Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.21
Christian Laes, Johan Strubbe, Jeugd in het Romeinse Rijk: Jonge jaren, wilde haren?. Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2008. Pp. 238. ISBN 978058265272. €24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Beert C. Verstraete, Acadia University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 2651 words
As noted by the publisher on the back cover, this Dutch-language book is the third in a "drieluik" (triptych) covering the life-course of Roman men and women. The first was Amor-Roma: Liefde in Rome, co-authored by Eymiel Eyben, Christian Laes, and Toon van Houdt, which I reviewed in BMCR 2004.06.55; and the second, Kinderen bij de Romeinen: Zes Eeuwen Dagelijks Leven ("Children Among the Romans: Six Centuries of Daily Life"), of which Professor Laes was the sole author and which was based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Leiden; this I reviewed in BMCR 2006.08.28.
The literal translation of the title of the book under review is, "Youth in the Roman Empire: Young Years, Wild Hair?" In Dutch, the subtitle has a proverbial resonance--one will note the rhyme of "jaren" en "haren." It does not work this way in English, of course, and one would want a different idiom: perhaps, "years of storm and stress?"--using the English rendering of "Sturm und Drang" (in fact, even the original German expression has enjoyed for a long time a secure place in English cultural idiom). Throughout this review, I'll simply provide my translation of the Dutch wherever I deem it to be helpful.
The first chapter, "Focus on Youth," is introductory and discusses the conceptual and methodological problematics that inevitably arise in any study of youth as a distinct phase in the lives of males and females in a given society and culture. The fundamental question, most simply put, is: "Did past societies recognize a conduct which was typical of young people?" (16) In the West of today and even in many non-Western societies, the years of youth are demarcated as a distinct developmental stage in human life which possesses its own unique phenomenal and cultural markers. But it has not always been like this. Laes and Strubbe (henceforth L. & S.) offer a judicious overview of how, from Rousseau's radical ideas in the eighteenth century onwards, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians (such as Mead, Ariès, Shorter, and Stone, to name a few of those discussed by L. & S.) have grappled with the question of young people and their place in society. L. & S.'s discussion makes it clear that this question is directly predicated on how childhood is viewed and conceptualized. Laes's earlier book on Roman childhood, therefore, is an essential prequel to the present one.
In the Roman context of this book, L. & S. draw a sharp contrast between the views of two Dutch classicists E. Eyben (praised in the "Preface" as the "inspirer," 12, of Laes' doctoral dissertation) and H. W. Pleket. "The central thesis of Eyben is that youth was very much a reality with the Romans." (26) "Impetuosity" ("ontstuimigheid," 26) was the hallmark of everything a Roman young man did or felt. (The discussion here is clearly focused here on the male sex.) "The approach of Eyben is essentially that of a classical philologist who also has an eye for the voluminous sociological and psychological literature pertaining to the youth of the sixties." (25) "Eyben foregrounds to a very large degree the megalopolis of Rome," with "the many hundreds of cities in the east and the west of the Roman Empire unavoidably remaining somewhat on the periphery." (25 ) By contrast, H.W. Pleket (followed by Marc Kleijwegt), employing a more comparative-historical approach and drawing on his expertise in Greek epigraphy, draws a very different picture, concluding that "the world of adults accepted Roman and urban youth at an early stage and that, therefore, there could not be any question of a crisis of adolescence among Roman people." (27) Very importantly, "with respect to terminology, Pleket observed that the Romans did not at all divide any further the period from fifteen to twelve-five/ thirty years." (27)
In the closing paragraphs of the first chapter, L. & S. rightly underline the research challenge posed by their subject, which is a multifaceted one and covers an "immense domain." (29) A central question to be asked is whether the biological facts of growth and development starting with the onset of puberty and adolescence "are linked with the assumption of social responsibilities or whether the latter are postponed for a while." (30) L. & S. note in this connection that "marriage, whether or not accompanied by financial independence, is often marked as the termination of youth." (30) Thus, early marriage, which was the rule for girls, cut off the possibility of a protracted youth. L. & S. caution that, given the sources and data available, the Roman social historian is unable to complete the "puzzle" (29); nevertheless, the challenge is not to be shirked. Their study covers the period of life which the Romans designated as adulescentia or iuventus, "which seems to correspond roughly with the years of the late teens and early twenties." (30)
The first chapter is followed by eleven more, with a "Conclusion" coming at the end. The full table of contents of chapters 2-12, which I'll give here in translation, will provide the reader an excellent idea of the range of topics covered by L. & S. and the depth and detail with which these are pursued. Then this review will offer, very briefly, my own comments on some points.
