What was it like to grow up in ancient Rome? A major museum is now addressing the question and investigating childhood in Roman times in a groundbreaking and innovative exhibition: A misura di bambino. Crescere nell’antica Roma, at Florence’s Uffizi. Thirty of the Roman statues in the former Medici collections, along with substantial loans from a few museums in Italy and abroad, are currently grouped together to examine a complex and still somewhat overlooked subject: that of human and divine childhood in the pre-Christian Roman world. The exhibition describes different moments of the everyday lives of children in the Roman empire: birth, rites of passage towards adulthood, school, play, and relationships with animals are all vividly documented through statues, sarcophagi, and common objects like toys. Captions and cartoons of some of the artefacts, thoughtfully on display at a lower height, allow children to look their peers from 2,000 years ago in the eye. Visitors to the Uffizi, striving to gaze at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the countless other famous paintings on show in the magnificent former Medici palace, rarely allow themselves enough leisure to also seek ancient Greek and Roman statuary in the same museum. Yet there was a time when the Uffizi Gallery was sought out by the connoisseurs on the Italian Grand Tour – the poet Shelley in 1819, for one – principally for the privilege of seeing, not Botticelli’s beautiful painted Venus, but, among other celebrated antiquities, a Venus in marble. This is the so-called ‘Medici Venus’, a 1st-century BC version of a bronze Greek original attributed to the great 4th-century BC sculptor Praxiteles, and a landmark of classical Western art history.
In fact, the Medici collection was originally, first and foremost, a collection of ancient sculpture. Such an assemblage was a must for any serious collector during the Renaissance. The Uffizi was built in the mid-16th century by the architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) for Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to house the offices of the city’s magistrates (uffici means ‘offices’ in Italian). Some rooms, however, were set aside on the third floor to display ‘with the most beautiful order’ the finest works of art from the duke’s collections, with antique sculpture taking pride of place. Almost two centuries later, thanks to the generosity of the last heir of the family, Anna Maria Luisa (1667-1743), the Medici treasures became permanent public property and the Uffizi a superlative museum. Cosimo I de’ Medici had continued his family’s collecting tradition when he became Duke of Florence in 1537, and even managed to repossess antiquities once owned by his great-grandfather Lorenzo il Magnifico some decades before. Gifts, chance discoveries, and acquisitions from Rome contributed to enrich his hoard of ancient works of art too.
It is from the wealth of this impressive collection that the exhibition curators have chosen a remarkable series of Roman works featuring children. Outstanding among them – for their variety and quality – are a group of superb marble portraits of heirs to power, the children of the rulers of the Roman empire. Most of these portraits, repaired over time with the addition of missing details as required, were inserted into 16th- and 17th-century busts of coloured marble to hold them upright and give them emphasis.
Portraiture in Rome was largely either funerary or public and honorific. Although this group of portraits expresses vividly the individual personality and character of the illustrious imperial children full of the soft features of early youth, they all bear the look of precocious seriousness and dignity, the gravitas, required for portraits used for official propaganda, even when the subject is very young or dead. Such is the visage of the basalt statue of a young boy wearing the toga of a consul and holding a scroll. Found in 1651 on the Caelian Hill in Rome, this work may represent Britannicus (AD 41-55), the son of Emperor Claudius, as a child. A lovely portrait of a young girl wearing a very fashionable hairstyle of Hellenistic origin was long believed to represent Empress Fulvia Plautilla (c.AD 182-212) who, aged 14, married Emperor Caracalla. Some years after, he had her exiled and killed. Plautilla’s specific ‘melon’ hairdo, with twisted sections of hair gathered into a bun at the back of her head (melonenfrisur), was represented on coins bearing her likeness when her wedding took place in AD 202, but it was also popular for portraits of young women at other times of Roman history, so the attribution is somewhat controversial.
