Ancient Roman children fell under their father’s power known as “patria potestas”. As head of the family, the father had power over his wife, slaves, house and other personal/family property. For a long period of ancient Roman history this power included power to sell the child into slavery, to abandon it, as well as power over life and death, known as “ius vitae ac necis”.
One of the last examples of this power being exercised was as late as the first century BC during the famous Catiline conspiracy which was thwarted by Cicero. It was only in the first century AD that father killing son was considered a punishable offence, although it took a few further centuries to put the offence on the same level as that of a son murdering his father!
The right to actually abandon a child remained in existence almost into the 5th century AD by which time Christian morality had a say in the matter, although this clearly didn’t mean the complete end of such practices which in a sense dated as far back as Rome’s mythological founder brothers Romulus and Remus who had themselves been abandoned and brought up by a she-wolf (a prostitute actually).
All of this gives a pretty grim sense of childhood across the board. Furthermore demographic guesstimates would suggest that the survival rate of children would have been quite low: It is estimated that only 50% of children would reach the age of 5.
Cato divorced his wife who had borne him several children already. In this way she might marry his friend Hortensius who had not been so lucky. In fact when Hortensius died Cato married his wife back again together with Hortensius’ inheritance. Ancient custom had it that once a wife had borne her husband three or more children she had pretty much done her duty to home and country and it would be quite the right thing to lend her/marry her off to a friend who hadn’t had such luck with his own wife.
Emperor Augustus gives us a pretty extreme example: He married Livia whilst she was pregnant of her former husband (who apart from anything else actually attended the marriage ceremony!) It has to be said that Livia and Augustus turned out to be made for one another.
We can see how the Romans’ need for descendants and a lack of 20th century fertility techniques lead the ancient Romans to relatively modern marital solutions! This of course went hand in hand with a good deal of extra-marital hanky panky which inevitably resulted in a good number or unrecognised offspring being abandoned.
It is quite likely that the name “Spurius” which was of Etruscan origins and frequently recurs throughout Roman history, was somehow linked to these unfortunate children. Likewise the name “Stercorius” closely associated with refuse and garbage is also frequent in funerary inscriptions.
In fact a child which had not been officially recognised by its father would often be killed or in any case given to a slave so that it might be disposed of, for example by abandoning or putting it on display close to refuse areas so that it might be picked up by passers by or left to die a sorry death.
This sort of abandonment was not only the case of children born of illegitimate affairs or indeed of children born of rape. It was particularly frequent amongst the poor, especially in the plebeian class. Slaves could often hope for their masters to provide nutrition for their children whilst it is not unheard of for Plebeians to sell their own children into slavery so that they might have a better opportunity in life. The richer members of society could often resort to some form of abortion rather than having to carry out the pregnancy to such a sorry extreme.
These abandoned children could be picked up by just about anyone who according to their own disposition might choose to adopt and raise the child, giving it their own name, or indeed to keep the child as a slave or sell it on. Not surprisingly there were unscrupulous people who made a business of this and many of these children would be sold and find themselves doing one of the many jobs done by slaves. This might mean working in houses, shops, prostitution and farming or in the most glorious extreme fighting as gladiators or racing at the chariot races in the Circus Maximus.
In the most extreme cases beggars might use these foundlings to assist them in begging. In order to make them more effective it wouldn’t be unusual for them to maim the children and this practice made it necessary to pass laws obliging those who took a foundling to publicly declare their intentions for it. If anything, this attests to a degree of morality amongst the law makers.
Coming of Age
Roman children became an adult when they were still teen-agers. Traditionally the coming of age was accompanied by a specific festive ceremony during which the child would do away with the “bulla” round his neck (a necklace rather like that worn by soldiers), remove his sacred toga known as the “Praetexta” and put on the formal white toga worn by adult Roman citizens only.
The first shave which also symbolised a coming of age was often accompanied by a shaving ceremony called “deposito barbae” after which the beard would be left to grow again but kept short particularly when beards were fashionable in ancient Rome.
In reality the coming of age was accompanied by a far more “tangible” visit to the local prostitutes.
School and Education of Children in ancient Rome
Throughout the history of ancient Rome, schooling and education of children was left to the parents’ discretion. If any teaching was provided, the girls might be taught by their mother and the boys by their father. As Roman dominions grew, the level of literacy improved through increased urbanisation, wealth and access to teachers. However this would have been mostly for the Patricians/rich famiies who could afford to pay for it. It is likely that overall the rate of literacy would not have been above 15%, although many people may have had sufficient notions of written text to understand public signs. By and large basic education involved some notions of reading and writing as well as some simple arithmetic. The twelve tablets of law were learnt off by heart.
In the earliest times the child’s learning was left to the parents but it increasingly became a province of the mothers and eventually of specifically appointed slaves. There were no public schools other than some loosely organised sessions usually run by freed slaves (liberti).
Further education was the domain of the rich who were able to afford a tutor and to keep the child out of work.