20120225-Fresco PompeiiTeseo_liberatore.JPG
In ancient Rome children were not considered human until they could walk and talk. It has been calculated that 28 percent of all children died before reaching the age of 12 months. Some sociologists have suggested that parents didn't start having deep affection for their children until the beginning of industrialization in 18th century when infant mortality rates became low enough that parents could afford to form deep bonds with their children and not worry about them dying.

There are some indications that this may have been true in ancient Rome. Only 1.3 percent of all burials for infants have tombstones. But that doesn't mean they didn't express joy when a child war born. One birth announcement carved on a residential neighborhood read: “ ”Cornelius Sabinus has been born." Another read, “ ”Iuvenilla is born on Saturday the 2nd of August in the second hour of the evening." Next to it was a charcoal sketch of a newborn.

Births were registered. A typical birth certificate read: "To...the clerks of the metropolis, from Ischyras...and his wife Thaisarion...We hereby register the son, Ischyras, born to us and being one year of age in the present 14th year of the emperor Antoninus Caesar [A.D. 150 or 151]

Joseph Castro wrote in Live Science: “Though Romans loved their kids immensely, they believed children were born soft and weak, so it was the parents' duty to mold them into adults. They often engaged in such practices as corporal punishment, immobilizing newborn infants on wooden planks to ensure proper growth and routinely bathing the young in cold water as to not soften them with the feel of warm water.” [Source: Joseph Castro, Live Science, May 28, 2013]

See Separate Articles on Education and Schools

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Patria Potestas (Parent Power) in Ancient Rome

Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “Patria potestas, or “paternal power,” was one of the most prevalent traditions in ancient Rome. It greatly influenced the law of the time, as well as affecting our laws today. The power of a father over his children was seen as the highest of the land, with the children unable to go against their father’s wishes. Social convention usually kept abuses of power from becoming too widespread, though it was still up to the father as to what he wanted to do, especially in regard to punishment. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

“In addition, the father also had dominion over any of his grandchildren, or even his great-grandchildren. Although, in reality, many children were freed from patria potestas by the time they were in their mid-twenties, since the previous generation was normally dead already. One of the oldest traditions, patria potestas was said to have been granted by Romulus, and even gave a father control over his children’s possessions, which remained his until he died.

The power of the pater familias was displayed immediately after the birth of the child. By invariable custom it was laid upon the ground at his feet. If he raised (tollere, suscipere) it in his arms, he acknowledged it as his own by the act (susceptio) and admitted it to all the rights and privileges that membership in a Roman family implied. If he should refuse to do so, the child would become an outcast, without family, without the protection of the spirits of the dead, utterly friendless and forsaken.

“The disposal of the child did not call for any act of downright murder, such as was contemplated in the case of Romulus and Remus and was afterwards forbidden by Romulus the King. The child was simply “exposed” (exponere), that is, taken by a slave from the house and left on the highway to live or to die. It is improbable, however, that the Roman father was inclined to make actual use of this, his theoretical right. While exposure and “recognition” appear frequently in Roman comedies, they are doubtless made use of there as convenient dramatic devices taken over from the Greek originals rather than as a reproduction of actual cases in everyday life. No such actual cases are known during the Republic, at any rate. |+|

Dies Lustricus: Day of Purification

Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “ The dies lustricus, or “day of purification,” was an eight- or nine-day period after birth, which carried with it special meaning for the newborn. Healthcare and technology being what they were back then, a large percentage of children didn’t make it past one week, and the Romans felt that a child wasn’t officially a part of the family until the dies lustricus had passed. “Various rites were performed leading up the final day, including the laying of the baby on the ground and its subsequent raising to the sky by the father. (This was supposed to signify the father’s recognition of the child as one of his own.) At the conclusion of the dies lustricus, a baby was officially given a name, which is why babies who died early were left nameless. A special amulet—bulla for boys and lunula for girls—was also given to them during this period and it was meant to protect them from evil forces. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

re-enactment of Dies Lustricus

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The first eight days of the life of the acknowledged child were called primordia, and were the occasion of various religious ceremonies. During this time the child was called pupus (pupa), although to weak and tiny children the praenomen might be given soon after birth. Usually, on the ninth day in the case of a boy, on the eighth in the case of a girl, the praenomen was given with due solemnity. A sacrifice was offered and the ceremony of purification was performed, which gave the day its name, dies lustricus, although it was also called the dies nominum and nominalia. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“These ceremonies seem to have been private, that is, it cannot be shown that there was at this time any taking of the child to a templum, as there was among the Jews, or any enrollment of the name upon an official list. Birth registration, which many of our own states have been slow to enforce, was first required under Marcus Aurelius, when it was ordained that the father must register the date of birth and the name of his child within thirty days, at Rome before the praefectus aerarii, in the provinces before the tabularii publici. In the case of the boy the registering of the name on the list of citizens may have occurred at the time he put on the toga virilis. |+|

