Youth, Violence, and Shitty Parents in the Later Roman Education System
Childhood and adolescence were understood as distinct phases of development by Romans and an issue of concern. Plenty was written by them on best practice, but this essay will try, within its limited scope, to examine how that practice was experienced by children and adolescents in late antiquity. By engaging as much as possible with their own writing, it intends to investigate how they felt about their own upbringing and what practical responses they had to it. I argue that adolescent men in late antiquity felt that their fathers failed to provide adequate emotional support for their development, instead focused on the interlinked concerns of status and education. This feeling was expressed through various means, such as violent or anti-social youth culture, or through the explicit condemnation of their fathers. Violence, though, rarely seems to have been directed at fathers, instead seeming more indiscriminate or being directed at pedagogues who could have been viewed as proxies for their own fathers. Sons’ difficulties in being supported by their fathers were exacerbated by their lack of autonomy, not being able to act independently until their father’s death or the age of twenty-five.
One of the main sources used here are letters from adolescents to their fathers. This essay uses the framework of Hester Barron and Claire Langhammer’s work on children’s writings, which argues that older children write with a dual identity, as both a child and soon to be adult.1 This can be applied well to elite Roman children, who were expected to grow up fast and learn to present themselves well publicly through rhetoric as well as receive an adult toga at around fifteen or sixteen, yet also lacked autonomy up until potentially twenty-five.2 Whilst the writing from adolescents examined here use rhetorical flourishes, they are still ultimately written by those who society deems not to be adults yet. Adolescents struggle in this limbo between adult and child identities was physical too since those who had not finished puberty lacked the deep adult voice that was seen as the ideal.3 After examining letters to look at adolescents’ views of their parents, this essay will look at Augustine’s reflection on his own childhood to examine how frustrations with adults led to the development of a youth culture. Finally, it will use one of Libanius’ orations as an outsider’s perspective to interrogate the violence of youth cultures.
The first source examined here is a letter, dating from the second or third century CE, from a son (Thonis) to his father (Arion) begging for him to write back and to visit him whilst he is away at school.4 Since Thonis has moved away from home for education, we can assume he is older than fifteen but he must be under twenty-five as he is relying on his father financially.5 Thonis expresses respect for his father, twice calling him ‘my lord father’ and says he prostrates himself ‘before all’ on ‘your behalf’. In households of antiquity, fathers held absolute power over all their dependants, that is their wives, children, and slaves, and this hierarchy was a key element of the family, as in wider society.6 This explains the public nature of his respect then; as well as mentioning prostration, Thonis is also remaining respectful in tone which is important as letters were often publicly, not privately, read. As a student of rhetoric, Thonis is probably consciously using this as a tool to leverage his father, but this does not mean his understanding of this hierarchy is not internalised and believed. What he is trying to get from his father is a letter of response and for him to visit. There is a practical reason for this, as his father was needed to pay for his education, but there does seem to be an emotional level to this request as well. Thonis wishes to know about his father’s health, which again could in part be a rhetorical devise, but the most interesting part is his post-script, ‘Remember our pigeons!’. This suggests father and son used to have a shared interaction through these pigeons, indicated by their shared ownership. Perhaps Thonis and his father were once close and this has changed since he has left for education. Guidance for parents in late antiquity demanded they find a middle ground between kindness and punishment of their children to ensure their healthy development.7 Perhaps Arion’s distance is him overcompensating for some perceived mistake in the past. What this letter tells us then is that Thonis understands he is subservient to his father but that in turn his father is responsible for him financially and emotionally, and that he is frustrated at his father for failing to perform these duties.
Generalisations can be difficult with this subject, household cultures were never uniform across the Roman world, and this localisation was compounded by people moving around for education.8 Harlow emphasises that it is impossible to conceptualise a ‘normal’ Roman family.9 Between Greece and Rome alone there were differences in how tough fathers were on their sons, without knowing the places of origin of the adolescents that wrote these letters we cannot put them into a specific context.10 However, Christian Laes argues that it was when children left home for higher forms of education that they developed a distinct youth culture characterised by rebellion and violence.11 It may then be more important that these young men were no longer in their home environment than what that home environment was like. Indeed, Virginia Burrus argues that the distinct character of a city could help to shape a man.12 It is not within the scope of this study to examine the character of individual places of education in late antiquity, but it is important to bear in mind this idea to understand the localisation of culture at different stages of development for Roman men.
Whilst Thonis was abandoned by his father while away from home, another letter from the same collection shows a child whose father left him whilst he was at home. In this letter, the son (Theon) writes to his father (also Theon) to express his anger that he was not taken to Alexandria with him and threatens to cut off all contact and no longer eat and drink if he is not brought along too.13 We have no indication of Theon’s age, save that we can assume he is still living in his father’s home and not being educated elsewhere, so likely under fifteen. The letter also seems unclear if the father has left yet or not. Whilst his father did send him ‘big presents’, Theon sees this as a trick to distract him. It is unclear what Theon is taking issue with. Like Thonis, he may feel as though his father is abandoning his emotional needs by leaving, either in the sense of abandonment or that he is being denied seeing Alexandria. There may be a more practical reason, that Theon feels he is being denied expanding his social connections. Boys were expected to enter the public sphere young, so Theon was aware of his need to be known by the outside world.14 Either way, Theon clearly feels a sense of abandonment and whilst his father did send gifts, it is clear that he is not meeting his son’s emotional needs. The father Theon may be like Arion, trying to correct his own kindness to his son, or he may have always been like this. What is important is that the son Theon feels this is a failure of his father to support him.