Other remarkable marble sculptures from the Medici collection have been selected to illustrate the mythical childhood of gods and heroes, a popular topic in antiquity and a subject familiar to Roman children and adults alike for their educational implications. Among these examples is a beautiful 2nd-century AD statue of a handsome youth, the god Mercury, holding a vivacious toddler, his half-brother Bacchus. The birth of Bacchus, son of Jupiter and the Theban princess Semele, was an unusual one: Jupiter took the unborn Bacchus from the dying Semele and sewed him into his thigh, where the future god was carried to term. The statue was recorded as being in the Antiquarium of Cosimo I in 1576, and is now finally visible to the public once more after a long restoration. Another lovely and smiling baby Bacchus of the 2nd century AD, wearing a thin crown of vine leaves and playing with grapes, was also in the Medici collection by 1589, as was a chubby Hercules of the 1st century AD. This other son of Jupiter and a mortal mother, Alcmene, holds up the two snakes that Jupiter’s wife, the jealous goddess Juno, sent to kill him. But the fearless and strong babe strangled them before they could strangle him. (It was also Juno who tricked Semele into asking that Jupiter come to her in all his blazing glory, thereby killing the princess.)
An intriguing set of finds made out of a more modest material is a group of clay figurines of different dates from the Uffizi collections. They were retrieved in 1945 from a store of artefacts looted by German troops at Merano in northern Italy. They include archaic kourotrophos (‘child nurturer’) figurines of women holding children and fertility goddesses that protect the young. Such figurines would obviously have been very popular in a world where children were prone to frequent illnesses and a great many would die young. The high infant- and child-mortality rate in Roman times meant that, on average, an estimated 25 per cent of infants died within their first year and up to half of children before their 10th birthday. The danger was deemed so great that three special goddesses presided over the early life of Roman babies: Cunina, the goddess of the cradle; her sister Cuba, who protected children while they slept; and Rumina, the goddess of breastfeeding.
It was common for children to wear amulets to ward off the evil eye. Additional protection of male infants was entrusted to Fascinus, the embodiment of a divine phallus that was also the protector of generals in the field. Phallic charms of all sizes and varieties were ubiquitous and phallus-bearing rings, too small to be worn except by children, have been found in archaeological excavations. Freeborn boys would wear around the neck a bulla, a locket given to them nine days after birth that also offered protection. Bullae were made of different materials, including gold, depending on the wealth of the children’s family. Girls wore instead a lunula, a crescent moon-shaped pendant, until the eve of their wedding day, when it would be removed and dedicated to the goddess Venus together with their childhood toys, mostly dolls, which could be made of ivory, bone, or clay with articulated arms and legs, or of cloth.
Toys of all kinds were buried with male and female children who died in their infancy. Miniature gladiators – including one with a removable helmet discovered in Padua in 2012 – have been found in several graves and serve as poignant Lego-like clay reminders of little boys’ games, as have small clay horses once pulled along on wheels. Besides toys, Roman children whose families had enough means had pet animals of a range of species as their favourite companions. In addition to dogs, they had ferrets, small monkeys, blackbirds, nightingales, and parrots. A charming relief on the side of a 2nd-century AD sarcophagus shows a child in a small carriage being pulled by a sheep. Another scene on the same sarcophagus shows the first bath of the baby boy, held by his wet nurse while his mother supervises. In the background, the three Fates (the Parcae) decide the destiny of the child.Such depictions are empathic and far from being standardised. They are the result of an attentive observation of the interaction between children and the various members of their families, servants included. They indicate – together with the private letters of leading Roman intellectuals – that children were cared for and deeply loved by their relatives, and that their elders enjoyed their company, although some impersonal views were expressed, like ‘if an infant in the cradle dies, they [the survivors] ought not even to utter a complaint’ in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (1.39).
Even so, Cicero (106-43 BC) – a great statesman and lawyer – often wrote letters to his friends that were full of loving and concerned remarks about the happiness and well-being of his own children and his nephew. When his adult daughter Tullia died after giving birth to her second son in 45 BC, Cicero was beside himself with grief and wrote the Consolatio, a work now lost, in an attempt to heal himself emotionally and share with others the sorrow of mourning. In a fragment of this text (translated by Spencer Cole), he says of his daughter: ‘I shall consecrate you, the best, the most learned of women, placed with the approval of immortal gods themselves among their company, in the estimation of all mortals.’
In a similar vein, one of the most revealing of the letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-c.113) conveys the author’s concern and sympathy for a friend who is mourning the loss of his beloved daughter (Letters 5.16.1-6). Terms of endearment such as carus (‘dear’) and dulcis (‘sweet’) were often used, and the relationship between a formidable pater familias, the head of the household, and his dependants seems to have been one of affection and often pride rather than obtuse tyranny, so that the younger offspring would be naturally respectful and obedient.
