Juvenile Delinquency in the Graeco-Roman World
Bovver boys in Athens and Rome? Apparently so, according to Robert Garland, who uncovers tales from life and legend to show how high jinks could turn to blows in the classical world.
Some of the most engrossing questions which we can put to the ancient world are precisely those which are of current concern to our own society, whether or not we are able to obtain a very precise answer. The fundamental questions of this investigation are: firstly, did juvenile delinquency exist in the Graeco-Roman world? Secondly, what factors might have contributed towards it? Thirdly, what form did it characteristically take? And fourthly, how was it dealt with?
Discussions of juvenile delinquency in contemporary society have failed to produce a consensus as to what kind of behaviour should be so classified, but the one which is perhaps least contentious is 'any act committed by a juvenile which – according to our legal system – is punishable by law'.
There are certain limitations to our investigation, chief of which is the fact S that the ancient world was almost wholly incapable of identifying a social trend, formulating a social theory or implementing a social policy. (The one social trend which the ancients did take note of, from the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus to the Roman Emperor Augustus, was a declining birth rate). What the modern world identifies as 'social ills', such as vagrancy, homelessness, divorce, illegitimacy and delinquency, could only therefore be discussed on the individual and personal level, as constituting so many separate and unrelated private tragedies. They could not be perceived and identified as phenomena embedded in society as a whole, nor could they be discussed within a conceptual or theoretical framework, due largely, of course, to the simple fact that the Greeks and Romans did not keep statistics on such matters.
And yet it is abundantly clear that juvenile delinquency did exist both in Greece and in Rome and was a problem. A fascinating piece of evidence relating to Classical Athens is contained in a speech by the orator and politician, Demosthenes, which he wrote around the middle of the fourth century BC on behalf of a young man called Ariston. Ariston had been the victim of an unprovoked assault while walking home late one night through the Athenian agora or market place in the heart of the city. He subsequently indicted the father of his chief assailant, a man called Konon, who also participated in the assault. Konon's son, Ktesias, was well-known to Ariston since the two had done military service together on the borders of northern Attica. Discipline appears to have been extremely slack, for Ktesias and his brother made a habit of getting drunk at lunchtime. Ignoring the warnings of their commander, they amused themselves by jeering at the personal slaves of their fellow soldiers and indulging in such unseemly pranks as emptying the contents of their chamber pots over the luckless slaves' heads. On the night in question Ariston's attackers dealt with him as follows:
First they tore my cloak off me, and then, tripping me up and pushing me into the mud, they struck me so violently that they split my lip and caused my eye to close up. They left me in this sorry condition, so that I could neither get up nor utter a word. While I was lying there, I heard them making a number of abusive comments, much of which was so offensive that I would shrink from repeating some of it in your presence. One indication of Konon's insolence and proof of the fact that he was the instigator of the whole affair, I will tell you. He began to make a sound in imitation of the song made by fighting cocks when they have just scored a victory, while his associates encouraged him to move his elbows around against his sides as if they were wings. After this I was picked up naked by some passers-by, for my assailants had carried off my cloak.
What is particularly interesting here in the light of the current debate about delinquency is, firstly, that the attack was triggered off by alcohol – Konon and his son, we are told, had previously been at a drinking party or symposium; secondly that Athenian military service, far from acting as a safe outlet for youthful high spirits as might have been expected, actively fostered the tendency to commit acts of senseless violence because of its loose discipline; and thirdly that the assault was aided and abetted by the juvenile's father – that delinquency, in other words, ran in Konon's family.
