Reflections - Roman Boys

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INTRODUCTION - In the Roman world childhood was simply a period of waiting to grow up, and that what we know today as adolescence was unknown in the ancient world, however, the clear distinction between childhood and adulthood was felt in all aspects of Roman society: domestic, civic, socio-political, legal, personal, and ritual.
In addition, adults placed much emphasis on the progress of children.
For many Romans, children belonged with women, slaves, and animals, and as animals stand in relation to humans, so children stand in relation to adults.
Aristotle, for example, likened the physical appearance of boys to girls and women, and also considered young boys physically weak, morally incompetent, and mentally incapable.
Aristotle also believed that boys in general knew little, and were gullible and easily persuaded.
(this, of course, is a partial explanation for the high status Roman male's attraction to slave-boys).
Antinous, the most well known, and arguably the most beautiful of all Roman boys, paradoxically was not Roman, but Bithynian (Greek).  He was the beloved companion and 'concubinus' (see below) of the Roman emperor Hadrian. He was deified after his death, being worshipped in both the Greek East and Latin West, sometimes as a god ('theos'), but also sometimes merely as a hero ('heros')
Contemporary Marble Bust of
a Roman Boy
DEVELOPMENT AND MATURATION - One significant fact is that boys matured considerably more slowly in Roman times than at the present, in advanced industrial societies, (which accounts for the fact that many Roman boys would look young for their age).
This is generally explained by relatively poor nutrition, poor medical care, and low levels of appropriate exercise that were available to Roman boys - even of the most privileged classes.

RIGHTS OF MALE CHILDREN - Social norms, however, are well articulated and unambiguous in Roman society.
For example, a male infant must be accepted into his family through a specific set of ritualistic steps.
In Rome, because of the extent of the power ('patriae potestas') of the male head of the household (paterfamilias), children had few if any rights throughout the Roman Republic and Empire.
'Boy with a Thorn in his Foot'
Roman Bronze
the explicit nudity suggests
that this is a statue of a slave
Most research focuses on the family (which in Rome includes not only the natal family, but also the conjugal, extended, and foster family, and slaves) and genealogies and relationships within the family, and scholars have focused on the rich literary evidence supplemented by ample funerary inscriptional evidence.
The numerous deaths caused by continuous warfare undertaken by expansionist Rome, and high infant mortality, and short life expectancies placed a high value on reproduction, and Roman lawmakers promulgated class-distinctive laws to compensate for this, indeed, the primary purpose of a Roman marriage was to produce offspring - and not to provide sexual satisfaction.
'Pietas', or piety, formed the foundation of the relations between generations: parents were expected to bear, rear, and educate children, who in return were to honour and obey their parents, and maintain them in old age.
As in all cultures, the ideal could differ dramatically from the reality.

Acceptance of a Son by the Paterfamilias
BIRTH - To announce the gender of a live birth, the family decorated the doorway with wool to designate a girl, and with a wreath of olive for a boy - and boys were very much preferred.
After delivery, an infant was placed at its father's feet.
If he held it up or placed it on his knee, it was fully accepted into the family.
If it was not accepted by the father, it was exposed or abandoned.
The father could reject a child based on gender, size of the family, physical deformity or frailty, economic considerations, legitimacy, or because they were the offspring of slaves.
(In 'The Story of Gracchus, Gnaeus Gracchus rejects the baby Demetrios because he is illegitimate, and the offspring of a slave - although he does not abandon him)
Disposal was arranged through exposure, a process that involved abandoning an infant to its death to the elements.
This practice, rather than simply killing the infant, may have developed because it freed the household from blood-guilt, or because parents truly believed that they were placing their exposed infants in the care of the gods.

ADOPTION - was a common occurrence in Rome, (as in the case when Gracchus adopts Marcus in the Story of Gracchus) and entailed the transferring of a son from one paterfamilias to another.
This might happen between close relations, when one family lacked a legitimate male heir.
(The most famous example of Roman adoption is that of Gaius Octavius (often referred to as 'Octavian' and later called 'Augustus'), who was adopted by his great uncle, Julius Caesar, as Caesar had no legitimate male heir, (only Caesarion - whom Octavian later had murdered).
Upon adoption, the son lost the rights to his previous family.
Legally girls could not be adopted - which indicates the importance that Romans attached to boys.

EDUCATION - At an early age, guardian tutors were hired for male children, be they upper class, poor but free-born, freed, or slaves (In the Story of Gracchus, Gracchus provided tutors for Marcus, and Marcus provides tutors for Demetrius Aurarius and Adonios.)
A male child-minder ('paedagogus') was expected to be of serious disposition, trustworthy, reliable, Greek, and learned, and would have a formative influence on the child as well as accompany him outside the house.
These guardians provided education, nurturing, and moral protection of the children, and guardians and their charges could develop strong ties that continued past the child's maturity.
Upper-class boys would be encouraged to prepare for a successful life in politics and government.
At the age of twelve boys' formal academic education (music, astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences, and rhetoric) usually took place outside the home.
Physical punishment by teachers of students who misbehaved or failed to learn their lessons was commonplace.

