Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.24

Emiel Eyben, Restless Youth in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1993. Pp. viii + 367. ISBN 0-415-04366-2. $49.95.

Reviewed by David Meadows, McMaster University.

This potentially important book, by a scholar with over two decades of articles and monographs on youth in antiquity to his credit, is disappointing. According to the author, it is a "half way house" between his two earlier Dutch monographs: De jonge Romein volgens de literair bronnen der periode ca. 200 v. Chr. tot ca. 500 n. Chr. (Brussels, 1977) and De onstuimigen. Jeugd en (on)deugd in de Romeinse Oudheid (Kapellen, 1987). In fact, it is a condensed and rearranged version of the former, which was published with a lengthy English summary. Readers will do well to hunt down De jonge Romein insofar as most of the 'real' references are to be found there; in the present work, slightly more than half of the endnotes consist of "Cf. jR such and such" (the majority of the remainder are instructions to cf. various authors, but we are never told why). This likely was done at the instigation of the publisher to keep the book to some prescribed length (a recent phenomenon which detracts from serious scholarship), but there must have been other ways to accomplish this. Restless Youth also adopts the narrow approach of its monographical predecessors by concentrating almost entirely on literary sources, although as E. claims "epigraphical and papyrological material also proved itself occasionally useful" (3 -- those 'occasions' are on 51-2, 86-7, and 214-15). It was E.'s narrow approach in jR which inspired M. Kleijwegt to pen Ancient Youth (Amsterdam, 1991), which approaches this subject from an entirely epigraphical point of view. Kleijwegt's work has been utilized, to a very small extent, by E. who often declines comment when that epigraphical evidence does not support his thesis. As such, E.'s work is best read in conjunction with Kleijwegt's (and vice versa -- the solely epigraphical approach also has limitations). On its own, however, E.'s 'cut and paste', literary approach to the subject has resulted in a work which is generally unbalanced, sometimes bizarre, and often incoherent.

Given its literary basis, it is not surprising that E.'s study is confined almost entirely to the young males of Rome's wealthier classes. He begins by rejecting Ariès' (et al.) suggestion that the concept of adolescence (presumably = youth) was 'invented' in the eighteenth century. While 'adulthood' began at age 17 (when a Roman male was eligible for the levy) we can perhaps see an early conception of 'youth' at Rome in the Tullian military category of iuventus (i.e. those between 17 and 46). Even so, E. is probably correct in seeing two pieces of post-Second Punic War legislation as creating a new subcategory of 'youth' in our modern sense: the Lex Villia Annalis (which established a minimum age -- 27 according to E.1 -- for holding the quaestorship) and the Lex Laetoria (which was designed to protect those under 25 from circumscriptio, by granting them in integrum restitutio for any business transaction in which they were cheated, or later, which simply did not turn out well).2 As a result, E. suggests that from c. 200 B.C. onwards, we can consider 'youth' as the period between ages 17 and 25/30. A major section (11-16) is devoted to "Youth as an Age of Crisis" (although this 'crisis' is never defined) which draws on modern and ancient views that logical thought emerges at age 14 (i.e. the onset of puberty). Because of this newfound logical thought, the youth "enthusiastically plunges into discussions ... he gets a kick simply out of thinking, and enjoys juggling ideas" (12). So far, so good. But E. somewhat bizarrely goes on to present the tale of 'Hercules at the Crossroads' (e.g. Xen. Mem. 2.1.22 ff) and the Pythagorean allegory of the letter Y (e.g. Lactantius, Div. inst. 6.3.6 ff) and claims them to be "symbols of a psychological reality" which can be generally applied to the upper class Roman youth. We seem to approach only slightly firmer ground when E. considers the question "Why Was Youth Reputedly So Lacking In Virtue?" (19-30). Ac cording to E., the poet Persius was the exception in being fearful of the freedom which came with donning the toga virilis. Although "The young man's freedom was more often than not strictly limited as long as his father lived," (21), unfortunately, this is the only hint from the author that youth's freedom was not untrammelled. Nevertheless, E. muddles on, taking into account numerous other factors which influenced the 'crisis' associated with youth, such as the influx of Greek culture after the battle of Pydna, the negative effects of a flourishing society, otium, education, etc. We are also informed that this 'slippery age' was affected by the company one kept: "Older people -- especially flatterers -- could be 'bad company', and Christian writers even went so far as to advise the young to avoid the company of their peers and to associate with virtuous people who were older" (23). No wonder it was an age of crisis! In any event, E. suggests the 'crisis' ended with marriage, even though males tended to marry at an older age than girls. We might hope to read here how Augustus' marriage laws could have contributed to making the 'crisis' period shorter, but in vain. But embarking on a political career also brought the period to an end, although according to E. youths did not do so until "far into [their] twenties", apparently on the (erroneous) assumption that a political career began with the quaestorship (27; see below). After a 'psychological portrait' of the typical Roman youth, which consists almost entirely of extended quotations from Aristotle (31-34), Ptolemy (34-36), and Horace (36-37), E. notes: "The picture we have drawn of youth up to this point has been rather negative, a result of the fact that evaluations of youth in literature are more often than not negative, something which may not surprise us because most authors were older people, and middle and -- especially -- old age tend to be critical and pessimistic about youth" (39). Unfortunately this revelation has not affected the remainder of the work.