Ariston goes on to warn the jury that the kind of defence which they are likely to hear from Konon is that there are many young people in Athens from very good backgrounds, like his own son, who become infatuated with prostitutes and then come to blows over them, and that this kind of behaviour is perfectly normal. Boys, in other words, will be boys: the traditional, time-hallowed defence by an indulgent father of his delinquent son. Ariston himself, however, implies that rivalry over prostitutes had nothing to do with the assault, and, on the face of it, it is much more likely that his assailants were nurturing a grudge against him for telling tales to their commander. Lacking as we do the speech for the defence, we cannot begin to determine the truth of the matter. But irrespective of whether Ariston himself was entirely blameless, it is not to be supposed that the incident was isolated nor that the defendant's characterisation of young Athenian males would have been wide of the mark. As Sir Kenneth Dover has memorably observed, in the eyes of the Greeks, young manhood was typically characterised by pugnacity, drunkenness and sexual excess. Rivalry among privileged young males must surely have featured prominently in a society which manifested an extremely high level of competitiveness in all forms of social expression,
Modern investigators differentiate between three categories of delinquency, of which the most prevalent is 'socialised delinquency'. Under this heading are identified crimes which are motivated by a desire to conform to the norms of a gang, rather than by deep-rooted anxieties or unresolved conflicts. Delinquents of this kind are raised in a family characterised by parental conflict, rejection or neglect. Their criminal behaviour generally ceases when they reach adult years. A second category is that known as 'neurotic delinquency'. Here the subject, who generally comes from a middle-class background, tends to suffer from anxiety, insecurity and guilt. He commits his crimes alone, his criminal activity offering him temporary release from anxiety, and often the pattern of criminality continues into adult life. The last and most serious form is 'psychopathic delinquency', committed by subjects who are unable to form lasting relationships and who experience a total lack of guilt or remorse for their crimes. These tend to be raised in homes of extreme brutality.
Since we lack clinical data of the kind which would enable us to conduct a statistically-based investigation into juvenile delinquency, we have to rely on other sources instead, all of which are far from ideal. A cursory glance at Greek mythology, for instance, would lead us to suspect that Greek culture produced an intolerably high level of psychopathic delinquency in its most violent and sadistic form. Psychopathic gods include Kronos, who castrates his father Ouranos, and Hephaestus, who chains up his mother Hera; psychopathic humans (at first glance) include Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother, and Orestes, who kills his mother.
If we examine how parents in myth treat their children, matters hardly improve. The gallery of psychopathic parents includes Heracles, who slaughters his children in a fit of madness; Agave, who kills and dismembers her son Pentheus under Dionysiac inspiration; Tantalus, who chops up his son Pelops for a banquet held in honour of the gods; Laius, who nails his infant Oedipus' ankles together before leaving him to perish on a mountain; and Medea who murders her children for the vile motive of avenging herself upon her husband because he abandoned her for another woman.
What we can learn about intrafamilial relations in Greek society from mythology is a heavily-loaded question to which we are hardly able to do justice here. What seems indisputable, however, is firstly, that among the best-loved myths of the Greeks must be numbered those which have at their core a violent and destructive relationship between parent and child – which is not by and large true, say, of the fairy tales in our culture; and, secondly, that the Greeks fully appreciated the extent to which a propensity towards violence is engendered in the home and has its roots in one's relationship with one's parents – as, of course, modern sociological theories of delinquency do as well.
There is another interesting question related to mythical representations of delinquency: namely the extent to which the prominence of such stories within a culture's consciousness actively encourages deeds of violence. Plato, who has more to say on the subject of education than any other Greek author, was vehemently critical of the practice of telling sadistic tales to small children, on the grounds that they would inculcate the worst values. For this reason, when constructing his ideal state in Book II of the Republic, he deemed it essential that the stories which nurses and mothers told their children should be strictly monitored and, if necessary, censored. It would be fascinating to know whether Plato himself had any children on whom to test his theories – or indeed whether his prescriptions were the fruit of bitter experience as a parent.
Legends which tell of the heroic exploits of pugnacious young men such as Heracles and Theseus, of which there are a considerable number in Greek mythology, intimate awareness of the need to provide an outlet for youth's violent energies, especially in the case of those individuals who have been endowed with more than their fair share of physical prowess. It is perhaps for this reason that such a large number of the labours performed by persons in this category can be broadly classified under the heading of community service.