“The dies lustricus was, however, a time of rejoicing and congratulation among the relatives and friends, and these, together with the household slaves, presented the child with little metal toys or ornaments in the form of flowers, miniature axes and swords, various tools, and especially figures shaped like a half-moon (lunulae), etc. These, called collectively crepundia, were strung together and worn around the neck and over the breast. Such strings of these crepundia are shown in Figures 36 and 37. They served in the first place as playthings to keep the child amused; hence the name “rattles,” from crepo. Besides, they were a protection against witchcraft or the evil eye (fascinatio); this was true especially of the lunulae. They could serve also as a means of identification in the case of lost or stolen children, and for this reason Terence calls them monumenta. Such were the trinkets sometimes left with an “exposed” child; their value depended, of course, upon the material of which they were made. |+|

Birthdays and Bullas

Etruscan bulla

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It was believed that a Genius, or guardian spirit, came into the world with the child at birth. In the case of a girl this spirit was called her Iuno. Closely connected with this idea was the celebration of the birthday, as the proper festival of the Genius. On that day bloodless offerings, such as flowers, wine, incense, and cakes, were made to the Genius. Fresh white garments were worn, friends made visits or sent letters of congratulation, presents were received from friends and members of the household, and there was usually a feast. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“But of more significance than these was the bulla, which the father hung around the child’s neck on this day, if he had not done so at the time of the susceptio It consisted frequently of two concave pieces of gold, like a watch case, fastened together by a wide spring of the same metal, and contained an amulet as protection against the fascinatio. It was hung around the neck by a chain or cord and was worn upon the breast. The bulla came originally from Etruria. For a long time only the children of patricians were allowed to wear bullae of gold; the plebeians contented themselves with imitations made of leather, hung on a leather thong.

“In the course of time the distinction ceased to be observed, as we have seen such distinctions die out in the use of names and in the marriage ceremonies, and by Cicero’s time the bulla aurea might be worn by the child of any freeborn citizen. The choice of material depended upon the wealth and generosity of the father rather than upon his social position. The girl wore her bulla until the eve of her wedding day; then she laid it aside with other childish things, as we have seen. The boy wore his until he assumed the toga virilis, when it was dedicated to the Lares of the house and carefully preserved. If the boy became a successful general and won the coveted honor of a triumph, he always wore his bulla in the triumphal procession as a protection against envy. |+|

Plutarch on Taking Care of Infants

Plutarch wrote in “The Training of Children” (c. A.D. 110): “The nursing of my judgment, the mothers should do themselves, giving their own breast to those they have borne. For this office will certainly be performed with more tenderness and carefulness by natural mothers, who will love their children intimately, as the saying is, from their tender nails. Whereas, both wet and dry nurses, who are hired, love only for their pay, and are affected to their work as ordinarily those that are substituted and deputed in the place of others are.

boy wearing a bulla

"Yes, even Nature seems to have assigned the suckling and nursing of the issue to those that bear them: for which cause she has bestowed upon every living creature that brings forth young milk to nourish them. And, in conformity thereto, Providence has only wisely ordered that women should have two breasts, that so, if any of them should happen to bear twins, they might have two several springs of nourishment ready for them. Though, if they had not that furniture, mothers would still be more kind and loving to their own children. And that not without reason; for constant feeding together is a great means to heighten the affection mutually betwixt any persons. Yes, even beasts, when they are separated from those that have grazed with them, do in their way show a longing for the absent. Wherefore, as I have said, mothers themselves should strive to the utmost to nurse their own children. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 370-391]

