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Childhood in the Roman Empire

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Ray Laurence considers how children were seen in ancient Rome and looks at some of the harsher aspects of childhood – sickness, violence and endless work.

Today, in the West at least, we find it hard to accept the unexplained death of a child. The terminology associated with these deaths, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), points to our inability to comprehend the randomness and sheer bad luck of losing one or more children. Some paediatricians, as well as the public, have refused to accept certain ‘cot’ deaths as accidents in life at its early stages, resulting in the imprisonment of mothers – a number of whom have subsequently been released on appeal. Fatal accidents, innocently caused, such as the shopper who fed a grape to a child without the knowledge of the mother, causing the child to choke and die, also become headline news today. Parents try to ‘child-proof’ their homes to safeguard their children and to reduce the level of risk of electrocution, poisoning, falling out of windows or off furniture, and drowning in ponds and swimming pools. These responses are symptomatic of our horror at the thought of the death of our offspring in childhood. But at the other end of the spectrum, the media presents us with stories and images of twelve-year-old fathers and mothers – who are said to be children. These young parents will not become full adult citizens until they are eighteen and can vote; they can’t even work until they are sixteen. Legally, they are children and are considered by the law to be pre-sexual, though in reality they are post-pubescent and sexually active. Where childhood ends and adulthood begins continues to baffle us today. Is it possible to identify similar worries and preoccupations in earlier times, specifically within the Roman empire?


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