The Re-Creation of a Young Roman Girl

Roman girl, ca. A.D. 50
Riley Collection of Roman Portrait Sculpture
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Carrie Boyles
Senior Research Project
Cornell College
April 1998

Historical Profile


At seven years old this young, upper-class1 Roman girl, daughter of a prominent political figure, is posing for a portrait of her face. Her father is demanding her whole family have one done so that everyone can see their family displayed for years to come. As predicted by her father, Roman art historians are very interested in these portraits and the past they represent.  In 1998 this bust is a rare and exceptional find among art collectors. This portrait is now one of twenty-one sculptures found in the Riley Collection of Roman Portrait Sculpture at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

This portrait is rare, first because it is a portrait of a child, and second because it is portrait of a young girl. Children were often exposed in ancient Rome, especially young girls. The reasons for exposure are probably monetary. Poor families could not afford many children, and wealthy families did not want to have to divide their inheritance any more than necessary. Boys were most often kept because they would be the heir to the family and preserve the family wealth, while daughters would require a dowry to be given to her husband.2

When the portrait is finished, this young girl and her two older brothers, would be immortalized in stone. This portrait may have been chosen to be made at this time because the girl's father had reached a certain political status, or because this girl had reached an age where it was believed she had survived the hardest part of her life, her childhood, or a combination of both.3 It is unlikely this portrait is a funerary memorial due to the simple fact that it is a round sculpture rather than relief. Most grave markers were decorated with relief in the ancient times.


Infant mortality rates in Rome4 were exceptionally high. Parents did not become attached to their children right after birth, but rather waited until they knew the child would survive the younger years before becoming intimately involved in the child's life.  The historian Polybius, in fact, points out that there is no Latin word for baby. The child was not ignored by the parents, as they saw the child daily, but placed her under the more watchful care of a wet nurse slave until the child got older. The nurse cared for the child in slave quarters until the child reached schooling age and then returned the child to the parents' care.5 Wet nursing served two purposes in upper-class families. Not only did it prevent attachment to a child that may die, but it kept the parents available for social and political engagements. When the child was placed in the full care of  her parents, she would be able to basically care for herself.


Once children were under the more direct care of their parents, at age six or seven, they were valued a great deal. Cicero states, "If a child dies young, one should console himself easily. If he dies in the cradle, one doesn't even pay attention."6  Parents adapted to their children and treated them with great affection. Children were treated with the respect of young adults and expected to think rationally and intellectually.7  They were educated in school and at home to learn these qualities.

This young girl would begin attending school with her brothers soon. Her father had three options of schooling; he could send her away, place her in public schooling with boys and girls at her level, or he could have her taught at home by a tutor along with her two brothers. Because the girl is in the upper-class of Rome, she will probably be educated at home by a tutor.8

Roman school was extremely disciplined.9  If a child worked diligently, he or she was praised. However, if the child was lazy and performed badly, he or she was flogged or threatened with flogging. Upper-class children, both boys and girls, were taught in Latin and Greek, as both languages were important, in the subjects of art and literature.10 Boys would have had some games integrated into their education to sharpen their wits. Often they would have been taught the language of leadership in the forum, military, and law; as they needed to know to give orders and speak publicly. In contrast, girls would have learned how to manage a household and the language involved for this task, following their mother's footsteps. This would have included weaving, cleanliness, tidiness, obedience, and politeness. In addition, girls would have learned to give orders so they could have commanded their team of slaves.11


This girl was loved and cherished a great deal by her parents and brothers. Her father would have looked on her with great pride and valued her as a descendant of his blood.12  Her brothers would have protected her from any harm, and when she was married with children, they would have protected them just as strongly as they protected her.13  Her Avunculus, her maternal uncle, would have been a close, loving figure who taught her social and political roles. He would not have had any financial role, as the child belonged financially to the father and the male agnate kin. The Patruus, the paternal uncle, would have been more distant and very stern as an authority figure to the children.14

As a child, this young girl would have had a similar life to that of  her brothers. They would have been under the control of patria potestas, their father, and have had little say in life decisions. Their father, until his death, would have had complete control of his children, even when they are adults with greater political and social ranking than himself.15 In addition to their parents, who were seldom involved in their child rearing, the children would have had a tutor to look after them and guide them socially and morally.16  This tutor would have played a large role in teaching the children; as upper-class parents interacted little with their children until they became older.

