08/27/07 - raising romans

In today's excerpt - raising Roman children circa 100 BC, in the era of Julius Caesar's birth:

"Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining mark of a citizen. It was instilled in him from the moment of his birth. The primary response of Roman parents to their babies appears to have been less tenderness than shock that anything could be quite so soft and helpless. ... To the Romans, such a condition verged on scandalous. Children were certainly too weak to be idealized, and the highest praise a child could be given was to be compared to an adult.

"A Roman did not become a citizen by right of birth. It was within the power of every father to reject a newborn child, to order unwanted sons, and especially daughters, to be exposed [to die]. Before the infant ... was breastfed, his father would first have had to hold him aloft, signaling that the boy had been accepted as his own and was therefore a Roman.

"The Romans lacked a specific word for 'baby', reflecting their assumption that a child was never too young to be toughened up. Newborns were swaddled tightly to mold them into the form of adults, their features were kneaded and pummeled, and boys would have their foreskins yanked to make them stretch. Old-fashioned Republican morality and newfangled Greek medicine united to prescribe a savage regime of dieting and cold baths. The result of this harsh upbringing was to contribute further to an already devastating infant mortality rate. It has been estimated that only two out of three children survived their first year, and that under 50 percent went on to reach puberty. The deaths of children were constant factors of family life. Parents were encouraged to respond to such losses with flinty calm. The younger the child, the less emotion would be shown, so that it was commonplace to argue that 'if an infant dies in its cradle, then its death ought not even be mourned.' Ye,t reserve did not necessarily spell indifference. There is plenty of evidence from tombstones, poetry and private correspondence to suggest the depth of love that Roman parents could feel. The rigors imposed on a child were not the result of willful cruelty. Far from it: the sterner the parents the more loving they were assumed to be.

"A boy trained his body for warfare, a girl for childbirth, but both were pushed to the point of exhaustion. ... No wonder that Roman children appear to have had little time for play. Far fewer toys have been found dating from the Republic than from the period that followed its collapse, when the pressure to raise good citizens had begun to decline."


Tom Holland


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic


First Anchor Books Edition, March 2005


Copyright 2003 by Tom Holland


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