“But if they find it impossible to do it themselves, either because of bodily weakness (and such a case may fall out), or because they are apt to be quickly with child again, then are they to choose the most honest nurses they can get, and not to take whomsoever they have offered them. And the first thing to be looked after in this choice is, that the nurse be bred after the Greek fashion. For as it is needful that the members of children be shaped aright as soon as they are born, that they may not afterwards prove crooked and distorted, so it is no less expedient that their manners be well-fashioned from the very beginning. For childhood is a tender thing, and easily wrought into any shape. Yes, and the very souls of children readily receive the impressions of those things that are dropped into them while they are yet but soft; but when they grow older, they will, as all hard things are, be more difficult to be wrought upon. And as soft wax is apt to take the stamp of the seal, so are the minds of children to receive the instructions imprinted on them at that age. Whence, also, it seems to me good advice which divine Plato gives to nurses, not to tell all sorts of common tales to children in infancy, lest thereby their minds should chance to be filled with foolish and corrupt notions. The like good counsel Phocylides, the poet, seems to give in this verse of his: “If we'll have virtuous children, we should choose/ Their tenderest age good principles to infuse.

“6. Nor are we to omit taking due care, in the first place, that those children who are appointed to attend upon such young nurslings, and to be bred with them for play-fellows, be well-mannered, and next that they speak plain, natural Greek; lest, being constantly used to converse with persons of a barbarous language and evil manners, they receive corrupt tinctures from them. For it is a true proverb, that if you live with a lame man, you will learn to halt.

Oliver J. Thatcher wrote: “Plutarch was born of a wealthy family in Boeotia at Chaeronea about 50 A.D. Part of his life seems to have been spent at Rome, but he seems to have returned to Greece and died there about 120 A.D. But little further is know of his life. He was one of the greatest biographers the world has ever known, while his moral essays show wide learning and considerable depth of contemplation. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 370-391]

Nurses for Children in Ancient Rome

Children of wealthy parents were raised by nurse maids and tutored by "pedagogues." In 2nd century Rome wet nursing was a commercial activity. Mother's milk was sold like cow's milk and many markets had lactaria , where wet nurses gathered to offer their services.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The mother was the child’s nurse, not only in the days of the Republic but even under the Empire; the Romans heeded the teachings of nature in this respect longer than any other civilized nation of the ancient world. Of course it was not always possible then, as it is not always possible now, for the mother to nurse her children, and then her place was taken by a slave (nutrix), to whom the name mater seems to have been given out of affection. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

In the ordinary care of the children, too, the mother was assisted, but only assisted, by slaves. Under the eye of the mother, a slave washed and dressed the child, told it stories, sang it lullabies, and rocked it to sleep on her arm or in a cradle. The place of the modern baby carriage was taken by a litter (lectica); a terra cotta figure has come down to us representing a child carried in such a litter by two men. |+|

“After the Punic Wars it became customary for the well-to-do to select for the child’s nurse a Greek slave, that the child might acquire the Greek language as naturally as its own. In Latin literature are many passages that testify to the affection felt for each other by nurse and child, an affection that lasted on into manhood and womanhood. It was a common thing for the young wife to take with her into her new home as her adviser and confidant, the nurse who had watched over her in her infancy. Faithfulness on the part of such slaves was also frequently repaid by manumission. |+|

Toys, Games and Playthings in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Comparatively little is known of the playthings, pets, and games of Roman children, because, as has been said domestic life was not a theme of Roman writers and no books were then written especially for the young. Still, there are scattered references in literature from which we can learn something, and more is known from monumental sources. This evidence shows that playthings were numerous and of very many kinds. The crepundia have been mentioned already; these miniature tools and implements seem to have been very common. Dolls there were, too, and some of these have come down to us, though we cannot always distinguish between statuettes and genuine playthings. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Some dolls were made of clay, others of wax, and even jointed arms and legs were not unknown. Quintilian speaks of ivory letters, to be used by children as letter blocks are now. Little wagons and carts were also common. Horace speaks of hitching mice to toys of this sort, of building houses, and riding on “stick-horses.” There are numerous pictures and descriptions of children spinning tops, making them revolve by blows of a whip-lash, as in Europe nowadays. Hoops also were a favorite plaything; they were driven with a stick and had pieces of metal fastened to them to warn people of their approach. Boys walked on stilts. They played with balls, too, but as men enjoyed this sport as well, the account of it may be deferred until we reach the subject of amusements. |+|

