BMCR 2006.08.28

Kinderen bij de Romeinen: Zes Eeuwen Dagelijks Leven

, Kinderen bij de Romeinen : zes eeuwen dagelijks leven. Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2006. 343 p. : illustrations. ISBN 9058263932. €24.95.

This Dutch-language work, whose title in English is “Children Among the Romans: Six Centuries of Daily Life,” draws on the considerable body of earlier scholarship (again, written mostly in Dutch) by the author, the Belgian classicist Christian Laes (henceforth referred to as L.), on childhood in ancient Roman society, including the doctoral dissertation he defended at the University of Leiden two years ago. It offers a major synthesis on the subject which I strongly believe deserves the notice of scholars not familiar with Dutch; indeed, its merits are such that I hope it will receive a speedy translation into English. Not only from the “Woord Vooraf” (“Preface”) but from the book’s entire length, it is clear that it has been L.’s desire to produce something more than a specialized monograph but a thoroughly contemporary study that addresses such topical issues as child labor and the sexual exploitation of children. Written in a style that is at once erudite and lively, and making good use of black-and-white photo illustrations, L.’s book is not only pitched at Roman social historians but will also engage interested persons, scholars and laypersons alike, outside the academy of classical studies. For this reason, too, it deserves recognition outside Belgium and the Netherlands. Once a translation is available, a final bonus for many readers will be that L. has utilized a wide array of first-rate continental European scholarship (German, Dutch, French, and Italian), not all of which has been drawn upon by English-language studies of the subject.

There are five lengthy chapters, which I review in sequence, followed by a “Recapitulation and General Conclusion.” (Wherever necessary, I have translated the Dutch.) However, L. has added at the end an invaluable “Methodologisch Postscriptum” (263-280) which I will cover first. L. covers about six centuries, from approximately 200 BC to AD 400, and takes in the entire Roman Empire, not just the Latin-speaking part. Relevant literary sources, he says, start to appear around the year 200 B.C., and at this point of time “Greek culture already had firmly moved in a westward direction.” (264) “The Hellenization took place in Rome and the West at an early stage and was significantly aided in its diffusion by the school system of the Roman imperial period, thus giving rise to a common literary-rhetorical culture which bound the elite classes together across the entire empire.” (164) This shared Greco-Roman culture justifies the appropriate use of Greek literary (as well as epigraphical and papyrological) sources, even though “the Greek East retained its own cultural identity.” (266) In our use of literary sources, we should consider such factors as literary genre and persona (clearly evident, for instance, in satire) that shape the text. However, such methodological caution should not lead to “a paralyzing skepticism.” (270) L. is astute on the use of the (mostly Latin) epigraphical material, warning against a “naïve reading and interpretation of the texts.” (272) Thus, we must keep in mind the recurring resort to conventional language in tomb inscriptions and the material and financial constraints under which the large majority of surviving funerary epitaphs were produced. Papyri from Roman Egypt touching, for example, on schooling and apprenticeship contracts may also be a useful source of information. Finally, from archaeology we may learn more about the material living conditions to which children were subject. In the three concluding sections (273-280) of the “Postscript,” the reader is once more encouraged to place his or her knowledge of Roman children’s lives in the context of modern historical thinking, including Philippe Aries’s well-known idea that the demarcation of childhood is a relatively new construct — a theory that has assumed hyperbolic forms in some authors and is vigorously challenged by L. across the length of his study. L. says that three fundamental questions have guided his work: 1) “How did children function within the Roman status-based society?”; 2) “Was age an important factor for these children?”; and 3) “Was childhood more of a psychological than a social category for the Romans?” (278) By addressing these questions, L. hopes he has made a significant addition to earlier scholarship, such as that of Thomas Wiedemann and Beryl Rawson. In “An Important Concluding Thought” in his “Postscript,” L. finally underlines that he has written his work “from a position of freedom from prejudice and of openness towards people from the past and of a different culture.” (278) Such a stance, while certainly not imposing an amoral neutrality — which, of course, would be ethically unacceptable — is also liberating for historical scholarship, permitting one to pose tough, even uncomfortable questions affecting “contemporary self-evident truths and sacred cows.” (279)