Journeying between Epidaurus and Athens becomes considerably less hazardous an enterprise as a result of Theseus' eradication of the sundry assortment of footpads and monsters en route. It was indeed fortunate for the civilised world that Theseus was around to take on the task, but no less fortunate that there was a task for him to take on. How, then, does society cope with a Heracles or a Theseus when they are not gainfully employed killing bandits and slaughtering monstrous beasts? In the case of Theseus, his over-exuberant energies found an outlet in the sexual abuse of under-age girls. Statutory rape, in other words, was Theseus' speciality.
The difficulty in containing the formidable energies of heroic youth is also indicated in the story of Heracles bludgeoning his music teacher Linus to death with his lyre, in evident frustration at having to submit to the civilised discipline of music. In view of the modern claim by the Glueks that 'persistent juvenile delinquents are typically of the mesomorphic, muscular, well-knit athletic type' and that 'law-violating boys have sturdier bodies than the law-abiding ones' it is perhaps hardly surprising that the muscular heroes of Greek myth invariably turn out to be so violent. In real life the future politician and general, Alcibiades, is said to have struck his old schoolmaster with his fist, simply because the wretched dunce didn't possess a copy of the poems of Homer.
In Athens, as in most Greek communities, there existed a law 'concerning the mistreatment of parents', which placed sons under an obligation not to beat their parents and to provide them with maintenance in old age. It follows that the incidence of parental abuse must have been sufficiently widespread in Greece to merit the attention of the law. Parent-beating seems even to have enjoyed a certain vogue in fifth-century Athens, to judge from frequent references to it in the plays of Aristophanes. In Clouds, for instance, the youthful Pheidippides, who attends a school for young men run by the philosopher Socrates, acquires the art of justifying the most morally abhorrent behaviour by learning to argue that if fathers beat their sons, then why shouldn't sons beat their fathers? Incidentally, in Athens the threat of disinheritance could not be used as a way of curbing unruly sons, because fathers were debarred by law from bequeathing property outside the family. To what extent, we may wonder, did that circumstance foster disobedience?
There is hardly any evidence from antiquity for the kind of delinquency that manifests itself in acts of purposeless violence, so-called 'non-utilitarian delinquency' against persons and property of the kind with which we are all-too familiar today. An isolated instance of violence against property in the Greek world involves the mutilation of the Herms by the so-called Hermokopidai or 'Herm-mutilators' in 415 BC. Herms were stone pillars surmounted by a head. The rest of the pillar was left in block-like form, except for a phallus. Such objects stood at street corners and as boundary markers throughout Athens. The action of the Hermokopidai was to disfigure their faces and chop off the penises – the Greek word perikopsein actually means 'to cut about'. But the crime, it must be emphasised, was not mindless. On the contrary, the violence had a precise political objective, being intended to prevent the sailing of an Athenian naval expedition to conquer Sicily. Since Hermes was the god of travellers, the destruction of his image was interpreted as an extremely bad omen for the expedition, which was precisely the intention of the perpetrators of this crime.
Prominent among socially controlled outlets for canalising youth's propensity for violent behaviour should be counted military service and the symposium. In Sparta youths aged seventeen to nineteen served in an organisation known as the krupteia, which resembled a kind of secret police. Its members were required to terrorise and demoralise the enslaved helot population. By this arrangement youthful violence was put at the service of society – which is to say at the service of the master race. The Spartan educational programme also institutionalised lying and stealing by requiring children aged twelve to perform tests which were intended to instil these 'social skills' in its future citizens, who would grow up to be devious and alert. In his account of the Spartan system in the Life of Lycurgus Plutarch says that young boys were put under the direction of an older boy who ordered them to fetch wood and vegetables. He writes:
They steal what they bring, some entering gardens, others creeping cunningly and cautiously into the messes of the men. If a boy is caught, he is beaten with a whip, because he has been shown to be a careless and unskilled thief. They also steal whatever food they can get hold of, by learning to come upon their victims when they are asleep or unaware. A child who is caught, however, is punished by being flogged and goes hungry.
