Saturday, December 3, 2011


Véronique Dasen, Thomas Späth (ed.), Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 373. ISBN 9780199582570. $125.00.

Reviewed by Fanny Dolansky, Brock University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of Contents below]

The present volume collects thirteen papers delivered at the most recent Roman Family Conference and the fifth in a series of highly successful colloquia. Previous conferences, held in Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s, and in Canada in 2001, each resulted in a collection of papers on diverse aspects of Roman domestic life.1 Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture is the product of the first such conference to be held in Europe, hosted at l'Université de Fribourg in June 2007 and organized by the volume's editors. The conference brought together European, Australian, and North American scholars, and the selection of essays reflects this diversity, particularly in the number of contributions by European scholars.

The papers concern the history of childhood, social memory, and the construction and transmission of social identity, and are grouped into two sections: "Family identities and traditions" and "Children on the margins?". The latter is somewhat suggestive of the original conference theme – "Secret Families, Family Secrets" – and includes papers on fitting topics such as delicia ("pet children") and children of incestuous relationships. The papers in the section on identity and tradition are less easily envisioned as originating from a program that explored the relationship between family and secrecy, though all clearly investigate the section's theme.

The editors' introduction offers a short survey of research on the Roman family and childhood before concentrating on approaches to studying social memory and an overview of the volume's contents. The introduction provides some orientation to Roman family studies, but is limited in scope. Leading figures and seminal works on topics such as marriage and children, both germane to the volume's concerns, are not discussed,2 nor is ancient demography, though research in this area has had a significant impact on the way scholars now conceive of the Roman family.3

Catherine Baroin's chapter on types of family memory and knowledge and how these were used to construct family identity opens the first section. She encourages us to think about the memory of ancestors as "a memory of action" whereby remembering one's ancestors entailed not merely thinking about them and recalling their titles and achievements, but consciously modeling oneself after them (30); forgetting one's ancestors was similarly active since it involved deliberately not behaving like them. Aside from maiores, parents could serve as models and counter-models; her attention only to sons modeling their fathers and daughters their mothers, however, lends the impression that imitation operated on strict gendered lines, though this was not always the case. The following contribution is a nice complement, as Ann-Cathrin Harders considers the absence of fathers as role models and the influence of mothers instead, as well as cognates and affines, on the socialization of aristocratic boys and the consequences for constructing family tradition. She highlights different strategies elite families used to compensate for paternal loss, and maintains that growing up fatherless could actually be a benefit as it provided opportunities to reshape family traditions and personal identity by strengthening and advertising cognatic traditions.

Francesca Prescendi's essay surveys literary evidence for children's religious education and participation in domestic religious rites as ritual objects and agents. Children's acquisition of religious knowledge has not received much attention; thus Prescendi's focus is welcome. Children's involvement in domestic rites, though, has been of greater interest and some topics treated rather briefly by Prescendi, such as the toga virilis ceremony and Matralia festival, could be expanded upon through further engagement with recent scholarship.4 Michel Fuchs' study of Roman landscape painting addresses some questions raised in the preceding contribution and draws attention to a rich body of evidence not generally utilized by Roman family historians. Fuchs analyzes a number of sacro-idyllic scenes that depict girls participating in religious rituals with women who are presumably their mothers, and suggests that these reveal a level of intimacy in the mother-daughter relationship. Such evidence seems promising for exploring further socialization and ritual participation of women and children.

In her investigation of the use of imagines by elite and non-elite families, Véronique Dasen examines surviving plaster moulds and busts of children, as well as representations of busts of children on funerary reliefs, all of which are associated with non-elite families. She proposes that non-elite families succeeded in creating familial memory and identity by replacing the noble ancestors they lacked with inexpensive portraits of their children in whom their hopes resided. Thomas Späth's assessment of Cicero's relationship with his daughter and son follows. He focuses on the gender-specific concerns and actions Cicero exhibited toward each child and how these related to his need to establish tradition within a 'new family' (i.e., the family of a novus homo). Späth offers useful remarks about Marcus' becoming his father's alter ego that add to Baroin's discussion of imitatio patris, and highlights the important roles Tullia and Terentia played in negotiating a marriage to increase the entire family's prestige.

Ville Vuolanto's consideration of children's roles in perpetuating familial memory in late antiquity concludes the first section. He concentrates on ecclesiastical writers of the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE who promoted asceticism, and explores its impact on traditional beliefs about children and familial identity. Children continued to play important roles in preserving family memory by holding commemorative feasts at tombs and through patrimony and inheritance. With asceticism, however, biological continuity of the family was no longer deemed essential, for the spiritual rewards and enhancement to individual identity thought to be gained from an ascetic lifestyle were considered greater than the commemorative benefits children could provide.

The second section begins with Beryl Rawson's analysis of epigraphic and legal evidence for the roles and relationships of vernae (home-born slaves), many of whom became Junian Latins upon manumission. Of particular interest is the evidence for their movement from one household to another as loans, gifts, bequests, or as a result of divorce or death, and what the evidence, slight though it may be, reveals about inter-family relationships.