Chapter one, “What Were the Lives of Children Like? Demography, Ecology and the Psychosocial Reality of Life in the Ancient World,” has sections on life expectancy; the presence of children and young people in society; demography and its impact on family ties; women’s fertility and the number of children a married couple could generally expect to have; housing and community life in the countryside; the same in the larger towns and in medium-sized cities; living conditions in the megalopolis of Rome; and finally, what L. calls “the psychosocial reality” (36) of Roman marital and family life. In the opening paragraph, L. creates a vivid, holistic impression of the sights, sounds, and smells of street life in first-century Ostia on a hot summer day, followed by the observation (first made by the late Keith Hopkins) that one needs to have lived and worked in a Third-World environment in order to have some idea of what daily life must have been like for the large majority of people in the ancient world. L. uses the findings of earlier scholarship as well as well the Model Life Tables of the United Nations to lay out the exceedingly low life expectancies in the Roman world, these, of course, being driven down most of all by the extremely high rate of infant mortality. From these tables, he also concludes that the proportion of children in the population of the Roman Empire was almost twice that of western countries (a demographic fact characteristic, too, of many Third-World countries today); whereas, conversely, in western countries the proportion of the elderly is triple that of the Roman world. In “Demography and Family Ties,” making further skillful use of demographic simulation tables, L. puts forward the surprising probability that less than half of newborn infants still had one living grandfather, while only 10% of those at the age of fifteen still had a grandfather. “Such figures relativize the omnipotent authority of the paterfamilias over his adult and already married children.” (23) In the following section, L. estimates that the average married woman bore four to six children, of which fewer than one half would reach the age of fifteen; however, “a great variation per family and marriage was always a possibility, even within the same period and the same social class.” (25) (In chapter 4 L. will return to the question of women’s fertility, which is closely linked to that of women’s average age of (first) marriage.) In the next section on life in the villages and the countryside, L. uses the research of Bagnall and Frier on the census reports of Roman Egypt to distinguish the five types of family households that were counted in the censuses; among others, 40.6% of persons in a household lived in a multi-family household consisting of more than one married couple. Like L., I am inclined to judge that these figures are probably roughly representative of the Roman Empire as a whole. In the section on living conditions in the larger towns and medium-sized cities, L. considers the so-called “Pompeian dilemma” raised by archaeologists: was the population density of Pompeii (and similar-sized cities) relatively high or low? In this connection, he points out that the large elite houses could and would house a large number of individuals, not only family members (in the strict sense of the word), but also numerous slaves. The Roman domus — which, among others, did not have separate women’s quarters — was laid out quite differently out from the Greek oikos. “The Roman feeling for privacy was not comparable to ours. The elite Roman house was built on an axial plan and was visually transparent.” (29) The well-known, often harsh facts of living conditions in Rome, especially for the lower classes — the physical realities of congested streets, crowded insulae (which, of course, were also found in the smaller cities such as Ostia and Pompeii), the lack of sanitation, the precarious food supply etc., but also the psychosocial milieu of large-city loneliness and anomie — are reviewed in the next section. This overall grim picture is perhaps a little too tendentiously drawn: L. might have noted the vici and collegia as urban institutions which helped to ameliorate the physical and, probably even more, the psychological stresses of ordinary Romans’ lives. In the final section, which provides a fitting closure to the first chapter, L. identifies ten fundamental “psychosocial” characteristics of Roman marital and family life, especially as these impacted on the lives of children. Most important are: concordia, rather than amor, as the basic ideal underlying married life; the instability of marriage because of divorce or death, with remarriage leading wider networks of relatives and friends for children; the omnipresence of slaves in the elite families; and the likelihood of a high incidence of domestic violence. Contrary to what some scholars have argued, there is no good reason to believe that the expectations from the institution of marriage changed significantly during the Early Empire.