"Youth and the Established Order" (42-80) considers youth's involvement in the army, politics, and law. After a somewhat incoherent overview of the role of the iuventus in early Rome and many questionable examples of youth challenging the supremacy of the older generation in the army (none of the examples given, including those of Crassus and Clodius, seems to be the claimed 'conflict of generations') we come to a section on "Young Officers". Here we are told that from the time of Marius, the military prowess of the "leisure class" went into a steady decline: "The social status of the officer class of the day plummeted visibly, as J. Suolahti has convincingly shown ..." (50). "Plummet" is hardly the right word: what Suolahti has convincingly shown is that in the late Republic, the proportion of the 'nobility' as junior officers dropped markedly, but there was a concomitant rise in the proportion of members of the equestrian class as officers.3 As further evidence of this decline in military prowess, E. quotes Pliny, Ep. 8.14.4-7 where Pliny is said to be comparing the "situation of his own day with former times" (50). Unfortunately, Pliny is comparing growing up under Domitian to the times which went immediately before, hardly evidence for a general decline of prowess. The first part of the section on "Youth and Politics" (52-68) is easily the best part of the entire work and considers the role of youth in Catiline's conspiracy and late Republican politics. Here, among other things, we read how Cicero had 'won back' the support of the youth from Catiline and how later Caesar wooed the influential and youthful Caelius, Curio, and Dolabella (among others) away to 'his side'. A subsequent subsection on "Young Officials" (68-72), however, is very disappointing. While he is probably right to emphasize that many official positions were nominal and hereditary and thus suggest that many young office holders were exceptions, E. totally ignores the various minor offices of the vigintivirate (which could be held as young as 18) and their role as prerequisites for a senatorial career. One should definitely read Kleijwegt's seventh chapter at this point. The chapter closes with a solid section on the importance of oratory and legal training to public life.

"The Leisure Activities of Youth" (81-127) relates how the upper class Roman youth spent their free time, which according to E., was considerable. In addition to sports (81-87) and music and dance (87-88), a major part of a young Roman's free time was taken up by games (88-98). Here it is hard to ignore that Alan Cameron is repeatedly referred to as "she" (twice on 91 and once on 98) despite his full name appearing in the bibliography. We are, in any event, told of youthful participation in spectacles in the circus, both as fans and drivers (88-93), and of the devotion of the youth to the theatre (93-95). Indeed, youth seem to have had fanatical devotion to the 'stars', to the point of taking part in riots and other disturbances in the theatre at their instigation. Even so, E. has missed Vanzetti's point that Callistratus' legislation relating to these disturbances by iuvenes -- qui volgo se iuvenes appellant (Dig. does not necessarily refer to the iuvenes who are the focus of E.'s study.4 After learning that Roman youths dressed loudly, partied all night, spent money prodigiously, and liked to beat up people (which 'technically' is thuggery, and not vandalism, as E. labels it), we are given a brief disquisition on the collegia iuvenum, which E. claims fit in well with Augustus' policies on youth. Never mind that they weren't 'collegia' until c. 100 A.D. (before that they were sodalicia: see Vanzetti, ibid., note 1), but we must wonder why E. has included this here. In jR it came at the end of the section on youth's involvement in politics of the late Republic and indeed, by whatever name, these collegia were likely influential in such involvement. E. is unwilling to speculate on their precise role: while noting Jaczynowska's and Ginestet's agreement that they had some sort of military aspect to them, and questioning Mohler's suggestion that the iuvenes also received "serious intellectual training" (114),5 E. sees their primary importance as demonstrating how "a section of the young ... formed a closed community with established structures". But did they form that community themselves or was it imposed on them? Were the 'collegia' a precursor to or a result of Augustus' policies? Rather than considering such basic questions, E. skirts the issue with a quote from J.-P. Morel: "It remains a fact that these collegia, whose nature and functions have been so hotly debated, seem in the end to have played only a very secondary role in the Roman world. It is, in my opinion, an example of a subject that, considering its real importance, has excessively distracted the historians of Rome from researching more fundamental problems." (114 -- E.'s translation).6 In a work on Roman youth, it seems to me that the role of the collegia iuvenum is a fundamental problem.

