BMCR 2003.04.23

Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome. A Life Course Approach

, , Growing up and growing old in Ancient Rome : a life course approach. London: Routledge, 2002. 1 online resource (viii, 184 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0585455740. $23.95 (pb).

In recent years several studies have dealt with the creation of personal identities and gender in the ancient Roman world.1 These can be seen as a natural evolution of Roman social history as it continues to develop as a field of specialized study. The book under review, “Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A life course approach”, strives to understand the impact of age on the formulation of identity and to examine how expectations changed as one moved through life from infancy to old age. Such a study fits well within the current path of Roman social studies and also fulfills the critical function of historical studies: to encourage us to reconsider the preconceived notions of our own modern societies about similar issues. As the average age of western societies today shifts ever upwards and members of these growing age groups redefine what the constructed age-category of ‘senior citizen’ means, the Roman definition of age groups acquires a particular interest.2

Harlow and Laurence set out as their major focus of this current book “the cultural construction of the life course and social ageing at Rome” (p. 18). H-L understand the term “life course” to encapsulate “the temporal dimension to life that begins at birth and ends in death, with numerous stages and rites of passage along the way.” Each culture defines these stages and rites differently and, consequently, the study of the life course of a given society provides insight into how a given society thinks about the aging of its members. Moreover, the individual members of a society will, to a certain degree, attempt to fulfill, whether consciously or subconsciously, the set of expectations held by other members associated with the stages of life through which they pass. As a cultural phenomenon these expectations are affected by the wealth, gender, and status of the individual.

H-L lay out a number of caveats in their opening chapter, many of which are already familiar to social historians. Their conclusions apply for the most part to the elite members of Roman society. Evidence for those beyond is scarce or non-existent and, if found, is subject to the bias of the author who is most often elite and male. The domination of male authorship within Roman society further complicates the study of Roman women.

The book comprises eleven chapters. After an introductory section, the second chapter sets the stage by examining the environment of the household. Its physical structure and the group that inhabited that dwelling (both identified by the term domus) played an important role, H-L believe, in structuring the lives of both females and males from their birth through their adult lives. Towards this end H-L consider the interaction and activities of household inhabitants over the course of a day beginning with the morning salutatio, at which the children and wives could glimpse the public world of the adult males of the household. On the principle that the time of day affected the use of the house H-L proceed to consider the activities undertaken within the household from the rising of the pater familias until the evening hours following dinner. Such a chronological examination breathes life into the two-dimensional house plans so familiar to us all. The chapter concludes with brief consideration of how the shape of the household would be in constant flux throughout the lifetime of any single individual (new wives would arrive, new children, divorce and death), and that shape was specifically tied to the advancement of the pater familias through life.

The following 8 chapters focus on the progressive stages of a Roman’s life course. Chapter Three examines infancy and childhood in Roman society. Following discussion of the vocabulary and chronology of childhood, H-L look at the socialization and education of children and discuss how Roman adults viewed childhood with a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality and praised children for attaining adult-like qualities.

Chapter Four and Five consider the transition from childhood to adulthood and the rituals which marked the transition from one course of life to the next. Citing the lack of evidence on young women in the ancient sources (H-L rightly remark that we find little information on female adolescence), the discussion of the female transition focuses on the betrothal and wedding rituals. H-L argue that while the transition to adulthood for a male consists of a series of gradual stages the equivalent transition for a female was made on the day of her wedding. Chapter Five then turns to consider the specific stages (beginning at 15 and ending at marriage around his 25th year) by which a boy became a Roman man.

Marriage marked an important transition in the lives of both men and women and played an additional important role in redefining the kinship group and the expectations of the participating parties. Chapter Six considers the impact the asymmetrical ages of bride and groom had on the relationship as well as the impact which the successful production of children had on the position of the new mother and the new power she wielded. Also, this chapter looks at the consequences, expectations, and effects of divorce on the parties involved and the courses of action open to those widowed. Chapter Seven examines the potential of a marriage to create kinship ties between families. In order to show that the nature (and quality) of such ties varied depending on the age of bride and groom, H-L consider four marriage scenarios; the typical first marriage (bride of 15 years, groom of 25), remarriage (bride of 15 years, groom of 40), the extreme (bride of 15 years, groom of 60), and remarriage in which the bride is remarrying in her 30s and 40s. By utilizing the demographic life tables compiled by Saller (located in the Appendix), H-L argue that a marriage of the first type (bride of 15, groom of 25) produced the most effective alliances, since connections were made across three generations of males.

In Chapter Eight, “Age and Politics” H-L suggest that between the 2nd century BC and first century AD the perception of and attitude to age and youth underwent a dramatic change. H-L see a redefinition of the ‘age of responsibility’, which they attribute in large part to the young age at which Augustus came to power.

Chapter Nine considers getting old in the Roman world. We are fortunate that for this stage of the life course we have more first-hand information. H-L look at the philosophy of old age as found in ancient texts and consider two accounts: Pliny’s description of Spurinna’s daily activities and Seneca’s comparison of a rundown building to his own old age.

