Children in the Roman Empire

The article ‘Children in the Roman Empire’, by Peter Thonemann, has, for some reason, disappeared from the Times Literary Supplement website, and I can’t find an archived copy. Fortunately, I saved it as a pdf, so I have a copy myself. It’s a useful article, I think, because sex industry apologists cite ‘cultural norms’ and even ‘children’s sexuality’ and ‘children’s agency’ to justify the commercial sexual exploitation of children (‘youth sex workers’). As the article shows, the ‘cultural norms’ in the past of ‘adult-child’ sex, were nothing to do with the ‘rights’ or ‘agency’ or ‘sexuality’ of children, and everything to do with what society allowed powerful men to do. In the present day the ‘cultural norm’ in many parts of the world is of marrying off girls as young as ten to men decades older.

The key sections of the article are:

It comes, then, as a rude shock to discover that the baby was not Statius’s son, but his slave. “He was not of my stock, nor did he carry my name or features; I was not his father … I was not one to love some chatterbox plaything bought from an Egyptian slave-ship – no, he was mine, my own.” This little boy was a verna, “house-reared”, the child of two of Statius’s own household slaves. He was Statius’s property, to be trained up or sold on as he wished. To judge from Statius’s other poems for deliciae, beloved slave-boys in elite Roman households, the boy’s early adolescence would probably have been spent ministering to his owner’s sexual desires.

Adult-child relationships in past societies present painful and delicate problems for the historian. Were Statius’s feelings for this child “natural”? Did he have “paternal instincts” towards him? By the standards of contemporary Roman society, Statius’s relationship with his verna was clearly quite normal, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his feelings for the child. House-reared slaves, as Beryl Rawson shows in Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture, could play a variety of roles in the Roman elite family, from surrogate son to erotic plaything. What is difficult for us to deal with is the notion that, as in the case of Statius’s beloved boy, they might have played both roles simultaneously.

[…] Whether or not a twelve-year-old child was regarded as an acceptable sexual partner was determined not by biology, but by the child’s status, slave or free. No Roman saw anything problematic about setting slaves and lowstatus children to work as soon as they were physically capable of doing so. For many, adult labour began painfully early. The tombstone of Quintus Artulus, who died at the age of four at the silver mines of Baños de la Encina in Andalusia, depicts the child in a short tunic, barefoot, carrying the tools of his trade, a miner’s axe and basket.

By contrast, the adolescent sons and daughters of wealthy Roman citizens were at least as segregated from adult society as any modern Oliver or Olivia. Sexual advances towards a freeborn Roman child of any age, male or female, were punishable by death. Premarital purity was obsessively guarded; obscene language was known in Latin as nupta verba, “married words”. Physical labour was unheard of: the sons of the Roman elite could expect to stay in full-time formal education well into their mid-teens, studying the civil arts of grammar and rhetoric.

I will put screen caps of the full article below the line.

One response

  1. […] including the right to kill unwanted children. While freeborn Roman children were protected from sexual interference (although girls were married off young), slaves had no rights, and Roman men considered twelve to […]

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