Roman children played games similar to hopscotch, tug-of-war and blind man's bluff. Rock, scissors, paper was played by the Egyptians and Romans. The Romans called it: Bucca, Bucca, Quot, Sunt, Hic . Johnston wrote: “Games of many kinds were played by children, but we can only guess at, the nature of most of them, as we have hardly any formal descriptions. There were games corresponding to our Odd or Even, Blindman’s Buff, Hide and Seek, Jackstones, and Seesaw. Pebbles and nuts were used in games something like our marbles, and there were board-games also. To these may be added, for boys, riding, swimming, and wrestling, although these were taken too seriously, perhaps, to be called games and belonged rather to the training of boys for the duties of citizenship. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Child Rearing in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The training of the children was conducted by the father and mother in person. More stress was laid upon moral than upon intellectual development: reverence for the gods, respect for the law, unquestioning and instant obedience to authority, truthfulness, and self-reliance were the most important lessons for the child to learn. Much of the training came from the constant association of the children with their parents, which was the characteristic feature of the home training of the Romans as compared with that of other peoples of early days. The children sat at table with their elders; in early times they helped to serve the meals. Until the age of seven both boys and girls had their mother for their teacher. From her they learned to speak correctly their native tongue. The mother taught them the elements of reading and writing and as much of the simpler operations of arithmetic as children so young could learn. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“From about the age of seven the boy passed under the care of regular teachers, but the girl remained her mother’s constant companion. Her schooling was necessarily cut short, because the Roman girl became a wife so young, and there were things to learn in the meantime that books do not teach. From her mother she learned to spin and weave and sew; even Augustus wore garments woven by his wife. By her mother she was initiated into all the mysteries of household economy and fitted to take her place as the mistress of a household of her own, to be a Roman matrona, the most dignified position to which a woman could aspire in the ancient world. |+|

“The boy, except during the hours of school, was equally his father’s companion. If the father was a farmer, as all Romans were in earlier times, the boy helped in the fields and learned to plow and plant and reap. If the father was a man of high position and lived in the capital, the boy stood by him in his atrium as he received his guests, learned to know their faces, names, and rank, and acquired a practical knowledge of politics and affairs of state. If the father was a senator, the boy (in the earlier days only, it is true) accompanied him to the senate house to hear the debates and listen to the great orators of the time; the son could always go with his father to the Forum when the latter was an advocate or was concerned in a public trial. |+|

“Then, since every male Roman was bred a soldier, the father trained the son in the use of arms and in the various military exercises, as well as in the manly sports of riding, swimming, wrestling, and boxing. In these exercises strength and agility were kept in view, rather than the grace of movement and symmetrical development of form on which the Greeks laid so much stress. On great occasions, too, when the cabinets in the atrium were opened and the wax busts of the ancestors displayed, the boy and girl of noble family were always present and learned the history of the great family of which they were a part, and with it the history of Rome.” |+|

Plutarch on Teaching Children Good Habits

Plutarch wrote in “The Training of Children” (c. A.D. 110): “9. Moreover, as it is my advice to parents that they make the breeding up of their children to learning their chief care, so I here add, that the learning they ought to train them up unto should be sound and wholesome, and such as is most remote from those trifles which suit the popular humor. For to please the many is to displease the wise. To this saying to mine Euripides himself bears witness:
“I'm better skilled to treat a few, my peers,
Than in a crowd to tickle vulgar ears;
Though others have the luck on't, when they babble
Most to the wise, then most to please the rabble. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 370-391]

“Besides, I find by my own observation, that those persons who make it their business to speak so as to deserve the favor and approbation of the scum of the people, ordinarily live at a suitable rate, voluptuously and intemperately. And there is reason for it. For they who have no regard to what is honest, so they may make provision for other men's pleasures, will surely not be very propense to prefer what is right and wholesome before that which gratifies their own inordinate pleasures and luxurious inclinations, and to quit that which humors them for that which restrains them.

“If any one ask what the next thing is wherein I would have children instructed, and to what further good qualities I would have them insured, I answer, that I think it advisable that they neither speak nor do anything rashly; for, according to the proverb, the best things are the most difficult. But extemporary discourses are full of much ordinary and loose stuff, nor do such speakers well know where to begin or where to make an end. And besides other faults which those who speak suddenly are commonly guilty of, they are commonly liable to this great one, that they multiply words without measure; whereas, premeditation will not suffer a man to enlarge his discourse beyond a due proportion.

