Childhood in the Roman Empire
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?
There has been a long-running debate among historians over whether, and to what extent, the Romans were troubled by the death of their children. The probability of a newborn child surviving to adulthood in Roman Italy has been calculated at roughly 50 per cent, not greatly different to other societies lacking the benefits of modern medicine. Some historians have suggested the Romans could only have dealt with this shocking statistic by not caring about the loss of their children.
There is nothing to suggest the Romans were indifferent to the lives of their children. In fact the opposite seems more likely. The recording of the accidental deaths of children across the empire gives us an insight into the emotional world of bereaved parents and an understanding of the risks they faced. At Pompeii, memorials to the deceased of all ages took the form of a stone shaped in the form of a human head with a flat face for the engraving of the epitaph. These often omitted their age at death, but when age is mentioned, it is much more likely to feature children under the age of seven. Children are recorded on funerary monuments of the imperial age as having died in fires, in earthquakes, by drowning, by being run over by a vehicle or killed by a horse; by falling into wells or from windows or from their fathers’ shoulders. Some fell victim to scorpion bites; choked on fruit, or drank poisonous beverages. There were also a few recorded cases of murder or manslaughter inflicted on teenagers by other, older children. In addition to such timeless dangers, there were causes of death specific to the ancient world, such as the teenager accidentally killed by a misplaced javelin cast by another adolescent at the gymnasium. Injuries to children at work are also mentioned: the young child gored by a cow’s horn as he fed her; the three-year-old killed by collapsing piles of stakes as he helped his parents. The age range of recorded accidental deaths is from two to thirteen. The very mention of these accidents in epitaphs highlights the parents’ sense of bereavement: if they did not care about the loss of their child, why mention the accident in which he or she was killed or commemorate the death with a written memorial?
One fact that supposedly supports the Romans’ indifference to emotional pain with regard to children is the practice of exposure of unwanted newborns. However, prior to the advent of modern medicine, most societies have utilized a form of exposure, and in view of the dangers of abortion, exposing a child was thought of as the best way of saving an infant from a life of impoverishment or disability. In effect, exposure might be described as a late form of abortion rather than as infanticide, and does not necessarily indicate indifference to the suffering of the child. Moreover, it was common for children to be exposed in places which enabled their discovery by other adults, who might take them in.
At birth, a baby’s body was swaddled according to its sex, boys more tightly around the pelvis than girls, and the nurse pushed and prodded the young body into shape, for example kneading the buttocks or extending the foreskin, with a view to the creation of a perfect male or female body later in life. Many Roman women avoided breastfeeding if they could, because it was believed to advance the ageing process and also slowed down a woman’s ability to have additional children. The wet-nurse, who might be employed over the first two years of a child’s life, needed to have a suitable diet and an appropriate lifestyle (including sex life) that would not damage the child via the transfer of breast milk. In many cases infants learnt to speak not from their parents but from slaves, and one of the key qualities of a good nurse was the ability to speak correctly, so that the children in her care would begin life with a correct grasp of language.
Romans were naturally aware of the ways in which the body changed as it grew. Children were said by the first-century ad writer Seneca to be soft and moist, like new shoots of plants, whereas the old were dry and brittle like ears of corn at harvest. There was certainly an awareness of the stages of child development. Contemporary sources indicate the first stage of childhood as lasting from six months, or when the first teeth were cut, through to the age of seven, when a child had lost its milk teeth. Children who died before they had cut their first teeth were buried rather than cremated, as was the common practice with older children and adults. In the absence of written evidence on the subject, this suggests that the absence of teeth made babies almost a different species, one requiring a different death rite, or even no rite at all. The Romans had developed the Caesarian delivery by the time of the Empire, from a need to extract living or dead children from mothers who had died in childbirth. If the child was also dead, it would have been buried with little or no ritual, whereas the mother would have been cremated.
For most writers in antiquity, childhood was defined by two stages: from birth up to seven years old; and seven to fourteen years. In addition to the stages of biological development associated with dentition, this division was linked to astronomy and reflected the seven visible planets. The status of children was reflected in the way they were dressed in public. Both boys and girls of the elite wore a toga with a purple border, the toga praetexta, which was also the dress of magistrates and the early kings of Rome. This marked out the child, like the magistrate, as a sacrosanct being who should not be harmed. Boys – though not girls – were often given a golden amulet, or bulla, that contained a protective charm.
Although fourteen was seen by many to have been the age at which a child entered adulthood, it was still the father’s decision whether a boy was physically and mentally an adult. The evidence points to children becoming men between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. When a boy came of age, he dedicated his bulla to the protective deities known as the Lares, and put on the toga virilis – a plain white garment that Roman men wore on formal occasions. The ritual, the festival of Liber, was usually marked with a large celebration. Girls had no such equivalent ritual. Legally boys could marry at fourteen, but girls two years earlier, aged twelve, and this suggests that the wedding was the equivalent mark of a girl’s coming of age.
