Historic Housewife- Roman Childhood

My name is Clodia, I’m the daughter of Justus and Livia.

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My childhood is probably very different to the one that you had. In my family, like any other Roman families, the father is the head of the family and if he passes away the role will pass to the eldest male, in our case that goes to my annoying brother Justus.  As head of the family our father can decide almost everything about our lives, from education to what I wear! My mother told me that many years ago a father could even kill their children without breaching the law, glad to say that practice stopped especially as only around a third of babies make it to their first birthday and about half die before they reach 10.

Because so many children die as infants, children aren’t given a name when they were born. Instead, we wait a week before naming a baby during a celebration called the dies lustricus (“day of purification”). Friends and family visit to offer the baby gifts and well-wishes. Boys also received a bulla at this celebration, it’s a pendant to ward off evil spirits, as well as signify the boy’s status as a freeborn citizen of Rome. Typically, a bulla was made out of gold but this would only be available to the wealthiest families. The lower classes have pendants made from affordable materials such as leather, bronze, or tin. My brother’s is made of bronze but he’s hoping he can get an upgrade once I’m married to a wealthier family. 

Gold Bulla
Etruscan or Roman Bulla which shows a Gorgon head in relief.
Image from Joan Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

Childhood for us is split into three stages which cover both social and legal aspects:

Infantia- This was the first stage, it ran from birth until the age of seven, both for girls and boys. During this time children spend most of their time in the home being cared for by parents, grandparents, guardians, and older siblings. Legally, all children who were infantes or infantiae proximus (slightly over the age of 7) were considered doli incapax—incapable of guilty intentions in the eyes of the law.

Impuberes- Until the ages of 12 and 14 both girls and boys are viewed as impuberes, or pubertati proximus ( for those close to reaching the threshold).This is a time when children are able to explore the world more than we could until now and for those lucky enough to be higher in the social order they even begin an education away from home.

When we reach 12 things start to be a little different. Girls older than 12 are suitable for marriage and at age 15, boys passed into manhood, granting them legal privileges and responsibilities, although Roman law still considered them to be adolescents until the age of 25.

As children, we have a lot of time to play games, well until we reach an age when the boys can go to school. Some popular games for the boys include flying kites and rolling hoops. War games are another popular game for the boys, my brother especially. Warriors have a special importance to our society and most boys pretend to be them. Justus is aiming to become a great military general.

Girls, on the other hand, are given dolls which could easily be made at home to play with. Don’t get me wrong I love my dolls but all I want to do is play the same games as the boys! When my marriage is finalised my mother has said that I have to go to the temple and leave my doll there as an offering and as a symbol of the end of my childhood.

File:Articulated Roman ivory doll, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (10171693465).jpg
Articulated Roman ivory doll, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome.
Image from Wiki Commons

Around the age of 7, boys are sent to school, or at least the children of families that can afford it. Their teacher is called a litterator, they teach reading, writing and basic arithmetic as well as some Greek. At the age of 12 or 13 boys of wealthier families would move onto advanced education where they learn more about arts and poetry and public speaking. For the children of poorer families, children go to work as soon as they are able to, I’ve seen children as young as 5 working with their father’s. While the boys are sent off for education, girls stay at home to help their mothers in the household.

Childhood in Rome is preparation for our adult lives, while it doesn’t last as long as we could hope, those who come from wealthier families have a chance to enjoy it while it lasts.

Author- Emily Casson


Meet the Romans with Mary Beard. Behind Closed Doors (1 May 2012 BBC)

Legend and Chronicles


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