Friday, September 5, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Mary Harlow, Ray Laurence (ed.), Age and Ageing in the Roman Empire. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplementary Series 65. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2007. Pp. 220; figs. 29. ISBN 978-1-887829-65-6. $84.50.
Reviewed by Emma-Jayne Graham, Cardiff University

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers in this volume on Age and ageing in the Roman Empire originate from a session organised by Harlow and Laurence at the Roman Archaeology Conference at the University of Birmingham in 2005, and represent an attempt by the editors to bring together a diverse range of approaches and perspectives on age and the life course in the Roman world. Building on Harlow and Laurence's earlier book, Growing up and growing old in Ancient Rome: A life course approach,1 this volume contains papers by both ancient historians and archaeologists, who draw on a varied array of material in their quest to elucidate the Roman 'life course.' Several, although not all, of the individual papers presented here do this admirably and highlight the potential of combining concepts of the 'life course' with more well-developed theories of gender, identity and space. Other contributions feel somewhat more dated and limited in their approach and conclusions. Nevertheless, the book succeeds as a synthesis of different approaches to the study of age in the Roman world and, in particular, as a starting point for future research which might build upon the approaches advocated by some of the contributors, or arise in reaction to the narrow focus of others.

The papers within the volume are arranged in 'chronological' order, from young to old, moving from studies of childhood, through adulthood to old age, and are grouped more or less thematically by discipline, approach or on the basis of the primary material under discussion. Interestingly, Rebecca Redfern's paper on the osteoarchaeological evidence for childhood is a little out of synch with this chronological scheme (its place clearly being influenced by its use of osteoarchaeological evidence), and the papers are discussed in a different order in the 'Introduction' (11-19), which leads me to wonder whether the final 'running order' was still a matter of debate until shortly before going to press. This reflects the problems of attempting to categorise the 'life course' (should we be advocating an approach that distinguishes childhood from adulthood or stressing the links between the two), in addition to the great variety of evidence that is available for the subject.

The papers fall into two categories: those concerned with exploring age (its recording in epigraphic form, its role in the creation of identity, its use for establishing patterns of commemoration and within more traditional demographic concerns), and those more in interested in shedding light on the rather undefined and vague (at least in this volume) concept of the 'life course' (seemingly how people experienced different stages in their life, how these contributed to a sense of social or legal identity, how they moved from one to another, and how these were responsible for their understandings of space and the (largely) urban world). This split is, in the main, responsible for the lack of coherency throughout the volume and highlights, in the words of the editors themselves in the 'Introduction' (19), "a certain immaturity to the study of age within our disciplines." Although this is, to some extent, one of the weaknesses of the book, it is also one of its strengths, simply because it highlights the extent to which age, ageing and the 'life course' are indeed surprisingly under-theorised in relation to other aspects of the disciplines of archaeology and ancient history. In their 'Introduction' Harlow and Laurence are at pains to point out the direction which studies of ancient age might take, emphasising in particular the need for interdisciplinarity and the creation of a "synergy between osteoarchaeology and social archaeology and/or social history" (23). Their discussion is thought provoking and stimulating, particularly as it stresses the importance of age as a major contributing factor within the creation and maintenance of social and cultural relations and identity. However, this discussion of the weaknesses of current approaches (some of which are taken by the contributors to the volume) somewhat undermines the impact of the papers which follow, and I can't help but think that such a discussion would be better placed in a concluding section at the end of the volume, especially given Harlow and Laurence's obvious intent to use the book to stimulate future research on the issues at its heart. Useful too would be a more nuanced discussion of the concept of the 'life course', which is a term that appears throughout the volume with little apparent consensus over its precise meaning. In some papers it is used simply as shorthand for the passing of chronological time and the movement from childhood to adulthood and finally old age; in others there is an implication that this is a far more complex process involving mutable identity and senses of self. Recognition that the concept of the 'life course' is itself a relatively under-theorised concept within these disciplines would greatly strengthen the consistency of the book.

The first two papers in the volume are concerned primarily with the recording of the ages of death of children within inscribed epitaphs from the City of Rome. In 'Inscriptions from Rome and the history of childhood' Christian Laes considers the age indications of children younger than 15 and suggests that these are different from those of adults, demonstrating little evidence of age-rounding and using age to draw attention to the different phases and transitions of childhood. The nuclear family, he asserts, was central to the commemoration of children and, once the decision was made to commemorate, girls and boys were treated equally. The evidence presented here supports (much) earlier work by Hopkins, and more recently by King and Sigismund-Nielsen,2 but as such offers nothing really new or innovative.

Similarly, in 'Children for profit and pleasure' Hanne Sigismund-Nielsen continues the 'traditional' approach to childhood studies with an examination of the extent to which children were appreciated and welcomed into families and other social relationships based on the recording of ages in epitaphs. Re-asserting the conclusions of her earlier work, that the mention of age in an epitaph was designed to evoke feelings associated with lost potential, she suggests that this also extended beyond the nuclear family where it became even more significant for children who were valued in economic terms. Both of these papers highlight the "immaturity" of age studies as noted by Harlow and Laurence and, although they contain some interesting information, they lack consideration of the implications of these observations for the experience of child-adult relationships and identity in the city of Rome.

