Age and youth, Parents and children

Childhood - survival of the fittest

Child mortality

In ancient Greece and Rome average life expectancy was only about twenty-five, kept down by an appalling rate of infant mortality. Those who made it through early childhood and then survived the dangers of either the battlefield (if you were a man) or childbirth (if you were a woman), could hope to live a long time. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (fourth century BC) shared the view of David in Psalms 90:10 that ‘the days of our years are threescore years and ten'. In those times before modern healthcare, though, a great many children did not live to see their first birthdays.

Valuing infant life

Inevitably, such a high infant death rate fostered some tough attitudes to child-rearing: 

  • According to Aristotle, babies born deformed should be left out on a mountainside to die - this was actually stipulated as a father's duty in the Twelve Tables of Roman law.
  • Tradition suggests that the warlike Spartans left all their children out overnight after they were born. Only if they were strong enough to survive were they worth keeping.

Generally the ancients couldn't afford to invest too much emotionally in their children. However, there is evidence to suggest that parental bonds could be strong. The poet Ausonius, writing in the fourth century AD, expressed grief when his young son died:

‘Just as you were beginning to turn your baby talk into the first words of childhood and you were full of natural gifts we had to mourn for your death.'  

Martial's first century epitaph for a little slave girl, Erotion, conveys his sense of personal loss:

‘Let her now play happily with her old patrons, and let her chatter my name with a lisp. … Do not weigh heavy upon her, earth. She did not weigh heavy upon you.'

Childhood innocence

Writing in Roman North Africa around the beginning of the fifth century, Bishop Augustine condemned his own self-centred and manipulative nature as an infant (crying in order to get his way). However, Aristotle, writing in Classical Greece, took the view that the age of reason (and hence of moral responsibility) was seven, and later Catholic thinkers followed his teaching in this regard. The idea that childhood is inherently ‘innocent' is a modern view. (See 17th and 18th century attitudes to childhood.)

Generally the Greeks and Romans were much slower to sentimentalise childhood. The gravestone of a second century AD slave boy suggests he may already have followed his father into the trade of silver-mining. Aged just four, he's pictured with the hammer and basket a worker would have used for collecting ore.

Gender and status


The ‘family' as it is understood today did not exist in classical times. Rather than the ‘nuclear' family (mother, father, children) of today, or even the ‘extended' family (parents, children, grandparents), the basic unit of Greek society was the oikos. This meant ‘household' rather than biological family and included not just three generations of family members but also adult and child slaves. Whilst slaves in the ancient world were in no way on equal terms with their master and his family, they all lived together and – inevitably – formed bonds.

The status of men

Ancient Greek men were very much the masters in their homes. For the Romans too, the paterfamilias (‘father of the family') was the boss. As the senior male of the family, the paterfamilias inherited his position from his grandfather and father when they died or became infirm. He had complete control over his household, even (at least in legal theory) the power of life and death. However, he too had obligations - to uphold the honour of his household and be a credit to his ancestors.

Prestigious male attire

A ‘Roman' was by default male, his womenfolk considered incidental. It was he who conquered countries, built cities, spoke in Senate and fathered children. Hence the prestige of the Roman toga. This was a man's long, white woollen cloth which was worn wrapped round the body on top of a simple tunic when out in public. An emblem of Roman pride, it was taken very seriously as a badge of citizenship. Foreigners, slaves and women were not allowed to wear it.

Boys wore the toga praetexta, which was white, but bordered with a wide purple stripe. Their graduation to the plain white toga virilis (‘toga of manhood') in their mid-teens was marked with solemn ceremonies.

Wives and daughters

The influence of militarism

Athens had secured its freedom and built its prosperity through war. Rome saw its sacred mission as the conquest of the world. In these male-dominated and militaristic societies most wives were more or less downtrodden. The celebrated democracy of ancient Athens' did not extend to the city's women (or slaves of either sex). Given away in marriage by their fathers, women had to do their husbands' bidding. In most Greek cities they weren't legally allowed to own or inherit property.

