BMCR 2005.04.42

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy

, Children and childhood in Roman Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xiv, 419 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780191514234 $99.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

In her long awaited and eagerly anticipated new book, Beryl Rawson (hereafter R.) aims to demonstrate that children in Italy of the late republic and first two centuries of empire were “in principle and often in practice, welcome and valued and visible in Roman society” (p. 1). Her assertion stands in marked contrast to the opinions of progressivist historians, like Philippe Ariès, who have painted an exceedingly bleak picture of childhood in pre- and early-modern Europe, but is consistent with the view of scholars who have argued for a more nuanced and, in some instances, rosy historical interpretation.1 As the first comprehensive study of children and childhood in Roman Italy, R.’s book will be welcomed by both ancient and modern historians as an important contribution to the rich and vibrant scholarship on the history of western childhood.

In a sense, R.’s approach to the study of Roman children is Arièsian, for she provides a synthesis of the literary and material culture for children’s lives. She eschews, however, any attempt at diachronic analysis, preferring to focus on the dissonance in the ancient evidence between the ideals and realities of childhood. For this reason, she divides her study into two parts: ‘Representations of Children in Roman Italy’ and ‘The Life Course’. Part One consists of a single, lengthy chapter that provides some idea of the diverse ways that children were represented in Roman art and commemorative inscriptions. R. examines the status, sex, and ages of the children commemorated, as well as the range of images considered appropriate for their memorials. Her treatment of the art historical evidence is noteworthy and refreshing, for this body of material has received scant attention from scholars until relatively recently. Together with images of children on imperial coinage and well-published monuments such as the Ara Pacis and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, R. examines lesser-known private commemorations which clearly derive inspiration from public sources but which provide different perspectives on children’s place in society. She takes the frequency with which children appeared in public and private art as a measure of their visibility within society and as a clear indication of how integral they were to ‘Rome’s cultural symbolism’ (p. 61).

Part Two comprises seven chapters that offer readers a look at the realities of children’s lives. It begins with three short chapters: ‘Welcoming a Child’, ‘Rearing’, and ‘Ages and Stages’. R. considers first how children entered the world and their reception in the family and the wider community. The desire for children was an ‘explicit aim’ (p. 95) of marriage, but Romans were deeply aware that the birth of a child was dangerous for both mother and infant and they approached this event with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. They alleviated their fears by calling upon different numina to usher the newborn into the world and by following the advice of medical writers like Soranus who provided highly detailed instructions on infant and maternal care. Private and public celebration also accompanied a new baby’s arrival (wreathing the doors of the family home with laurel, making sacrifices at the family altar, and setting the day for the lustratio). As R. rightly points out, not all Roman children were wanted. Circumstances governed decisions to rear children, and parents sometimes had to make hard decisions about whether a sickly or deformed child might live or die. But once the decision was made, parents seem to have had a rather relaxed attitude to children’s development, preferring to let them grow and mature at their own pace. Culturally constructed stages of childhood (those defined by the state) were naturally more precise. Age seven marked the end of infancy or early childhood and once children reached this age they were old enough to be betrothed; girls could marry at the age of twelve and boys at fourteen, although the actual age at which they married was somewhat older; and by sixteen boys generally donned the toga of manhood. R. sees in the celebrations of a child’s arrival, the measures taken to ensure its survival, the monitoring of its physiological development, and society’s desire to define legally the stages of childhood clear evidence of social and familial concern for the child.

In the first of three substantial chapters dealing with children’s enculturation (‘Education’, ‘Relationships’, and ‘Public Life’), R. examines Roman education, a topic which she defines very broadly (p. 146). On the one hand it encompassed the formal rhetorical schooling that was so vital for the sons of the elite who were destined for public careers. On the other it comprised the practical training received by countless children who made fundamental contributions to the economies of their households (principally less-affluent and servile children in urban centers). After an exhaustive discussion of early education, school curricula, instructors, and the state’s involvement in education, R. sets out the opportunities for the less fortunate and the ages at which their instruction might begin. A liberal arts education was not out of the question for the children of the lower classes, but it was largely through apprenticeships that these children learned a trade or acquired the technical skills that proved most useful to them. Boys are the focus of the literary and epigraphic sources on education (p. 206 and 207), but R. concludes this chapter with a careful consideration of the educational opportunities for girls. The future of many included marriage and reproduction, but some elite girls grew up in households where great works of Greek and Latin authors were read and much discussed, and the girls must have developed intellectual qualities appropriate to such a stimulating milieu. Girls of middling rank might receive a public school education, while the circumstances of the free poor militated against any type of liberal arts training. The picture R. paints generally is one in which there is a great deal of concern, at all levels of society, that children be provided with an education appropriate to their situation.

