BMCR 2011.10.46

Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within

, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xv, 334. ISBN 9780521897464. $105.00.


In his article on themes within Roman exemplum literature, Holt Parker pointed to the archetypal construction of wives and slaves as an “outsider-within”.1 Parker argued that these two groups were viewed as the dissonant other in the family unit; persons cast as both liminal and hazardous in Latin literature due largely to the fact that they lacked a blood-tie to the pater familias.2 Though it would seem to contradict Parker’s thesis that those without blood relation were the outsiders, Christian Laes draws the title of his book from Parker’s phrase, and applies the “outsider-within” construction to children living in the Roman empire. Previously published in Dutch under the title Kinderen bij de Romeinen: Zes Eeuwen Dagelijks Leven, it appears that the prior reviewer’s call for translation was indeed quickly heeded (BMCR 2006.08.28). In its translated form, Laes’s work remains an essential and accessible introduction to the status, experience, and literature pertaining to Roman and Greek children in the Roman empire.

In the Introduction, Laes lays out the daunting geographic and temporal scope of the study, which stretches from Britannia to Mesopotamia between 200 BCE and 400 CE (though the author often interweaves evidence from earlier Hellenistic philosophers and later Christian authors). Laes has a strong grasp on the historiography and methodology of recent works on children in antiquity, professing to a “traditional research pathway” (18) in his attempt to reconstruct the position of children in Rome’s class-based society; determine if age was a pivotal consideration in attitudes toward children; and explore whether childhood was a social or psychological category to the Romans.

Chapter Two pertains largely to the reality of life for children in the Roman empire. In regard to life expectancy, as Laes rightfully points out, there are many problems in calculating demographics. He estimates that between 30-35% of newborns did not survive past the first month and less than 50% reached age 15. As such, parents had to grapple with death regularly. Even amid high infant mortality, Rome remained a society that bustled with children and teens. The average woman had between four and six children. Thus siblings were common, especially since remarriage was a regular occurrence. In regard to the familial unit, few knew their grandparents, and by age 20, fewer than half had a father. Mothers were a more long-lasting figure in children’s lives, as they were often many years younger than their spouses. In terms of housing, most lived in the countryside amid relative poverty, and without the modern idea of the “privacy of the nuclear family” (34). In the city of Rome, children would have dealt with overpopulation, violence, and malnutrition. All these factors had an effect on children’s psyches, though it is often difficult to decipher the true experiences of non-elite Roman children due to the complete lack of child narratives and a literary bias towards the elite.

Following the introduction and an investigation into the reality of childhood in Roman antiquity, the chapters are set out in the form of a life cycle, much in the way that Beryl Rawson organized her Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (Oxford, 2003). Laes begins with early childhood (0-7 years) and then delves into the lives of school children (7-15 years), before investigating child labor and the perceptions of pedophilia and pederasty in the Roman empire.

Chapter Three introduces the reader to early childhood in antiquity, a time that, as previously mentioned, was risky. Laes interweaves epitaphs (though it would be helpful to see the original Latin or Greek) with textual evidence, and then investigates others involved in childbirth and childrearing, such as wet nurses. Laes has a strong and interesting examination of the way ancient authors depicted early childhood and the delineation of life stages, and concludes that such ancient testimonies “would appear to be indicative of a society that appreciated children” (95). Moreover, Laes concludes (like Rawson) that children were persons important to all levels of society.

Chapter Four is predominantly concerned with the education of children in the Roman empire. Between ages 7 and 15, Roman children were schooled in large, homogenous groups by privately employed paedagogi, who had to provide their own classrooms. This is in stark contrast to today’s public school systems, which receive their funding from the state. Some parallels to today’s education system do exist, for example the continued trend in low status and wages for lower-level educators. By the age of 12, Roman boys and girls had completed their elementary schooling. Those with enough money could continue on to receive a higher education, up to the age of 15, but the poor were largely finished with schooling by age 12, and ready to commence a more regular work life. In this chapter, Laes points to the use of education as a tool of Romanization, and explores topics such as corporal punishment (a common tactic, the ancient sources would suggest), including its legal and social sanction, and its role within a society that was overall more violent than our own.

