Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.03

Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, Children in the Visual Arts of Imperial Rome.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. 252.  ISBN 0-521-82026-X.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Janet Burnett Grossman, Department of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum (
Word count: 1308 words

Table of Contents

In this slim volume that began as a seminar paper, then the author's 1998 dissertation at Duke University, Uzzi discusses the use of imperial images of children as evidence in a quest to discover Roman identity. She has compiled a corpus of approximately 130 representations of children from the official art of the Empire, from the Augustan through the Severan periods. Of these 130, about half are identified as Roman and half as non-Roman. Uzzi contends that the identification of relationships among images of children within the context of the visual language of the empire leads to conclusions that relate to Roman identity and political ideology. Her goal is to answer the question, "What did it mean to be Roman?"

Uzzi sets the scene for her quest in the introduction by a brief review of modern political literature on definitions of nationhood, including that of Renan, Anderson, Woolf, and Zizek.1 Thus, Uzzi uses images of children not to learn something about children themselves but as a means to inform us about Roman identity. This is a departure from most studies of ancient children, which have usually attempted to reveal the nature and character of children and their place within Roman family and society.2

In the first chapter, "Primary Sources," Uzzi surveys previous studies on Roman children and notes that none have undertaken to examine in a systematic way the artistic contexts in which children are depicted and the roles the children play in those contexts. Uzzi's definition of official art rests on three criteria: that the patron is the emperor or a member of the ruling elite, that the viewer is the public, and that the function is as a narrative of Roman identity. Children, for Uzzi's purposes, are infants to puberty, that is, the first two seven-year periods of life. Determining whether older children are prepubescent from visual images can prove to be tricky but Uzzi takes into account height, skeletal size, face shape, and body fat and excludes boys with any trace of facial hair or chest development or girls with breast development. For the purpose of this study, Uzzi is interested only in representations of anonymous, mortal, and citizen children. She excludes imperial children, slaves, mythological children, and religious attendants, such as camilli/ae.

The following two chapters present depictions of Roman children in scenes of imperial largesse and in public gatherings on public monuments and coins. More than thirty children are seen in depictions of imperial largesse, often among family members standing before and around the emperor and directing their attention toward him. On the coins, the author finds a connection between Roman children and the personifications of Roma, Italia and Libertas. The public monuments examined include the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum, a pair of reliefs from the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the Villa Albani, and two scenes on the Arch of Constantine. Uzzi concludes that children are included in these scenes of imperial largesse in order to advertise the charitable social policies of the Roman ruling elite and to make explicit the investment of the ruling elite in the future of Rome. Children, in other words, represent the prosperity that issues from imperial policies and programs.

Eleven scenes of imperial speeches, sacrifices, games and processions also include children. In these situations the children act as observers and are always accompanied by adults. Besides coins bearing adlocutio motifs, panels from the Arco di Portogallo, reliefs from Trajan's column, and coin types and reliefs of various ludi are surveyed. While the primary reason that children are included in these scenes of public gathering are as members of family groups observing the various events, Uzzi concludes that their inclusion offers insight into the socialization of Roman children as proper Roman citizens. Again, they are there because of their potential as future Romans who will be responsible for such gatherings, and to emphasize the commitment of the emperor to children and family.

The second part of the book concerns images of non-Roman children in scenes of submission, triumph, and military activity. Just as Roman children represent the future of the Roman populace, non-Roman children represent the future of their particular region or ethnic group. Fifteen images are considered in which non-Roman children either submit or are offered as tokens of submission to the emperor or his representative. Usually the children are shown as members of a family or ethnic group. These scenes include those on the submission relief panels of Marcus Aurelius, on the Column of Trajan, on coins, on the Boscoreale cup, and on sarcophagi. The inclusion of non-Roman children in these scenes of submission highlights the political impotence of non-Roman ethnic groups. The surrender of children is a trope for the transmission of political power by non-Romans to Rome. Three triumphant scenes, on a Julio-Claudian architectural frieze, a frieze from the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum, and a relief from the Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna, depict six non-Roman children. The children are included in these scenes to underscore the complete downfall and degradation of the conquered. The military scenes are violent battles depicted on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, four reliefs from the Victory Monument at Adamklissi, and on sarcophagi. Again, non-Roman children are included to emphasize the dominance of Rome over non-Roman populations irrespective of age or gender. The pathos of such scenes is heightened by the presence of the children, who are sometimes dead and dying.

Uzzi concludes her study with a look at the children depicted on the Ara Pacis, whose presence is an advertisement of the future power of the imperial family. A total of ten children are presented on the Ara Pacis, four in the procession of the north frieze, four in the procession of the south frieze, and two in the lap of the goddess variously identified as Tellus, Terra Mater, or Roma/Italia on the east frieze (and therefore mythological and outside the range of Uzzi's investigation). Most of the children on the Ara Pacis are members of the imperial family and are shown among family members in a processional scene as observers, but two children are non-Romans and look to Rome for guidance and control.

In her conclusions, Uzzi argues that a child's ethnopolitical status was the primary factor determining the artistic contexts in which that child might appear. Images of children respected established status boundaries. The disparate contexts in which Roman and non-Roman children appear illuminate the ideology of the Roman ruling elite. Roman children always appear in peaceful scenes of public gathering, often before the emperor. They are shown in official contexts, demonstrating their integration into Roman society and their potential for the future. In contrast, non-Roman children are shown almost exclusively in subservient roles, usually subject to violence and humiliation, and always submissive, thereby demonstrating the power of the empire over its enemies, provinces, and territories. The future of these children is one of subservience or slavery. Roman children are also consistently depicted with fathers or male figures and female divinities while non-Roman children are usually associated with their mothers or other female figures.

Uzzi includes an appendix of comparanda of images of children in private and funerary art with the purpose of providing readers with further contextualization of the official child images and as a source for further study. This section is so brief, however, that in this reader's opinion it would have been better omitted. With its necessary reliance on secondary sources, its inclusion here somehow dilutes the effect of the main theses of the book. The topic of children in private and funerary art deserves its own book-length study. Apart from this small criticism, Uzzi's book is a succinct, cogent, and sufficiently illustrated exposition of the representation of children in Roman imperial art with logical interpretations of their presence in the various scenes.


1.   Renan's essay in G. Eley and S. Grigor, Becoming National: A Reader (1996), pp. 42-55; B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (1991); G. Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (1998); S. Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (1993).
2.   For example, B. Rawson, The Family in Ancient Rome (1986), and Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (1991); S. Dixon, Childhood, Class, and Kin in the Roman World (2001); and T.E.J. Wiedemann, Adults and Children in the Roman Empire (1989). See now also, B. Rawson, Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (2003); V. Dasen, ed., Naissance et petite enfance dans l'Antiquité (2004). Two recent exhibitions have attempted to reconstruct the lives of ancient children with an examination of items used by children and those picturing children: J. Neils and J. Oakley, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Image of Childhood from the Classical Past (2003); D. Gourevitch, A. Moirin, N. Rouquet, Maternité et petite enfance dans l'Antiquité romaine (2003).

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:05, Friday, 03 April 2009