By Shelia Cook - Volunteer Guide

Infants

Although many infants died in the first few days, that doesn’t mean that Romans didn't express joy when a child was born. Many graffiti reveal that they celebrated a baby's birth in a way instantly recognisable to parents today. One birth announcement carved on a residential neighbourhood read: ‘Iuvenilla is born on Saturday the 2nd of August in the second hour of the evening.’ Next to it was a charcoal sketch of a newborn. Another message carved where passers-by could easily see it announced: ‘Cornelius Sabinus has been born’.

In ancient Rome, babies weren’t considered fully human upon birth. They gained humanity over time until they could walk and talk, the process beginning with their naming a few days after birth, and later when they cut teeth and could eat solid food.

Dies Lustricus

The dies lustricus, or day of purification, took place eight days after birth for a girl, and or nine for a boy, when the child was officially welcomed into the family. At the conclusion of ceremonies, a baby was given a name, which is why babies who died early were usually left nameless.

A freeborn Roman boy was given a three-part name consisting of: praenomen (a personal name given by his parents from a limited selection such as Marcus and Titus), nomen, (gens or clan name), and cognomen (an additional personal name with a larger element of choice than the praenomen). This distinguished him from non-Roman citizens who had a two-part name, Slaves were given a single name by their owner. We know the names of some male slaves from Vindolanda: Severus (Harsh), Candidus (Shining), and Audax (Bold).

Girls usually had two names, the first name often being the feminine form of their father's nomen, and the second name being a cognomen.

A special amulet which identified the child as a free Roman (foreigners, slaves and freedmen were not entitled to wear them) was also given to them during this period to protect them from evil forces. Boys received a bulla, a flat disc made of lead or gold, depending on how rich their family was, and girls received a lunula or moon-shaped pendant to wear round their neck. So far, none of these amulets have ever been found at Vindolanda, possibly because the vast majority of its inhabitants were not Roman citizens and hence not entitled to wear them. At any one time there may only have been single figures of Roman citizens living there. I couldn’t find any information on what form celebrations for non-Roman citizens took, but they were quite possibly similar to those for a freeborn Roman.

Although the ceremony seems to have been private, it was a time of rejoicing and congratulation among the relatives and friends, who, together with the household slaves, presented the child with little metal toys or ornaments in the form of flowers, miniature axes and swords, various tools, and especially figures shaped like a half-moon (lunula), etc. These were called crepundia, and were often left with an exposed child as mentioned above.

Birth certificates for Roman citizens, which included the date of birth were introduced during the reign of Augustus. Registration was not however required until the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Once a child reached its first birthday it could have legal privileges and the parents could apply for it to have full Roman citizenship.  Three years was viewed as the threshold to the next stage, but we would have been surprised at what was expected from children in the lower social classes even before such a tender age. Epitaphs and reliefs on graves show tiny children at work in mines or laundries, and some children could already have been practising spinning techniques as toddlers. For these poor mites, childhood was almost non-existent.

Sleeping

I have been fortunate enough to see the only wooden cradle to have survived from the Roman period which was excavated at Herculaneum.  Instantly recognisable as such, it is on rockers and looks identical to modern cradles. It’s a poignant item, even more so, when you realise that a tiny skeleton was found in this cradle, along with scraps of textile, possibly from a woollen blanket. The baby had been sleeping on a mattress stuffed with leaves. Apart from this single instance we have no evidence at all of separate sleeping arrangements for young children, although they would obviously have existed to a certain extent. Maybe some of them slept in the bed with their mother, but it is more probable that they slept on a mattress on the floor beside a nurse or slave. Poorer families and slaves would just have to make whatever arrangements they could, which in Northern Britain might be a mattress stuffed with hay and fodder, or maybe wool or feathers for slightly wealthier individuals. They would cover themselves possibly with a blanket or cloak, or fur and fleeces if they could afford this.

Feeding

In antiquity, the only safe way to feed a newborn baby was breastfeeding. The vast majority of babies were breastfed, often for what we would regard as a very long period, either by the mother, or by a wet nurse. Several recent studies have analysed skeletal samples using stable isotope analysis. As an example, one of these studies of bone collagen from 37 rib samples from the Isola Sacra necropolis in Rome indicates that transitional feeding began by the end of the first year and weaning did not occur until the child was between two and two and a half years of age.

It was not always possible then, as it is not always possible now, for the mother to nurse her children, or, in the case of elite women, the mother may simply not have desired to, and then her place was taken by a slave (nutrix). Families who could afford it would employ a good wet nurse, ideally Greek, good tempered and below the age of 40. Her character was important because the Romans believed that this was passed through breast milk.

In ancient Rome wet nursing was a commercial activity. Mother's milk was sold like cow's milk and many markets had lactaria, where wet nurses gathered to offer their services. (Breast milk was also considered to be a powerful substance that could treat various ailments as well as poisoning.  Recipes for eye remedies often recommended that ingredients be diluted in human milk.)