To this purpose it is reported of Pericles, that, being often called upon by the people to speak, he would not, because (as he said) he was unprepared. And Demosthenes also, who imitated him in the management of public affairs, when the Athenians urged him to give his counsel, refused it with this answer: I have not yet prepared myself. Though it may be that this story is a mere fiction, brought down to us by uncertain tradition, without any credible author. But Demosthenes, in his oration against Midias, clearly sets forth the usefulness of premeditation. For there he says: I confess, O Athenians! that I came here provided to speak: and I will by no means deny that I have spent my utmost study upon the composing this oration. For it had been a pitiful omission in me, if, having suffered and still suffering such things, I should have neglected that which in this cause was to be spoken by me. But here I would not be understood altogether to condemn all readiness to discourse extempore, nor yet to allow the use of it upon such occasions as do not require it; but we are to use it only as we do physic.

Plutarch on Motivating Children and Getting Them to Remember

Plutarch wrote in “The Training of Children” (c. A.D. 110): “12. I say now, that children are to be won to follow liberal studies by exhortations and rational motives, and on no account to be forced thereto by whipping or any other contumelious punishments. I will not argue that such usage seems to be more agreeable to slaves than to ingenuous children; and even slaves, when thus handled, are dulled and discouraged from the performance of their tasks, partly by reason of the smart of their stripes, and partly because of the disgrace thereby inflicted. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 370-391]

“But praise and reproof are more effectual upon free-born children than any such disgraceful handling; the former to incite them to what is good, and the latter to restrain them from that which is evil. But we must use reprehensions and commendations alternately, and of various kinds according to the occasion; so that when they grow petulant, they may be shamed by reprehension, and again, when they better deserve it, they may be encouraged by commendations. Wherein we ought to imitate nurses, who, when they have made their infants cry, stop their mouths with the nipple to quiet them again. It is also useful not to give them such large commendations as to puff them up with pride; for this is the ready way to fill them with a vain conceit of themselves, and to enfeeble their minds.

“But we must most of all exercise and keep in constant employment the memory of children; for that is, as it were, the storehouse of all learning. Wherefore the mythologists have made Mnemosyne, or Memory, the mother of the Muses, plainly intimating thereby that nothing does so beget or nourish learning as memory. Wherefore we must employ it to both those purposes, whether the children be naturally apt or backward to remember. For so shall we both strengthen it in those to whom Nature in this respect has been bountiful, and supply that to others wherein she has been deficient. And as the former sort of boys will thereby come to excel others, so will the latter sort excel themselves. For that of Hesiod was well said: ‘Oft little add to little, and the account/ Will swell: heapt atoms thus produce a mount.’

“Neither, therefore, let the parents be ignorant of this, that the exercising of memory in the schools does not only give the greatest assistance towards the attainment of learning, but also to all the actions of life. For the remembrance of things past affords us examples in our consults about things to come.”

Laws on Marriage and Children

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “In the eyes of the law” children “were little better than the chattels of the Head of the House. It rested with him to grant them the right to live; all that they earned was his; they married at his bidding, and either remained under his potestas or passed under another no less severe. It has also been suggested that custom and pietas had made this condition less rigorous than it seems to us. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Roman law developed as a mixture of laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and opinions issued by jurists. One of the most long lasting of actions” of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian' (A.D. 482-566) “was the gathering of these materials in the 530s into a single collection, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis [The Code of Civil Law]. The texts here address the issue of marriage, and date back particularly to the time of Augustus [ruled 27 B.C. - A.D. 14] who was very concerned about family matters and ensuring a large population. In the selections that follow the first part comes from the Digest and contain the opinions on marriage law of famous lawyers - Marcianus, Paulus, Terentius Clemens, Celsus, Modestinus, Gaius, Papinianus, Marcellus, Ulpianus, and Macer. Note that the most important were Papinianus (executed by the Emperor Caracalla in 212), who excelled at setting forth legal problems arising from cases, and Ulpianus (d. 223), who wrote a commentary on Roman law in his era.”

Marcianus, Institutes, Book XVI: In the Thirty-fifth Section of the Lex Julia [a law of Augustus in 18BCE which made marriage a duty for Roman patricians], persons who wrongfully prevent their children, who are subject to their authority, to marry, or who refuse to endow them, are compelled by the proconsuls or governors of provinces, under a Constitution of the Divine Severus [r. 193-211] and Antoninus [ie Caracalla, r. 212-217], to marry or endow their said children. They are also held to prevent their marriage where they do not seek to promote it. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329][Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

Paulus, On the Rescript of the Divine Severus and Commodus [r. 180-192]: It must be remembered that it is not one of the functions of a curator [legal guardian for a minor] to see that his ward is married, or not; because his duties only relate to the transaction of business. This Severus and Antoninus stated in a Rescript [a response to legal questions from officials] in the following words: "It is the duty of a curator to manage the affairs of his ward, but the ward can marry, or not, as she pleases.

