Friday, February 3, 2012

I am currently reading Christian Laes' book Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within both out of interest and as I prepare a paper for a conference on children in late antiquity. This book, even for someone who has done a significant amount of research on childhood in antiquity is eye-opening and much of it has to do with the inscriptional evidence which Laes provides, which gives us a direct window on the past. From one ancient Latin epitaph, the world of girls.women opens up to us, and it was, in so many ways, harsh and forbidding, even in contexts where people might otherwise have been treated well. From the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) III, 3572 (also found in the Carmina Latina Epigraphica 558 Aquincum), Laes supplies this translation of an epitaph to Veturia:
Here I lie, a matron. My name and provenance? Veturia, wife to
   Fortunatus, daughter of Veturius.
I was at the time of my misfortune just 27 years old and
   had been married for 16 years.
I slept with only one man, knew just a single husband. After
   six deliveries, I died. Just one child survived. (Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within, 53).
This is just a short excerpt, one epitaph, but we learn so much about the fickleness and harshness of life in the ancient context. Veturia was married at 11, since she had been married 16 years when she died. This itself might have contributed to her death, as she might have been pregnant at too early an age for her body. Even if her age at marriage did not directly effect her death during her final delivery, it might have impacted the deaths of previous children.

On the other hand, many women, regardless of their age at marriage, lost more children in infancy than would survive beyond their first year. In Veturia's case, only one out of six children survived.

There is also the factor of Veturia's age at marriage with respect to her own life. While 11 was young for marriage even in antiquity, it was not uncommon for girls to be married at 11, or 12, or 13. They would move from childhood, dolls and toys, their own family, to the marriage bed of a man often twice their age, whom they might not have known well if at all. Marriage was the choice of parents, primarily fathers and mothers, but also other relatives might have a say, and its goal was to bind families or property together.

We often decry the age we in which we live, but we sometimes forget genuine progress has been made. In most places in the world, marriage with an 11 year old would not be acceptable, thankfully. In those places where it still is, we need to be certain to bring pressure on the proper authorities to bring it to a halt. Marriage at 11 meant that Veturia's life as a child crashed to a halt, as did whatever education she might have received, but it also could have contributed directly to her death.

We sometimes forget, too, the advances in medicine we take for granted, again in most parts of the world, and how risky childbirth was in the ancient world, both for mother and child. Only 1 out of 6 of Veturia's children survived infancy and at age 27 she succumbed to death in childbirth.

For a girl/woman in the ancient Roman world, Veturia lived a normal life.We can be thankful that through advances in medical knowledge and care and the fact that girls today have a greater choice in how they live their lives, including in terms of marriage and education, and laws against child marriage, this life would no longer be considered normal today.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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