The Bad Julias

Emma Dench

  • Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within by Christian Laes
    Cambridge, 334 pp, £68.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 89746 4
  • Children, Memory and Family Identity in Roman Culture edited by Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth
    Oxford, 373 pp, £82.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 958257 0

The Latin textbook we used at school in the mid-1970s was proud of its new approach. It introduced us to a Roman family whose lives were meant to look just as ours would have done if only we’d lived in a warmer climate without cars, televisions or plastic toys, and walked around dressed in sheets. Yet the children in the family, Marcus and Aemilia, seemed no less remote to us than the ghastly, overdressed 1950s family who lived in our rather more ancient French textbook, dining on chocolate ‘tartines’ served by a maid in a silly hat. Marcus always seemed a little forlorn, but I put that down to the stiffness of his tunic, his authentic but uncool haircut (hovering between the Beatles and pudding basin), or his hopelessly over-protected, bourgeois existence. However, the two books under review make me feel that Marcus had a lot to be forlorn about.

At least Marcus and Aemilia’s family were prosperous, living in a spacious villa with a shady garden. There was little chance that either of the children would have been breastfed by their mother. Typically, only the poor or the thrifty breastfed, although the wife of Cato the Censor allegedly breastfed the babies of the household slave along with her own. The wealthy, or anyone who couldn’t work and breastfeed at the same time, usually hired a wet-nurse, often requiring her to sign a contract promising to abstain from sex and alcohol: the boozy wet-nurse was a comic stereotype. If all went well (infant mortality was high, even for the prosperous), babies moved on to solids by eating food pre-chewed by their nurse, who would entertain and terrify them with old wives’ tales of bloodsuckers, baby-eaters and ghosts. It was the beginning of a lifetime of more or less uneasy intimacy with domestic help, most of them slaves.

Roman medical writers advised nurses literally to try to mould body parts such as the head, nose and foreskin. Small babies were swaddled tightly until their bodies supposedly started to set in the desired shape; then the pushing, pulling and squeezing began again. After infancy children were supposed to learn by imitation. Painfully copied-out moral maxims or excerpts from adult classics have survived from Roman Egypt on scraps of papyrus, broken bits of pot or waxed writing tablets, complete with beginners’ errors, shaky handwriting and signs of weariness. At home, children were to learn by following the noble examples of their forefathers. If a child showed reluctance or was a bit slow, the answer was straightforward: the Romans thought children learned best when their lessons were thrashed into them.

Sometimes, things went wrong. Cicero was an attentive father, as Thomas Späth shows, keen as a ‘new man’ with no noble Roman ancestry to see his children get on in the world. But he seems to have been a bit of a pushover. He was away in the province of Cilicia, where he was the governor, when he was informed – no one consulted him – that his daughter, Tullia, a young widow after the death of her second husband, was going to marry Dolabella. The match caused her father considerable political embarrassment because of the accusations Dolabella had brought against Cicero’s predecessor in Cilicia, with whom he was trying to establish a friendly relationship. Augustus, who preached against moral transgression and legislated against adultery, made the age-old political mistake of holding up his own domestic life as an example. His daughter and granddaughter, both called Julia (the Romans, tellingly unimaginative when it came to naming girls, always gave them the feminine version of their father’s ‘clan’ name), followed in Augustus’ footsteps by often departing from the straight and narrow. The emperor had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and the Julias were caught doing unspeakable things with men who were not their husbands. The elder Julia allegedly did some of these things in the very forum and on the very rostra where her father proposed his adultery law.

We have the Romans to thank for the notion of celebrating birthdays, and the tombstones of dead children often give their age in years, months and days – profound loss demands exactitude. They were vague about the age at which children reached particular developmental stages, like walking and talking, but were strangely interested in when they gained and lost their first teeth. Citizen boys marked puberty with the public ritual of laying down the toga praetexta, the purple-edged toga of boyhood, and putting on the toga virilis, the plain white toga of manhood. In his Confessions Augustine tells the excruciating story of how his father noticed that his little boy was growing up when he saw him naked in the public baths, and rushed off excitedly to tell his mother. Young men traditionally dedicated their first beard to the household cult, and young emperors made a public festival of the occasion. Girls got rather less attention. Their only real rite of passage was marriage, which generally took place in their late teens, but sometimes before adolescence and to considerably older men. Euphemistic Roman imagery of picking or cutting flowers hints at the physical dangers of sex and pregnancy for very young girls to which ancient medical texts occasionally allude. A difficult labour might necessitate the decapitation and dismemberment of the infant; and the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD included tiny pregnant girls. Most ancient authors agreed that a girl was ready for sex when she got married: the idea of an age of consent (or a minimum age for child labour, or a set progression through school) was unimaginable.