Chapter two, “The Earlier Years of Childhood,” consists of the following sections: “Birth: a Precarious Undertaking for Mother and Child”; “The Role of the Midwife”; “The First Days After Birth”; “Roman Wet Nurses”; “Ancient Authors on: the Child’s First Years of Life and the Periodization of Human Life”; “The Child’s First Words and First Steps and Its Development [as a Whole]”; “The Parents’ Role: Their Hopes and Griefs.” From literary as well as epigraphical sources, L. documents the grim common fact for women of pregnancy ending in death. The importance of midwives for the birthing process in the ancient world is well-known. Their low social status (a collection of 38 Latin inscriptions which commemorate obstetrices reveals not a single woman of whom it can be established with certainty that she was free-born) did not prevent their essential skills from being highly valued. The act of tollere liberos (which did not necessarily involve a literal lifting up) signaled the paterfamilias‘ acceptance of the newborn child. L. offers a detailed discussion of the religious ceremonies which attended the dies lustricus, when the child received its name and received its official status relative to the community and the state. Like obstetrices, nutrices were of low social status but fulfilled an essential function, especially in elite families, which received much prescriptive attention from medical authors. The often lasting bonds of affection between a nutrix and her alumni/ae are well documented. The different models of periodization of human life current in the ancient world are discussed in detail by L.: the first six or seven years were generally regarded as the stage of early, true childhood. In astronomy and astrology, this and the following seven-year stages were closely linked to the movements of the heavenly bodies. “According to many ancient authors, the infant phase was the “most dramatic and lamentable of a person’s life.” (68) “The newborn child is thrust by nature into the world like an ugly ‘human monster.'” (68) Although L. cites several Greek and Roman sources for this idea (including Lucretius, Plato, and Plutarch), it impresses me more as a literary topos than a truly prevalent view. This, I think, is a good instance of the hermeneutical difficulty (well recognized, of course, by L. in the first chapter) we often have to grapple with if we try to estimate how representative a striking idea we encounter in an ancient text, even in a considerable number of texts, might be of the general population, or for that matter, even of one social class. Gender probably plays a crucial role in the ancient-world bias noted by L., which more than likely expresses men’s rather women’s views of the newborn child’s condition. The critical points of transition in children (e.g., the end of breastfeeding and the child’s start on the mastery of language) were noted almost as carefully in antiquity as nowadays. Finally, the epitaphs for young children cited by L. (in a small but quite representative selection) document the strong emotional investment of parents in their young children, marginal though these were in other respects to Roman society. Significantly, young boys are much more frequently commemorated than girls, although, starting at the age of seven, the proportion of girls increases steadily.

Chapter three, “Roman Children at School,” covers what will be a familiar topic to many readers, but, like the earlier chapters, makes good use also of non-literary sources, especially inscriptions. L. begins by underlining two fundamental differences between modern western and the ancient Roman schooling: 1) the Romans did not work with classes of pupils or students based on relatively homogeneous age-groups; and 2) even more important, children’s schooling fell almost completely outside the institutional purview of the state, as the Romans did not have a public or, at least, a heavily state-subsidized and state-supervised school system. This second fact, more than anything else, accounted for the low rate of literacy in Roman society. Basic or primary schooling in particular, presided over by the ludi magistri, received virtually no attention from the authorities. The teachers were usually of low social status and generally derived little or no esteem from their occupation (but there were exceptions: L. cites to this effect from an epitaph for a deceased schoolmaster, 113-114). Schooling took place under the most primitive conditions, and the education consisted of nothing but the most basic rote-learning so that the children acquired only the rudiments of the three R’s. Boys of the upper classes would enjoy the services of a paedagogus who, despite his usually servile status, enjoyed far more social prestige than the typical schoolmaster. L. also describes and comments on the next level of schooling presided over by the grammatici and drawing in children and adolescents, mainly boys, from the age of (roughly) twelve to sixteen. This was beyond the financial means of lower class families and was really the first level of education that laid the foundations of the elite literary-rhetorical culture of the Greco-Roman world in its students. This chapter closes with a section on the conspicuous role played by physical chastisement in the rearing and schooling of children. L. points out that even in democratic classical Athens, corporal punishment, as inflicted both by fathers and by teachers, was common. In Roman society, it was no different and, if anything, worse, and the resort to violence against children by fathers and educators alike, harsh and even cruel though it may seem to us, enjoyed full legal and social sanction.