The next pair of essays focuses on imperial Latin literature. Drawing principally on Seneca, Francesca Mencacci emphasizes the stark contrasts in behaviour and expectations for (elite) freeborn children and slave children, and concentrates on the perceived relationship between speech and morality in particular. Elite authors insisted that freeborn children needed to exhibit modestia, which encompasses moderation and propriety in speech and action, yet slave children were characterized by licentia, especially in regard to verbal expression, which Mencacci suggests was linked to their lack of pudor and consequently left them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Christian Laes considers some of the same children in his examination of Statius' Silvae regarding delicia. His detailed philological analysis reveals Statius' "strategy of status inconsistency" (270) which adds to our appreciation of how delicia could be used in elite self-representation. He maintains that for slave delicia, Statius either strove to portray them as unique and outstanding or sought to cast doubt about their servile origin, while for those of freed status, he endeavoured to conceal or diminish their servile background.

Danielle Gourevitch's assessment of Galen's case histories that concern ailing boys follows. Galen does not discuss any girls in his cases, a fact which Gourevitch partly attributes to his fraught relationship with his mother during childhood and adolescence. Her chapter raises several questions and suggests that further investigation of medical texts may be profitable for recovering more of the history of Roman childhood.

Judith Evans Grubbs' study of legal, literary, and documentary evidence makes important contributions to existing discussions of expositio. She maintains that expositio and the subsequent reclaiming of an exposed child was frequently "a neighbourhood phenomenon" (309), since rescued expositi were often returned to their original home because someone (a parent, rescuer, or household slave) knew their identity and what had happened to them. She also proposes that possibility of recovery might have provided incentive to parents to expose infants in the belief that they would reclaim them later if their circumstances improved. This claim's plausibility is strengthened by comparative evidence from nineteenth-century Italy, where foundling hospitals came to be used by struggling couples as places to care for their infants temporarily until they could afford to do so themselves, though many never could.

The final paper, Philippe Moreau's consideration of incestuous relationships, traces changing attitudes towards the children of these unions and their treatment under Roman law from the early imperial period through the reign of Justinian. Although Romans regarded incestuous unions negatively because they violated the laws of kinship and order, the children who resulted were treated no differently under the law from those born out of wedlock (spurii). By the reign of Justinian, however, their situation worsened as they lost inheritance rights as well as legal protection that had formerly obligated their parents to ensure their physical welfare by providing alimenta.

Overall, Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture presents an interesting array of studies on Roman childhood and family identity. A more comprehensive introduction would have helped situate individual contributions more easily within the scholarly tradition, and more cross-referencing throughout would have made the volume cohere better. Nevertheless, this collection alerts us to new directions in the study of the Roman family and childhood, and demonstrates clearly that thirty years after the first Roman Family Conference, interest in these subfields has not waned.

Table of Contents

Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth, "Introduction" (1-15)
1. Catherine Baroin, "Remembering one's Ancestors, following in their Footsteps, being like them: The Role and Forms of Family Memory in the Building of Identity" (19-48)
2. Ann-Cathrin Harders, "Roman Patchwork Families: Surrogate Parenting, Socialization, and the Shaping of Tradition" (49-72)
3. Francesca Prescendi, "Children and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge" (73-94)
4. Michel E. Fuchs, "Women and Children in Ancient Landscape" (95-108)
5. Véronique Dasen, "Wax and Plaster Memories: Children in Elite and non-Elite Strategies" (109-146)
6. Thomas Späth, "Cicero, Tullia, and Marcus: Gender-Specific Concerns for Family Tradition?" (147-172)
7. Ville Voulanto, "Children and the Memory of Parents in the Late Roman World" (173-192)
8. Beryl Rawson, "Degrees of Freedom: Vernae and Junian Latins in the Roman familia" (195- 222)
9. Francesca Mencacci, "Modestia vs. licentia: Seneca on Childhood and Status in the Roman Family" (223-244)
10. Christian Laes, "Delicia-Children Revisited: The Evidence of Statius' Silvae" (245-272)
11. Danielle Gourevitch, "The Sick Child in his Family: A Risk for the Family Tradition" (273-292)
12. Judith Evans Grubbs, "Hidden in Plain Sight: Expositi in the Community" (293-310)
13. Philippe Moreau, "Rome: The Invisible Children of Incest" (311-329)


1.   B. Rawson (ed.), The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (London and Sydney: Cornell University Press, 1986); B. Rawson (ed.), Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); B. Rawson and P. Weaver (eds.), The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); M. George (ed.), The Roman Family in the Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2.   E.g., S. M. Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges From the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); K. R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
3.   E.g., T. G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); R. P. Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); R. S. Bagnall and B. W. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
4.   On the toga virilis ceremony, see F. Dolansky. "Togam virilem sumere: Coming of Age in the Roman World," in J. Edmondson and A. Keith (eds.), Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 47-70. On the Matralia, see C. J. Smith, "Worshipping Mater Matuta: ritual and context," in E. Bispham and C. J. Smith (eds.), Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 136-155.

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