Terentius Clemens, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book III. [The Lex Papia of 9CE was treated with the Lex Julia. It tried to make Romans marry within their class]: A son under paternal control cannot be forced to marry. Celsus, Digest, Book XV: Where a son, being compelled by his father, marries a woman whom would not have married if he had been left to the exercise of his own free will, the marriage will, nevertheless, legally be contracted; because it was not solemnized against the consent of the parties, and the son is held t have preferred to take this course.”


Emperor Hadrian was the adopted son of Emperor Trajan

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The person adopted was sometimes a pater familias himself; more usually he was a filius familias. In the case of the latter the process was called adoptio and was a somewhat complicated proceeding by which the natural parent conveyed his son to the adopter, the effect being to transfer the adopted person from one family to the other. The adoption of a pater familias was a much more serious matter, for it involved the extinction of one family in order to prevent the extinction of another. This was called adrogatio and was an affair of the state. It had to be sanctioned by the pontifices, the highest officers of religion, who had probably to make sure that the adrogatus had brothers enough to attend to the interests of ancestors who cult he was renouncing. If the pontifices gave their consent, the adrogatio had still to be sanctioned by the comitia curiata, as the act might deprive the gens of its succession to the property of the childless man. If the comitia gave consent, the adrogatus sank from the position of Head of a House to that of a filius familias in the household of his adoptive father. If he had a wife and children, they passed with him into the new family, and so did all his property. Over him the adoptive father had potestas as over a son of his own, and looked upon him as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. We can have at best only a feeble and inadequate notion of what adoption meant to the Romans. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Roman Emperors often adopted their heirs. On “The Principle of Adoption”, Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.) wrote in “Histories”: “Augustus had passed on the principate to members of his own family, who formed an odd sort of dynasty. Galba initiated what was perhaps the most successful method of transfer of power - the adoption as son by a reigning emperor of an adult male. Tacitus describes Galba's motives. In fact in 69 CE, it was Vespasian who emerged victorious, and he was succeeded by his two sons, Titus and Domitian. With Nerva's adoption of Trajan, the adoptive method was used for almost a century until Marcus Aurelius allowed his son Commodus to succeed him. [Source: Tacitus: Histories, Book 1., 15-16, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Slightly adapted. Full text online at

“We are told that Galba, taking hold of Piso's hand, spoke to this effect: "If I were a private man, and were now adopting you by the Act of the Curiae before the pontiffs, as our custom is, it would be a high honour to me to introduce into my family a descendant of Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus; it would be a distinction to you to add to the nobility of your race the honours of the Sulpician and Lutatian houses. As it is, I, who have been called to the throne by the unanimous consent of gods and men, am moved by your splendid endowments and by my own patriotism to offer to you, a man of peace, that power, for which our ancestors fought, and which I myself obtained by war. I am following the precedent of the Divine Augustus, who placed on an eminence next to his own, first his nephew Marcellus, then his son-in-law Agrippa, afterwards his grandsons, and finally Tiberius Nero, his stepson.

“But Augustus looked for a successor in his own family, I look for one in the state, not because I have no relatives or companions of my campaigns, but because it was not by any private favour that I myself received the imperial power. Let the principle of my choice be shown not only by my connections which I have set aside for you, but by your own. You have a brother, noble as yourself, and older, who would be well worthy of this dignity, were you not worthier. Your age is such as to be now free from the passions of youth, and such your life that in the past you have nothing to excuse. Hitherto, you have only borne adversity; prosperity tries the heart with keener temptations; for hardships may be endured, whereas we are spoiled by success. You indeed will cling with the same constancy to honor, freedom, friendship, the best possessions of the human spirit, but others will seek to weaken them with their servility. You will be fiercely assailed by adulation, by flattery, that worst poison of the true heart, and by the selfish interests of individuals. You and I speak together to-day with perfect frankness, but others will be more ready to address us as emperors than as men. For to urge his duty upon a prince is indeed a hard matter; to flatter him, whatever his character, is a mere routine gone through without any heart.