The vocational and rhetorical instructors, pedagogues, and capsarii who taught, supervised, and served children are among the many individuals with whom children formed personal attachments. ‘Relationships’, the second of the three ample chapters, offers readers a look at the locus, nature, and range of the bonds between children and adults as a means of demonstrating the prominence of children in everyday life. The strongest and most immediate bonds tended, naturally, to be formed within the household, where children might be part of a vast network of individuals. Roman society idealized the relationship between biological parent and child, but demographic realities dictated that many children would lose one or both parents at a tender age and that parenting responsibilities might then fall to a member of the extended family. Even if children were fortunate enough to have both parents for a good portion of their lives, attachments could be severed by divorce. The blended families into which children were thrust presented them with new relationships to negotiate. Evidence for this type of dislocation is skewed in favor of the Roman upper classes, but R. has not ignored the circumstances of ‘displaced’ children, those who for any number of reasons found themselves without parents or relatives to care for them (p. 250). Her long-standing interest in alumni, vernae, and deliciae is very much in evidence as she considers how carers and owners responded to the needs of these children. Sometimes consciously, sometimes inadvertently, they fulfilled the role of parents, right down to the testamentary provisions that they made for the children in their care (be they poor relations, orphans, foundlings, or apprentices).

R.’s study of children’s enculturation continues in ‘Public Life’, where she sketches a picture of the urban world many children would have experienced (p. 271). Eumenius of Augustodunum (late third century AD) noted that children learned more effectively with their eyes than their ears. Taking her cue from the observations of Eumenius, R. paints a vivid picture of the visual feast that Rome offered children and adults alike. Children are not always front and center in this chapter, and some readers will undoubtedly take issue with the picture that R. attempts to sketch concerning children’s experiences. There is a good deal of speculation in this chapter, much of it necessitated by the dearth of detailed evidence on the presence of children in public life. But R.’s speculation is both commonsensical and thought-provoking. Urban living conditions meant that children, like adults, would have spent a great deal of time out-of-doors everyday. It is reasonable to assume that they would have been highly visible in the civic community, accompanying adults to forum and market, running errands, attending festivals, celebrations, even public executions. It is also reasonable to assume that with this kind of mobility, children received an informal yet exceedingly useful education.

In the final chapter (‘Death, Burial, and Commemoration’), R. examines Roman funerary culture in an effort to characterize emotional attitudes toward children. (To some extent, this discussion is a continuation of R.’s analysis of the visual imagery presented in Part One.) She notes the emphasis that Roman society placed on proper commemoration of the dead, pointing out especially that the desire for remembrance was not limited to the upper classes. Romans in all social groups worked to ensure that loved ones were suitably memorialized, if not by family then by extended family or freedmen. What is most striking about children’s commemorations, however, is their quality and number, a phenomenon which has ‘no parallels … in earlier or later societies before the 20th century’ (p. 363). Sarcophagi contain quaint episodes from the lives of children (the first bath, learning to walk, playing games, learning to read), while portraits of the deceased and images suggestive of the loss suffered by parents or caregivers appear on tombstones and altars. The language of children’s epitaphs reiterates the sorrow of adults, especially where inscriptions depart from the usual formulae. There is little question that parents felt genuine distress at the funus acerbum of a child, and not simply because that child represented hopes for social and economic advancement.

R.’s work is the culmination of a lifelong interest in children and family in Roman antiquity, so it is not surprising that she is in constant dialogue throughout her book with the mainstays of scholarship on this subject. Although she covers some familiar ground, R. does an admirable job of demonstrating that children were highly valued and visible in Roman society. In doing so, she whets the reader’s appetite for more. It is fitting that R. concludes with a discussion of death and burial, for archaeology, especially mortuary culture, may tell us more about issues of children’s health, nutrition, and burial. R. addresses such topics but does not, for practical reasons, pursue them at length. More detailed study of the methods by which children were interred, of the reasons for their segregation within cemeteries, and of the types of objects they were buried with, may enhance our understanding of children’s distinctiveness in the ancient view. A study of children’s remains (admittedly, hard to come by) may reveal more about matters of children’s health, beyond the plagues and epidemics to which they were so susceptible.2 Finally, given the geographical compass of R.’s work and the cultural diversity within Roman society, it is worth asking what it meant to be a child outside Italy or large urban centers. How did people on the periphery conceive of childhood? Were child-rearing practices different in Gaul and North Africa? Can we ever know? These questions are obviously outside the scope of R.’s study, but for a younger generation of historians exploring children and childhood in Roman antiquity, R.’s book will serve as an indispensable reference tool.


1. For bleak views see: Phillipe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (New York, 1962); Lloyd deMause, ‘The Evolution of Childhood’ in The History of Childhood (New York, 1974); Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York, 1975); and Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London, 1977). For more optimistic views see: Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children (Cambridge, 1983), Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages (London and New York, 1990), and most recently Steven Ozment, Ancestors (Cambridge and London, 2002).

2. For stimulating work in this area see Naomi Norman, ‘Death and Burial of Roman Children: the Case of the Yasmina Cemetery at Carthage: Part II, the Archaeological Evidence’. Mortality 8.1 (2003): 36-47; Kathryn A. Kamp, ‘Where Have All the Children Gone?: The Archaeology of Childhood’. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 8.1 (2001): 1-34; Keith Bradley (2005) ‘The Roman Child in Sickness and in Health’ in Michele George, ed. The Roman Family in the Empire (Oxford, 2005).