BMCR 2017.08.49

Children and Everyday Life in the Roman and Late Antique World

, , Children and Everyday Life in the Roman and Late Antique World. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. xiv, 390. ISBN 9781472464804. $149.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Christian Laes and Ville Vuolanto have collected a group of scholars who have been steadily reshaping the study of ancient children. The co-editors should be well known to anyone with wide-ranging interests in social history and, particularly, the ancient family. Laes has authored numerous articles and books on childhood, often combining these studies with his expertise on disabilities in antiquity.1 Vuolanto has also written prolifically on ancient childhood, with a particular focus on the intersections between childhood and Christianity.2 The current edited book devotes considerable attention to childhood agency and the overlap between childhood and other aspects of social life such as gender, religion, disability, and so on, the phenomenon of “intersectionality.” The volume’s emphasis upon childhood agency and intersectionality is an innovation found throughout this edited volume, although individual contributions also experiment with other new approaches to childhood studies.

The volume has four main parts that focus on the settings, activities, religions, and negative aspects of childhood (see Table of Contents below), but the book begins and ends with chapters addressing broader themes. The two introductory chapters, by Laes and Vuolanto, contextualize the volume. The first reviews the history of childhood studies, explains the volume’s aims, and provides definitions for terminology and chapter summaries. The second tackles the theme of children’s agency and the methodological challenges to understanding the motives and experiences of ancient children. Vuolanto argues fluidly and persuasively that childhood should be understood as more than a preparatory phase for adulthood and that an agent-centered approach to the study of childhood enables us to understand children acting purposefully and making a difference in their worlds (17). Together, these two introductory chapters demonstrate a strong grasp of the historiography, methodology, and theory of recent works on children and antiquity.

Part I contains four chapters that focus on the physical places and objects within children’s lives. Ray Laurence begins with an agent-centered, embodied exploration of children living in the urban environment of Pompeii. In particular, he redefines urban space from the perspective of changing childhood height, exploring routinized action and interactions with religion and power through altars and statues. In the next chapter Mary Harlow considers the clothing worn by Roman children, examining the material, clothing type, and appearance, and asking how the garments would affect movement. She concludes that the strong gender messages encoded within clothing can influence social behavior (57). In Chapter 5 Christian Laes looks at the impact of physical tenderness—manifested, e.g., in breastfeeding, touching, and kissing—on family life in the Roman Empire. This approach serves as a welcome counterweight to the myriad studies of child-beating and domestic abuse that have dominated discourse about physical contact within ancient families.3 April Pudsey and Ville Vuolanto complete Part I with a chapter on the relationships between children and their aunts and uncles in Roman Oxyrhynchos. They argue convincingly that the demographic household patterns in Roman Egypt indicate that children had strong relationships with people other than their parents. Papyrological evidence suggests that fatherless boys, in particular, relied upon their uncles to help them form links between their own family and the wider local community.

Part II focuses on children’s activities over the course of five chapters. Jerry Toner begins this section with a study on leisure as a locus for children’s agency. Toner carefully nuances his study by discussing disparities in wealth, gender, religion, and age among children at leisure. He demonstrates convincingly that child-play is a form of both resistance and socialization, indeed, that the two go hand-in-hand and the irreconcilable dichotomy is a critical part of childhood experiences. In Chapter 8 Fanny Dolansky draws from visual and archaeological evidence to describe Roman girls and boys at play. The material she discusses comes from a wide range of regions and time periods (118), a contrast to the contextual specificity that most of the other contributors strive for. Nevertheless, her argument that toys might be gender-neutral and subject to children’s imaginations is worth testing with contextual data. Katherin V. Huntley explores children’s graffiti at Pompeii and Herculaneum through the lens of theories of developmental psychology. She argues that most of this graffiti (over 40 per cent) derives from less-formal and less-dangerous rooms in houses (144). Other graffiti can be found in public areas that adults also used for graffiti. Her evidence, which indicates that children’s social worlds were not necessarily tied to those of their adult caregivers, clearly demonstrates both childhood development and agency. In Chapter 10 Konrad Vössing provides a careful re-examination of misinterpreted texts to show that there is no evidence of a long vacation in Roman education regimes and elucidates the social perceptions of education as a privilege. In the final chapter of Part II W. Martin Bloomer describes how Roman children came to think of themselves as students and the social meanings attributed to being a student. He collects evidence of the suffering found in education, but also of a sense of pride among pupils relating to these difficult experiences.

The five chapters of Part III address the role of children within various religions and religious settings. Jacob L. Mackey begins with an account of how children exert cognitive agency in their religious learning. Children learned both practice and belief from imitating those around them, participating in rituals and learning choral hymns. Hagith Sivan provides a sustained example of “faction”—the creation of a narrative out of historical facts—by vividly bringing to life a Jewish boy, Eleazar, in Roman Galilee. We follow Eleazar through the Sabbath schedule for children, including his experiences of public and private places. “Factions” are relatively new to the study of ancient childhood and the contributions by Sivan and Cojocaru (see below), which adopt different approaches to this narrative device, are welcome presences in this volume. In Chapter 14 Béatrice Caseau explores children’s resistance and agency through hagiographical late antique texts, focusing on how children behave during church services, how they rebel against decisions made about their future, and how they relate to food within an ascetic culture. Her final example is a particularly poignant exploration of how children’s agency intersects with their social worlds and a powerful reminder that childhood agency can only be understood in context. Maria Chiara Giorda explores the lives of children within Egyptian monasteries, including the circumstances that brought them there. Her discussion demonstrates that there was perpetual tension between the positive and negative aspects of having children within monasteries among both the children and their caregivers. The final chapter in Part III, by Oana Maria Cojocaru, provides another example of “faction”. Cojocaru takes a different approach from Sivan: she interweaves explanations between her short factions about a boy and a girl living in monasteries. Her “factions” illustrate how children living in monasteries maintain agency in their habitual activities. She also demonstrates how monastic life created an abrupt transition between childhood and adulthood.