"Youthful Thinking" (128-202) briefly considers Roman education before dealing with youthful eloquence and the attraction of youth to philosophy. According to E., interest in philosophy was primarily due to the opportunities it provided for practising eloquence, although some youths did seem interested in philosophy for its own sake. There follows a rather long section on poetry and youthful poets like Catullus, Cornelius Gallus, etc. and here, more than anywhere else, E. betrays himself as someone who came of age at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius (176-202). We are told that Catullus "quite deliberately used a specialized vocabulary to provoke the establishment" (191). Persius too "castigated the Roman establishment for its folly and ignorance" (191). E. suggests that poetry was an expression of youthful ambition, originality and idealism and that the poetae novi "constitute what present-day historians would call a 'counter-culture', a movement which seeks to "discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new aesthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics" (196). "The poetae novi were, without doubt ... scandalized ... by the degenerate character of society at the time, yet they refused to work for the good of the community. For them the most important thing was otium, leisure, free time. They raised to a virtue what for 'respectable citizens' was considered a vice; they were proud of their vices, of their listlessness, their languor, their sheer laziness" (197). "Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid could have had 'Make love, not war' as their motto" (200). The only cliché E. missed was "Turn on, tune in, and drop out."; one wonders whether he was really writing about the poetae novi or the Beatles.

"The Emotional Life of the Young Roman" (203-254) informs us about the irreverentia of youth, pietas, how patria potestas was largely theoretical, and how parents in the late Republic and early Empire were generally indulgent. The evidence for this latter point comes primarily from the plays of Plautus and Terence, whose general applicability to Roman society at large has not been established (E. seems to realize this: see below). After a section on youthful friendship (215-221), E. tells us that during the Republic, the "idols" of Roman youth were generally politicians and orators; during the Empire they were teachers, philosophers, and rhetoricians. That such "idols", who were of the older generation, might be respected by an otherwise disrespectful youth is glossed over by E. as just one of the many "contradictions" of youth (222-230). A section on "Sex and Love" gives a good overview of what was considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in general (231-233). Unfortunately it is marred by a rather bizarre section on the rejection of love and sex which closes with the tales of Narcissus and Hippolytus as being "representative of youth" (233-238). This is followed by a section on marriage (239-241) which is remarkable for its misunderstanding of the nature of marriage in Rome (surely we cannot generalize from quotations from Seneca via Jerome about loving one's wife too much) and for the statement: "Small wonder that many young (as well as not so young) people were far from enthusiastic about marriage and used every means open to them to escape from this 'nuisance' and 'tedious' drag" (239). Readers will do well to balance this section with Treggiari's Roman Marriage, 183-319 (a work apparently unknown to E., although it did appear at the same time as Kleijwegt's work). Finally we get a discourse on homosexuality, which, among other things claims that "In spite of the harsh punishments imposed in the army in the interests of discipline, homosexuality was without doubt commonly encountered in this milieu." (242). The intrepid reader who tracks down the references via jR will, without doubt, question E.'s definition of 'commonly'. The chapter ends with a discourse on romantic love (247-255) and the revelation that "It is uncertain how far the comedies of Plautus and Terence or the poems of these love-poets express the social reality of their day" (247). The work ends with a brief conclusion (256-259).

Around the time E. would have been working on jR, John Crook suggested, in regards to research on Roman women, "The pieces of evidence that can be adduced point in different directions, or not unequivocally in any direction, and one must beware of generalizing from the notorious political women and the antics of Roman 'night-club' society."7 The same could be said about E.'s depiction of Roman youth. That depiction is one of toga-clad hippies who took on the establishment and hated war. They spent their time partying, listening to music, dancing, going to the theatre and races, rolling the occasional drunk, and avoiding marriage. It is a generally unbalanced portrayal which seems to purposely avoid any serious discussion of potential control mechanisms which prevented Rome from becoming the Haight-Ashbury of antiquity (e.g., patria potestas, marriage, political careers prior to the quaestorship, the collegia iuvenum and so on). Unfortunately, this book is destined to become popular with students who will, no doubt, enjoy seeing the upper class Roman youth acting 'just like us'. Caveat doctor.8


  • [1] Here E. is following primarily A.E. Astin, The Lex Annalis Before Sulla, (Bruxelles, 1958), 45 and numerous others who follow Astin.
  • [2] E. seems unsure whether it was a lex Plaetoria or Laetoria, referring to it as [P]Laetoria (as other scholars do), despite the fact that S. Di Salvo, Lex Laetoria (Napoli, 1979), 54-56, which is cited by E., has admirably demonstrated that it was unquestionably a lex Laetoria.
  • [3] See, e.g. Junior Officers of the Roman Army, (Helsinki, 1955), 298.
  • [4] Labeo 20 (1974), 77-82.
  • [5] M. Jaczynowska, Les Associations de la jeunesse romaine sous le Haut-Empire, (Warsaw, 1978), 63; P. Ginestet, Les organisations de la jeunesse dans l'Occident Romain, (Bruxelles, 1991), 162-164 (mentioned, but not cited by E.). Both suggest, and are followed by E., that their military aspect should be considered more recreational than serious. S.L. Mohler, "The Iuvenes and Roman Education," TAPA 68 (1937), 442-479. Why E. questions Mohler's assertions is not made clear.
  • [6] J.-P. Morel, "Sur quelques aspects de la jeunesse à Rome," in Mélanges offerts à J. Heurgon: L'Italie préromaine et la Rome républicaine (Paris, 1976), 671.
  • [7] Law and Life of Rome, (London, 1967), 104.
  • [8] The author would like to thank Drs. G.M. Paul and W.J. Slater for their useful comments on this review.