Megan Zhao Harvard College ‘19

Although infants and children are highly valued members of modern day society, this attitude towards infants and children has not always been as so. With a focus on Classical Rome, this paper entails a comprehensive review of how children and infants were valued in the Roman Antiquity. From a human evolutionary biologist perspective, this paper reviews existing literature regarding this topic and looks to further explore the behaviors and values from a biological anthropology focus. In re-examining Classical Roman value of infants and children through this lens, a different light will be shed on how certain practices may have occurred and why this is important. This results in a better understanding of what Classical Roman traditions and practices implicated in terms of health and longevity. Furthermore, this can be compared to how modern societal values and norms as to show what may have been beneficial, or more in cases, detrimental to health. An intersection between classical studies and human evolutionary biology, this paper evaluates the health of mostly infants and children and the implications of such evidence. This crucial time period that can dictate the direction a society is heading or is shaped around can offer a different glimpse at what Classical Roman society was like.




Although controversy surrounds the concept of when developing beings become human beings and thus valuable, there is no doubt that infants and children are highly valued in present-day society. However, this current norm is not a systemic belief that has been held all throughout human societies and is a topic I wish to further explore. Not just a question that is relevant in today’s society, the determination of when a human is valued—and consequently treated—as a human conveys a wealth of information about a society and its functioning. As “value” is a rather arbitrary term, there needs to be a clear delineation of what exactly it encompasses in the context of the present discussion. For the purposes of this paper, I define “value” as receiving treatment equivalent to that of any other human being in society. Focusing on the Classical Roman world, I wish to examine the value of children in society and evaluate when they would become valuable to their families. In this paper, I will focus on the scientific analysis of skeletal remains from burial sites in addition to various written records. As both types of sources have their own biases and gaps in information, I aim to relate the two to create a more comprehensive overview of the value of children in ancient Roman society.

Through the lens of human evolutionary biology, addressing child treatment and health can shed a different light on Roman Classical practices and culture; evolutionary consequences can be incorporated into a social scale in constructing a life history, within the context of biological as well as sociological terms. The value and health of children not only portray the social structure of Roman families but can also serve as indicators of nutrition and chronic diseases that may have existed during Roman Antiquity. From comparison of bioarchaeological evidence and historical written accounts, I argue that children seem to progress from a bare step above nature during infancy to gradually acquiring increasing value throughout childhood as likelihood of surviving into adulthood drastically increases; this discernment of becoming human in Roman culture reflects an evolutionary tactic of enduring a harsh environment with high infant mortality rates.



To develop an understanding of childhood value in Roman Antiquity, I will first examine the broader scope of societal health in relation to infant health. Primarily, large-scale problems regarding public health and treatment of illnesses will be related to health and high mortality rates in Roman infants and children. When taking infant underrepresentation in tombstones into consideration, a plausible high-mortality life table suggests that half of the deaths that occurred in Classical Rome were of children aged zero to five years old (Scheidel, 2009).

Understandably, lack of present-day technology and medical knowledge made diagnosis and treatment of physical maladies difficult. Plagued by poor health sanitation and overcrowding, Rome was especially an epicenter for infectious disease (Jackson, 2000). Clearly, the city of Rome did not die while the Roman Empire thrived — with such a vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks, how did the city maintain its population and even grow in size? At the heart of the empire, the city attracted many people, thus leading to sustained growth through influxes of migrants. However, migrants moving into Rome also sustained a cycle of public health problems. Health implications associated with influxes of migrants include their introducing new diseases to the existing population as well as their suffering from low immunity to pre-existing diseases that plagued the city (Stillman, Gibson & McKenzie, 2010; Adkins & Adkins, 1998). In examination of skeletal remains, evidence of cribrotic lesions and enamel hypoplastic defects that occur during childhood point to various problems that could be acting alone or together (Facchini & Brasili, 2004; Humphrey & King, 2000); these defects are hypothesized to be a result of both pathogen exposure and poor weaning diet. Poor overall nutrition, which will be further elaborated upon in the discussion of wet nurses, also contributed to evidence of poor health.

