Epistemic Spot Check: Children and Childhood in Ancient Rome (Beryl Rawson)


Once upon a time I started fact checking books I read, to see if they were trustworthy. I called this epistemic spot checking because it was not a rigorous or thorough investigation; just following up on things I thought were interesting, likely to be wrong, or easy to check. Eventually I became dissatisfied with this. It placed too much emphasis on a binary decision about a particular book’s trustworthiness, and not enough on building models. So I started working on something better. Something that used multiple sources to build robust models of the world.

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (affiliate link) was supposed to be a step in that process of learning how to extract and test models from books. Unfortunately it turned out to be poor soil. I can tell you what Children and Childhood is about, although not more than you are already capable of guessing, but ⅓ through it I can’t name a thesis. It’s just a collection of facts. So this is going to look a lot more like old epistemic spot checks than I’d hoped. I’m publishing anyway because it’s good practice writing, and because I’ve received grant money for this project and that carries with it an obligation to share as much of my work as is practical.


Claim: Quintus Sulpicius Maximus is a nice boy who placed beyond his years (11) at a poetry competition and got a very nice funerary altar depicting him as a little scholar
Verdict: Yup, way to not screw up some basic facts (read: The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World (my notes in Roam) (affiliate link) agrees with them).

Claim: Children first started appearing in (preserved) Roman art in the first century BC and steadily increased through 0200 AD
Verdict: Plausible, and a weird thing to get wrong, but not proven. I found a similar claim in The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, which cites three sources: Currie 1996 (inaccessible), Rawson 2001 (that’s the same author as the focal book and thus not independent verification), Uzzi 2005 (inaccessible).

Claim: Representations of children picked up about this time because Augustus Caesar was trying to establish his descendants as rightful rulers after his death, and other people copied him.
Verdict: Yeah, sure seems plausible, but I don’t know how we would know that it was that as opposed to…

Claim: Augustus Caesar passed a number of laws (Lex Aelia Sentia and Lex Papia Poppaea) incentivizing marriage and children, most notably giving privileges to people who had sufficient children (3 for citizens, 4 for freedmen). Dead children counted, creating an incentive to have art commemorating your dead offspring.
Verdict: The legal claims are easily verified on wikipedia.

Or perhaps representation of children went up because…

Claim: Rome got significantly wealthier in the first century BC.
Verdict: Unknown and sensitive to definitions. I had the impression this was correct from reading other books and I expected to knock it out in five minutes, but I couldn’t actually find any data clearly laying out the case. The Greenland Ice Core data doesn’t line up

RomanLeadandAntimony graph

Although how it fails to line up depends on who you ask

and while I found some very cool graphs on construction in Rome, they were sourceless.

Or maybe representation of children went up because there were more freed slaves and…

Claim: Former slaves produced art of their citizen children at greatly increased rates to advertise upward mobility.
Verdict: Plausible, but still impossible to distinguish from other explanations. Funerary art of ex-slaves does seem to be overrepresented, but perhaps the upper classes produced just as much in a less durable form.

Claim: Funerary reliefs came into fashion in the first century BC, followed by altars in the first century AD and sarcophagi in the third.
Verdict: Confirmed by The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, with some quibbling about dates.

Claim: In a typical Roman marriage, the man was 10 years older than the woman.
Verdict: Probably true. This was another one I expected to knock out in two minutes but was surprisingly difficult. The best source I found was this blog post which is a summary of one very old paper (1896) that did a demographic survey of graves, and two papers, one of which relies on that same paper and the other of which I didn’t check. It seems that the exact ages at which Roman men and women got married is in dispute, but the relative ages are agreed to be about 10 years apart.

Claim: Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance concludes, from a variety of evidence (literary, skeletal, comparative), that ‘classical peoples were somehow regulating their family sizes
Verdict: Accurate citation, but ignores the author’s skepticism of his own evidence.

Claim: “Scott (2000) has recently queried some of the assumptions in discus- sions of infanticide and has suggested that the evidence for alleged bias against females and the disabled in infant deaths is weak. ”
Verdict: Accurate citation.



Children and Childhood in Ancient Rome seems too boring to have made any major mistakes. If it gets overturned, I expect it to be because new evidence becomes available, which is a risk inherent to the topic.

If you’re interested in my process, you can see my notes in Roam here. Any claim with a number to its right

Screen Shot 2019-12-12 at 7.14.55 PM

is cited by another page, which you can get to by clicking on the number.  

Any claim with a slider bar has been investigated and assigned a credence. 


Many thanks to my Patreon Patrons and the Long Term Future Fund for financial support of this post.


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