The lengthy fourth chapter (132-197), “Children Put to Work,” covers the subject of child labor in the Roman world more thoroughly than any other study I know of. L. emphasizes at the beginning that “the Romans never developed a cohesive theory of labor and restricted themselves to value-judgments regarding persons who were or were not compelled to work.” (134) In the elite conception of labor, a sharp distinction was made between respectable and disreputable occupations. There were no specific definitions of labor in the ancient world: thus, what we might define as work done by slaves was regarded as their compliance with the owner’s orders. We are reminded that even in western society the concept of labor can be problematic: for instance, is the work associated with a hobby to be considered as ‘real’ work? I am not sure if L. is completely right when he says the work done in the Roman world by free persons in someone else’s service was automatically viewed as “subjection”: from the psychological and moral point of view of the elite classes, to a large extent ‘yes’, but certainly not from a substantive and legal aspect since the labor performed by free persons was contractual in its basis and therefore governed by contract law. Free children, on the other hand, were likely to be still subject to patria potestas; thus, their legal status could not be that of hired (free) laborers subject to contract law. This chapter covers numerous topics of great interest, many coming under the broad rubric of child slave labor: the osteological evidence from Herculaneum which suggests that relatively young slave children could be expected to perform what we would consider heavy physical work and, in another section, the fact that there were child workers even in the mines and quarries; the commerce in slave children; the stipulations of Roman law on child slave labor, which stated, among others, that no work should be expected from children under the age of five (!), the same rule that applied to sick or elderly, ‘worn-out’ slaves; children working in large, wealthy households, where often provision was made for their education and professional training; children working on the stage and in other entertainments (e.g., as actors, singers, or acrobats); and children working on small farms or large estates in the countryside. The children of poor free parents also contributed their labor wherever and whenever needed. Apprenticeships (as documented by papyri apprenticeship contracts) receive a four-page discussion. L. devotes many pages to the interesting phenomenon of boys of elite families holding public office, especially at the municipal level; such office-holding was almost always of a honorary nature and, in any case, service of this type was not considered work at all but was viewed as falling within the scope of the family’s euergetism. Boys of the imperial family were exposed at an early age to the civic and military duties they would be expected to shoulder once they reached adulthood, and the third century even saw a few child emperors (e.g., Elagabalus and Alexander Severus). With regard to military service, L. notes that there was no legally stipulated minimum age, only the requirement of a minimum length and physical adulthood for the recruit. L.’s conclusions for this chapter are what we would expect. “For the large majority of Roman boys and girls early occupational activity was a daily fact.” (195). Child labor was not regarded as problematic. “Moral objections, to the extent that we encounter these, were concerned only with the extreme circumstances of sale or abandonment, which might have degrading labor as their consequence.” (197) Child labor inevitably led to a much faster integration of children into adult society than is the case in the modern developed world.

The fifth and final chapter, “Pedophilia and Pederasty,” investigates what has of course become a highly topical and deeply sensitive subject in modern western society. L. handles it in an exemplarily judicious and nuanced manner, expanding in a major way on the short section devoted to the subject in the anthology, Amor-Roma: Liefde en Erotiek in Rome, which he co-authored a few years ago with Emiel Eyben and Toon van Houdt.1 He rightfully distinguishes between pedophilia, which is a psychiatric term, and pederasty, “which originally denoted the Greek form of boy love” (200), although he proposes to use “pedophilia” in the more general sense as sexual desire for children and “pederasty” as sexual desire directed specifically to boys. He enters upon a detailed discussion of Statius, Silvae 2.1 and 3.4, two longish occasional poems of the Flavian period which offer us unique glimpses into Roman pederasty. Silvae 2.1 is a consolatio for Atedius Melior on the death of his beloved twelve-year old Glaucias, a child born of slave parents, and manumitted (probably informally, as L. suggests), together with his parents, by his master. Melior’s relationship with Glaucias is described as quasi-parental, but as Statius dwells on the boy’s physical beauty as well as his sweet, gentle (but not effeminate) disposition, Melior’s attraction to the young boy acquires an unmistakably erotic coloring; Glaucias is mourned not only as a lost son as it were, but also “as a conduit for his master’s sexual longings.” (206) Silvae 3.4, an encomium celebrating both Domitian and his favorite Earinus on the occasion of the latter’s depositio barbi, will seem particularly “bizarre” (206) to modern readers, recalling as it does, among others, the unsavory fact of Earinus’ castration as a young boy, followed by the poet’s praise of the emperor for subsequently outlawing this cruel practice. L. rightly underlines that, unlike as in 2.1, Statius eulogizes only Earinus’ physical beauty, not any qualities of character; the boy was only one, albeit supreme, among the emperor’s many delicia (young, pretty ‘toy boys’ kept by upper class families for their amusement and pleasure). He rejects as too extreme an ironic interpretation of this poem as proposed by John Garthwaite,2 but joins Catherine Newlands3 in recognizing the “problematics of an author and panegyrist [writing] in difficult times of tyranny and autocracy …. [and] the fact that encomia and poems devoted to the emperor may often contain dissonant elements and may, in a subtle manner, raise questions.” (209) (I might mention here that in a 1989 article on Silvae 3.4, I attempted to shed further light on the hermeneutical difficulties posed by this poem by noting that other encomia, too, in the Silvae do not always shy away from bringing up facts in the eulogized person’s past that might be painful or even embarrassing to him.)4 A survey of the evidence (literary, iconographical, and even a second century papyrus text, 212 — where, however, the age of the youth involved, namely seventeen, makes the term “pedophilia” not applicable), leads L. to conclude that pedophilia and pederasty were commonplace in the Roman empire. The widespread availability of young male slaves, often mere children by our standards, whether through prostitution or in some other social or institutional milieu, meant that the ‘purity’ of freeborn boys, as protected by custom and law, would less likely be violated. In any case, the Roman Empire was never a police state exercising an efficient surveillance over its inhabitants, and “[t]he use of slaves of both sexes and all ages for sexual purposes was widely accepted.” (230) Interestingly and very tellingly, L. places the marriages often arranged for pubescent upper class girls by their families under the heading of pedophilia. (In a monograph on the age of marriage in ancient Roman society, I and my co-authors Arnold Lelis and William Percy showed that the epigraphic evidence — used by Richard Saller and Brent Shaw to fix a higher average age of first marriage for females of non-elite families — when properly interpreted, establishes that marriage at pubescence was the norm for girls of all social classes; in this way, the fertility of females was maximized.5) Christianity brought with it a strong condemnation of pederasty — and indeed of all forms of non-procreative sex — but did not do away with many of the material and social conditions, above all slavery, that facilitated it. However, Constantine’s prohibition of the keeping of concubines by married men, the disappearance of delicia from aristocratic families, and the severe reprobation of pederasty in monastic manuals showed that significant changes in the regulation of sexual morality were underway. L. concludes this chapter with some general reflections on Roman pedophilia and pederasty. For the Romans, criteria such as the child’s physical development (not his or her psychological readiness), free or non-free status (with ‘freed’ as an intermediate category), civic status (Roman or non-Roman), and social class, and not a putative age of consent, were decisive. “We find here, in fact, the same attitude towards the factor of age which we already encountered in education and in child labor.” (148)

