BMCR 2019.01.43

Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: ‘A Fragment of Time’

Maureen Carroll, Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: 'A Fragment of Time'. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiii, 317. ISBN 9780199687633 $100.00.

“Your son, a little child of unknown promise is dead, a moment of time has been lost.”1

These words, directed by the elder Seneca to his friend Marullus, convey both a sharp rebuke of Marullus’s, in Seneca’s view disproportionate, grief over the death of his young child, and a frank assessment of the transitory nature of children’s lives in antiquity. Seneca’s counsel, a snippet of which appears as the subtitle to Maureen Carroll’s monograph, Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World, captures well both the aims and the challenges of this work. On the one hand, children’s lives in antiquity were perilous and, more often than not, were cut short even before adolescence.2 Textual sources for families’ experiences of these deaths, on the other hand, are scarce, and, as Seneca’s letter suggests, frequently sought to minimize their significance.

Recent decades have witnessed a tide of scholarly interest in the Roman family and children’s roles therein—a trend to which Carroll herself has been a prolific contributor: the monograph at hand represents the culmination of more than a decade of research on funerary commemoration and the deaths of children, during which two co-edited volumes on childhood health and burial in the Roman world also appeared.3 Carroll here sets out to bridge the chasm between the proliferation of children’s deaths and the scarcity of textual sources documenting them, by taking recourse to archaeology and material culture. Carroll focuses particularly on neonates and infants who had yet to complete their first year of life: the most marginal segment of a marginalized social group. Across nine chapters, Infancy thus explores the traces of infants’ and very young children’s lives and deaths left in the material record, with an eye to establishing their affective impact on both families and Roman society as a whole.

After a brief introductory chapter outlining both recent developments in scholarship and the book’s methodological aims, Carroll turns to a survey of burial data and material evidence for infants and children in the pre-Roman Iron Age and early Roman period. Chapter 2 (“Infants and Children in Pre-Roman Mediterranean Societies”) provides a set of comparanda for the data presented in later chapter. Burial places and grave goods, depictions of families and women in childbirth, and the material culture surrounding the religious realm of early childhood all have corresponding sections or chapters in Carroll’s subsequent discussion, allowing readers to trace continuities and disjunctions with pre- Roman Mediterranean material culture.

Chapter 3 (“Mother and Child: Pregnancy, Birth, and Health”) turns to Roman sources proper, examining the evidence for foetal development and birth practices, as well as bioarchaeologial data for children’s development during their first year of life. For children and mothers both, pregnancy and parturition could prove hazardous; ancient medical literature and the archaeological record, including, for example, the burial of a child between the legs of her mother in Ampurias (p. 59), point to the frequent coincidence of birth and death. Children who survived this process, moreover, faced a first year of life fraught with medical challenges and parental anxieties, and parents frequently sought divine protection for their child, as, for example, votive reliefs from the imperial period attest. Chapter 4 (“The Material Culture of Infancy”) showcases an array of material tributes to children’s existence and importance. From feeding bottles to cradles to clothing, Carroll surveys the diverse remnants of Roman childhood. Chapter 5 (“Picturing Infants and Families in Roman Art”), by contrast, turns from tokens of children’s lived experience to their deployment in public depictions. Young children played a significant role in Roman efforts to showcase both the origins of their state and its continued dominance. Images of Romulus and Remus suckling on the she-wolf here join numismatic depictions of imperial children, and, strikingly, displays of the children of barbarians, whose presence could be used to signal the totalizing nature of Rome’s triumph, or the paternal care extended by Rome towards conquered peoples.

Chapters 6 through 8 constitute the heart of Carroll’s book, and its most significant contribution. They deal, in turn, with the death, burial, and commemoration of infants. Death has, of course, intruded into earlier chapters already: the majority of the book’s sources derive in more or less direct fashion from funerary contexts. The sustained treatment children’s deaths receive in these chapters, however, lends itself to substantiating Carroll’s central point: that infants, despite daunting mortality rates, were both integral to Roman families and mourned in death as they had been loved in life.