Everyone in antiquity knew the improving story of the Spartan boy who was apprehended while trying to steal a young fox which he had hidden under his cloak. Rather than endure the humiliation of being publicly punished for his incompetent thievery, he persistently denied the theft, while the fox tore at his stomach with its teeth and claws. The inspiring result was that the child bled to death. The fact that the Spartans also meted out automatic punishment to children irrespective of whether they had committed any wrong deed suggests that the state not only appropriated youth's tendency to be delinquent for its own ends but also acknowledged the universal potentiality for delinquency among the young.
The symposium is a particularly interesting phenomenon in view of the perceived connection between alcohol and hooliganism in modern discussions of juvenile delinquency, since it provided a carefully controlled and highly structured environment for the consumption of alcohol by the young and their elders. It also functioned as a vehicle for the transmission of Greek culture – culture, that is, in both the literary and ethical sense of the term. Characteristically its participants were of mixed age-groups from eighteen upwards, this being the minimal age of public drinking. The institution sanctioned sexual license of an exclusively commercial nature, since freeborn women were naturally excluded, whereas prostitutes were de rigeur. It follows that the majority of Greeks would have had their earliest sexual experiences, homosexual as well as heterosexual, at a symposium; which is to say, in this rather public environment, where their conduct would have been the subject of scrutiny by both their peers and their elders.
The easy availability of socially acceptable, extra-marital sexual outlets in a society which put an inordinately high value on the virginity and chastity of its young girls is striking. We might expect it to have the effect of defusing the kind of pent-up emotions that generate delinquent behaviour; or rather that these pent-up emotions would have been primarily directed towards prostitutes, which is not on the whole the case in modern society. The fact that prostitutes were normally slaves or foreigners meant, of course, that they enjoyed virtually no protection from the law. So what if a gang of hot-headed youths subjected a prostitute to multiple rape? To whom would she appeal? Who would have represented her interests in court? Would it even have been regarded as a crime?
In Rome from earliest times the head of the family (or paterfamilias) had the 'right of life or death' over his children, both sons and daughters alike – a right which was not shared by his Greek counterpart. Although we know of no historical instance of a Roman father executing one of his own children, the existence of this legal provision points up a real fear. The paterfamilias also had very much more latitude in his power to bequeath property than did his Greek ' counterpart, for he could legally disinherit his own children if he so chose. Though sons received pocket money, the paterfamilias had ownership over anything which they earned by labour, gifts or bequests. In addition, a law known as the 'Twenty-five year-old Law' or Lex quinavinaria prevented persons under twenty-five years of age from entering into contracts with creditors. It is probably safe to assume that a son's financial dependence upon his father caused considerable tensions in the Roman family, though whether this in itself would have promoted juvenile delinquency is less certain.
A familiar stereotype in the plays of the comic dramatist, Plautus, is that of the spendthrift young man who wastes all his money on visits to the local brothel. In the Pseudolus, for instance, young Calidorus is prepared to cheat his father, his mother and anyone else he can find in order to purchase the freedom of a prostitute called Phoenicium. The values which the play promotes are clearly revealed when the pimp, Ballio, advises Calidorus to rob his father. To Calidorus' response, 'Filial duty forbids', the pimp cynically observes, 'O.K. then, just snuggle up to filial duty at night, instead of Phoenicium'.
The fact that Calidorus proceeds to give his wily slave, Pseudolus, a free hand in raising the necessary cash by whatever means is arguably a testimony to the debasement of filial piety, that most Roman of all qualities, in Plautus' day (late-third/early-second century BC). But is that true? Is Roman comedy a reflection of real life? Emphatically not, even though the kind of conflict which Calidorus faces must have been commonplace in a paternalistic society like Rome, where young men were subject to parental control as long as their fathers were alive. It is noteworthy that the wealthy young men whom we meet in Roman comedy never resort to outright theft as a way of resolving their financial difficulties. Rather, with the aid of a cunning slave, they manage to filch money while remaining strictly within the letter of the law.