Not only did Roman society suffer from public health problems, but it also fundamentally lacked crucial medical knowledge that could combat the high mortality rates of infants. Compounding on problems associated with nutritional deficiencies and the threat of infectious disease, Roman inability to effectively deal with disease also contributed to the high infant mortality rate. Due to limited medical knowledge, correct treatments for various illnesses and ailments could not be delivered properly. For example, one recorded remedy for treating physically weak children was to wash them in the urine of cabbage-eaters. Although some remedies may have helped or had a neutral effect, remedies such as the aforementioned likely worsened health. Other preconceptions led to widespread practices such as swaddling immediately after birth (Dasen, 2011); doctors who wrote about their experiences in Classical Roman period were concerned with the malleability of the babies’ body, even comparing the body to that of wax. Thus, there was uncertainty in how to treat infants who did not appear as fully developed humans. As will be later discussed in further depth, infants were viewed to be in a transitional state from nature to human. Interestingly, this is further demonstrated in the predominance of remedies of treating children with remedies that were derived from animal treatments, though there has not been information as to what these remedies were. While there may have been an intent to help, there was an overall inability in combating childhood disease and health that contributed to high mortality rates, ultimately leading, as we will see, to a strategy of valuing children less.


Cultural Practices and Views: Bioarchaeological and Historical Evidence


In establishing a basis of health problems and practices that affected Roman society as at a large-scale breadth, I will now shift focus to the practices within the ancient Roman family unit. The following sections will detail the specifics of cultural practice and views surrounding infants and children at a family-level perspective. I will first discuss the distinction between a physical and social birth and discuss the significance of this double birth. This will lead to discussion in burial norms of infants as well as reactions to the loss of an infant. Finally, I will explain the implications of using wet nurses as caregivers and how this relates to infant health and value.


Physical and Social Births


Most Roman births were assisted with a midwife who would remain by the mother’s side (Dasen, 2011). As the mother’s energy was expended by birth, the midwife’s role immediately following birth became quite critical for the infant’s immediate future. Following birth, the midwife would first make a gesture to indicate the gender of the infant but would then proceed to evaluate the physical health of the child. The midwife’s evaluation was based off of her own experience and guidelines, and she determined whether the infant would be given the chance to even receive proper nourishment and a chance at survival. Drawing from his knowledge and experiences as a physician in both Alexandria and Rome, Soranus details medical practices of Roman Antiquity circa 98-138 AD (Dunn, 1995). Soranus specifies that some indications of good physical health would be if the child were crying vigorously, was “perfect in all its parts, members, and senses: that [the] ducts, name of the ears, nose, pharynx, urethra, anus all [were] free from obstruction.” Essentially, the midwife’s judgment decided if an infant was “worth” raising from post-birth features. From an evolutionary standpoint, the midwife would prevent the parents from investing time and energy into the child if she saw certain deformities or unusual features that could foreshadow difficulties in raising the child. In context of a society where infant mortality rates were quite high (Kertzer & Saller, 1993), this custom most likely arose to prevent unnecessary expenditure of energy from the very start. However, this indicates that at physical birth, the infant would not yet have obtained any significant value to the family and society; rather, they would have been seen as a part of nature, existing in thephysical world but not yet integrated into the human world. If the midwife deemed that an infant was unfit to raise, the infant would be cast out of the house — a process that could entail a ritual or being thrown into the sea (Dasen, 2011). Furthermore, the practice of abandoning an infant or circulating the infant for informal adoption was seen primarily in the poor rather than the rich (Kertzer & Saller, 1993). However, intentional discarding of infants most likely occurred in cases with relatively more severe physical abnormalities; birth defects such as conjoined twins or hermaphroditic features would more likely result in infanticide.