Chapter 6 (” Mors immatura I: Contextualizing the Death and Burial of Infants”) confronts this topic head-on. Burials for infants and very young children featured in a variety of contexts in the Roman world. Carroll charts children’s burials in communal cemeteries, either in conjunction with family members or in set-apart sections of the burial grounds. Children’s burials are similarly attested inside settlements or in the floors of buildings; in fact, at times these practices coexisted in the same communities at the same time, with no apparent reason for the nature of individual children’s burial. Carroll here also turns briefly to the controversial topics of infant sacrifice and exposure. Both are attested in ancient literature, without however leaving substantial traces in the archaeological record. In keeping with her working hypothesis that children in the Roman world were regarded as precious rather than disposable, Carroll accedes to the occasional practice of sacrifice and exposure, but seeks to limit child sacrifice in particular to extreme, exceptional circumstances.

Chapter 7 (” Mors Immatura II: The Treatment of the Infant Body in Death”) addresses infants’ preparation for burial. The latter differed considerably across the Roman world: children could be cremated, inhumed, and even mummified. Nor were their inhumations all of a piece. Practices evidently varied by region and era: amphora burials appear with particular frequency in North Africa and Gaul, while Italian and Gallic children during the second and third centuries C.E. were commonly buried covered by protective tiles. Similarly variable was the presence and nature of grave goods: children might be buried with the apotropaic amulets they had worn in life, with lamps, coins, or ceramic flasks, even with food and other perishable items—or with nothing at all, as the listing of childhood burials across the Mediterranean in Carroll’s appendix suggests.

Chapter 8 (“Funerary Commemoration of Infants”), in turn, addresses epitaphic commemoration and depictions of children. The latter attest to the ways in which families at times used their deceased offspring as a means for communicating and negotiating ethnicity, citizenship, and other markers of status. Funerary portraits of women with young infants, for example, might speak to a mother’s death in childbirth, but might also serve as symbolic fulfillment of a woman’s or her family’s desire for children in cases where those ambitions had been frustrated by her early death. In a similar vein, the frequency with which freedmen commemorated the death of even very young children points to the first free-born generation’s significance to their families’ status—even and especially in death.

The book’s conclusion, Chapter 9 (“Integrated Perspectives on Roman Infancy”), offers a final reckoning with the literary sources that have traditionally informed assessments of children’s lives and death. While Carroll makes use of texts throughout the monograph, this chapter displays Roman treatises, letters, legal documents, and poems on childhood death against the backdrop of the accumulated archaeological evidence. In context, these sources as well as their material counterparts point to a sense of incompleteness in the lives of children who had died prematurely, but also to the importance of infancy in the Roman world: “Far from being only ‘a fragment of time,'” Carroll concludes, “the first year of life was packed full of challenges, achievements, and, sometimes, disappointments” (p. 248).

Achievements and challenges—if, happily, very few disappointments—also characterize the monograph as a whole. Infancy successfully bridges the gap between text and artefact, granting even readers otherwise ill at ease in the material realm access to a wide range of carefully contextualized sources from across the Roman world. Carroll weaves objects and archaeological data into narratives about family structures, communal practices, and social performance in antiquity. These connections prove fruitful—never more so than when Carroll attends to geographically and era-specific differences. Particularly commendable is Carroll’s thoroughgoing commitment to nuance. She never loses track of her book’s central argument, without, however, overtaxing the evidence. Carroll’s integration of literary and material evidence benefits further from the book’s impressive visual component. Infancy boasts 86 figures, including black-and-white photographs, site plans, and drawings of artefacts.

