‘Most innocent, most happy, most dear’: child burials in Roman Britain

Malton &  Whitby 019

Any consideration of Roman burials must start with the fact that we only have access to a tiny fraction of the total number of bodies. It has been calculated that a town with a population of 4000 and a death rate of 25/1000 per year might generate 10,000 deaths over a century. The biggest cemeteries known within the Roman world have only 1200 graves, and the biggest in Britain half that or less. Even this small sample would not be randomly selected. The same considerations apply to Roman tombstones which are usually found separated from the original remains. Those commemorated tend to be adult rather than children, Roman rather than British, and wealthy rather than poor. Roman soldiers are thought to have joined burial clubs to pay for a decent funeral should this have become necessary.

The main burial rite itself altered during the Roman period, from cremation in the first century onwards to inhumation in the late second century. This change of rite doesn’t appear to have been associated with any marked innovation in religious belief. Cremation seems to have persisted longer in military burials. Burial of a complete, unburned, body seems to have simply become customary although there are bizarre variations such as skeletons decapitated or buried face down. Inhumation cemeteries in which late, regularly spaced, graves are oriented E-W, and skeletons are unattended by grave goods, are likely to be Christian. But there were pagan burials until the end of the Roman period. In some of these the body was contained within a lead coffin which was itself then placed in a stone sarcophagus. Although such burials are rare one spectacular fourth century example, of a young woman, was found in London about 15 years ago, complete with wreaths, garlands and glass unguent bottles.

Society in Roman Britain must have been extremely heterogenous. Auxiliary units of the Roman army were recruited from all over the empire. Even if, in the later Roman period, local recruitment was permitted the units may have retained the traditions of their original members. In a famous study Dr Hilary Cool investigated a military cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria. It soon became apparent that the whole community was being buried there, everyone from babies to old people, women as well as men. The period involved was relatively short, probably AD 220-300. The dead were not buried intact and went to cremation pyres dressed, rather than in shrouds. Women and children regularly wore glass bead necklaces. Very young children were treated differently from their elders. Only adult men, and possibly only those of high status, were ever accompanied by glass drinking cups. The small finds recovered regularly included items Dr Cool identified as coming from the Danubian provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Ilyria (now parts of Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia). There is even a certain amount of epigraphic evidence. It seems highly probable that we have here a unit raised on the Danube, and transferred to Britain, which still buried its members following traditional rites.

Disposal of the dead is always a matter for the living, who will naturally have their own conceptions of what is fitting and proper. The Roman authorities will also have had a view; the burial of an adult within a town was illegal for example and cemeteries were often placed alongside a town’s approach roads. Childhood burials are quite common in Roman settlements. Twenty-nine were found within Malton fort in North Yorkshire alone. The example illustrated was once displayed in Malton Museum, sadly now closed. The associated coin was presumably included to pay Charon, the ferryman, a fee for transport across the river Styx. Did the jet bear have a protective function? There was once a belief among archaeologists that Roman parents commonly practised infanticide, particularly of female children. Personally I found the evidence quite unconvincing and I am glad that this idea has been definitively refuted in a recent publication by Millett & Gowland (Britannia, 2015, 171-189).

I would like to describe some bereaved Roman parents who evidently mourned the deaths of their offspring in stone memorials which they set up. I spent a morning in the University Library collecting child burial stone inscriptions from The Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RG Collingwood & RP Wright, 1965, OUP). I excluded individuals aged over 14 and I was particularly interested in the age given, any mention of the child’s personality, or images of children. I extracted a total of 33 inscriptions. I am sure that this is an underestimate. Aside from further discoveries in the last half century several additional recorded examples contain wording appropriate to a child (eg ‘most sweet daughter’) but lacked definite proof of age.

Some inscriptions are baldly descriptive, for example these examples from Chester, now in the Grosvenor Museum:

To the spirits of the departed (and) to his son Lucius Festinius Probus (who) lived 2 years and 29 days. His father Lucius Sempronius Probianus, had this set up.

To the spirits of the departed and of Restita who lived 7 years, and of Martia, who lived 3 years; their parents set this up.

The involvement of a mother, as in ‘parents’, seems unusual. Possibly it was the convention for fathers to commemorate children, although wives certainly set up inscriptions to their dead husbands. Frequently a little more information is provided, perhaps in customary language. This lovely example is from a stone coffin curated by the Yorkshire Museum, York:

To the spirits of the departed and of Simplicia Florentina, a most innocent soul [animae innocentissimae] who lived 10 months; her father, Felicius Simplex, made this; soldier of the 6th Legion Victrix.

Finally there are examples of disconsolate parents publicly displaying their grief in what one might imagine was a rather un-Roman manner. This example is also in York:

To the spirits of the departed: Corellia Optata, aged 13. You mysterious spirits who dwell in Pluto’s Acherusian realms, and whom the meagre ashes and the shade, empty resemblance of the body, seek, following the brief light of life; sire of an innocent daughter, I, a pitiable victim of unfair hope, bewail her final end. Quintus Corellius Fortis, her father, had this set up.

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The memorial that I find most memorable of all is in the Corbridge site museum. This museum is the most amazing treasure houses of Roman artefacts. The tombstone in question portrays a small child holding a ball. As you can see the sculptor was not highly gifted but nonetheless has created an image that I have always found very moving. The names of parent and child do not sound Roman and the poorly cut inscription reads:

To the spirits of the departed: Sudrenus (set this up) to Ertola, properly named Vellibia. (who) lived most happily [felicissime] 4 years and 60 days.

Doctors are always advised not to get involved emotionally with their patients, and perhaps archaeologists are not meant to be deeply touched by the artefacts they are examining. I cannot guess at how, under such circumstances, one is expected to avoid such a pitfall. Especially if you have had children of your own.

It is very difficult to draw any general conclusions about child death in Roman Britain. The probability is that infants, under six-months say, were treated differently from older children and adults. Burial of infants in a domestic setting, between houses for example, was acceptable although this would have been illegal for those who were older. The evidence such as it is suggests that in the Roman world, as in ours, children were generally loved, mourned and missed. Can we say anything sensible about the grieving parents? I cannot improve on what the poet AE Housman, a considerable classicist, wrote:

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

As for their lost children: sit tibi terra levis – may the earth lie lightly upon you.

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