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Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: “A Fragment of Time”

Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: “A Fragment of Time”

By Maureen Carroll. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018. Pp. 336. $100. ISBN 978-0-19-968763-3 (cloth).

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More than 30 years ago, the late ancient historian Mark Golden published an article with a title that baldly asked the question “Did the Ancients Care When Their Children Died?” (GaR 35.2, 1988, 152–63). His trenchant framing and analysis of this issue largely set the terms of the scholarly debate that has followed. At the same time, the steady flow of archaeologically based studies of infancy and childhood have provided a wealth of new data that has refined the terms of the original debate, opening up new lines of inquiry such as the current interest in childhood agency (as Golden acknowledged in “The Second Childhood of Mark Golden,” Childhood in the Past 9.1, 2016, 4–18; see esp. 8–10).

In the introduction to her new book on the archaeology of infancy in the Roman world, Carroll clearly asserts her position vis-à-vis Golden’s original question: “What I oppose is the uncritical assumption that high infant mortality necessarily conditioned Roman parents not to invest in the early life of their children or to view them, or their deaths, with indifference” (9). The major contribution of Carroll’s work to the study of ancient children originates from her specialized knowledge of the archaeology of infant bodies and burials, and this knowledge finds expression in her masterly synthesis of that evidence, which she brings into conversation with material from diverse fields. In nine chapters and an appendix containing data from burials across the empire, Carroll canvasses images, objects, and skeletal remains related to infants (which she defines as “under one-year-olds” [v]). While she cites legal and literary sources where relevant, she foregrounds the material evidence to formulate a consistent and compelling narrative about the first year of life (the “fragment of time” in her subtitle).

The introduction (ch. 1) lays out the book’s agenda with sections covering current work on the Roman family and on infancy. As she states, her own views of ancient infants have been informed by not only her research on the ancient sources but also her reading of studies of modern parental grief and coping strategies and her personal experience of visiting neonatal units and memorial services (4–5). Here she makes the overarching argument, which she returns to in more detail in the conclusion, that “the archaeological evidence makes it clear that there was a significant difference between public mourning (referenced in legal texts) and private expressions of grief (recognizable in the burial assemblages)” (7, emphasis original). Carroll thus recognizes that while these different and often contradictory sources are equally valid forms of evidence, they require nuanced, historical contextualization in order to be judiciously reconciled.

The following four chapters (2–5) in many ways thematically link as a section, while the next three (6–8) comprise a unit of their own. Chapter 2, “Infants and Children in Pre-Roman Mediterranean Societies,” considers the topics of infant death and burial, pregnancy and childbirth in pre-Roman art, images of infants and the family, and the relationship between infants and divinity. Chapter 3, “Mother and Child: Pregnancy, Birth, and Health,” attends to fetal development, childbirth, the life course, health and disease, and divine protection. Chapter 4, “The Material Culture of Infancy,” surveys the evidence of feeding bottles, clothing, cribs and cradles, apotropaic jewelry, and pets and toys. Chapter 5, “Picturing Infants and Families in Roman Art,” encompasses images of infants and families in state art, barbarian parents and their children, scenes of private life on biographical sarcophagi, and portraits (possibly) and statues of infants.

Chapter 6, “Mors Immatura I: Contextualizing the Death and Burial of Infants,” looks at infant mortality and age at death, the burial sites of infants as points of inclusion or exclusion, and the practices of sacrifice, infanticide, and exposure. Chapter 7, “Mors Immatura II: The Treatment of the Infant Body in Death,” compares Greek and Roman burials at Marseille, different burial practices (inhumation and others), the burial treatment of the infant body, the cost of such practices, and grave goods and offerings. Chapter 8, “Funerary Commemoration of Infants,” considers the evidence of epitaphs, expressions of mourning, funerary images of infants (e.g., depiction as quasi-divine), the commemoration of mother and child, and the matters of social status and the family (e.g., freedpeople).

The range of topics covered in these chapters speaks to the thoroughness of the author’s research as well as the many interpretive minefields that she has to negotiate in surveying evidence from so many contexts, with their concomitant differences in genre, region, culture, and period. For instance, does the exclusion of premature and perinatal infants from adult burial communities or the absence of grave goods signal a diminution of status or not? When are funerary reliefs purely stock images and when are they personalized scenes with biographical content and meaning? When are the items buried with children (e.g., gaming pieces, dice, statuettes) their playthings, invested with personalized meaning, and when are they symbolic gifts? Many of these questions unfortunately can never be answered, but the author addresses them with an abundance of evidence, insight, and caution.

Chapter 9, “Integrated Perspectives on Roman Infancy,” ties together the earlier discussions of the iconographic, material, and archaeological evidence with the competing claims of the legal and literary sources. First, Carroll holds that the literary sources (e.g., Plutarch, Ulpian), which speak of restrictions on mourning, are contradicted by the evidence of infant burials (which clearly document that their bodies received ritual attention and care) and that elite authors’ admonitions about maintaining “public decorum and composure” (241) speak narrowly to the social codes of that particular class of Romans. These sources have therefore unfairly come to exert an outsize influence on the scholarly understanding of Roman parents’ attitudes toward infants more broadly. Second, where parental concern and investment in their young ones as social persons finds material proof in archaeology, the desire to compensate for the loss of those infants and their “unfinished lives” is borne witness to by epitaphs and images on their funerary monuments as well as items deposited in their graves, in which the mors immatura is a recurrent theme. A final point concerns Carroll’s frequent and admirable attention to regional differences in practices: although this book is concerned with the “Roman world,” she offers important qualifications about local variations throughout. Given that a comprehensive study such as this has never been undertaken before, Carroll’s conclusions should have wide-ranging significance for the field of Roman social history and offer a foundation for future research.

The volume is generously illustrated, with 86 black-and-white images of site plans, excavations, monuments, and objects (including a mixture of high-resolution photographs and finely executed line drawings). It is also well edited with few and only minor errors. Despite its impressive scope and quality overall, the book’s coverage is not without its gaps. The Etruscans, for instance, appear nowhere in the index, even though their burials are the subject of discussion at several points (and some of their cities that are mentioned appear in the index, while others, such as Volterra, do not). Moreover, the evidence of their art and burials do not figure into the narrative as much as this reader expected; the focus on Greece rather than pre-Roman Italy here goes unexplained, even in sections explicitly framed as encompassing “Pre-Roman Mediterranean Societies” (ch. 2).

These minor criticisms aside, Carroll’s book is a welcome and highly significant addition to the ever-growing body of scholarship on the archaeology of infancy and childhood in classical antiquity. Her monograph brings to bear the author’s many years of solid research and careful thinking about how the differential treatment of infants, in life and particularly in death, illuminates ancient Roman family priorities, societal structures, and value systems. Her work’s engaging style and clear organization will make it of interest and value to students, scholars, and general readers of Roman art, archaeology, literature, and social history, as well as of the study of childhood more broadly. For where Golden (2016, 15) predicted that “material culture above all may have much more to reveal” about infancy and childhood in antiquity, Carroll’s rich and rewarding study is proof that his instincts were right.

Sinclair W. Bell
Northern Illinois University

Book Review of Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: “A Fragment of Time”, by Maureen Carroll
Reviewed by Sinclair W. Bell
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Bell

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