In the reflective writings of adults in late antiquity, we see this feeling, that fathers failed to support their sons, coming out as well. In his Confessions, Augustine expressed frustration with his father who he felt did not support him in his emotional and moral development but was singularly focused on his education.15 This is a heavily religious text, and the things he takes issue within his up-bringing are coloured by his Christian outlook, so it cannot be taken as a view shared by all of this time, at least not Pagans. It is also reflective, and thus we are not clear if these issues were ones he felt at the time itself, nevertheless it does inform us of his upbringing and how he at least felt it shaped him. Augustine says that when he was sixteen and filled with ‘the hot imagination of puberty’ he lacked anyone to ‘regulate’ his ‘disorder’ for his family were only interested that he learnt how to ‘become a persuasive orator’.16 His father seems to have been far more focused on social mobility through education than controlling his behaviours. There was a belief in Roman society that the poor behaviour of the youth was only natural and would be grown out of, thus it was not necessary to punish this behaviour which may account for this attitude.17 As an adult and devout Christian, Augustine takes issue with this attitude, yet it appears as an adolescent he engaged with such rebellious behaviour. Augustine speaks of stealing things he did not need and finding ‘pleasure in the act of stealing’ and remarks that he did this with friends for ‘alone I would not have done it’.18 This is similar to his account of the ‘wreckers’ who ‘attacked the modest of strangers’ through ‘uncalled-for jeers’, and whilst he distances himself from their actions, he admits he lived with and was friends with them.19 In both situations he seems to have been a part of this rebellious youth behaviour because he was with others, perhaps he was looking for an emotional connection that was absent between fathers and their sons. The forming of these rebellious social bonds were in part possible due to children moving away from their families for their education.
The weakness of father-son relationships has multiple possible causes. There tended to be a large age gap between fathers and sons, forty years on average it has been estimated which may have left a generational gap.20Infant death was also common, so parents would often remain distant until a certain age to avoid attachment, which would not have been good for child development, and leave early upbringing to servants and slaves.21 Finally, there is the matter of violence. Although it was seen as dangerous, by creating servility, fathers certainly beat their children and it was entirely legal to do so, though this would generally be with a stick, not as whip such as with a slave.22 These may all have contributed to the emotional disinterest young men seem to complain of.
Violence was not a one-way street, although children attacking their fathers does not seem common, there may have been other ways this was expressed. Whilst the violence of youth cultures previously mentioned was targeted randomly, there were cases of violence that could be seen as specific attacks on fathers. In Oration 58, Libanius complains of his students’ poor behaviour in ‘carpeting’, throwing someone up and down on a carpet, a pedagogue.23 Libanius sees this as a new practice, remarking ‘good heavens! It did not exist before’, however, it was already a well-known form of ‘hooliganism’ in Rome by that point.24 There are several points to pick out of this source. Carpeting by its nature requires several people, meaning this form of violence can only be committed by a group of people, illustrating the communal nature of youth culture. It existed across the empire, or at least Rome and Antioch, which was possible due to the movement of young people for education. However, it was unknown to an educator like Libanius, showing the distinctness of youth culture from adults, although it could be that Libanius was out of touch. Finally, the target of the violence was a pedagogue. The violence was incited by another teacher, but the students were willing to carry out the attack. As they were slaves, pedagogues were below children socially, and there was no fear of ill effects from beating them unlike with children.25 Violence against them was normalised, yet they were also representatives of fathers. One letter from the aforementioned collection is a father writing to his son in which he charges both his pedagogue to help find a teacher and calls him ‘your esteemed pedagogue’.26 This is tenuous, but it could be that violence against pedagogues was seen as a way to vicariously inflict violence on a parent without breaking the expected social order. Regardless, the presence of carpeting at educational locations shows us that youth cultures were practised there and involved both violence and sort of bonding.
This essay has argued that male children in late antiquity felt that their fathers failed to provide sufficient emotional support for them. When the distance they felt was exacerbated by them travelling away for education, they would seek out and develop emotional bonds with their peers that began to manifest as an anti-social youth culture, not so dissimilar to today. Their criminality and violence were at times more about bonding with peers, but at other times, such as during attacks on pedagogues, it could be seen as directing violence at their fathers without damaging the social order. This essay has only surveyed a limited number of sources, and though writings from children and adolescents themselves are limited, a board study of such writings may help to better illuminate the ideas pulled out here. This essay also does not suggest these individual experiences can be generalised without serious consideration, but they do still reflect the individual experiences of young people from late antiquity and cannot be dismissed even if they were not the prevailing attitudes.