Finally, in Part IV, three chapters expose negative experiences during childhood. Lutz Alexander Graumann’s contribution provides insights into children’s accidents in the ancient world. As both a medical historian and a pediatric traumatologist, Graumann provides a vivid account of childhood traumas in the ancient world, which ranged from trivial to fatal. In Chapter 18 Anna Rebecca Solevåg uses insights from intersectionality to explore agency among two disabled girls in early Christian literature. Although her evidence for agency is thin, Solevåg argues that we must explore the meaning of a text, not simply the words of the text. Her reading allows us to assume that the two girls from her case studies talked about their experiences with disability, which is a form of agency. Such imaginative leaps are crucial for opening up new conversations about antiquity. Solevåg’s careful demarcation between evidence and supposition is a model for those who would take on similar challenges. The final chapter in Part IV, by Cornelia Horn, focuses on how adults experienced the death of children and how children worked through the deaths of people in the world around them. We know much more about grieving parents than we do about grieving children.

The epilogue, by Reidar Aasgaard, reviews the volume’s contributions and suggests directions for future research on ancient childhood. In particular, Aasgaard underscores that the first step for advancing childhood studies is to take children into account. This step remains rare in studies of the ancient family, although great strides have been made over the last twenty years. Aasgaard advocates for interdisciplinarity in order to make up for the inherent weakness of the data and for scholarly gaps in study. Intersectionality, such as Solevåg’s contribution on disabled girls, is also critical because children’s experiences differed across the vectors of gender, wealth, time, religion, ability, and location. Aasgaard’s observations underscore the need for more archaeological, art historical, and paleopathological accounts of ancient childhood to counterbalance the dominance of literary and documentary approaches. For this reason, it would have been advantageous for the editors to include a broader suite of methodological approaches to childhood. This lapse is to some degree due to the comparative rarity of childhood studies in these other disciplines and should serve as a call to action for more archaeologists, art historians, and paleopathologists to join conversations about childhood in the ancient world.

As a whole the contributions to this volume are written in fluid prose with appropriate illustrations. The book is well edited with few typographical errors. Individual contributions would be appropriate for upper-level undergraduate teaching and certainly for graduate teaching and scholarship. The volume advocates forcefully for an agent-centered approach and, as such, represents a productive new direction for the study of children in antiquity.

Table of Contents

List of figures viii
List of contributors x
Notes on abbreviations xiv
1. A new paradigm for the social history of childhood and children in antiquity (Christian Laes and Ville Vuolanto) 1
2. Experience, agency, and children in the past: The case of Roman childhood (Ville Vuolanto) 11
Part I. Setting the scene: Experiences and environments 25
3. Children and the urban environment: Agency in Pompeii (Ray Laurence) 27
4. Little tunics for little people: The problems of visualising the wardrobe of the Roman child (Mary Harlow) 43
5. Touching children in Roman antiquity: The sentimental discourse and the family (Christian Laes) 60
6. Being a niece or nephew: Children’s social environment in Roman Oxyrhynchos (April Pudsey and Ville Vuolanto) 79
Part II. What did the Roman children actually do? 97
7. Leisure as a site of child socialization, agency and resistance in the Roman empire (Jerry Toner) 99
8. Roman girls and boys at play: Realities and representations (Fanny Dolansky) 116
9. The writing on the wall: Age, agency, and material culture in Roman Campania (Katherine V. Huntley) 137
10. Why Roman pupils lacked a long vacation (Konrad Vössing) 155
11. Becoming a Roman student (W. Martin Bloomer) 166
Part III. Religious practices and sacred spaces 177
12. Roman children as religious agents: The cognitive foundations of cult (Jacob L. Mackey) 179
13. Jewish childhood in the Roman Galilee: Sabbath in Tiberias (c. 300 CE) (Hagith Sivan) 198
14. Resistance and agency in the everyday life of Late Antique children (third-eighth century CE) (Béatrice Caseau) 217
15. Children in monastic families in Egypt at the end of antiquity (Maria Chiara Giorda) 232
16. Everyday lives of children in ninth-century Byzantine monasteries (Oana Maria Cojocaru) 247
Part IV. A cruel world: Accidents, disabilities, and death 265
17. Children’s accidents in the Roman empire: The medical eye on 500 years of mishaps in injured children (Lutz Alexander Graumann) 267
18. Listening for the voices of two disabled girls in early Christian literature (Anna Rebecca Solevåg) 287
19. Children and the experience of death in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine world (Cornelia Horn) 300 Epilogue
20. How close can we get to ancient childhood? Methodological achievements and new advances (Reidar Aasgaard) 318
Bibliography 332
Index 383


1. C. Laes (2011). Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, BMCR 2011.10.46.

2. V. Vuolanto (2015). Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Continuity, Family Dynamics and the Rise of Christianity Farnham, Ashgate.

3. C. Laes (2005). “Child Beating in Roman Antiquity: Some Reconsiderations.” In K. Mustakillio, J. Hanska, H.-L. Sainio and V. Vuolanto, eds., Hoping for Continuity. Childhood, Education and Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.. Rome, Institutum Romanum Finlandiae: 75-89; K. Mustakallio and C. Laes, eds. (2011). The Dark Side of Childhood in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Unwanted, Disabled or Lost. Oxford, Oxbow; S. M. Wheeler et al. (2013). “Shattered Lives: Evidence for Physical Child Abuse from Ancient Egypt.” International Journal of Paleopathology 3: 71-82.