A mother, although not as dominant an authority figure as a father, may have been the most influential figure in a daughter's life. Mothers would have taught their daughters the cultural ideals for a young girl and how to manage the household.17 The young girl would have been taught to be graceful, beautiful, fertile, chaste, and virginal. Women should also be obedient and hard working for their husbands. They should not seek power or be promiscuous.18 Daughters were trained to be wives and mothers foremost. Secondly, they learned about wealth and politics so that they may substitute for their husbands if they should ever need to.19  Above all, women were to serve as wives and to produce many children.


As the children grew, however, the gap would widen in their privileges. The most important rite of passage for her brothers is when they assume the toga virilis, the toga of a man, and will become more independent. In contrast, the female rite of passage is marriage, when she becomes more committed.20 When the boy assumes the toga virilis he will still be under patria potestas as long as his father lives, but when his father dies, the boy will be free to make his own decisions and manage his own affairs.21 The boy will be able to attend meals and special occasions every time. He will also be included in the drinking and discussion of the adults.22

The young girl, on the other hand, will not gain any privileges or independence until marriage, and even then there will be few privileges of her own. She will always be under the control of a man.23 When the young girl gets married she can either live with manus or without manus. If she is married with manus her husband will manage all her affairs, control her dowry, and manage all her financial and social needs. She would no longer be of any legal or financial responsibility to her father.

If she chooses to live without manus, she will live at her husband's home most of the time, but will be required to live at her father's for three days out of the year. Her father will control her dowry. He will also be responsible for seeing that she is well taken care of politically, socially, and economically.24  Either way, with manus or without manus, a man will be overseeing all of her transactions and appointments. If her father or husband should die at any time in her life, a tutor will manage her financial affairs until she is married again.25

When married, this young girl, now considered a women, will gain some privileges her brothers gained at toga virilis and she will begin to use the skills her mother taught her as a young child. Managing the house, as well as producing heirs for her husband, will be the girl's main job. Managing the house in the upper-class of Rome meant presiding over the slaves and seeing that all was done correctly. However, no where in ancient sources are upper-class women shown working physically to prepare a meal or clean a home, slaves did all the labor, wives were simply overseers. Although this role may seem unimportant to a modern women, it was regarded highly by a Roman woman.26  Yet, women, after all their preparation of the feast, had very little influence in the actual dinner. A woman had to be invited to a feast by her husband (or whoever was her guardian) and then play a back seat role.

Immediately after she was married, this girl would begin to have children and play the same role in their lives that her mother played in hers. In addition, she will continue to visit her mother regularly and respectfully, doing what her mother wishes until she passes on. One day her children will do the same for her.27