L. offers further general reflections in his “Recapitulation” and “General Conclusion”. First of all, as was shown in the preceding chapters, although the Romans, like all the ancients, did conceptualize a periodization of human life into distinct and successive phases, age by itself, while not altogether negligible, was not a decisive criterion. Secondly, childhood was more of a social than a psychological category. Thirdly, while children were socially inferior, social “outsiders” one might say, they were also, across all social classes, sources of hope and expectation; the elite classes in particular placed the highest hopes in their children. Fourthly and finally, the world of children and that of adults were far more integrated than is the case in our society. L. stresses the perspective of the longue durée as being applicable to his study: “[t]he demographic, biological, social, economic, and juridical facts of late antiquity did not differ radically from the preceding period.” (260)

L.’s concluding reflections are on the complexity and ambitious nature of the historian of childhood’s task: he or she must be not only be fully competent as a historian, but also should draw on comparative anthropology — which may lead to the questioning of facts and truths that seem self-evident in our own society. Wearing a philosopher’s hat, such a historian must make rigorous judgments about the possibilities inherent in human culture and the relativity or non-relativity of human ethical norms. As a psychologist, the historian must probe the many, often hidden aspects of the human psyche and the ways in which individuals present themselves to the world around them. A great deal of pedagogical skill is also required, so that the historian will, above all, stimulate the critical thinking of his readers and listeners. “The role of [moral] judge is not called for in the historian. Life in antiquity was no paradise. Survival took place in harsh and difficult circumstances. Even so, the historian will refuse the task of passing judgment on Roman society as to whether it was child-friendly or not . . . As historians we can only hope to place the facts in their right contexts and, by collecting and analyzing our sources, to reveal new, sometimes unsuspected patterns, and thereby to stimulate the framing of new questions and to suggest, cautiously, new ways of seeing things. If there has to be a final verdict, let it come from the reader.” (262)


1. Emiel Eyben, Christian Laes, and Toon van Houdt, Amor-Roma: Liefde en Erotiek in Rome, Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2003.

2. John Garthwaite, “Statius, Silvae 3.4. On the Fate of Earinus,” ANRW 2.32.1 (1984), 111-124.

3. Carole E. Newlands, Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

4. Beert C. Verstraete, “Panegyric and Candour in Statius, Silvae 3.4,” Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, Carl Deroux, ed., Brussels: Collection Latomus, 1989, 405-413.

5. Arnold Lelis, William A. Percy, and Beert C. Verstraete, The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome, Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.