Roman society appears to have placed a somewhat excessive emphasis upon obedience, which it enforced through corporal punishment. So normal was it to beat children that Horace wrote a poem celebrating a famous schoolmaster called Orbilius Pupillus for the severity of his punishments. The Rule of Saint Benedict decreed that 'the faults of children or youths must be punished either by strict fasting or by a severe thrashing'. Though the document was written in the sixth century AD, it is likely that it would have won the assent of most Roman fathers in both the republican and imperial periods. More enlightened opinions also prevailed, however. Quintilian, for instance, a schoolmaster who lived in the first century AD and author of a book entitled The Education of an Orator commented:
I strongly disapprove of beating, although it is a common practice, for the following reasons. First, because it is an uncivilized form of punishment, more appropriate for slaves and an insult. Second, if a boy is so set in his ways that words cannot hold him in check, he will merely become hardened to beatings.
The observation that corporal punishment runs the risk of fostering the very vices which it seeks to eliminate has a very modern ring. After all, as one thoughtful Roman remarked, what could you expect from a society where teachers were held in such low esteem that they were paid less in one year than a successful charioteer could earn in a single afternoon?
There is virtually no evidence at all for what sociologists call 'subcultural delinquency' in the Graeco-Roman world; that is to say, for delinquency of the kind which is exemplified by Fagan's gang of pickpockets in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist or by inner city gangs practising theft in modern slums. Was there in fact such a phenomenon as a 'counter culture' in Greek or Roman society – a culture, that is, which sets its face against the values and norms of society at large? The nearest approximation to it is recorded in the case of 'circus factions', rival supporters of the four stables which competed with one another in the four-horse chariot races whose riders were distinguished by their different liveries – white, red, green and blue.
The rivalry between these gangs came to a head in Constantinople, capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, in the reign of the emperor, Justinian (AD 527-65), who himself favoured the blues and under whose patronage this turbulent faction, which appealed in particular to the youth of the city, indulged in an orgy of indiscriminate violence, In Edward Gibbon's memorable words in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Insolent with royal favour, the blues affected to strike terror by a peculiar and barbaric dress – the long hair of the Huns, their close sleeves and ample garments, a lofty step, and a sonorous voice... Their adversaries of the green faction, or even inoffensive citizens, were stripped and often murdered by these nocturnal robbers, and it became dangerous to wear any gold buttons or girdles, or to appear at a late hour in the streets of a peaceful capital The laws were silent, and the bonds of society were relaxed; creditors were compelled to resign their obligations; judges to reverse their sentence; masters to enfranchise their slaves; fathers to supply the extravagance of their children; noble matrons were prostituted to the lusts of their servants; beautiful boys were torn from the arms of their parents; and wives, unless they preferred a voluntary death, were ravished in the presence of their husbands.
This, we might argue, represents an extreme case of subcultural delinquency. However, since it was aided and abetted by the emperor himself, it is questionable whether it deserves the title at all. We might also note that gangs of highborn Roman youths were accorded the privilege of wandering the streets of the capital at night, beating up passers-by, assaulting women, and smashing shops. The emperor, Nero, who was a member of such a gang in his youth, once suffered a drubbing at the hands of a senator who failed to recognise him as .his assailant.
More typical behaviour on the part of the less privileged Roman citizen was the sixteen year-old Augustine's famous theft of pears from his neighbour's vineyard, the memory of which peccadillo was to haunt the conscience-stricken saint for the rest of his life. Here is his description of that action, rendered in the exquisite seventeenth-century translation of William Watts:
Surely thy law, O Lord, punishes thievery; yea, and this law is so written in our hearts, that iniquity itself cannot blot it out. Yet had I a desire to commit thievery; and I did it, compelled neither by hunger nor poverty; but even through a cloyedness of well doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough of mine own, and much better. Nor when I had done, cared I to enjoy the thing which I had stolen, but joying in the theft and sin itself. A pear-tree there was in the orchard next our vineyard, well laden with fruit, not much tempting either for colour or taste. To the shaking and robbing of this, a company of lewd young fellows of us went late one night, (having, according to our pestilent custom in the gameplaces, continued our sports even till that season): thence carried we huge loadings, not for our own lickerishness, but even to fling to the hogs, though perhaps we ate some of it. And all this we did, because we would go whither we should not... It was foul, yet I loved it, I loved to undo myself, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I committed the fault, but even the very fault itself... Alone, I would never have committed the theft... but even because when one cries: 'Let us go, let us do this or that', then 'tis a shame not to be shameless.
