The 'pushy parent' syndrome in ancient Rome

The 'pushy parent' syndrome in ancient Rome

Mary Beard / Cambridge University

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What were the Romans really like? Different from us in many ways, but there is much that is familiar in Roman family life and in particular parenting.

In 94 AD young Quintus Sulpicius Maximus died.

A Roman lad who lived just 11 years, five months and 12 days, he had recently taken part in a grown-up poetry competition, a sort of Rome's Got Talent. He had composed and performed a long poem in Greek.

And, though he hadn't actually won, everyone agreed that he had done amazingly well for his age. The sad thing was that only a few months later he dropped down dead.

We know this because his tombstone still survives, put up by his grieving mum and dad. There's a little statue of him in the middle, dressed up in his toga, and his poem is carved all over the stone - so everyone would know how brilliant it was.

How had he died? As his parents explain, he had collapsed from too much hard work.


A statue of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus stands on a pedestal overlooking the Piazza Fiume, a busy intersection in central Rome.

He holds a scroll, as befits a young poet, and even though he is just a child, he wears a toga, the formal dress of a Roman citizen.

The original statue was erected by his proud but heartbroken parents and is held in the Capitoline Museums. The version on the piazza is a reproduction, and a second copy (pictured) can be seen in the Museum of Roman Civilisation.

1 Sulpicius was Roman but wrote poems in Greek. This is not surprising - quite a lot of Roman culture is effectively bilingual. In this case, however, there is reason to think his father was of Greek origin. The epitaph names him as "Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, son of Quintus, of the Claudian tribe" (all citizens were assigned to one of 35 tribes). This is how freeborn Romans are referred to - full name, father, tribe. We also learn that he died at 11 years, five months and 12 days. How they knew, heaven only knows - there were no birth certificates! 

2 Sulpicius is supposed to have produced his verses by improvisation on the spot - like a rapper. But the fact that they are so long (well over a page of text in modern translation) and that the parents have the text to inscribe on the tombstone makes one suspect that he had prepared it in advance and learned it up! In the epitaph they explain that they put the text on the tomb so no-one would assume their love for their son had led them to over-estimate his poetic skills. A close reading of the epitaph also reveals that he did not actually win the competition - he just came away "with honour". 

3 Sacred to the Spirits of the Dead. To Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, son of Quintus, of the Claudian tribe, home city Rome. He lived 11 years, 5 months, 12 days. This boy enrolled among 52 Greek poets at the 3rd 5-yearly celebration of the competition and, by his talent, he turned into admiration the sympathy aroused by his tender years; and went away with honour. The extempore verses he delivered are inscribed here so that his parents may not seem to have been swayed by affection. Quintus Sulpicius Eugramus and Licinia Ianuaria, his wretched parents, have put up this monument for their most dutiful son, and for themselves and their descendants. 

4 Sulpicius's parents added some Greek verses of their own. Lines three and four say why he died: "Sickness and tiredness tore me away because I devoted myself to the muses morning noon and night." In other words, he worked himself to death. By "muses" he means poetry. In the epitaph the father was named Quintus Sulpicius Eugramus - the final name clearly recognisable to a Roman as Greek. The lack of any reference to his father suggests he was born a slave - but his son was a freeborn citizen. It's a tiny vignette of social mobility, and may be why the parents were so pushy - or at least, so keen for their child to succeed. 

So was little Sulpicius a prodigy, snatched by death from a waiting public? Or was he the victim of some very pushy parents - like all those modern kids drilled by their dad in maths, so they can grab the headlines by getting an A-level when they are six.

Who knows? But my bet is that this is a nasty case of the "pushy parent syndrome". In fact, this Roman family reminds us of one universal lesson of parenting - it's a good idea to give the kids a break from time to time.

Yet perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on Sulpicius' mum and dad. Even more than we do today, ordinary Romans invested in their children.

The grieving couple who put up this memorial to their child were ex-slaves. Freed by their owner, they now had to fend for themselves. A celebrity poet in the family would certainly have done wonders for their finances.

And at a less glamorous level, in a world without pensions or social security, they really needed some children to look after them in old age. Not too many of them though, or else - almost as expensive 2,000 years ago as they are now - they'd eat them out of house and home.

This was a calculation that most Romans found hard to get right. There was no such thing in the ancient world as reliable family planning.

This was no sweet creature dressed in pink, but a veritable Roman tomboy with the face more of a boy than a girl”

Roman doctors recommended having sex in the middle of the woman's menstrual cycle if you wanted to avoid pregnancy (as we now know, precisely the time when you are most likely to get pregnant). Not to mention the range of almost completely useless contraceptive creams and potions they peddled.

The fact is there must have been vast numbers of unwanted babies. Many of them would have been literally thrown away - left out on a rubbish dump to be "rescued" maybe by a passer-by and turned into a slave.

Calculating your family size was made even more complicated by the terrifying rates of child mortality before modern medicine. In ancient Rome roughly half the kids born would have been dead by the time they were 10.

In a way Sulpicius hadn't done too badly. We still have thousands and thousands of touching memorials to babies and toddlers wiped out by disease, or terrible accident.

There must have been loads of families who thought they had it right with five surviving babies, only to have just one left a few years later. Others might have the opposite problem, by the lottery of good health, they'd end up with eight hungry mouths to feed.

The bottom line was that you had to put the kids to work for the family's survival.

If you had a bit of spare cash (as education in Rome wasn't free), you might decide to maximise their chances by sending them to school. The boys, that is - a girl's lot in life was to have babies and you didn't need to go to school for that.

If the family didn't have spare cash, it was labour of a harder sort. That wasn't just in the family shop or workshop (where many kids work even today) - some skeletons of children as young as five or six have been excavated near Rome. They show all the signs of tough physical work, probably in the laundry industry.

I doubt that many Romans would have called their childhood "the happiest days of their lives". It could be dark and literally deathly.

But all the same - and this for me is the happiest lesson - the affection between ordinary Roman parents and their kids, not to mention the character of those kids, shines through the gloom, even on their tombstones (which is the only trace most of them have left).

Maybe young Sulpicius' had a naughty side? (We can only guess.) But my own soft spot is for a little Roman girl, called Geminia Agathe Mater, who died when she was just five years, seven months and 22 days old.

This was no sweet creature dressed in pink, but a veritable Roman tomboy. She had the face more of a boy than a girl, the epitaph explains, with red hair, cropped short on top and growing long down the back - a jolly little soul, everyone's favourite, who was spoiled something rotten.

Don't cry for her, says the tombstone. She had fun. And we can still picture her 2,000 years later.