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Roman Children: What Can You Know About Them?

By Renata Senna Garraffoni, Universidade Federal do Paraná.


Sarcophagus of a Roman child. Scene representing children's games. AD 170-180 1.47 x 0.37 x 0.47m. (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).

If I started this text by asking: were there children among the ancient Romans? Certainly, readers would answer that there were. But if I changed the question a little bit: what do you know about Roman children? Probably nothing or very little, am I right? So, how do you explain this? The point is that questions about the past are highly dependent on the interests of the present. For a long time, what capture the interest of the study of the Roman world were powerful men. Thus, many parts of society became little known.


On another occasion, I wrote here about the changes in historiography and how it took a lot of struggle from classicist women to study women from different origins and strata of the Roman population. If today we have many studies about them, it is because knowing the diversity and plurality of people who made up the Roman world became important for us to better understand the ancient past. With regard to children, something similar occurs: little by little they became subjects to be researched. Part of the historiography about women, for example, discusses motherhood, so understanding the cycle of life – from birth to death – has come to integrate some concerns of those who study everyday life more recently.


Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence have some interesting thoughts on the subject in their book Growing up and growing old in Ancient Rome – A life course approach. They argue that birth, growth, aging and death are complex themes, but they can be analyzed in an interconnected way, although this is not always done. For this to occur, a change of view is needed: there are documents to know about the stages of life among the Romans, as it is possible to find reflections in literature, legislation and, from the point of view of material culture, tombs and tombstones are rich in information. However, the few studies that have been done focus on the search for statistics on birth and death, for political relationships and family descent and their relationship to power, that is, they emphasize the biological and probable family trees. In this sense, the great challenge for the authors lies in the elaboration of interpretive models that go beyond the common sense of biology on aging, death and genealogy and that reflect on the courses of Roman life inserted in a historical, social and cultural context.


These considerations always caught my attention and, in 2008/2009, when I had the opportunity to work with Laurence on a project, we wrote about the graffiti in Pompeii and how they can help us find, for example, children around the city. The article “Writing in Public space from child to adult: the meaning of graffiti” makes a broader analysis of the importance of graffiti to study people who do not always appear in historiography and analyzes several cases. Regarding children in particular, we considered the issue of literacy, as in order to write on the walls, they would have to master the letters. Thus, in part of the text, we deal with the alphabets. There are many alphabets around the city of Pompeii where children recorded ABCD... or an alternating combination between beginning and end (AXBVCTDSER...), that is, they practiced the letters. They appear in columns of houses, in public buildings, in the Large Palaestra, in the theater and we even found one in the public bath. But the biggest concentration is actually on the streets, which corroborates passages in the literature in which it is stated that children train their letters on walls and on street corners.


What such data reveal to us about children's lives? We know little about how the Roman schools worked, but we know that among the peoples of Antiquity, the Romans were the ones who left us the most inscriptions and in different manners. So, this type of graffiti indicates two important things: how, in part, children were trained in letters and, also, where they circulated in the cities. Yes, observing the alphabetic writing spaces ends up altering our perception of urban life, because often in places where we only imagined the presence of adults, such as public buildings, we started to find evidence for the presence of children, making these spaces very diverse. It is a different way of approaching children since alphabets are anonymous, but it expresses a method to reach them: it is always necessary to be aware of their presence and gather a series of evidence from texts, laws, such as tombstones and inscriptions to get to know them better.

Although I participated in the project with Laurence that resulted in the aforementioned publication, because life course is an area in which he dedicated part of his career, by gathering elements about children's lives, he participated in the making of an animation about how it would probably be a day in the life of a Roman girl, called Domitia by the team. If you want to meet her, check out the video below (Four sisters in Ancient Rome, by Ray Laurence) or visit the TED-Ed project.


Finally, it is worth mentioning that, although the Roman world is well studied, there are issues that still challenge us today. Knowing a little more about Roman children can bring us surprises and new data. That being said, research cannot stop, but we must renew our perceptions about the ancient past!



Tags: #children #lifecourse #inscriptions #literacy #AncientRome

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