So rich an offering leaves little room for critique; Carroll’s work nevertheless raises a few desiderata. Chief among these is a further development of Infancy‘s significance for the history of emotions. As already noted, the nature and texture of affective ties between parents and children in the Roman world is one of Carroll’s most significant foci. Yet the bridge between material practices surrounding infant death and its impact on the interior life of families is not always clear. When Carroll thus argues that “[d]espite the brevity of [funerary inscriptions for children], we would be wrong in thinking that parents had no emotional attachment to their infants or that they simply were acting dutifully because it was expected of them” (p. 213), the reader may find herself asking: why? Recent years have seen these inscriptions interpreted both to make Carroll’s point, and, conversely, to attest to the relatively ephemeral nature of ties between parents and their youngest offspring.4 A clearer sense of Carroll’s methodological commitments would have helped arbitrate these matters. In a similar vein, Carroll in the book’s introduction recounts her visits to neonatal units and children’s commemorative services, observing that in light of her experiences there, “I found it difficult to believe that Roman parents could have reacted less naturally to the illness and death of small, helpless beings” (p. 5). The suggestion that certain affective responses are timeless has certainly found traction in the study of emotions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but the wealth of scholarship Infancy reflects, and the astute distinction Carroll draws between publicly performed and privately experienced emotions, seem to me to invite further inquiry.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that religious developments in the later Roman Empire, including the rise of Christianity, make only scant appearances in Infancy. This is no doubt due in part to the continuities of practices: late ancient Christians, as scholars like Ulrich Volp and Éric Rebillard have pointed out, in many instances continued to be buried alongside their non-Christian neighbors.5 In the same vein, many of the strategies for engaging with the divine that Carroll notes, including, for example, the use of apotropaic amulets for children, evidently continued well beyond the fourth century in Christian communities as well. Yet it is precisely these continuities, as well as the ways in which Christian authors carried forward themes of public restraint in their own writings, that might have further enhanced the picture of the diverse and dynamic Roman world Carroll so successfully paints.

These critiques notwithstanding, Infancy is an important contribution to the study of childhood, family dynamics, and death in antiquity, and an attractive, approachable, and well-executed addition to any syllabus on these topics. I particularly commend it to scholars whose expertise lies primarily in the textual realm: Carroll’s skill in translating material culture and archaeological data for a broader audience makes Infancy an essential resource.

Notes

1. Seneca, Ep. 99.1, in Lucius Annaeus Seneca, R. M. Gummere (trans.), Moral Epistles, vol. 3 (The Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass, 1917-25), 31.

2. Childhood mortality rates are a contested topic among ancient scholars, with estimates ranging from 20% to upwards of 50%. See, for example, T. Parkin’s recent review of the data in “The Demography of Infancy and Childhood in the Ancient World,” in Judith Evans Grubbs and Tim Parkin, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World (Oxford, 2014), 40-61.

3. See, for example, M. Carroll and E.-J. Graham, eds., Infant Health and Death in Roman Italy and Beyond (Portsmouth, 2014); M. Carroll and J. Rempel, eds., Dressing the Dead in Classical Antiquity (Stroud, 2012).

4. For other efforts to grapple with the inscriptional evidence, see, for example, J. McWilliam, “Children among the Dead: The influence of urban life on the commemoration of children on tombstone inscriptions,” in Suzanne Dixon, ed., Childhood, Class and Kin in the Roman World (London and New York, 2005), 74-98; C. Laes, “High Hopes, Bitter Grief: Children and their Virtues in Latin Literary Inscriptions,” in Gert Partoens, Geert Roskam, and Toon Van Houdt, eds., Virtutis Imago: Studies on the Conceptualisation and Transformation of an Ancient Ideal (Louvain, 2004), 43-75; M. King, “Commemoration of Infants in Roman Funerary Inscriptions,” in Graham J. Oliver, ed., The Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome (Liverpool, 2000), 117-54.

5. For the gradual development of Christian-specific burial loci, see, for example, U. Volp, Tod und Ritual in den christlichen Gemeinden der Antike (Leiden and Boston, 2002), 185-95; with particular attention to Rome and Carthage, see also É. Rebillard, The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity (Ithaca and London, 2009), 1-12.