Epistemic Spot Check: Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World

Introduction

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.

The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World (editors Judith Evan Grubbs and Tim Parkins) (affiliate link) is part of that attempt, but not a very big part, because it failed to be the kind of book I wanted. It was not as bad as Children and Childhood in Roman Italy at being just a bunch of facts with no organizing thesis, but it’s on that scale. And honestly it might be just as bad, I just find literature more interesting than visual arts. Like Children and Childhood… I’m going to write it up anyway, because learning from this kind of book is important.

Typically I read a book in order, but this was a collection of papers from different authors, so one chapter’s epistemics didn’t have much predictive value for the next and they didn’t build on each other the way a single-author book might.  I started with chapter 15 (Children and Childhood in Roman Commemorative Art) because I was checking Children and Childhood…and then chapter 13 (The Socialization of Roman Citizens) because it looked the most interesting.

You can see the entirety of my notes here.

Claims

Claim: Soranus advised swaddling is good for babies because it keeps them from rubbing their eyes (bad for eyesight) and leads to a healthy strong body (p290)
Verdict: Directly confirmed by a translation of Soranus’s Gynecology.

Claim: Seneca’s de Ira (On Anger) recommended:

  • Guiding young children to avoid high-anger personalities in adulthood
  • Not crushing children’s spirits
  • Not spoiling children

(p290)
Verdict: Directly confirmed by a translation of On Anger or as they call it, Of Anger.

Claim: Beryl Rawson called children the explicit aim of marriage in Rome.
Verdict: Yup, I remember that from last week.

Claim: Soranus, Laes, and Rawson all say a typical Roman birth would be witnessed by women from outside the home (p290-291)
Verdict: The report on Rawson is clearly true, and I believe she was quoting Soranus.

Claim: “Juvenal suggests that celebrations were held in the narrow streets outside dwellings ”
Verdict: True (see translation).

Claim:  “Although Cicero did not want to govern the province for an extended period of time, he would have stressed to [his son and nephew] that this was an important duty and that his own dedication to the task was an excellent example of his virtue and self-control (Cic. Att. 5.10.2–3, 5.14.2, 5.15.1).” (p296)
Verdict: Cicero’s letters make it abundantly clear he did not want to be there, but if the author has evidence of his motives for doing so, she doesn’t share it.

Claim: When Cicero went off to war he left his son and nephew with King Deiotarus of Galatia (p296).
Verdict: Confirmed in Cicero’s letters.

Claim: Most Roman girls experienced their first marriage in their mid-to-late teens (p298).
Verdict: Likely but not proven. You can see everything I’ve gathered on this question here. The summary is: the usual view was that Roman girls got married in early-to-mid teens, then someone went through and checked tombstones looking to see who died when and if they mentioned a surviving spouse, and found that Roman women married in their late teens (excellent summary of both sides). Tombstone demographics have their own issues so I don’t consider this proven, but it is suggestive.

ClaimIn 000s, the representation of children in art increased substantially, through the early 200s
Verdict: Rawson says the same thing, with some quibbling about dates.

Claim: The toga was a mark of Roman citizenship and forbidden to slaves. (p329)
Verdict: Confirmed by Wikipedia.

Claim: Quintus Sulpicius Maximus was an 11 year old boy who performed well in a poetry competition and got a nice funerary altar. (p336)
Verdict: Exact same data was in Children and Childhood in Ancient Rome (Beryl Rawson)

Claim: “Funerary reliefs as well as altars were most frequently commissioned by freedmen. To them a freeborn child, especially a son, was a mark of success. It was of particular importance to demonstrate the existence of a freeborn child, even one who had not lived to adulthood, and to show the family’s financial capacity to raise a memorial to a deceased child.” (p343)
Verdict: Likely but I haven’t seen a census. When I was reading Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, enough of the funeral art was about the freeborn children of ex-slaves that I noticed and wondered about it. But that could have been Rawson cherrypicking examples, or that freed couples chose more durable forms of art for their children than citizens.

 

Verdict

Like Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Classical World isn’t really interesting or ambitious enough to get things wrong. It is nonetheless useful as a repository of facts with which to check more ambitious books (which is in fact why I’m reading it) or generate your own theses.

 

 

 

 

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