Marcus Coming of Age
END OF CHILDHOOD - In Rome, boys at the age of fifteen or older underwent a ceremony to mark puberty at the Liberalia, held on March 17th.
Boys, with their fathers, made sacrifices, and then engaged in a family party.
At this time they gave up their bulla, and changed from child's clothing ('toga praetexta') to adult dress ('toga virilis') - (this is described in Chapter XXIV, where Marcus is given his 'toga virilis').

Marcus' Bulla - from The Story of Gracchus

Roman bullae were enigmatic objects of leather for the poor, and for the well-off made of gold. A bulla was worn around the neck as a locket to protect against evil spirits and forces. The bulla would contain protective amulets (usually phallic symbols). One of the main reasons that free-born Roman boys wore a bulla was so that they would not be sexually molested by adult males.

Once a Roman boy was accepted as an adult male, he was expected to express this by performing 'penetrative' sex.
Teenage Roman Patrician Boy
Masturbation was considered appropriate only for young boys or male slaves, and Roman men satisfied their sexual needs by 'penetrative' sex in the male dominated, phallocentric Roman society.
For poorer boys their first 'penetrative' experience would usually be achieved by visiting a local brothel, in the care of their father or male relative, or trusted male friend of the family.
The sex of the individual to be 'penetrated' (who was almost always a slave prostitute) was immaterial, although among the lower orders it would usually be a young female.
For patrician boys the individual to be 'penetrated' would be a slave belonging to the boy's family.
In most cases this would be a young male slave.
This was mainly to avoid the problems of a possible pregnancy, which would involve the possibility of an illegitimate child with a blood relationship to the boy's patrician family.
Very wealthy patrician fathers (or guardians) would often purchase a particularly attractive young male slave to serve the function of a 'concubinus' (sometimes translated as 'bed-boy'), who would be permanently available to satisfy a boy's sexual needs, thus avoiding any unwanted pregnancies.
Patrician boys, once they began to 'mature', never met with girls of their own class, and so romantic relationships were never able to find physical expression, and sex with prostitutes and female house-slaves was firmly discouraged.
Patrician Boy Penetrating his Concubinus
As a result, patrician boys would usualy develop a strong bond with their (male) 'concubinus', and this often lasted even after marriage, (which was almost always 'arranged'), which usually occurred when the boy - (by then a man) was in his late twenties.
This, of course, explains why so many Roman patrician males were sexually attracted, throughout life,  to boys.
Having passed into 'manhood', young males were then free, to some extent, of their fathers and guardians, and able to either further their education, be inducted into their family business, or if they were of the patrician class they could take the very first steps towards a political career.
It should be pointed out here that Roman girls - (as compared to Roman boys) - were often married by the age of twelve years - although usually the marriage was not consummated until some years later.
Twenty five to thirty was a common age for an upper class Roman male to marry (by that time he would have established a career and reputation).

Archetypal Roman
Archetypal Roman
ROMAN SLAVE-BOYS  - So far, all the discussion has been about freeborn Roman boys - however, an archetypal phrase that easily springs to mind is 'Roman Slave-boy'.
In reality, perhaps surprisingly, there were very few Roman slave-boys - and by 'Roman' we generally mean either those boys originating from Rome itself, or at least in what was known (in the time of our story) as 'Italia' (Italy).
Most slaves in the Empire were exactly 'that' - slaves from the 'Empire' - from Greece, Hispania, Gaul, Africa, 'the East' - but not from Italia, or from Rome.
There were some (but not many) 'Roman' slave-boys, but they were mainly boys who, when the 'paterfamilias' had become hopelessly insolvent and indebted had sold his sons into slavery - (the 'paterfamilias' was legally entitled to do this).
The advantage, of course that Roman slave-boys would have over boys from various parts of the Empire would be that such boys would probably have some education, and could speak, and often read and write Latin.
Roman Boy Sold as a Slave
Marcus as a Slave
In the 'Story of Gracchus' we have the example of a freeborn Roman boy, (Marcus), who is captured by pirates and sold as a slave.
This is a time honoured way (often appearing in ancient fictional 'proto novels') for a freeborn Roman boy to become a slave - and such a fate, in reality, almost befell the young Julius Caesar.
For freeborn Roman boys, kidnapping by pirates or brigands, or what we would now describe as 'people traffickers' was the ultimate 'stranger danger', and it was for this reason the freeborn Roman boys were almost always accompanied by a 'paedagogus' (or some other male household slave) when out of the family home (domus).
It should be noted that, in the 'Story of Gracchus', almost all the slave-boys encountered, are of Greek, Hispanic or Celtic origin, and only Marcus is Italic.

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CONCLUSIONS - Boy's marginality in Roman society is highlighted by a lack of legal rights, infanticide, neglect, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, however, the complicated portrayal of boys in Latin literature, including drama, poetry, medical writings, biography, proto-novels, and histories, shows the sincere affection, and often the intense pride that many parents may have felt for their sons.
Many funeral monuments attest to the depth of fondness of parents for their deceased children.
Likewise the material evidence of toys, games, and pets shows that serious attention was paid to playfulness in the development of human personality and individual talent.

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