As we see in Republican portraiture, which celebrates crow’s feet, jowls and sunken cheeks, the Romans idealised the authority that came with age. As its etymology suggests, the Senate was meant to be a council of elders, and consuls were not supposed to hold office until they reached the age of 36. The emphasis shifted radically as the Romans adjusted to dynastic succession at the end of the Republic. As the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus held his first consulship at 19. Portraits emphasised his youth and the beauty that went along with it; he was seen as a reincarnation of Alexander the Great rather than Julius Caesar. The Roman public quickly focused on the princes expected to succeed Augustus. His grandson Gaius made his first public appearance in 13 BC at the age of six, and was portrayed on coins with his younger brother, Lucius, and his mother, Julia, in her virgin goddess Diana stage, before she went off the rails. The extraordinary celebrity status and premature promotion of Gaius and Lucius accelerated during their adolescence, but both died in early adulthood. The eventual succession of Tiberius, in his fifties a more traditional representative of Roman authority, was a disappointment to some: troops mutinied in Pannonia and Germany. The only thing that could calm the German mutiny was the threat to withdraw the two-year-old Gaius Caligula to safety. Gaius was Augustus’ great-grandson and the son of Germanicus, his grand-nephew, a famous and beloved commander.[*]

The growing obsession with young celebrity royals coincided with an age of reinforced social hierarchies yet striking social mobility: both phenomena encouraged the visibility and promotion of children and adolescents. Political office, including on local councils, was subject to a minimum age, but this could be lowered by imperial edict, and there were various loopholes and exemptions, as well as times when suitable older candidates were lacking. Office-holding came with the expectation of hefty benefactions in the form of sponsoring buildings or funding handouts. In some exceptional cases, children as young as four or six were commemorated for their benefactions and received honorific offices in return, like the six-year-old Numerius Popidius Celsinus, who funded the restoration of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. Parents would put up money in their children’s name, trying to secure the future standing of their family. Freedmen and freedwomen, whose status as ex-slaves disqualified them from political office but whose children would be eligible, were particularly invested in their children’s future. Celebration of the passage from slavery to Roman citizenship is often shown on tomb monuments, especially in family portraits: father, mother and one or more solemn children, the boys’ status as citizens advertised by the bullae, necklaces they wore proudly to ward off ill-omen and unwanted attentions.

The concept of childhood didn’t apply to children born into poverty or slavery, as it did in families privileged by wealth or birth. Work began as soon as the child could be useful, though compensation for damage to a slave only applied to children aged five and over. Ancient authors rarely mention child labour, presumably because it seemed so unremarkable. Our information is based on bills of slave sales, legal texts, occasional epitaphs or literary snippets, supplemented in recent years by forensic examination. We glimpse children in a range of occupations: as apprentice jewellery makers, doctors and sculptors, as waiters, barbers, weavers, arena cleaners, donkey drivers, olive harvesters and miners. Forensic studies give us a sense of the toll of physical labour on young bodies. Skeletons of children killed by the eruption of Vesuvius show serious injuries of the sort associated with strenuous repetitive movements of the head or arms, perhaps in farming or harbour work. The Romans had a special term for slaves born in the household, vernae. They were often preferred over other slaves and sometimes raised along with the master’s own children: indeed, given the usual behaviour of upper-class men, they might sometimes have been the master’s biological children. Such children’s futures always depended on the whims of their master or mistress. Sales contracts referring to vernae, laconic as they are, suggest sad stories. At the very best, these children were treated as we might treat a pet pony, adored but expendable and replaceable.

Pet slave children, particularly boys, were common in wealthy households. Small children were funny and entertaining, but dwarves or children with physical or mental disabilities made even better clowns, like the young boy dressed in scarlet kept by Domitian, with whom he allegedly discussed matters of state. Augustus was unusual in shunning dwarves and the disabled; he preferred to play dice and other games with his collection of beautiful young boys, especially dark-skinned Mauri and Syrians. It’s hard not to wonder about the nature of the relationships between adults and young favourites, and ancient literature can seem quite reticent on the subject. Suetonius can barely bring himself to say what Tiberius did with unweaned infants, but in the best biographical tradition manages to overcome his reticence. Everyone knew that freeborn boys and girls were off limits: violations were subject to harsh punishment. But writers didn’t shy away from making clear how tempting boys could be, at their loveliest between early adolescence and the appearance of the first beard. Slave boys and girls were fair game. Aeneas owed his sufferings partly to Juno’s furious resentment of Jupiter’s obsession with Ganymede, his young cupbearer, who was Trojan like Aeneas. To judge from Roman satire, Juno and Jupiter’s difficulties were those of many married couples: it could be terribly hard for husbands to drag themselves away from their boys and do their marital duty. And there was nothing embarrassing about appreciating young bodies: epitaphs and poetry glide from outpourings of love and affection straight into eroticism.

Life has been fairly eventful for Marcus and Aemilia since Roman childhood became a popular research subject in the 1980s. In those early years there was a heady mix of questions. Did Roman parents love their children, given the likelihood of losing them early? Is the concept of childhood even applicable to a premodern society such as Rome? Is there some dramatic turning point in antiquity when childhood was ‘discovered’ or ‘invented’? It isn’t that these questions and others have been answered, just that many of the disagreements have narrowed, and we generally know when to hedge our bets. In their different ways, both Christian Laes’s book and Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth’s collection read as late contributions to old debates. Laes’s book is very useful as a reference work in that it touches on nearly every question one might have about Roman childhood, but he could have made more of his arguments about the relative unimportance of set ages in Roman society, and the social inferiority of children. Dasen and Späth have identified a fascinating connection between attitudes towards children and memory and identity, but, as in many collections of this kind, the editors’ research questions work brilliantly for some contributors but are like straitjackets for others.

[*] Mary Beard wrote about Caligula in the LRB of 26 April 2012.