At Pompeii, where the deaths of both children and adults were commemorated in large numbers, there were far more memorials of boys than girls with epitaphs mentioning their age. This presumably does not mean fewer girls died young – but their burials were less likely to be recorded with inscribed stones. The grave plot of a wealthy freed slave, Gaius Munatius Faustus, and his wife, Naevolia Tyche, illustrates personal experience of bereavement of both boys and girls. The plot contains burials of three adult family members, whose ages are not mentioned, a young adult of twenty-six and a series of children: Primigenia who lived nine months and five days; Helphis who lived three years; Arsinoe who lived three years, and Psyche who lived three years and six months. The precision of the recording of Primigenia’s lifespan, even though it was of less than a year, points to a concern for accuracy in the child’s first year of life. Such precision is absent by the age of three. This measurement of age may reflect a concern for survival in the early years, a time when the child was most fragile and most vulnerable to disease.
The skeletons preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79 at Pompeii are beginning to reveal information about childhood development and disease in Roman Italy. (The widespread practice of cremation means that few skeletons survive from this period elsewhere.) Adult male skeletons had a height averaging about 166 cm, and women about 154 cm. But the children’s skeletons reveal a pattern of development very different to that of today’s children: there was no male growth spurt associated with puberty between the ages of about nine and fourteen. This may have been the result of the prevalence of diseases affecting development: at one house, thought to have been the residence of a certain Julius Philippus, eight of the nine skeletons discovered reveal evidence of major diseases during childhood that prevent the production by the body of calcium for the formation of bones or teeth. The typical disease that prevents bone and tooth formation is tuberculosis, the effects of which could have been heightened by the presence of malaria and could have produced the symptoms of pneumonia. We can only guess at the numbers who may have died from this disease at the house as, paradoxically, the skeleton will only be marked by the impact of the disease, if the individual had fought the illness over a period of time. Thus these eight skeletons are those of children who had survived their illnesses, only to die in the volcanic eruption. The skeletal evidence suggests that one of these children, aged eleven when Vesuvius erupted, had survived four bouts of such diseases, at the ages of four, five and twice aged seven. Others of the family may have succumbed rapidly to the disease and died, but without leaving any trace. Clearly, witnessing death and surviving illness were part of everyday life for the children of ancient Rome.
Medical writers such as Celsus, writing in the first century ad, believed the diseases of pre-pubescent boys and girls to be quite different from those of young men. For Celsus, puberty altered the nature of the body and signalled that childhood illnesses should have ended, and if they had not they would become much more acute. At the same time, a girl’s first period and a boy’s first experience of sex were seen to present their young bodies with new dangers from other diseases – but it is impossible to determine what diseases he meant. Fourteen became an age associated with these changes and this contributed to the development of a dogmatic view within ancient medical thought that categorized the treatment of anyone under fourteen in a different manner to that of a youth over fourteen. Cicero distinguished between childhood, which he associated with the word infirmitas, and youth, for which he preferred the term ferocitas. Galen, the greatest medical writer of antiquity, attacked this absolute division, questioning the idea that the body becomes utterly different on the fourteenth birthday. Instead, he proposed a case-by-case analysis of the young person’s maturity and appropriate medical treatment according to the nature of the patient and his or her illness.
The early legal ages of marriage point to the possibility of sex at a relatively young age, and Celsus’ association of the diseases of puberty with the first incidence of intercourse confirms this. In practice young men often did not marry until they were twenty-five, (girls married on average in their mid-to late teens) but it would appear that once they shed their toga praetexta, they sought sexual pleasure in the brothels. In Roman comedy, young men are frequently represented as having fallen in love with prostitutes, much to the horror of their fathers. This reflects a general belief that the youth was subject to uncontrollable sexual urges and ever-changing enthusiasms. There was almost an expectation that youths would drink to excess, have sex with as many people as possible and attack passing strangers at night; but it was expected that ultimately they would grow out of this phase and become trustworthy and reliable mature men. It is no surprise that, when a riot broke out at a gladiatorial show held at Pompeii in AD59, it was blamed on the actions of young men.
Youths from sixteen to twenty-five were categorized as adult citizens, did military training and could vote, but they were excluded from holding political office and, in effect, from conducting business deals. Such young men were seen as being in need of good advice and were vulnerable to the persuasion of older men to take the wrong course of action. The conspiracy of Catiline in 63 bc was fuelled by his ability to lead young men astray. He provided them with sex, money and even the murder of their parents. Any civil conflict or political crisis that degenerated into violence was thought to have corrupted or misled youths associated with it. But, at the same time, the young men of Rome were regarded as vulnerable to sexual predators. Few of the famous, including Julius Caesar and the Emperor Augustus, were not subject to rumours that as young men they had been the sexual playthings of others. Older men regarded the young man as an object of sexual desire. Once they had grown additional body hair, such allure was lost as these boys became men.