In following a physical birth, the social birth was what initiated an infant’s status as a human being within the family and Roman society. The social birth that followed a physical birth was termed Dies Lustricus (Kertzer & Saller, 1993). Translating into “Day of Purification”, this naming ceremony occurred eight days after birth for females and nine days after birth for males. A philosopher and biographer, Greek writer Plutarch had extensive knowledge of both Greek and Roman society; specifically, his interest in Rome led him to become quite engaged within Roman society, thus making his observations valuable (Stadter, 2013). Noting that the umbilical cord detached from the infant’s body on the seventh day after birth, Plutarch comments that it was only then that the child would stop resembling a “plant more than an animal.” This further corroborates the view that many Romans viewed newborns as part of nature—in Plutarch’s words, it seems as though infants progress through a transition from the status of plants and nature to that of animals before assuming that of a full “human.” As names are associated with individual identity, Dies Lustricus provides support that in the period between physical birth and Dies Lustricus, the infant was not valued as an individual human being with an identity despite having the physical bodily functions of a human. Leading up to Dies Lustricus, there were certain rituals that would test the health of a child and parallel the difficulties of the birth itself. The series of “ritual dangers” that an infant faced was supposed to resemble the physical peril that the infant faced in its first week of life and was mostly symbolic (Dasen, 2011). Although not much is known about the “ritual dangers” aforementioned, the survival of an infant during its first week of life through these rituals served as an assessment to evaluate the infant’s potential to survive. If an infant did not survive up to Dies Lustricus, then there would be no burial rites or ceremonies, corresponding to the lack of Roman privileges before social birth and value. Rituals leading up to Dies Lustricus often times involved the father, who was the head of the family. Markedly, the father had an important role in accepting the infant in the family. The father had the right to abandon an infant with impunity for various reasons, such as rejecting daughters in favor of sons, reasons pertaining to illegitimacy, or the existence of physical abnormalities. However, like the instances of disposing of infants deemed unfit for raising, this rejection is not commonly noted in written records. The aforementioned rituals oftentimes included placing the infant on the ground then culminating with the father’s lifting the infant towards the skies in his acceptance of the infant. Further corroboration that infants did not start having much value until Dies Lustricus includes the distinct gifts the infants would receive, indicateing their incorporation into the family. During Dies Lustricus, girls would receive a lunula and boys would receive a bulla; these were amulets given to ward off perceived evil forces in the world. Interestingly, given the believed evils of the world, it is interesting that newborn infants did not receive these protections when undergoing ritual dangers in its first week of life. These privileges and rights were not given until the acceptance into the family and the start of an individual identity.


Burial of Children and Reactions Surrounding Infant Death


In a specific study of more than 16,000 tombs from the city of Rome and nearby regions in Italy, only 1.3% of the tombs were of those of children under one year old. Clearly, there is a disparity between the total projected percentage of deaths and the percentage of these children that was represented in graves. There was an expected 21% of deaths in a population from children aged one to four but only a value of 13% of deaths was reflected through grave data. Overall, children under the age of five were the most underrepresented age group in the graves. This corresponds to the pattern and historical records that younger children and infants oftendid not receive the normal burial rites that other Romans had. Considering that burial of the dead was a sign of respect for the passing of a valued member, it is interesting that children under five often did not receive this ritual. Holding a funeral for the passing of an individual signifies the loss of someone who had value in society—if many infants and children did not receive these rituals, it could indicate that infants and children had not really obtained this value in their short lives (Harlow and Laurence, 2006). Thus, grave evidence corresponds to a different pattern of discarding the dead amongst infants and children. Traditional burials in community graves was not a common practice for infant funerals. Burial evidence reveals that it was more common to bury children in or under the house and that babies who had not cut teeth were not cremated (Gowland, 2001).

The common practice of burying infants and children in a nontraditional manner compared to other children and adults is a result of convenience—this shows a lack of attachment and placement of less social value in infants and children (Rawson, 2003). In context of burying infants and children in and under a house, one could potentially interpret this as an attempt to cling onto the infant and mourn its passing by keeping it in a close physical proximity rather than a community grave. However, it is unlikely that this was the case in Roman society. One line of evidence is the kind of burial goods and epithets—or more specifically, the lack thereof—that infants and children received in comparison to older children or adults. The absence of burial goods with infants and children buried within and nearby households indicates that this burial was more out of convenience rather than out of grief. Spending time to carve names, dates of birth and death, who the individual was, and relevant information into stone takes not only energy but also resources. If an infant or child were highly valued, then the parents would have invested money and time to give a proper ritual. However, in the house burials, the children were rarely ever seen to even have burial goods with them; this would most likely indicate that the parents of the deceased infant or child did not view the need to allocate such resources to an individual who was not as highly valued. Furthermore, medical authors such as Hippocrates maintained a view that infants were entirely abnormal creatures. To the extent of calling infants “imperfect, weak, and ugly beings” (Dasen, 2011), there were written records that with red faces, little hair, and poor eyesight, the Roman view of a child differs much from Western society’s view of infants. As medical practices in Classical Roman society experienced influences from that of Classical Greece, it is interesting to see that the philosopher Aristotle also maintained a view that children were inferior categories of beings; he associated them with the elderly regarding physically weak features, poor memory, and less hair, the insane and the drunk regarding irritable temperament, and disorderly behavior, and even women and dwarves regarding irrationality, changeability, and overall weakness. This attitude of children being’s more a nature than human is aforementioned by Plutarch.