One of two feeding bottles from Corbridge. Corbridge Roman Town, English Heritage 

If human milk was not an option, mothers would have to resort to animal milk. Finding animal milk (usually goat’s milk) in a big city such as Rome was not always easy, and the milk could prove indigestible or even dangerous. Ancient baby bottles have been discovered, often in young children’s graves, such as the one found at Corbridge, but they were probably designed for feeding toddlers rather than very small babies. They are in the shape of a small pot with a handle set at right angles to a small spout which may have had a cloth or some kind of leather teat added to it to regulate flow when pouring the milk. It would have been very difficult to keep them germ free.  Weaning was a dangerous time for the child due to the risk of infection from water, foodstuffs and vessels used for feeding the child.

 

Clothing 

Infants up to the age of 40 to 60 days were swaddled, but slightly differently from today – each limb, the torso and the head, were wrapped separately and then the whole was wrapped again for good measure. At the end of this period the swaddling clothes were removed. An older baby would wear simple clothes.

This biographical sarcophagus shows us the kind of clothes a baby of maybe three to four months might wear. A child named M. Cornelius Statius is shown being nursed by his mother while the father watches.

In general, small children’s clothes were unisex, the way you told whether it was a boy or a girl was the length of hair and, in the case of freeborn citizens, the bulla or lunula.

We can infer from evidence at Vindolanda that Flavius Cerialis and Sulpicia Lepidina had one or more children with them, partly from the children’s shoes found in the praetorium, which were suitable for children aged between two and ten. Barbara Birley explains that the high-quality baby boot discovered there is a mini representation of a larger adult shoe with an intricate fishnet upper, and it is so small that it is doubtful that the owner would have been doing much walking in it. A child’s sock made from two separate pieces of woollen twill and an insole for a child’s shoe neatly cut from an old piece of twill have also been found. (If the child was too young to walk, it would have been carried - instead of a pram or pushchair, elite families might use a litter (lectica; a terracotta figure survives which shows a child being carried in such a litter by two men.)

One of the major questions, for me anyway, is what did ancient Romans do for nappies, given that babies produce poo, pee, and vomit constantly? Not a lot is known about this. Soranus said babies should be swaddled in soft cloth and changed frequently, but for poorer families it would be impossible for them to afford sufficient cloth or even to launder the same bits of cloth regularly enough to keep the child dry and comfortable.  Soranus’s advice was an ideal and in many cases the child would not be changed frequently enough.  Babies would suffer from nappy rash, eczema and infections due to inadequate hygiene.  No doubt carers would also use whatever was available, such as sphagnum moss (we have evidence of this being used as toilet wipes at Vindolanda), and if the climate was warm enough, leave the child, or at least its nether regions, naked to save on laundry.

As soon as an infant could sit, it was encouraged to pee and poo outside or in a potty. Richer families would have a dedicated slave nursemaid looking after the child who would be on the lookout for signals from the child that they were about to have a bowel movement and react accordingly. This technique is known as elimination communication, and it is practised in many areas of Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe today. I can’t imagine poorer women had enough time to be that responsive to their child’s bowel movement, they would be too busy trying to survive, so probably an older female sibling, relative or friend would be delegated to take care of the infant as happened and still happens in larger families in many parts of the world.

Relationships

Seneca the Younger said that whereas fathers are inclined to be strict with their offspring, mothers were more indulgent, they want to hold their children in their laps and keep them in the cool shade, they want them never to be made unhappy, never to weep, and never to be in distress.

We don’t know very much about the relationship between mothers and children, but motherhood was more of a shared activity, and mothers would have a broader network of support from female relatives and friends. Upper class families would have slaves to assist with childcare, and routine physical care was delegated to lower-class servants or slaves.  Under the eye of the mother, a slave washed and dressed the child, told it stories, sang it lullabies, and rocked it to sleep on her arm or in a cradle.  A mural in the Forum at Pompeii shows a toddler asking to be picked up by its mother or carer, and the red jasper intaglio found at Vindolanda which I mentioned in the introduction depicts a similar scene.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Reference material

Juvenal -Satire 6

Soranus of Ephesus -Gynaecology

Shelton J-A - As the Romans Did (source book) Oxford UP 1998

Angela A - Amore e sesso nell’antica Roma, Rome 2012

Beard M -Pompeii, London 2008

             -SPQR, London 2013

Meet the Romans episode 3, BBC 2012

Birley A - Garrison Life at Vindolanda, Stroud 2002

Life in Roman Britain, London 1976

Birley B & Greene E - Vindolanda Jewellery Report, 2006

Birley R - Vindolanda

Bowman AK - Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, London 1994

Carroll M - Infant Death and Burial in Roman Italy                     

Collins R - Living on the Edge of Empire, Barnsley 2020

Dasen V - Childbirth and Infancy in Greek and Roman Antiquity                                     

Hughes B - Pompeii Top 10 treasures, Channel 5 2019

Riddle JM- Contraception and Abortion from the ancient world to the renaissance, Harvard UP 1992

Websites etc

Wikipedia

alimentarium.org

Francesca Fulminante - Webinar Infancy and Childhood in Pre-Roman and Roman Italy 

Isotopic and Dental Evidence for Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices in an Imperial Roman Skeletal Sample

Elite Child’s Grave Discovered in Central France

Vox Populi

Thanks to Marta Alberti and Barbara Birley for information/clarification and Katy Barke for general comments.