The Roman view of childhood was complex: on the one hand Roman parents abandoned unwanted children while on the other they saw their offspring as vulnerable and in need of protection. An overarching picture emerges from the sources of the child as an unformed being that required shaping for adult life. This shaping involved all aspects of the experience of childhood, from the physical moulding of the body to socialisation and education for entry into the adult world. Within this spectrum adults perceived children both as savages in need of civilising and simultaneously as individuals with the virtues and qualities of grown-ups. Romans were no less ambivalent and inconsistent in their views of children than present day society and a single author can show both detachment and sentimentality towards children in their work. The corollary of the desire to mould is the desire to control. The notion of control is fundamental to understanding the Roman idea of childhood. It was a time when control and guidance by adults was considered essential, a time when the child was in the power of adults. This is underlined by the fact that children are often associated in the Roman mind with other groups who lack the ability of self-control: women, slaves, the insane, barbarians. Romans writing about children assumed ideals of the over-riding power of the father and of the state; this informed all their opinions and is the point from which to measure perceived moments of indulgence and sentimentality.
The difficulty in studying childhood in the past is that our view is always mediated by the adult world. The child’s experience of its own world is absent. There is a dangerous tendency always to compare family behaviour in the past to that of the present, with the implicit assumption that temporal progress creates an improved situation to that of previous eras. Within any given community today a multiplicity of attitudes towards children and child-rearing exist; these are dependent on the cultural, social and economic background and environment of parents and their own social expectations. Childcare in the West today is highly varied, ranging from the highly child-centred to gross abuse. It is also a matter of political and social debate. The range of care within a single family may differ from child to child as the family members and environment fluctuates. The difficulty with examining