Children and Childhood in Roman Italy

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy


Images of children in Roman society abound: an infant's first bath, learning to walk, playing with pets and toys, going to school, and-all too often-dying prematurely. The child was prominent in private houses and public space in the teeming, cosmopolitan city of ancient Rome and other towns of Italy. Such a vivid picture does not recur until the twentieth-century. This study builds on the dynamic work on the Roman family that has been developing in recent decades. Its focus on the period between the first century BCE and the early third century CE provides a context for new work being done on early Christian societies, especially in Rome


Open wide the doors of the gods, Parthenope; fill the
garlanded shrines with clouds of Sheba’s incense and with
the breathing entrails of sacrificial animals. See, now, a third
birth increases the line of the distinguished Menecrates.

WHETHER a new child was always so welcome in Roman society depended on many factors, such as the parents’ status and financial situation, the sex of the child, how many siblings there were. Diverse factors have always affected the welcome and fate of newborn infants in any society. That children were, in principle and often in practice, welcome and valued and visible in Roman society is the main argument of this book. Moreover, there are distinctively Roman concepts and treatment of children which can be identified.

In the almost half-century since Ariès’ claim (1960) that there had been no real concept of childhood before the sixteenth or seventeenth century, there have been studies revealing real recognition of children in many phases of life in earlier societies. The society of Roman Italy, especially in the period covered in this book (first century BCE to early third century CE), was one of those societies, sharing with them various features, for example birth rituals, children’s games and stories, distinctive dress, a role

Statius, Siluae 4. 8. 1–4, celebrating the birth of a third son to Iulius Menecrates and Polla at the end of the 1st c.

e.g. Manson (1983); Pollock (1983); Wiedemann (1989); Corbier (1999b); Avery and Reynolds (2000); Orme (2001).

This choice of period is dictated largely by the sources available. I have tried, however, to extend the picture beyond the all-too-frequent textbook period of the late Republic and the Julio-Claudians, which derives from the existence of major literary and historical sources for that period, especially Cicero and Tacitus (although Tacitus is not a primary source for the JulioClaudians). Archaeological sources for that period have improved in recent times, but not to the extent of those for the 2nd c. Epigraphic and legal sources are also better and more copious for the Flavian period and the 2nd c. See Chronological Guide and Glossary for periods and technical terms.

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