Chapter Five explores the use of child labor. Laes notes that since there was not a clear separation between childhood and adulthood, many children contributed to the economic health of their families throughout their lives. Little textual evidence exists on child labor, and so Laes depends on epigraphic, archaeological, and (to a small degree) osteological evidence to help fill in these lacunae. Laes goes into the tasks and experience of slavery, and notes that, in the ancient perception, a slave transitioned from infantia at age 5, and then could be manumitted at age 30. Slaves were often apprenticed very young to learn the trades they would one day be responsible for, as were the free children of craftsmen. Laes delves briefly into the experience of young elites—holding magistracies, priesthoods, and even the throne—but concludes that, for instance, it was not seen as a normal state when children ascended to the purple. Laes’s claim that minors who had not yet achieved the toga virilis were not part of the social hierarchy (174) should perhaps be amended to read the cursus honorum. Children, women, and even non-citizens were always part of the social hierarchy. Laes does take an interesting look into the possible use of children in mines and the lack of either “pagan” or Christian criticism for child labor. He is correct in attributing the lack of comments on child labor to status rather than to age.

Chapter Six deals with pedophilia and pederasty, a subject familiar to the author, who has written extensively on the subject of eroticism and love in ancient Rome.3 Laes makes it clear that the Roman and Greek notions of propriety are not our own, and we should therefore not apply our modern ideas (e.g., the “age of consent”) onto their world. Love and hope are often intertwined by an expectation of subservience on the part of the youth, and thus Laes reiterates that the youth continues to be an “outsider-within” in these relationships. The differences between Greek and Roman views of pedophilia and pederasty are also finely delineated in this chapter. Roman sexual criteria were based on physical development and status, rather than a definitive age. A shift came in the transition to Christianity, which drew from Judaism and decried pedophilia and sex that did not produce offspring as immoral and decadent. This ideology was reflected in theological treatises, which then influenced the harsh Late Antique laws reinforcing the importance of marriage and proclaiming the illicit nature of homosexuality. Laes quite adeptly shows the transformation of pederasty into a taboo field by the Middle Ages.

Chapter Seven is a concluding chapter that also brings us to the end of the childhood life cycle. Laes ends his study with the rite of passage experienced by Roman male youths entering into public life, the donning of the toga virilis and the Liberalia festival. In examining the transition to Late Antiquity, Laes reinforces that change to the Christian era was gradual rather than abrupt, but significant in that it brought about a decline in child mortality, facilitated the emergence of a large nuclear family, encouraged more medical care, and helped to create compulsory schooling (288-9).

A categorical rather than diachronic look at the evidence for children within the empire often gives the appearance of stasis. For instance, it is difficult to perceive any shifts in attitudes towards children in this span of 600 years, until the reader reaches the spread of Christianity—which (as Laes points out) introduces new ideas and perceptions regarding children. Another challenge is the evidence that must be considered when investigating such an expansive period within a culturally diverse empire. While Laes appears deft with textual evidence—particularly the Late Antique and early Christian sources—he could have delved farther into the anthropological evidence found in the skeletal remains scattered in cemeteries and cities throughout the Roman empire. Moreover, the use of the phrase “in Antiquity” (e.g., 78, 139, 290) can be misleading and lacks nuance. Smaller points that deserve address are, first, his assertion that Egypt was an “atypical province”(4). As Bagnall has shown, there is much to contradict this notion.4 Another is the argument that Rome had no mass media (97). In fact, written messages, imperial iconography, and law were disseminated on established routes in the Roman world, as were early Christian hagiographies. A final point is Laes’s assertion that “slaves and freedmen had no choice: it was only because of their imposed labour that they signified anything at all in society. Their occupation was no ‘calling’ ” (151). While admittedly tied to their patron, freedmen (e.g., Trimalchio) did have a choice in vocation and signified many things to society outside of their labor contribution. Many were religious figures (e.g., the seviri augustales) and wealthy liberti were often seminal patrons in Rome and the provinces.

Though there are some niggling points, they cannot undermine the fact that Laes has provided an important contribution to the growing study of children in the Roman empire. His approachable writing style is sure to appeal to non-specialists and undergraduates new to Roman social history. Laes successfully shows that there is much left to understand about the experience of childhood in the Roman empire, especially the lives of non-elite children.

Typo: nomenclatures should be nomenclatores (187).


1. Holt Parker, “Loyal Slaves and Loyal Wives: The crisis of the outsider-within and Roman exemplum literature,” in Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture (Routledge, 1998), 152-173.

2. Ibid. 153-155; 170.

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

4. Roger S. Bagnall, Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History (Routledge, 1995), 9.