07 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: The Life of a Noble Roman Child

By: Stephanie Dray

In ancient Rome, the children of the poor would have awakened at daybreak by a harried mother, but nurses and slaves were the caretakers of wealthy children. Either way, once the sun was glowing in the sky, Roman children would have stumbled out of a sleeping couch and into their clothing. Noble children of both genders wore sandals and white tunics, but the tunics of the boys were bordered in crimson. It's in some dispute whether or not both boys and girls wore birth lockets known as bullas, but it's certain that boys did.

What kind of breakfast a child would have depended on how strict his or her father was. Some Romans shunned breakfast altogether during the Republic, condemning a morning meal as an effeminate practice that would weaken the moral and physical strength of their children. By their reckoning, the only thing anyone good Roman needed to greet the day was a cup of vinegar mixed with warm water. (Also known as posca.)

Other parents took a more pragmatic view and allowed their children to eat a simple breakfast of figs, porridge, or a crust of bread. Still other wealthy children were treated to every manner of indulgence at breakfast and may have feasted upon pastries, spears of asparagus, eggs, thick slices of eel or poppy-seed covered doormice. (Yes, a doormouse is exactly what you think it is.) But they would have saved the heavier, more exotic foods, like roasted ostrich and spiced sausages, for later in the day.

After breakfast, noble children would be sent off with their tutors--who were almos
t always highly educated Greeks. The children read scrolls made of papyrus or copied onto vellum and they would have practiced their letters on wax tablets, using a pointy stylus to draw the figures into the wax. If they didn't have private tutors they'd do this at school--also known as a ludus. (Poor children couldn't afford the fees to go to school, so they learned from their parents or not at all.)

After their schoolwork was done, ancient Roman noble children played much like children today. They jumped rope, played with clay dolls, and tossed balls made of sheep skin leather. Roman boys were encouraged to be warlike, so play-acted fights with wooden swords were common.
In the afternoon, Roman children may have joined their families in the public baths. Girls may have frolicked in hot and cold tubs before returning home to spin wool with their mothers--during the late Republic and early empire it was considered important even for the wealthiest and most powerful women to be seen as capable of working a loom.

While their sisters were spinning and weaving, however, it seemed that the boys lingered at the baths and exercised--the modern equivalent of a Physical Education Class. After, they would be cleaned in olive oil and scraped with a strigil, soaked clean, and sent home for the biggest meal of the day.

Through much of the Roman empire, children were to be seen not heard, so it's unlikely that they would have joined their parents for lavish banquets; Romans were constantly either having dinner guests or attending dinners given by others. Consequently, it's likely that children would have stayed home and taken their meal with the servants and slaves.

Afterwards, they may have tried to keep their eyes open, waiting for a pat on the head from their father, who would have dominion over them until he died. Or perhaps they made tribute to the family gods--often kept in a cupboard--effectively saying their prayers before bed.

As you can see, the daily life of a child in ancient Rome isn't altogether that different from the lives of children today!

Stephanie Dray's debut historical fiction novel, LILY OF THE NILE , was just release by Berkley Books. The sequel is expected to release at the end of 2011. Both novels are set in the Augustan Age and feature Cleopatra's daughter.