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Portraits of Children on Roman Funerary Monuments

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

Portraits of Children on Roman Funerary Monuments

By Jason Mander. Pp. xvi + 397, figs. 131, tables 17. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $130. ISBN 978-1-107-00102-2 (cloth).

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Funerary monuments have long been regarded by scholars as one of the most important sources of evidence for understanding the private lives of Romans, as they appear to capture their dedicants at their moment of greatest vulnerability and loss, and thus humanity. Yet while few, if any, of these monuments can be said to be completely unvarnished depictions of human grief and emotion, the mere fact of their creation testifies to the dedicant’s investment—financial, social, emotional, and otherwise—in perpetuating the deceased’s memory. In this regard, funerary monuments for children have proven especially valuable in the debate over whether “the ancients cared when their children died” (see M. Golden, “Did the Ancients Care When Their Children Died?” GaR 35 [1988] 152–63: a trenchant essay-response to Philip Aries’ parental indifference hypothesis). Where earlier studies of these monuments have generally restricted themselves to Rome and its environs (which are often better preserved and more easily studied in museums) and to types that are more visually conspicuous and appealing (e.g., sarcophagi and portraits), the present book catalogues and analyzes nearly 900 reliefs, urns, stelae, altars, and pillar and aedicula monuments from not only Rome but also from across the former western Roman provinces. By exhaustively documenting this highly dispersed corpus and judiciously synthesizing it with other data sets and secondary research, Mander has made one of the most substantial contributions to Roman childhood studies since the late Rawson’s Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (Oxford 2003).

In chapter 1, “Introduction,” Mander sketches the parameters of his study and outlines the key methodological issues. He reviews the slippery nature of childhood’s definition in antiquity, and its concomitantly inconsistent definition by scholars since, and settles on an upper age limit of 16 (unless the evidence from an individual work explicitly argues against the deceased’s inclusion). Furthermore, his study restricts itself to monuments inscribed in Latin (though a few bilingual tombstones are included) and erected in the Roman West, with the following distribution: 151 monuments in Rome and environs; 104 in Italia and Narbonensis; 18 in Tarraconensis and Lusitania; 105 in Aquitania, Lugdunensis, and Belgica; 92 in Britannia and Germania; 92 in Alpes Poeninae, Raetia, and Noricum; 222 in Pannonia Superior and Inferior; and 97 in Dacia. This is followed by an incisive summary of the methodological difficulty of “extracting emotion” from works heavily given over to expression through shopworn sentiments and visual tropes. As Mander notes, “these are children as seen through the eyes of their parents, rulers and owners, something which raises fundamental questions about how the concept of childhood should be understood” (3).

Chapter 2 addresses three issues related to “Commemorating the Roman Child.” The first section analyzes the disparity in the representation of male vs. female children: his corpus includes 601 monuments (or 62%) for boys, 365 for girls, and 158 for “children” (whose sex cannot be determined from their images, which are poorly preserved and/or gender unspecific). However, this imbalance belies the fact that, when seen epigraphically (table 2), boys and girls received nearly equal treatment: “boys and girls were most likely to receive a dedication in their own right (63 and 51 per cent respectively) and for it to specify both their name and age (61 and 51 per cent)” (19). The second section explores the ambiguity of age, including age-rounding on inscriptions, the visual manipulation of age (e.g., depicting the deceased as older at death) and appearance (e.g., “symbolic sizing”), and issues related to the exigencies of death. While determining a child’s age is often an admittedly imprecise science, Mander outlines several benchmarks (physiognomy, height, dress, proportions, attributes) that can help one to arrive at a more secure identification. One clear conclusion from his various data sets is the underrepresentation of infants (28–9) and the high representation of older children (30). In the last section, he discusses how geography, time, and social group prevented Roman children from having identically shared experiences and thus complicate their comparison (35).

Chapter 3 looks at “The Iconography of Childhood” by tracking the different visual modes and motifs employed, including the most popular attributes (e.g., “scholastic,” toy, bird) for boys and girls, the distribution of child attribute by geographical region, and the standard attributes of adults on these monuments (see tables 6–8). His analyses of the significance of these motifs are thoroughly grounded in the social world of the child.