Chapter Ten turns to discuss death and the memory of the dead. Methods by which the Romans commemorated their dead not only kept the deceased alive within the family but also provided an ancestral structure for the living that could serve to increase the status of the surviving relations.

Chapter Eleven serves as a conclusion in which H-L pull together many of the themes which appear in the study and call for the acknowledgement of the significance of the “temporal experience in the Roman world” for all aspects of our understanding of the ancient Roman world.

An appendix follows, consisting of the twelve life tables provided in Richard Saller’s 1994 book Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family. The book concludes with a bibliography and general index.

Stepping back to look at the book as a whole, one can find much of value within. H-L’s suggestion that an individual’s age and the accompanying cultural expectations of a person of that age (e.g. how one would expect someone of that age to act) should be seen as a defining characteristic of a person, equal to one’s gender, is rightly made and is the most important point to take from this book. Consider how often we today draw conclusions about a person’s character, motives, or actions based on his or her age, perceived or actual. To examine the motives and actions of a Roman politician, for example, without considering the stage of his life is to remove him from the cultural context within which he must be understood.

Married to a sourcebook such as Gardner and Wiedemann’s or Sheldon’s, this book could serve as an effective text for an undergraduate course on Roman life.3 While the authors do not explicitly state that they had such a purpose, its brevity, the omission of footnotes, and the overall tone all strong point in this direction. The preface suggests that this book saw its genesis and development in the classroom environment at the authors’ respective institutions. Betraying this origin, the chapters are peppered with parenthetical references to central modern studies that delve into the specific topics mentioned, something undergraduate students researching papers would find most helpful. The effort of H-L to set the Roman life course in a chronological arrangement of thematic topics is helpful and, as far as this reviewer knows, unique to modern scholarship. Almost every type of familial role found amongst the elite is mentioned.4 In addition, many of the institutions and rituals of life from the lifting of the child at birth by the pater familias ( tollere liberos) to the Parentalia receive discussion, albeit briefly in some cases.

The very strengths of this book, however, leave this reviewer somewhat disappointed at the missed opportunity. In the opening pages H-L state that they want to consider how an individual’s position in life (i.e. age) affects their actions. They wish to identify the expectations of how person of a certain age should act and how a person’s understanding of those expectations of others, especially of their family impacts their experience of life. “Age was something that was experienced and, at the same time, created an expectation of certain forms of behaviour” (p. 144). Such remarks are truly exciting to social historians and suggest an interaction with the primary sources at a highly personal/intellectual level to provide supporting evidence. But the book seems never to attain that level of examination. It focuses, for the most part, on discussing the modes and moments of transition (certainly of value, as mentioned above) at a societal, public, level rather than showing strong evidence of how the interpretation of these transitions by individual Romans affected their understanding or expectations of those passing through the stages. For example, following the discussion of the Roman funeral, H-L consider Cicero’s desire to build a shrine to his deceased daughter Tullia (p. 137-8). After briefly describing the letters going back and forth between Cicero and Atticus concerning the monument’s location and form, H-L states: “The desire for a shrine clearly was seen as a little odd by Atticus and other friends of Cicero” (p. 138). Surely, considering the goals set for this study, the uneasiness of the others should be the focus of this section. Atticus and others had specific expectations of how a man of Cicero’s age and position should mourn the death of his adult daughter and they, apparently, did not feel he was acting correctly.

The apparent focus upon the institutions that mark transitions results in the omission of some passages that would, in this reviewer’s opinion, strengthen the argument of this work. H-L point out that the production of children was a central goal of marriage in the Roman world (p. 84). They do not, however, include discussion of Pliny’s poignant letters to each of his young wife’s grandparents upon her miscarriage. The subtle variation of focus found in each speaks to how Pliny understood their expectations and main interests to be slightly different.5 Two additional sources from which much could be gleaned are Ovid’s poem describing his background and his father’s unfulfilled hopes for his future and Quintilian’s preface to the sixth book of his Institutio Oratoria, in which he discusses the death of his son for whom, in part, he was producing the magnum opus.6

In conclusion, this book serves a useful role as a chronological examination of the institutions and rites in which a Roman would participate over the course of his or her life. Further study, more lengthy and detailed in nature, along the lines H-L propose within this work will surely yield fruitful and interesting results.


1. E.g., M. Gleason, Making Men. Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press, 1995); H. I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford University Press, 1996); L. Foxhall, When Men were Men: masculinity, power and identity in classical antiquity. (Routledge, 1998); E. Gunderson, Staging Masculinity: the rhetoric of performance in the Roman world (University of Michigan Press, 2000).

2. Appearing at relatively the same time as this study are two others focussing specifically on old age: T. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: a cultural and social history (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); K. Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 2003).

3. Jane F. Gardner and Thomas E. J.Wiedemann, The Roman household: a sourcebook (Routledge, 1991); Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans did: a sourcebook in Roman social history 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1998).

4. The somewhat difficult incorporation of the stepmother does not receive treatment.

5. Plin. Ep. 8.10-11.

6. Ov. Tr. 4.10; Quint. Inst.