Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World

Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World

Some areas of the Roman family have come under particular scrutiny in the last twenty years, and the developing emphasis on children in Roman culture can be seen in recent scholarship. Despite this, very little research is related to the role and significance of newborn children and infants in the Roman family and society.

With high infant mortality, it is tempting to assume that close bonds were rarely formed with the newest members of a Roman family. This appears to be supported by Roman textual sources which point towards culturally ascribed notions of infants as ‘non-persons’ until they reached a particular age. But literary and philosophical comments need to be balanced against the material evidence to enable us to assess Roman perceptions of the first phase of human life. My recent examination of the archaeological evidence for attitudes towards the death of the very young in Roman Italy, for example, demonstrated that families clearly invested care and effort in the burial of babies lost tragically early, although Roman (elite) authors claim that such young children should not be mourned or treated as anything but marginal (M. Carroll, Infant Death and Burial in Roman Italy, J. Roman Archaeology 24, 2011, 99-120).

This interdisciplinary project on infancy and earliest childhood, funded in 2012-2013 by the Leverhulme Trust and the Society of Antiquaries, draws on archaeological, artefactual, osteological, epigraphic, artistic, legal and literary evidence to understand the role and significance of newborn children and infants in Roman families and societies throughout the empire. It aims to explore distinctions of class and socio-cultural situations over time and the relations between the realities of and rhetoric about earliest childhood.

This research will result in the publication of the first study of infancy and earliest childhood in a cultural overview encompassing the Roman empire.

Maureen Carroll

The Leverhulme Trust

Society of Antiquaries