Fifteen hundred years down the road, with drug addiction and the violence and criminality which that fosters posing major problems for parents and children of our generation, the saint's tearful hand-wringing may seem woefully self-indulgent. What is all the fuss about? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the fact that Augustine belonged to a society which lacked the ability to interpret the juvenile appetite for criminality as something episodic – a phase which the majority of juveniles eventually outgrow. By contrast, he saw it as the mark of the devil. Yet notwithstanding the author's ignorance of social theory, his self-awareness and sincerity are such that he has provided us with a clinically accurate account of the psychological and social drive behind his own delinquency. He was fed up with acting the goody-goody. There was no purpose to the crime except the pleasure of committing it. What chiefly motivated him was the fear that he would lose face among his peers if he did not participate. Augustine's behaviour can be appropriately categorised as socialised delinquency, and it is interesting to note that, like the fictional Pheidippides in Aristophanes' Clouds he too came from a home which was characterised by parental conflict, since his mother was warm and loving, whereas his father was concerned solely with his son's ability to master the art of rhetoric.
To return to the set of questions with which we began this investigation, it is abundantly clear that delinquency in antiquity was not acknowledged to be a problem in the sense it is identified as such in modern western societies. To the extent that it was recognised at all, it was primarily viewed as a problem for the delinquent's own family, not one for the community as a whole. Like other forms of anti-social behaviour, delinquency is a reaction to a precise set of expectations, goals, pressures and constraints imposed by the particular society of which its perpetrators are members; it is, in other words, a culturally conditioned form of social expression, in the same way that madness and insanity are also culturally conditioned. In Sparta, a very formal, highly-disciplined and closely regulated society, the slave population provided a convenient target for the brutality of the rising generation. In Athens, by contrast, where individual freedom was far greater, delinquency appears to have been most commonly directed towards members of one's family and one's peers.
The characteristic range of offences does not mirror those which are most prevalent today, Random and indiscriminate crimes against persons and property, for instance, do not, at least from the evidence which we have available, appear to have been a problem with which Greece or Rome had to contend. In the event of charges being filed by an injured party as a result of a crime perpetrated by a minor, the head of the household, not the delinquent concerned, was held responsible and brought to court. The reason for this, I suspect, was not primarily because parents were held to be morally responsible for their offspring's criminal behaviour, but simply because minors could not appear in court either as defendants or as prosecutors. Even so, it would hardly be surprising if this limitation upon their rights and responsibilities had the incidental consequence of inducing parents to take a close personal interest in their children's behaviour outside the home.
The British Home Secretary's announcement at last year's Conservative Party Conference that he was to 'explore ways' to hold parents of juvenile delinquents responsible for their children's crimes provides compelling confirmation of the old adage, plus ga change, plus c'est la meme chose.
This article has been adapted from a paper delivered at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts in the Washington Collegium for the Humanities Series, Washington D.C., in December 1990.
I know of no discussion of juvenile delinquency in the ancient world in an ancient or modern work, though useful background information relating to the condition and behaviour of the young in Greek and Roman society can be found in: K.J. Dover Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Basil Blackwell, 1974); P. 6arnsey and R. Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Duckworth, 198'7); R.S.J. Garland The Greek Way of Life (Duckworth, 1990); T. Wiedemann, The Child in the Classical City. The modern literature on contemporary phenomenon of juvenile delinquency is vast. Useful brief surveys of the state of current thinking include: S. and E. Glueck, Delinquents in the Making (New York, 1952). C.V. Vedder, The Juvenile Offender. (New York, 1954).
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