“"Could the vast frame of this empire have stood and preserved its balance without a directing spirit, I was not unworthy of inaugurating a republic. As it is, we have been long reduced to a position, in which my age confer no greater boon on the Roman people than a good successor, your youth no greater than a good emperor. Under Tuberous, Chairs, and Claudius, we were, so to speak, the inheritance of a single family. The choice which begins with us will be a substitute for freedom. Now that the family of the Julii and the Claudii has come to an end, adoption will discover the worthiest successor. To be begotten and born of a princely race is a mere accident, and is only valued as such. In adoption there is nothing that need bias the judgment, and if you wish to make a choice, an unanimous opinion points out the man. Let Nero be ever before your eyes, swollen with the pride of a long line of Caesars; it was not Vindex with his unarmed province, it was not myself with my single legion, that shook his yoke from our necks. It was his own profligacy, his own brutality, and that, though there had been before no precedent of an emperor condemned by his own people. We, who have been called to power by the issues of war, and by the deliberate judgment of others, shall incur unpopularity, however illustrious our character. Do not however be alarmed, if, after a movement which has shaken the world, two legions are not yet quiet. I did not myself succeed to a throne without anxiety; and when men shall hear of your adoption I shall no longer be thought old, and this is the only objection which is now made against me. “

Roman Infanticide and Infant Burials

Romans could sell their children and even kill them until a law was passed in the A.D. forth century under Constantine, outlawing such practices. Unlike Christians, Romans did not consider children as beings with a developed soul. As a consequence they often discarded dead infants or buried them in the garden like a dead pet. Laws were passed in the 5th century outlawing the sale of children to families who might give a child a better chance of survival.

Gordon Gora wrote: “As shocking as it seems today, infanticide was a common practice in Roman times. Before there was more effective contraception, women were allowed to dispose of their children if they so pleased. Boys were more highly valued than girls, but based on archaeological sites, it seems that boys and girls were killed equally. Ancient Roman texts even speak about the practice of infanticide, and it shows that Roman society did not hold a newborn baby’s life in high regard. They were not even considered fully human when born. A child only became “human” when it reached certain milestones like naming, teething, and eating solid foods. [Source: Gordon Gora September 16, 2016]

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Fathers held the power of life or death for a newborn, even without the mother’s input. After birth, the baby was placed at his feet. If the father picked it up, the child remained at home. Otherwise, it was abandoned outside for anyone to pick up—or to die of exposure. Roman infants faced rejection if they were born deformed, a daughter, or if a poor family couldn’t support another child. If the father was suspicious about the kid’s real paternity, he or she could be dumped near a refuge area. “The lucky ones were adopted by childless couples and received the family’s name. The rest risked being sold as slaves or prostitutes or being deliberately maimed by beggars who displayed such children to get more sympathy. If older children displeased their father, he also had the legal backing to sell them as slaves or kill them. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016 ]

An infant graveyard, dated to around 400 B.C., the largest ever discovered, was found near the town of Lugano, 70 miles north of Rome. The bodies of the infants were buried there in earthen jars, with, in some cases, decapitated puppies and raven claws. By this period in history Rome had been Christianized and archaeologists interpret these gruesome pagan offerings as a superstitious act brought on by "extreme stress."

The epitaphs composed for infant tombs also disclose a great deal about the intense grief parents felt towards lost infants. One inscription read that the baby's life consisted of just “nine breaths." In another a father wrote: “My baby Aceva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven, her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever."

Excavations of an ancient sewer under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkleon in present-day Israel revealed the remains of more than 100 infants thought to be unwanted children from the brothel. The infants had been thrown into a gutter along with animal bones, pottery shards and a few coins and are thought to have been unwanted because of the way they were disposed of. DNA tests revealed that 74 percent of the victims were male. Usually unwanted children were girls. Infant mortality may have been the outcome of one third of live births.