In the next contribution, 'Growing up in Ravenna: evidence from the decoration of children's sarcophagi,' Janet Huskinson also considers the representation of childhood in a funerary context. However, rather than attempting to generalise from a large corpus of data she focuses on a relatively small group of sculpted sarcophagi from one region of Italy in order to demonstrate the significance of local traditions and socio-cultural contexts to the commemoration of children. Her examination and discussion of the evidence is fluid, and her attention to the context of the sarcophagi allows her to point out consequent implications for the socialisation of children into adult society. This is an effective and interesting paper that points the way for the integration of epigraphic and sculptural evidence for childhood in investigations of this stage of life, as well as emphasising the importance of local traditions and customs to the construction of identity.

In 'The life course of Jews in the Roman Empire' David Noy also employs epigraphic evidence from the funerary inscriptions to explore the different stages of life experienced by Diaspora Jews. Through a comparison of epitaphs from Jewish communities in Italy, Egypt and Israel, he draws attention to the commemorative patterns of the Jewish community, noting that there is little homogeneity across time and place, and that local 'Roman' customs were commonly adopted by Jewish communities. In addition to observing a particular emphasis on the commemoration of the young and old, he notes the importance of the recording of specific Jewish titles and offices which, although conforming to wider Roman practices of recording offices, stressed a particular Jewish identity. However, as Noy himself points out (94), much of the evidence employed is biased towards those Jews who followed Roman commemorative customs and perhaps tells us more about patterns of commemoration than the actual Jewish life course itself, with several major elements missing from the discussion, such as circumcision and Jewish education. He does not suggest how these might be accessed.

Ray Laurence turns to the material culture of Pompeii for his paper on 'Gender, age, and identity: the female life course at Pompeii.' In this chapter Laurence seeks to discover the presence of women within the built environment and material culture of the city, and in particular to elucidate at which points in their lives this occurred. It is in the cemetery that he finds women represented most commonly and where they were able to exercise the most influence over activities. He associates this increased presence and agency with events in the life course, in particular marriage and widowhood, and suggests that their identity was thus largely constructed around their role within the familia.

Evidence from the funerary context is also exploited by the next paper, in which Valerie Hope explores 'Age and the Roman army: the evidence of tombstones.' Following previous studies in which she has emphasised the importance of funerary commemoration to the construction, maintenance and negotiation of the identities of soldiers and gladiators,3 Hope draws on evidence from the northwestern provinces (Germania, Pannonia and Britain) to demonstrate that age, and its expression in epigraphic form, was essential to the presentation of a particular identity. She uses the recording of ages at death to demonstrate how this aspect of a soldier's identity was one of the few things that made them stand out from their peers, particularly for those in the early stages of their career who had yet to obtain significant promotion or distinction. However, she also observes that once a soldier moved into the civilian world other aspects of their identity were more likely to be stressed on their tombstones. This is a stimulating paper that highlights the importance of contextualising age with other aspects of identity, and the varying influence of age on identity throughout a person's life.

Having moved into the adult world with the two previous papers, this is investigated further by A. Asa Eger's study of 'Age and male sexuality: 'queer space' in the Roman bath-house?' in which he explores how the structure of the bath-house, and the experience of adults and youths within its various spaces, facilitated the transition from boy to man through sexual encounters. Although the paper sometimes digresses into a more general discussion of (ancient and modern) male-male sexual activities, and presents only one interpretation of these spaces as gendered (female bathing is mentioned at the beginning of the paper, yet from this point onwards the baths are considered as an elite male environment), Eger successfully draws on a comparison of the Imperial bath complex at Sardis with a modern gay bath in Chicago to demonstrate how the spaces of the bath-house became 'architectures of desire'. The importance of Aser's paper lies in the emphasis it places upon the physical environment in which people experienced the 'life course,' and how age, experience and space interacted to facilitate important transitions. The approach he advocates could productively be employed to explore the different experiences and lives of women, non-elite men, slaves and foreigners, for example.

The focus of the volume now turns briefly to osteoarchaeology and Britain. In 'Age, ageism and osteological bias: the evidence from Late Roman Britain,' Rebecca Gowland examines the problems associated with the study of the elderly within the funerary record. In a thoughtful paper that demonstrates the importance of examining osteoarchaeological remains in the context of ethnographic and historical sources, Gowland highlights the difficulties of matching chronological, biological and social age. This paper, of all of those in the book, perhaps gets closest to drawing together the disparate threads required in order to fully understand the complexities of the ageing process and, although the author does not draw too many firm conclusions, she certainly points us in promising directions. Her observation (168) that "in order to examine the way that an age group is perceived within a society, we must contextualise it within a study of identity throughout the entire life span" (my emphasis), underlines the limitations of many of the other studies within the book that focus on a single point in the life span, rather than considering it as a developing whole.