1 This girl is believed to be upper-class due to the elaborate hair braid she wears down the center of her head.  Generally only the elite of Rome had time and servants to do their hair in braids.  Back.
2 Boswell, 18-19. and Harris, 14.  Back.
3 During Augustus' reign, family lines and heirs became increasingly important in the Roman Empire.  Augustus passed a series of laws involving childbirth, marriage, and patria potestas.  Also forthcoming was the period of dynasty rule.  No longer was Rome a pure republic, but rather the emperor could nominate people to be elected and promise them positions in the counsel and the senate.  Heirs became increasingly important for family lineage.
 Also at this time period, children played an important political role for their fathers.  Men who had many off-spring had many privileges over those who had lesser amount of heirs, especially men running in political elections.  Priority in an election was given, not to the older candidate, but to the one with more children.  If they had the same number of children, the one who was married had first priority.  Then after children and marriage were considered, age was examined.  If both had the same number of children and both were married the older candidate would become senator.  For further information see Jane Zablocki.  "The image of a Roman family in Noctes Atticae by Aulus Gellius."  Back.
4 Infant mortality rate in ancient Rome was 319/1000.  See Andrew Riggsby.  "Roman life expectancy."  Back.
5 There are several arguments on the issue of child abandonment and the raising of children by wet nurses in ancient Rome.  Romans cared for their children and were very proud of them.  However children had little chance of surviving the harshness of infancy.  Parents guarded themselves against grieving by distancing themselves from their babies and gradually getting attached to them over time (Golden,  152-163.).  For more information on wet nursing see Rawson, 1986, chapter 8. See Valerie French, "Midwives and Maternity Care in the Roman World."  Back.
6 Golden,  156.  Back.
7 Saller, 1994,  71-74.  Back.
8 Upper-class children tended to be taught at home with private tutors.  If not, they attended public school and their tutor, as well as a slave, went along with them.  The slave carried their belongings; the tutor was responsible for helping the child develop socially and educationally (Hopkins, 1993,  27).  Back.
9 Discipline and control were very important to the Romans.  Children were expected to be obedient and work hard on their own.  There is no room for laziness in a Roman child (Hopkins, 1993, 27).  Back
10 Through some daily children's writings, Hopkins has pieced together the basic leanings of a Roman child between the ages of seven and eleven.  Children would have gone to school at dawn and learned, as well as literature and art, cleanliness, tidiness, quietness, and politeness, all important to the Roman society.  Roman education for the elite has been described as conservative, ritualistic, and unimportant in the real world.   However, this type of frivolous education was typical of the Roman elite.  The more elite a family was, the more idealized education became.  Higher education was a privilege often only the rich could afford (Hopkins, 1993, 28).  Back.
11 These parts of education would begin after the child has learned to read and write in both Greek and Latin.  Often, only the elite got to partake in this higher education.  Rural children had to immediately go to work on the farm after basic education was learned (Hopkins, 1993, 25-29).  Back.
12 Hallett also notes, on page 78, that in the Latin language the terms for sons and daughters are coordinate terms --filia and filias and gnata and gnatus -- for daughter and son.  This may reflect equal pride felt by fathers toward there children (Henry, 1989 and Hallett, 1984, 64).  Back.
13 Hallett notes in her chapter on "Sorores Familiae" the sister-brother bond was much stronger than the brother-brother bond.  This may be due to competition for inheritance (Hallett, 1984 and Henry, 1989).  Back.
14 Hallett, 1984 and Henry, 1989.  Back.
15 Lefkowitz and Fant on the twelve tables of RomeBack.
16 Tutors are discussed in the previous section on education.  Refer to Hopkins 1993.   Back
17 Dixon, 1987,  210.  Back.
18  Polybuis speaks of how a woman is never a free agent, so to speak.  A women always has a male companion to attend to her affairs.  It may be a tutor, husband, or father that looks after her financial and political business (Dixon, 147-160).  Back.
 19 For further discussion on women's roles as a Roman citizen refer to Gardner, 1993, chapter 4.  Back.
20 Gardner, 1986,  5.  Back.
21 Dixon, 1992, 123.  Back.
22 (Foss, 1995.)  Pedar Foss discusses the importance and significance of Roman meals.  To be included in a large feast was an important rite of passage into adulthood.   Back.
23 Dixon reminds that marriage was arranged by the pater familias, not the young girl and her husband.  Usually girls were married at 15, and boys at 25.  The biggest concern in Roman marriage was that the children born of that marriage would be legal roman citizens.  In order for that to occur, both parents had to be legal Roman citizens.  Marriage was a necessary function for survival of lineage, not something any Roman man wanted to be trapped in (Dixon, 1992, 60-65).  See Lefkowitz and Fant on guardianship and the Julian Marriage LawsBack.
24 Dixon, 1992,  72-75.  Back.
25 Women were seen to be too careless to manage their own affairs, even as adults.  However, women could appoint their own tutor, and may have chosen one strictly for social purposes and managed their own money.  See Lefkowitz and Fant on the laws of guardianshipBack.
26 Foss tells the story of Pomponia, the wife of Quintus Cicero, when she is a guest somewhere.  She was not invited to have the responsibility of organizing and supervising the feast at the estate.  Because she is treated as a guest, she refuses to attend the meal.   Back.
27 Foss, 1995.  Back.
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