England and the United States in the 1700s and 1800s. Dobash and Dobash refer to a “rod drawn through the wedding ring” in describing the size of the stick husbands were allowed to use for this purpose, the same guideline referred to as the rule of thumb.
Okay … without getting sidelined by the historicity of Romulus and what he may or may not have “passed” (I didn’t know kings had to “pass” anything, except, perhaps, for water and the odd kidney stone), or even his existence, we should point out that Dr. Sommers is entirely right to say that we have no ancient source which mentions a “right” granted by Romulus for hubbies to beat their wives. In regards to marriage, however, we probably should mention that Romulus is credited in our ancient sources with putting some limits on manus marriage. In a manus marriage, which presumably most/all marriages would have been in the times Romulus is said to have been around, we are told that women would have been in a position akin to a child in potestate, and if we want to extend that notion, we might suggest that the wife would be subject to the vitae necisque potestas claimed to have been among the paterfamilias’ powers. That the vitae necisque potestas was used as was often claimed in older textbooks is subject to debate (I might expand on this at a later date … I did a chapter on this for my M.A. thesis) but it seems reasonable to assume that the severing of legal ties to the woman’s original family did create a situation where wife-beating could ‘legally’ occur. With that in mind, the ‘family law’ attributed to Romulus could be seen as limiting the effects of manus somewhat, ecce (from Fant and Lefkowitz, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, via the Stoa):
7. The cognates sitting in judgment with the husband … were given power to pass sentence in cases of adultery and … if any wife was found drinking wine Romulus allowed the death penalty for both crimes.
9. He also made certain laws, one of which is severe, namely that which does not permit a wife to divorce her husband, but gives him power to divorce her for the use of drugs or magic on account of children  or for counterfeiting the keys or for adultery. The law ordered that if he should divorce her for any other cause, part of his estate should go to the wife and that part should be dedicated to Ceres. Anyone who sold his wife was sacrificed to the gods of the underworld.
… So from an early time, it appears, a hubby’s right to divorce was limited, and his right to execute a wife caught in adultery was subject to a paralegal sort of process involving her relatives, both of which would be limits on the powers implied in a manus marriage. So much for Romulus’ ‘marriage legislation’ … nothing specific about beating wives legally. Even so, by the time of Augustus, we are told (or so it appears), manus marriage was pretty rare, except for certain priesthoods perhaps, and so any “rule” allowing a hubby to beat his wife likely did not really have an opportunity for continuity and it might be speculated that the continued ties of a wife to her biological family might have served as a deterrent to such actions to some extent. But to make the leap from whatever one wants to read into the concept of manus to the ‘rule of thumb’ is, as my former thesis adviser would say, “scant straw from which to make rhetorical bricks”.
UPDATE (08/21/09): more coverage in the New Yorker: Literary Smackdown: Sommers vs. Romulus