Rebecca Redfern's study of 'The influence of culture upon childhood: an osteological study of Iron Age and Romano-British Dorset,' takes a more direct osteoarchaeological approach to funerary remains and examines the impact of the conquest on the skeletal remains of children. Redfern is able to demonstrate that a change in culture led to a change in cultural and environmental stressors and buffers which, in turn, had an impact upon exposure to disease and childhood mortality levels. Stressing variety at a number of levels (particularly familial and regional), she demonstrates the importance of considering the wider social, cultural, religious and environmental context for our understandings of the experience of age.

The final two papers in the book complete the examination of age and ageing in the Roman world by turning to literary evidence. Mary Harlow's contribution on 'Blurred visions: male perceptions of the female life course-the case of Aemilia Pudentilla,' assesses the extent to which it is possible to access female experience of the 'life course' through the writing of elite men, using an example from Apuleius' Apologia (Pro se de magia). Although the evidence comes largely in the form of stereotypes, Harlow is able to demonstrate that, despite their identities and status in society often being given meaning through their relationship with men, there was more to the Roman female 'life course' than young and old. Women might pass through several different stages of life depending on their circumstances (wife, mother, widow, wife in second marriage) and were accorded status in society accordingly.

Karen Cokayne's paper on 'Age and aristocratic self-identity: activities for the elderly' closes the volume with a look at the behaviour of the elderly in Rome. In order to assess how the old themselves felt about the ageing process, she stresses the importance of emotional and "esteem needs" (210) and demonstrates the importance of exercise and the display of wisdom. This, she argues, was essential for preventing marginalisation, for once the physical or mental health of the old was seen to have declined their status in society also fell rapidly. The paper makes an attempt to understand the actual experience of ageing and the ways in which people (elite men) responded in order to maintain their place, role and status in society.

There are very few conspicuous errors throughout the text; the only two of note concern the captions for Huskinson's Figures 7 and 8 (66), which have been reversed, and the rather crude amendment of the title of Eger's paper in the contents list by means of a makeshift label.

Age and ageing in the Roman Empire provides a useful overview of recent approaches that have been taken to the study of Roman age and the 'life course' and, in particular, highlights the diverse range of material that can be called upon to elucidate the subject. It does not explicitly set an agenda for the future direction of the topic, but will certainly prompt new work in this area across the disciplines of archaeology and ancient history. Although I found some of the papers disappointing in terms of their scope and under-theorised approach, and there is a heavy emphasis on Italy and the Western Provinces, it is this that will hopefully prompt others to step beyond the recording of ages in epitaphs and to use this evidence in more nuanced ways to shed light on the importance of age in the construction of identity, personhood, understandings of space, and lived experience of the world of ancient Rome. The more successful papers in the volume hint at interesting directions for the future and, if this book does succeed in encouraging further interdisciplinary work on age and the 'life course,' then it can be considered a success.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Age and ageing in the Roman Empire, M. Harlow and R. Laurence (9-24)
2. Inscriptions from Rome and the history of childhood, C. Laes (25-37)
3. Children for profit and pleasure, H. Sigismund-Nielsen (39-54)
4. Growing up in Ravenna: evidence from the decoration of children's sarcophagi, J. Huskinson (55-79)
5. The life course of Jews in the Roman Empire, D. Noy (81-94)
6. Gender, age, and identity: the female life course at Pompeii, R. Laurence (95-110)
7. Age and the Roman army: the evidence of tombstones, V. M. Hope (111-129)
8. Age and male sexuality: 'queer space' in the Roman bath-house? A. Asa Eger (131-151)
9. Age, ageism, and osteological bias: the evidence from Late Roman Britain, R. Gowland (153-169)
10. The influence of culture upon childhood: an osteological study of Iron Age and Romano-British Dorset, R. Redfern (171-194)
11. Blurred visions: male perceptions of the female life course-the case of Aemilia Pudentilla, M. Harlow (195-208)
12. Age and aristocratic self-identity: activities for the elderly, K. Cokayne (209-220)


1.   M. Harlow and R. Laurence (2002) Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome. A Life Course Approach. London.
2.   K. Hopkins (1966-67) 'On the probable age structure of the Roman population.' Population Studies 20, 252-253; M. King (2000) 'Commemorations of infants on Roman funerary inscriptions' in G.J. Oliver (ed.) The epigraphy of death: studies in the history of Greece and Rome. Liverpool, 117-154; H. Sigismund-Nielsen (1997) 'Interpreting epithets in Roman epitaphs,' in B. Rawson and P. Weaver (eds.) The Roman Family in Italy: status, sentiment, space. Oxford, 169-205.
3.   See for example, V.M. Hope (1998). 'Negotiating identity and status. The gladiators of Roman Nîmes,' in R. Laurence and J. Berry (eds.) Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire. London, 179-195; V. Hope (2001) Constructing Identity: The Roman Funerary Monuments of Aquileia, Mainz and Nimes. Oxford: BAR International Series 960.

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