Matters were different for the heirs of the emperors. These tended to leave their childhoods behind at an unusually early age. In ad 51, Nero gave up his bulla and toga praetexta at the age of twelve. Before he was twenty, he was defined as an adult citizen whose glittering future included Rome’s highest magistracy, a consulship. He was also granted the title Princeps Iuventutis or First Youth to parallel the role of his father by adoption (the Emperor Claudius). Nero was also granted the same level of command outside Rome that Claudius had, in effect making him commander of all armies and capable of over-ruling any other general or governor in the provinces. It would be almost five more years before this young man took over the reins of the empire as its princeps or emperor, but, even at the age of twelve or thirteen, he held command second only to that of his father by adoption. Nero was not unique; the public recognition and distribution of largesse had been used by Augustus to emphasize the hereditary principle that passed power onto a son, whether biological or by adoption, was developed throughout the first century ad and the office of Princeps Iuventutis was also used by Vespasian (r. ad 69-79) to designate his sons as his heirs. His coinage shows his two sons, Titus and Domitian, in togas or on horseback under the legend principes Iuventutis, a title that they continued to hold alongside their offices of praetor and consul. These young heirs became associated with the hope of a future that would fulfil or create a resurgent Rome after the disastrous civil wars in ad 69 following Nero’s demise.
After his death at the age of thirty, Nero’s fourteen-year-rule was written up for posterity and is known to us in the words of Tacitus and Suetonius. Although he was no longer a youth when he died, all of his reported actions as a ruler were characteristic of those of an archetypal young Roman. He wore the wrong clothes to public meetings; he had sex with numerous partners; he fell in love with a freed slave; he beat people up at night; he drank and ate to excess; his plans for construction, including a canal from the Bay of Naples to Rome, were seldom completed. His antics became more and more bizarre as the reign went on: driving chariots in public; marrying a man; taking part in the Olympic Games; hoping to persuade mutinous soldiers back to their posts by his theatrical performance. On his death, the Empire passed to an older man, Vespasian. As a result, Nero served as the epitome of what happens when a young man is given power at too early an age: he turns into a tyrant. In the same way Caligula, Domitian, Commodus and Elagabalus, all young emperors who were deposed, took on a similar role and were written into history as young tyrants, thus confirming the general assumption that youths were unsuitable to hold positions of power. The great exception to this, of course, was the first emperor, Augustus, who had raised an army at the age of nineteen and taken over the state.
The children of working parents had a rather different experience of childhood from that of the literate or imperial elite. However, the stages of life were similar. Children might be apprenticed after puberty. In Egypt, a boy called Papontos became an apprentice for five years to a female weaver in ad 42. His age is not recorded, but the weaver agreed with his mother to pay his poll tax during this period, indicating that Papontos was already considered to be an adult or was at least approaching his fourteenth birthday. An apprentice would work for free in return for training in such trades as building, copper-smithing, flute-playing, nail-making, shorthand and weaving. Periods of training varied from six months to five years. Apprenticeships might be with the family firm, or outside: the writer Lucian turned his back on an apprenticeship in his family’s business of stonemasonry, after a vicious beating by his uncle for breaking a piece of stone with a hasty cut with a chisel. Those apprenticed outside their own families were contracted in to the period of work with harsh penalty clauses payable by their parents if there was a change of heart on the part of them or the child worker.
For the children born or traded into slavery, work was an inevitable part of life. In the countryside, slave children tended animals, trimmed and pruned vines, undertook basic management of weeds and vegetation and collected wood. But slaves were not necessarily condemned to manual work: training might be given to make young slaves useful and even valuable – painting, transcribing, dressing others, fulling, shoe repairing are all mentioned in legal sources. Enslaved children might even manage the shop in the absence of the older artisan. Trimalchio, a fictional freed slave in Petronius’ Satyricon, taught himself to read letters from inscriptions in the city and was taught percentages, weights and measures and currency. This training enabled him to run his master’s business empire and in due course he gained his freedom; eventually, as an adult, he would inherit the entire estate on his master’s death. Such tales of social mobility may not, however, have been common.
That children worked in the Roman Empire should not surprise us. The population as a whole contained as many children as it did adults, unlike our own society in which the old are becoming a far greater proportion of the population. In Rome, children needed to work to sustain the overall economic productivity of their families and the state. That they were put to work did not mean that they were any less loved by parents than children today. The fact that men over fourteen were designated or defined as not-children but also not entirely adult, points to a clear awareness of childhood, two thousand years ago. The idea of young people being ‘not adults’ has been re-invented in the West, to create the ideal of the school-attending, yet innocent, children of today. The other side of the coin of modern youth – ASBOs, drinking and early pregnancy – might be equally real and has much in common with Rome’s young men in their world of heavy drinking, sex with prostitutes and street violence. Both today in Britain and in ancient Rome, society creates contradictory images of childhood and its evolution into adulthood.
- Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence Pompeii: The Living City, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)
- Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 2002)
- Beryl Rawson Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology