By Shelia Cook - Volunteer Guide

Death and mourning

Ancient Rome was a society with high infant mortality. Estimates range from about one quarter to one third of infants dying in their first year of life. Babies were at very high risk and there was no formal mourning period for an infant less than 1 year old. The mourning period was set at one month for children between 1 and 6 years old.

The skeletons of infants or newborns are often discovered within town precincts, buried in an urn under the floor or just outside the settlement building. This was forbidden for older individuals, but newborns were not yet considered to be fully human. Roman religion is a reflection of practical issues: the first 40 days are the time in which the infant became a person, as they were the hardest days to survive. Babies less than 40 days old were usually buried instead of cremated.  Such burials have been found along Hadrian’s Wall, including Housesteads. We do not have any of these at Vindolanda (although we do have the infamous ‘murder victim’ hidden under the floor in the infantry barrack, but this was a much older child). There are a number of cremations deposited by the side of ditches and some disarticulated infant bones from Antonine (AD  160-200), Severan (AD 200-213) and later (AD 213 to 409) ditches.

Tombstone for Vellibia Ertola from Corbridge. 'To the spirits of the departed: Sudrenus (set this up) to Ertola, properly called Vellibia, (who) lived most happily four years and sixty days.' RIB 1181. Corbridge Roman Town, English Heritage  

Only just over one percent of all child burials that have been discovered have tombstones. The most local tombstones to us were found at Carlisle, dedicated to three-year-old Vacia, and Corbridge, to four-year-old Vellibia Ertola.

Given the high mortality rate of children, and the fact that life was not viewed in the same way as we view it today (consider the absolute power of life and death a pater familias had over his household and the deaths in arenas) you could be tempted to think that the Romans would not have cared so much about infant death, or invested so much in their children.

I’m sure that in many cases the death of a child would have been met with indifference or even relief by those sections of society where survival was a daily struggle, but human nature doesn’t change that much. The fact that there were rules surrounding mourning periods indicate that this was perceived to be an issue, and epitaphs composed for infant tombs show us the intense grief some parents suffered. One poignant inscription describes a baby whose life consisted of just ‘nine sighs’. Another epitaph laments:

‘My baby Acerva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven. Her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever.’

As a single example, a recent find from central France of a 2,000-year-old grave of a child gives us an insight. The wealth of goods buried with the child suggests it came from an elite family.  This child who died when it was about one year old was buried alongside what was probably a pet puppy. The dog was placed outside the coffin and it was wearing a collar with a bell and bronze decorations. The child was buried with an array of objects, including terracotta vases, half a pig and two headless chickens, as well as glass pots believed to have contained oils and medicines. Archaeologists say that the vessels probably contained the child’s part of the food and drink from the funeral banquet. When we look at evidence such as this, it is hard to imagine that a child’s death was any less of a tragedy for many Romans than it would be for us today, or that parents would grieve any less.

I’d like to finish this blog with a couple of personal observations. I’ve learnt a huge amount from many different sources while I was researching, but what has struck me throughout is that although this was a very different time in a very different society, these were still actual human beings, women and their families, who lived through these experiences. By exploring how they behaved, I began to feel their hopes and worries, their joy and grief, and their love and despair, and I gained the privilege of entering a tiny way into their lives.

 

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.