Ages of Majority and Ages of Minority: Youth, the Periodization of Human Life, and Roman Law
The position of youth in the periodization of human life
Age in actual life
Terminology and Characteristics [of Youth]
Characteristics of young people and adolescents
Rites of Transition
In the Greek world
In Rome and the Roman world
Youth according to Ancient Medicine
Medical observations on adolescents: similarities and differences
Sick teenagers: some actual cases
Excursus: Aristotle on puberty
Youth and Education: the Rhetor and the 'University'
The system of education in the Roman Empire
Higher education in the cities of the Greek East: the local level
The organization of higher education
The education provided by the rhetor
Student life at the 'universities'
The education of girls
Excursus: Ovid's education
Societies and Associations of the Young
Excursus: the decree honoring Menas of Sestus
The Conduct of the Young
Excursus: A letter from Marcus Cicero
Youths in Public Office
Youths in the central government: senators and equestrians
Youths in municipal functions
Physicians and jurists in the East and the West
Excursus: the education of the physician Galen
Roman marriage as an institution
When to marry?
Marriage ceremonies following Roman tradition
Marriage ceremonies following Greek tradition
The actual dynamics of entering upon marriage
Marriage as the end of the period of youth for boys
Girls and marriage: a history of oppression?
Youth and Christianity: Change or Continuity?
The earliest Christians: a young church?
Young office-bearers in the church
Youth and sexuality
Christian youth in actual life: the Vita Severi
In the main heading of chapter 2, I have used the plurals "ages of minority" and "ages of majority" to translate the Dutch "minderjarigheid" and ""meerjarigheid" in order to convey that, as is made quite clear by L. & S, there was no single age when a young person--especially youthful male--was certain to reach the age of unqualified adulthood according the laws and expectations of Roman society. Thus, when a Roman boy assumed the toga virilis at the age of 14 or 15, or sometimes a bit later, he was indeed legally an adult, and thus could marry. However, he might very well still be under patria potestas, or if his father was no longer alive, under cura until the age of 25. It is not much different in contemporary American and Canadian society, where the age of sexual consent is usually 16, the right to hold a driver's licence is 16, the right to marry varies from 16 to 18 years, the legal voting age is 18, and the legal drinking age varies from 18 to 21 (21 everywhere in the U.S.), this whole state of affairs being greatly complicated by the fact that in the jurisdictions of many U.S. states a minor can be tried in an adult court for serious criminal offenses.
On p. 253 of his book on Roman childhood, Laes had highlighted the importance of the information we have concerning alimenta (the subsidies provided by both the state and private individuals during the imperial period to the poor to feed their children), in giving us some concrete figures as to how the Romans understood, in practice, the upper age limit for childhood: 14 to 16 years for boys, and 13 to 14 for girls. This information might have been reprised in Chapter 2, for it gives us a good idea of when the members of the poorest sectors of society were expected to stand on their own feet, so to speak, i.e. support themselves and, if necessary, a spouse and children, and thus, by the standards of any society, whether modern or preindustrial, to attain to at least de facto adulthood: Roman girls were by their early teens deemed ready for marriage (the minimum legal age of marriage for them being only 12), and Roman boys usually donned the toga virilis, which bestowed adulthood on them, in their mid-teens, with all the practical implications this had for a Roman boy without any substantial family means.
Our ancient sources reflect almost exclusively the views of older adult men of the higher socioeconomic classes, and thus it is not surprising that, in the final paragraphs of chapter 3, L. & S. conclude that Roman thinking about youth and young people tended towards the negative. At the same time, they emphasize, contra Eyben, that the Romans did not particularly single out the years of youth as a "period of crisis." (50). I would add that Roman depreciation of youth for its "impetuosity" and its general instability of character was not insignificantly offset by the valorization of the physical beauty and emotional spontaneity of youth which is present in Roman art and iconography, both private and public, and, of course, as L. & S. also recognize, in literature as well. Such idealization--representing a major assimilation of Hellenic culture, of course --did not necessarily exclude the gravitas and other excellences of maturity; think, for instance, of the portraiture of the ever-young Octavian-Augustus.