Social pressures and norms surrounding infant deaths reflect the interpretation of the separate burials that infants and children often received. Interestingly, Plutarch advised parents not to mourn the deaths of an infant; displays of grief at an infant’s funeral—if it had one—were considered inappropriate (Dasen, 2011). Under the assumption that more grief would be shown for the passing of someone with a lot of value, it would correspond that less grief would be exhibited for the death of an individual with less value—in this case, infants and young children. In reference to the death of his own two-year old daughter, Plutarch accentuates restraint in mourning because the child had “no part in earth or earthly things.” (Carroll, 2011). Although this view may not have been the case for every family, it seems that this response was probably widespread in response to high mortality rates. Furthermore, if a mother spent a long time grieving the death of her infant, this would delay when she would be willing to try to reproduce again. Thus the reduction in attachment to young infants aligns with the aforementioned high mortality rates. Moreover, this corresponds to the previously stated idea that infants were not highly valued in society. Even though parents felt some degree of loss, the magnitude of the loss was probably minimal compared to the loss of an older child or an adult. This could indicate that the loss of a young infant or child was not worth the input of energy and time spent in grief.


Consequences of Wet Nurse Usage


In Roman Antiquity, the use of wet nurses was highly prevalent, especially amongst the elite who had the money to pay for such an additional helper in the family (Rawson, 2003). The role of a wet nurse is of interest because it fits the picture of parents’s not showing grief in the deaths of their young infants or children. If wet nurses were devoting time to taking care of children in a family, the parents of the infants and child would be spending less time with their children. As a result, the emotional bonds that would form between the parents and the child would not be as strong compared to if the parents were the ones allocating much of their time and resources to raising the infant or child themselves. More specifically, there has been evidence that breastfeeding helps mothers and infants bond (Else-Quest, Hyde, & Clark, 2003). In a longitudinal study of 570 mother-infant pairs, mothers who breastfed their children tended to show a higher-quality relationship with their children. However, in using a wet nurse, mothers were not as physically involved in caring for their own infants. Thus, the emotional impact felt in the passing of an infant or child is cushioned by the use of a wet nurse. Although the conscious decision to employ a wet nurse is not for this reason, the effects and consequences of using a wet nurse in raising a child fits into the social expectations that follow the loss of an infant or child.

In the framework of wet nurse usage by Roman families, there are also health implications for the infant that may follow; unknowingly, this could possibly negatively affect the infant’s health. Relative to the family that is employing the wet nurse, the wet nurse most likely had lower access to high-quality, nutritious foods given that she held a lower social status within the community relative to families that were able to employ her. In turn, if the wet nurse were feeding the infant—in addition to feeding her own children—then the quantity and quality of milk that the infants receive would have been lower (Brickley & Ives, 2008). From analysis of skeletal remains, deficiencies of iron and vitamins B, C, and D existed in ancient Roman society (Gowland & Redfern, 2010). Specifically, linear enamel hypoplasia has been correlated with vitamin D deficiency (Goodman et al., 1991, 1992), presence of cribra orbitalia with vitamin B deficiency (Walker et al, 2009), porotic hyperostosis with iron deficiency (Stuart-Macadam, 1987), and accounts of scurvy with vitamin C deficiency (Gowland & Redfern, 2010). In turn, this may have reduced the overall fitness of young infants and children who are still nursing and could have possibly contributed to a higher mortality rate in infants. Furthermore, there is evidence from stable isotopes that sick infants were often malnourished, although it is uncertain whether the infants were sick because they were malnourished or if they became malnourished because they were sick. A weaning diet that comprised cereals exacerbated on pre-existing problems of nutrition deficiency; the cereals were foods that could be processed easily but may not have met the nutritional demands of a growing child (Katzenberg et al, 1996). Shown to inhibit iron absorption, phytates from cereals could have possibly contributed to iron deficiency problems (Baynes & Bothwell, 1990).