Chapter 4, “Nuclear Notions,” the longest in the book, looks at the development of child imagery in relation to the wider visual and social-historical context of the family. Mander discusses the nuclear model of the Roman family; its representation in public and funerary art, with important commentary on regional differences; images of a child with a lone parent (most often the mother) or with a sibling (two children are the most common, three children much rarer); and the representation of familial affection, such as on the famous Altar of Passiena Gemella and sons (to be added to his bibliography: D. Boschung and G. Davies, “Arae Passieniorum,” OpRom 30 [2005] 63–72). Among other things, this chapter yields many insights about children’s monuments in relation to freedmen and social advancement (72–5); about the difficulty of categorizing the child/family as either Roman or native (e.g., 92–3, where dress is shown to be one of the most inconsistently used visual features and thus is not a secure marker of “identity”); about the different kinds of physical conduct that are represented, with whom and by region (tables 16, 17); and, moreover, about how the image of the family was not static but highly subject to manipulation across space and time. This final point, grounded as it is in Mander’s data set, provides further support for Golden’s argument that scholarly attempts to “prove” periods of profound change in the valuation of children are methodologically ill founded (cf. 70–1).

Chapter 5 carefully reconstructs the tissue of relations between the deceased child and his/her dedicator(s), be it a parent, ruler, or owner. The first section considers surrogate children (i.e., vernae, delicia, nepotes, alumni) and deftly weaves through the minefield of differing designations and social situations (see also chapters in V. Dasen and T. Späth, eds., Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture [Oxford 2010]; H. Heinen, ed., Kindersklaven–Sklavenkinder: Schicksale zwischen Zuneigung und Ausbeutung in der Antike und im interkulturellen Vergleich [Stuttgart 2012]). The second section treats “the extended family,” such as grandparents and libertini, while the third section addresses “absent adults” through the “cast” of unrelated childminders, such as nutrices and pedagogi, who—despite their diminished social status—might form highly affectionate bonds with their young charges. As the title of this chapter, “Fluid Families,” reminds us, the Roman family may have been constructed around the nuclear model, but its walls were highly permeable.

Chapter 6, “Portraits in Context,” provides a brief, archaeological excursus about the “streets of the dead” in order to contextualize the spaces in which children’s monuments were set up and viewed. While the shortest and least original of the chapters, it succeeds in making the essential point that “context is everything” (152): a monument’s original message and impact can only be fully diagnosed by reconstructing its original site of display, which is all too often lost today.

Chapter 7 provides a brief conclusion, in which the author reiterates his core finding that “one must remain open to the possibility of multiple motivations and recognize that the behaviour of parents across such a vast geographical expanse and time period will not be uniform, something to which the varying iconographic models witnessed in the provinces are testament” (155). In other words, a broad cross-section of Roman society, from servile and libertine families in Rome and parts of Italy to soldiers in the Danube region to peregrini throughout the Roman provinces, sought to commemorate their prematurely deceased child(ren), and often in similar ways, but those monuments—as the materialized form of their personal experiences—cannot be reduced to unitary explanations. Rather, scholars must think in terms of the mixture of complementary impulses that could prompt commemoration (e.g., sense of loss and grief, affection for children, living memories, status celebration). In this way, Mander demonstrates (like other recent studies of Roman funerary art) that these works are as much about life and the living as they are about death and the deceased.

The second half of the book (156–343) is a catalogue of the monuments, including information about each work’s provenance (where known), location, type, preservation, inscription, sculptural ornament, bibliography, and date. This is followed by indices of the museums, inscriptions, nomina, and cognomina; a bibliography (up to 2011); and an index.

In summary, Mander has produced a study of Roman childhood that is exemplary not only for the physical research that has gone into documenting this far-flung body of monuments but also for his rigorous, wide-ranging, and sober analysis of that corpus within its broader visual traditions and social-historical contexts. This is a book that any scholar with an interest in ancient childhood, the family, and social history will profit from reading.

Sinclair Bell
School of Art
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois 60115

Book Review of Portraits of Children on Roman Funerary Monuments, by Jason Mander

Reviewed by Sinclair Bell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Bell

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