The establishment of large-scale programmes to care for needy children – like the alimenta instituted by Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117) and extended by his successors – demonstrates an official awareness of the problem of children’s welfare in the 2nd century AD. The alimenta catered for orphans and poor children, providing them with funds, food, and subsidised education throughout Italy. Of course, poor and enslaved children continued nevertheless to be exploited and sold, or contracted to an apprenticeship at a very early age and made to work extremely long hours for little reward. There was clearly also a murky, abusive side to relationships with slave children, both boys and girls.
“If an infant in the cradle dies, the survivors ought not even utter a complaint.”Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.39
In the overwhelmingly patriarchal society of Rome, where the pater familias had power of life and death over his household, children were considered stateless until 7 years old, when they would begin their education and be introduced to public life. For boys, the transition to adulthood was marked by the ceremony of the toga virilis, which might take place when they were 14 years old or more. This was an essential rite of passage: boys would take off their bulla and dedicate it to the Lares, the household gods. They then exchanged their woollen toga praetexta for the toga virilis, the white toga worn by adults, making them full Roman citizens. In due course and with practised skill, they would learn to wear their toga neatly and stylishly.
Girls would mostly be confined to the home to learn the skills that would make them proper wives and mothers. They might be engaged when 12 years old, and married at 13, to a man chosen by their father. There is evidence, however, that they would often be taught to read and write. If their family could afford it, boys and girls had private tutors at home. These paedagogi were slaves or freedmen, and could also teach classes in separate schools, which children would attend regularly. Pieces of ivory or bone marked with letters helped younger children to make up words, while a wax tablet with lines or furrows to guide the hand was used for writing practice. The abacus was used for counting. Maps might be hung on the schoolroom walls to teach geography.
Middle- and upper-class women were supposed to be more than simply literate, so as to be able better to supervise the education of their children. Many cultured women indulged their literary interests as patrons of writers and poets, even outside the narrow, privileged circles of the imperial court. Letters were exchanged between soldiers in the field and their wives and mothers. A revealing portrait of a couple painted in Pompeii shows a man – Terentius Neo, a bakery owner –and his wife enjoying equal public status. He holds a rotulus, a roll of parchment or papyrus containing official written documents, while she holds a stylus and wax tablet, emphasising that she too is educated and literate. Election slogans painted on the outside walls of their house and on many other buildings in their hometown point to the fact that many citizens of this Campanian city could read. Importantly, well-educated people were expected to be bilingual in Latin and Greek, so much so that Greek wet-nurses were recommended, so their wards would grow accustomed to speaking their language, and Greek freedmen and slaves were regarded as the best teachers. The greatest stress in the school curriculum, however, was placed on elocution, for oratory was the means to achieve political and military prominence in Rome and in the empire at large.
Altogether, Roman children had to grow up to become useful citizens in peace and war, but the means to achieve this were much discussed. In this regard, there is a striking resemblance to current, timeless debates about the most effective educational methods. The famous orator Quintilian (AD 30/35-c.100) wrote in The Institutes (1.1-26):
I am not, however, so blind to differences of age as to think that the very young should be forced on prematurely or given real work to do. Above all things we must take care that the child, who is not yet old enough to love his studies, does not come to hate them and dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even when the years of infancy are left behind. His studies must be made an amusement: he must be questioned and praised and taught to rejoice when he has done well; sometimes too, when he refuses instruction, it should be given to some other to excite his envy, at times also he must be engaged in competition and should be allowed to believe himself successful more often than not, while he should be encouraged to do his best by such rewards as may appeal to his tender years.
Since most of the statues on view are funerary ones, the exhibition inevitably evokes a disturbing overall feeling of sadness akin to that induced by a visit to a cemetery filled with the graves of Victorian children, where tender emotions are celebrated together with noble sentiments of virtue and stoic dignity. According to the dynamic director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, however: ‘The show was inaugurated close to World Children’s Day, on 20 November 2021, which should not remain an empty celebration… for the Uffizi, it is an occasion to approach an age group that is little considered artistically, both as an object and public. Art isn’t just for adults and this show is proof, involving peers by crossing centuries of history.’
Child-friendly: Growing Up in Ancient Rome (A misura di bimbo. Crescere nell’antica Roma) runs at the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence until 24 April 2022. Visit www.uffizi.it for details.
A catalogue is also available (in Italian only): L Camin and F Paolucci (eds), A misura di Bambino. Crescere nell’antica Roma, price €25.