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Ancient and modern

What the Romans thought about death in childhood

If a small child died, it must be endured; if a baby was in the cradle, ‘one must not even express regret’

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

Charlie Gard is incurably brain-damaged, blind, deaf, cannot cry, and cannot move or breathe without help. At the request of his parents, he has been kept alive in hope of a minimal improvement.

Ancients did not feel about babies as we do. About one in three died within a month, and about half by the age of five. Putting disabled babies out to die was probably common. There are about 55,000 inscriptions on tombstones referring to ages at death, yet only a handful relate to those under six months. Few ancient authors describe babies behaving like babies; indeed, Latin had no specific word for ‘baby’. Cicero remarked that nature granted life on the same terms as one accepted a loan, and nature would call that loan in whenever it felt like it. If a small child died, it must be endured unemotionally; if a child was still in the cradle, ‘one must not even express regret’, however cruel nature had been, Cicero added. Personal grief is, of course, evident in our sources, but one could always have another one.


The satirical poet Juvenal, in full moralistic mode, put his finger on the point: ‘Providing the populace and the state with a citizen will be appreciated, on condition that he is a citizen with the right qualities — good at farming, and someone who can do the business in peace and war.’ All of which, he went on, would be a matter of the moral and practical training he received from the cradle. This sentiment emphasised the functional view that Romans publicly took of children. ‘Look to the finished product’ was the Romans’ attitude: the sooner the child grew up, the better. Epitaphs of youngsters and teenagers regularly praised them for behaving like adults in the making.

Our children and grandchildren are more precious to us than anything else on earth. No one would want to be in the situation of Charlie Gard’s parents. But ultimately parents in this situation must ask themselves in whose interests their child is being kept alive, and for whose sake. Is it really the child’s? And if so, to what end for the child?

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