Despite a physical birth, distinction between a physical birth and a social birth indicates that a physical existence did not necessarily align with the same degree of social value within families. From an evolutionary perspective, Dies Lustricus is an adaptive strategy to cope with high infant mortality rates. Individuals would have increased their fitness by only investing in infants with the greatest potential for survival. However, the interval between birth and Dies Lustricus brings up an interesting matter of infanticide in Roman society.

As aforementioned, infants who had physical abnormalities and were deemed unfit to raise could be displaced from the home. This form of infanticide, though rare, is certainly interesting in the from an evolutionary stance. Within other primates, infanticide is often employed as a strategy by newly dominant males who wish to eliminate offspring from the previous dominant male (Hrdy, 1977). Without her infant, the female enters estrous more quickly, thus allowing the new male to mate with her and pass on his genes. This contrasts with the context of infanticide mentioned in Roman Antiquity — infanticide, when it did occur, functioned as a mechanism to avoid expending unnecessary resources to a child with a low chances of survival. Not seen as a method employed by nonbiological adults, this occurrence was a conscious decision of the biological, blood-related parents. However, the result of this infanticide may have been similar to that we have seen in primates: a shorter interbirth interval. This allows the mother to be able to reproduce more quickly, increasing the chances of having a healthy child that has a greater chance of surviving into adulthood. Ultimately, this correlates to the framework of attempting to produce more healthy children in a society where there are high infant mortality rates.

Furthermore, it is worth discussing that extreme views of children by Plutarch, Galen, and Aristotle may not have been completely representative of ancient Roman parents, who must have placed some degree of value and care into their children in order to raise families. Though these medical authors and philosophers held views of infants having non-human qualities that made them transitional beings between nature and human (Powell, Southwell-Wright, & Gowland, 2017), these views may not have been the sole case for parents. Evolutionary psychologists have studied that a child’s “cuteness” may instigate a protective response in parents (Volk & Atkinson, 2008). Though parents may not have been as protective of their children compared to parents in modern Western society, the almost dismissive attitude of the aforementioned Roman writers probably did not align with all parents in Classical Rome. Furthermore, practices such as swaddling — though detrimental to the infant’s health — were done out of care and protectiveness rather than out of a dismissive attitude (Kertzer & Saller, 1993).

As guidance for future evaluation, the assessment of Roman Christianization on Roman views of infant and children value may be valuable as well as a comparison of views of the infant and childhood experience between other early societies with high infant mortality rates.




Although births were rejoiced in Classical Roman society, the minimal value associated with newborn infants may have correlated strongly with the harsh realities of survival rates; infants’ and children’s value increased over time as they grew older and developed more human-like qualities and greater likelihood to survive into adulthood. Evolutionary implications of this pattern can possibly be linked to an unconscious decision to minimize wasted energy expenditure. In raising children who were unlikely to survive, parents would have been diverting valuable resources and energy that could have been better spent on maintaining their own health, raising their existing children, or producing more offspring. Thus, this would have allowed parents to allocate more energy to children who had higher chances of successfully surviving in society, resulting in enhanced ability to pass down genes to future generations. Furthermore, this differs overall as an approach to treating life compared to modern-day humans; in terms of life history strategy, it seems that Classical Romans followed a strategy of producing more children but spending less effort and energy to care for each one. This is reflective of the lack of proper resources and knowledge to better chances of infant survival in addition to the high rates of infectious diseases or nutritional deficits that was prevalent within society. Ultimately, this leads to Roman society;s placing less value in newborns and infants but eventually coming to value children as they become older and have a higher likelihood of surviving into adulthood.


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