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: “The newborn babes who had been killed and tossed into the main sewer of the Ashqelon Baths, were predominantly boys. This contradicts W. Petersen's statement that 'Infanticide is ... associated with the higher valuation of males'. According to him, whenever infanticide is practised, girls are first eliminated, followed by deformed and sickly children, offspring unwanted for reasons of magic (such as multiple births, twins or triplets) or of social ostracism (such as bastards). Beyond the biological fact that male births are more numerous than female births, the male dominance in the infanticide pattern at Ashqelon may derive in this precise case from the very trade of the mothers of these newborn children. [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3]

Young Adults in Ancient Rome

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “While daughters crossed the threshold of adulthood almost unnoticed, a special ceremony marked a boy’s transition to manhood. Depending on his mental and physical prowess, a father decided when his son was grown (usually around 14–17). On the chosen morning, the youth discarded his bulla and childhood toga, and a sacrifice was given. His father then dressed him in the white tunic of a man. If the older man had rank, the tunic reflected this—two wide crimson stripes if he was a senator and slim ones for a knight. The last of the new clothing was the toga virilis or toga libera, worn only by adult males. The father then gathered a large crowd to escort his son to the Forum. Once there, the boy’s name was registered, and he officially became a Roman citizen. After that, the new teenage man could expect an apprenticeship for a year in a profession of his father’s choosing. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

Roman youth in their late teens and 20s were not all that different from their modern counterparts. One young soldier wrote his mother: "On receiving your letter it would very nice of you if you sent me 200 drachmas...I had only straters left but now not one, because I bought a mule carriage and spent all my change on it. I'm writing you this to let you know. Send me a heavy cape, a rain-cape with a hood, a pair of leggings, a pair of leather wraps, oil and the washbasin, as you promised...and a pair of pillows. For the rest, then, send me my monthly allowance right away."

One young man wrote his parents in the 3rd century A.D." "You did a fine thing! You didn't take me with you to the city! If you don't want to take me to Alexandria, I won't write you a letter, I won't talk to you...What's more, if you go to Alexandria, I won't shake your hand or say Hello to you ever again." So" if you don't want to talk me with you, that's what will happen...You did a fine thing: you sent me presents! Big presents! Chicken feed!...If you don't send. I won't eat, I won't drink! That's what will happen."

End of Childhood

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: There was no special ceremony to mark the passing of girlhood into womanhood, but for the boy the attainment of his majority was marked by the laying aside of the crimson-bordered toga praetexta and the putting on of the pure white toga virilis. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“There was no fixed year, corresponding to the twenty-first with us, in which the puer became adulescens; something depended upon the physical and intellectual development of the boy himself, something upon the will or caprice of his pater familias, more perhaps upon the time in which he lived. We may say generally, however, that the toga virilis was assumed between the fourteenth and seventeenth years, the later age belonging to the earlier time when citizenship carried with it more responsibility than under the Empire and consequently demanded a greater maturity.

“For the classical period we may put the age required at sixteen, and, if we add to this the tirocinium, which followed the donning of the garb of manhood, we shall have the seventeen years after the expiration of which the citizen had been liable in ancient times to military duty. The day was even less precisely fixed. We should expect it to be the birthday at the beginning of the seventeenth year, but it seems to have been the more usual, but by no means invariable, custom to select for the ceremony the feast of Liber which happened to come nearest to the seventeenth birthday. No more appropriate time could have been selected to suggest the freer life of manhood upon which the boy was now about to enter.



The Roman Coming of Age feast was celebrated on the seventeenth of March when the boy was 17 years old and was called the Liberalia. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The festivities of the great day began in the early morning, when the boy laid before the Lares of his house the bulla and the toga praetexta, called together the insignia pueritiae. A sacrifice was then offered, and the bulla was hung up, not to be taken down and worn again except on some occasion when the man who had worn it as a boy should be in danger of the envy: of men and gods. The boy then dressed himself in the tunica recta, which had one or two crimson stripes if he was the son of a senator or a knight; over this was carefully draped the toga virilis. This was also called, in contrast to the gayer garb of boyhood, the toga pura, and, with reference to the freedom of manhood, the toga libera. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Then began the procession to the Forum. The father had gathered his slaves and freedmen and clients, had notified his relatives and friends, and had used all his personal and political influence to make the escort of his son as numerous and imposing as possible. If the ceremony rook place on the Liberalia, the Forum was sure to be crowded with similar processions of rejoicing friends. Here were extended the formal congratulations, and the name of one more citizen was added to the official list. An offering was then made in the temple of Liber on the Capitoline Hill, and the day ended with a feast at the father’s house. |+| “The Influence of Etruria upon Rome faded before that of Greece, but from Etruria the Romans got the art of divination, certain forms of architecture, the insignia of royalty, and the games of the circus and the amphitheater.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.