In the Roman Empire, a daughter owed obedience to her father (whilst he was alive) before her husband. It followed that younger men might not have as much power as might be expected in their relationships, if a strong-willed Roman wife negotiated a considerable amount of freedom from her father! Furthermore, women were allowed to inherit and hold on to property under Roman law.

Female honour

In both Greece and Rome, upper or ‘patrician' class women were relegated to separate quarters. Respectable wives hardly left the house but stayed inside, with their attendants, their daughters and their small sons. The function of the female sex was to preserve the honour of the household in their modesty and chastity.


The constraints of class

Patrician women were expected to:

  • further the family's prosperity and dignity by being good wives to the husbands to whom they were awarded
  • bear children who would perpetuate the family line.

A father arranged his daughters' marriages on a business-like basis, making advantageous alliances to increase his household's wealth or enhance its prestige.

Thus a daughter was valued as an important asset; however she wasn't seen as having her own individual will – or rights. For example, both rape and seduction (which were hardly distinguished) were viewed with horror by ancient society, but as a property crime against the victim's family rather than a violation of a female's rights. A girl's virginity was quite literally her ‘treasure': in the marriage market it had cash-value to her family.

Poorer women went out to work and lived much less regimented lives at home. Rather than formal marriages, they generally entered into relationships of usus (‘use' or ‘practice') – what we would call ‘common-law marriage' or simply ‘moving in together'.

Age and marriage

The subordinate status of the ancient wife was underlined by age-difference: typically, a teenage girl would be married off to a man of thirty or thereabouts. There were good social and economic reasons why it made sense for a man to put off matrimony while he established himself, but it did tend to perpetuate a patronising attitude towards females. A man who'd seen the world, served in the army, done jury service, maybe spoken in the public assembly, was attached to a young girl, who was expected just to concern herself with having babies, having barely put aside her dolls.

Age and honour

Ages and stages

According to the Latin poet Horace:

‘The years bring many blessings with them as they come,' but, ‘They take away just as many as they go.'

Horace listed four main stages in the life of man:

  • The child is someone ‘who knows how to reply in words, and to walk steadily, and who loves playing with his childish companions. He gets angry without thinking; forgets his anger just as thoughtlessly; and his mood changes by the hour.'
  • The youth is defined as ‘still beardless, but free of his guardian now – loves his horses and hounds and the pursuits of the athletic arena. He's as easily moulded as wax when the influence is bad, but he rejects wise counsel rudely. He's impractical; lacking in foresight; extravagant with money; quick to fall both in and out of love.'
  • The tastes of the adult man change ‘as the years pass: once fully grown-up he seeks wealth and friendship and sets a higher value on honour and respect; he's reluctant to commit to something he isn't sure of'.
  • The old man is ‘grey-haired... beset by troubles, whether because he's so avaricious in pursuing wealth – and so miserly in spending it – or because everything he does he does so timorously and hesitantly. He puts off tough decisions, holding on hard to his hopes; he's slow and cautious, desperate to have a lengthy future; he praises the past, when he was young; is full of criticisms of those who are younger than him now'.

It's notable that, as far as Horace is concerned, the infant (from the Latin infans – literally, ‘not talking') might as well not exist; nor for that matter might girls or women of any age!

Respect and recognition

In both Greece and Rome, old age was considered worthy of respect – though the infirmities which went with it were recognised.

According to the Roman orator Cicero:

‘The elderly should have their physical labours reduced [but] their mental activities should actually be increased. They should endeavour too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.'

That was the ideal. However, some felt that the elderly themselves didn't always live up to it. There was a widespread feeling that older men were too free in interfering in the affairs of their juniors or handing out advice, and should mind their own affairs. A dramatic example of this is seen in Aristophanes' Greek comedy, The Wasps (422 BC), in which a meddling old man becomes addicted to jury service.

Attitudes to decline

In Rome, as in the modern world, people felt the advance of age with mounting dread. Horace wrote to a friend:

'Alas the fleeting years slip by, nor will piety hold back the wrinkles or the oppression of old age or untameable death.'

The satirist Juvenal also noted that:

‘Worse than all bodily ills is the senile mind. Men forget the names of their own slaves. They don't recognize the man who had them to dinner the day before. Or, ultimately, the very children they begot and reared.'
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