How the death of a relative in ancient Rome was treated, by the surviving family varied over time and social status. However a common theme seems to be a perceived lack of grieving for their children. There were various social conventions and laws that seem to treat the death of children as less important than an adult. It is the intention of this essay to argue that Roman parents did grieve for the loss of their child but that it is impossible to tell by how much. There are examples of parents both grieving deeply and less so as their modern equivalents. In order to argue this, various primary sources such as epitaphs, letters and histories will be explored to show the hidden grief amongst parents. It will be suggested that although parents generally kept to the roman ideal in public, they grieved deeply in private. However certain economic and cultural factors mean Roman parents attitudes to children will not completely match up to their modern equivalents.
Historical opinion on how Romans treated the death of a child has steadily moved towards the belief that parents did indeed care about their child’s demise. The problem for most historians has been that surviving evidence mainly comes from the elites of roman society. As such generalisation about all of roman society is difficult to conclude since the elites made up a small proportion of whole. In a society that was overly concerned with other people’s perception of them it is understandable why so much of the surviving evidence relates the ideal regarding death rather than the reality. That is why it is important to seek out evidence that reveals genuine emotion rather than the public face which is often displayed.
As we go further back in time it becomes more difficult to find evidence regarding how death was treated. More survives from the imperial period than the republican era and in fact before that all we have is myths regarding the rule of kings. Even so Roman ideas about death have their origins in the past. A decree by king Numa said that children under 1 year of age were not to be mourned. For those who where under ten the mourning period allowed was restricted to one month for every year they lived . Although future Roman legislation was not as extreme, the same kind of limits were placed on mourning. A child was thought not to have fully entered the community and was denied full burial rites as a result. Yet what the law said and what people actually did is very different. A 1st Century AD poem sums up the attempt to regulate grief:
“You will sooner stop the rivers that break their bank or extinguish devouring fire than forbid the sorrowful to grieve”
It would have been impossible to regulate what people thought privately and in fact we have little evidence of these measures being actively enforced. The legislation may well have kept most expression of grief in check but it does not mean that Roman parents did not grieve. Poems like this give a...