The excursus, "Ovid's education" in Chapter 6, draws on the fact, as noted by L. & S., that Ovid is one of the very few Romans who speaks in his writings about the years of his youth and his education--an education which normally would have prepared the young, equestrian status Ovid for a career in rhetoric and government, like his prematurely deceased brother, but against which he stubbornly rebelled in favor of his self-chosen vocation as a poet. There is no reason to question the essential veracity of Ovid's account in Tristia 4.10.15-40, but it also has an element of literary aemulatio in that it was probably inspired at least in part by a similar autobiographical story of a love-elegist's vocation discovered and a potential career in the Roman establishment abandoned as related by Ovid's older contemporary, Propertius (4.1. 119-134). A final note under this heading: the idea that Augustus exiled Ovid because "[p]ossibly the emperor was furious that the poet had a relationship with his granddaughter Julia" (97) is, I have good reason to believe, no longer seriously entertained by scholars.
In Chapter 11, L. & S. adhere to what has become, since Richard Saller's and Brent Shaw's interpretation of the epigraphical data in the 1980s, the most widely accepted position regarding the average age of first marriage for men and women in the Roman Empire, especially in the Latin-speaking West, namely that, while males and females of the upper (i.e. senatorial and equestrian) classes married at a very early age (late teens, sometimes even mid-teens, as did Julius Caesar, to the early 20's for the former, and early teens for the latter), with our literary sources leading us to this conclusion, for the lower classes the average age was higher: late teens for females and late 20s to early 30's for males (L. & S. put the latter in the 25-30 years range). It is worthy of note, though, that the two epitaphic texts cited by L.& S, in each of which a husband commemorates his deceased wife, give thirteen as the age of marriage of the woman. True, the texts are Greek and come from Greek-speaking communities, where the customary practices governing the age of first marriage might be expected to be different. The first funeral inscription is from first or second century A.D. Tomis (the Black Sea town in the province of Moesia to which Ovid was exiled), which was founded as a Greek colony and had a predominantly Greek-speaking population. The second, however, is from first or second century A.D. cosmopolitan Rome with its huge, preponderantly Latin-speaking population, where it is unlikely a Greek-speaking minority could have maintained for very long its own distinctly Greek norms and expectations with respect to the age of first marriage if these diverged sharply from the dominant ones.
Chapter 12, which looks at the impact of Christianity and the Christian Church of the first four centuries on society's perception of youth and the socialization of young people, is a welcome one. L. & S. show that there were opportunities for young people in the very early Church to exercise real leadership, but that over the centuries the Church developed its own cursus honorum (190)--this development was pretty well complete by the middle of the fourth century. As for sexuality and Christian youth, L. & S. rightly conclude that the Church's teaching with its promotion of self-denial inevitably exacerbated the storm and stress experienced by young people, especially males, who were coming to know their sexuality, and this to a degree that pre-Christian ethics and medicine never did or could have done. Even so, "in Late Antiquity there was not much immediate change in the practice of married life." (194)
Not surprisingly, in the "Conclusion," L. & S. align themselves basically with Pleket's and Kleijwigt's position as summarized in the third paragraph of this review. As they put it, "[i]t cannot be denied that the society of the Roman Empire did not evince a special appreciation for a period of storm and stress in the life of the young. What was important above all was a person's growth to adulthood, where seriousness would prevail." (197) However, they qualify this generalization at the very end with two nods in the direction of Eyben: the first, a consideration of social class, namely that " [n]o historian will dispute that the problem of youth is primarily one of the top stratum of a society" (199); and the second, of even more universal application: "Did the years of youth signify for the Roman also the proverbial storm and stress? In a certain sense, yes, for in the teen years powerful biological stirrings began to make themselves felt." (199)
L.'s & S.'s book comes with an explanatory register of words, a list of abbreviations, 16 pages of end-notes, a bibliography, an alphabetical index, an index locorum, and a tabulation of references to inscriptions, papyri, and legal texts. All of these make it most useful to scholars, while at the same time its clear, uncluttered writing providing excellent translations of many cited texts will also make it accessible to the layperson. Jeugd in het Romeinse Rijk is more compact than Laes's earlier book on Roman children (238 versus 343 pages), which is its essential praeparatio, as I already hinted at the beginning; but it has the same excellences, and my recommendation for a speedy translation into English is thus also the same.