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Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture$

Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199582570

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582570.001.0001

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Children and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge

Children and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge

(p.73) 3 Children and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge
Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture

Francesca Prescendi

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores two ways, mechanical and deliberate, of transmitting and memorizing religion. The first one is a technical knowledge: children learn the rites by imitating their parents. They also accomplish religious tasks during the domestic and public rites. In public rites, only boys and girls called patrimi matrimique, whose parents are still alive, are allowed to participate as cultual servants. The second method is a more conscious learning process. The children are taught deliberately when they enter a religious priesthood; they learn from older and experienced priests how to perform the rites. Furthermore, the preceptors teach the history and/or the constitution of religious colleges to young students of prominent families, who will one day be part of them. The analysis shows that Roman citizens thus not only learned the sequence of ritual acts during their childhood, but they also acquired a sense of their religion through them, without needing further theoretical explanations.

Keywords:   cult, memorization, orality, patrimi matrimique, priesthood, religion, rite, school, tradition

When Ovid describes the ritual of the Lemuria feast in the Fasti he presents the agent of the nocturnal rite as ‘he who remembers ancient rites, and fears the gods’ (ille memor veteris ritus timidusque deorum).1 A pater familias performs the rite alone while his family is asleep. He wants to protect them from the malevolent spirits of the dead which rise at night. This pater familias is described as one who respects the gods, but also as one who remembers the ancient rites: he is memor veteris ritus, he therefore has a memory of ritual practices. The two parts of the sentence are complementary because to a Roman, to respect the gods and to have a reverential fear of them precisely implies fulfilling the rites for the gods as they have been transmitted by tradition.

The concepts that I am referring here to are fundamental to Roman religion, an orthopractic religion,2 that is, a religion whose most important feature is performing the rites according to the (p.74) ancestors' tradition. Ovid's pater familias learned to perform the Lemuria rite from his father, who in turn learned it from his father and so on. Religious knowledge has been transmitted through generations, not by manuals or by sacred texts, but orally.

Memory is thus the instrument of knowledge transmission. In his treaty on The Education of Children, Plutarch3 maintains: ‘Above all, the memory (mnēmē) of children should be trained and exercised; for this is, as it were, a storehouse of learning (paideia).’ He goes on: ‘Nor should parents forget that those branches of instruction which involve memory make no small contribution, not merely to education, but also to the practical activities of life; for the memory of past activities serves as a pattern of good counsel (euboulia) for the future.’ Plutarch considers memory a crucial element in the creation of the future adult.

In his introduction to The Memory of Religions, Philippe Borgeaud proposes some theoretical concepts with regard to this memory. He defines religious tradition as ‘not only a store of practices, of know-how, and of beliefs, but also a flexible and adaptable instrument of transmission whose preservation is closely linked to maintaining an identity’.4 The author then proposes two ways of acquiring this tradition: mechanical memorization and deliberate memorization. He understands mechanical memorization as ‘practice and imitation, the mechanical repetition of gestures and words’.5 This memorization makes possible ‘the acquisition of a number of models for action, behaviour, thinking, and sensitivity, which define a social and cultural identity’. As for deliberate memorization, Borgeaud sees it as a type of memorization which constitutes a ‘specialization of the most natural process of knowledge acquisition and of its techniques’. In contrast to mechanical memorization, through which young people acquire knowledge without being aware of it, while gestures and words settle in their memory, deliberate memorization constitutes a more conscious learning process: knowledge is (p.75) transmitted at a defined moment.6 Borgeaud cites the example of initiation rites practised by certain non-European civilizations, during which young men or women are kept away from their communities in order to receive some particular knowledge from the adults. The example of the Brauronia and the ephēbia in Greece could also be cited—they are ritual moments of segregation reserved for girls and boys.7 Such occasions are not clearly documented for Romans: children do not seem to spend time away from society. Apparently mechanical memorization plays the most important role. However, deliberate learning of religious knowledge is not entirely absent either, as will be shown at the end of this chapter.

1. Mechanical Memorization

In cases where learning is not seen as ‘a specific and autonomous practice’, that is, where the transmission of knowledge does not rely on organized school structures nor on specialized transmission agents, the whole community performs the pedagogical activity. Know-how (the modus operandi) is transmitted by practice without making use of discourse. These observations were made by Pierre Bourdieu8 in his theoretical chapter on ‘the incorporation of structures’ and they readily adapt to Roman reality. Young Romans learn religious practices by observing adults while they perform rites. Religious actions are transmitted without necessarily being accompanied by an explanatory discourse. Bourdieu adds: ‘One does not imitate models, but the actions of others.’ Children are thus ‘particularly attentive, in all societies, to the gestures and postures which in their eyes express all that the adult does: a gait, a movement of the head, grimaces, a manner of sitting down, of handling instruments, each time associated with a tone of voice with a manner of discourse (p.76) and—how could it be otherwise?—with a whole conscious content.’9 The transmission system for technical knowledge characteristic of Roman society can again be identified here: the action is not considered a theoretical and ancestral model which must be repeated. Quite the contrary, what is important is the transmission of the procedure of movements which travel through time and generations.

Knowledge Transmitted within the Family from the Cradle onwards

In Greece, the religious education of a boy begins in his childhood: he listens to stories about gods and heroes which are told to him first by the women of the household10 and by his grandparents,11 then, from the age of 7 years, by a teacher: he thus acquires mythological knowledge. Learning practices of cult is linked to performing rites, of which the child can be the agent or the object: ‘participation in cult ceremonies periodically renews the citizens’ religious learning and fosters their memory'.12

The same is true for Rome. We know that grandmothers13 were in charge of transmitting traditional Roman narratives to children. From their birth, children were immersed in religious knowledge. A Christian author criticizes this knowledge as follows:14

Once the vain superstition beset the fathers' pagan hearts, it ran unchecked through a thousand generations one after another. The young heir bowed shuddering before anything which his hoary ancestors had designated as (p.77) worshipful in their eyes. Children in their infancy drank in the error with their first milk; while still at the crying stage, they had tasted of the sacrificial meal, and had seen mere stones coated with wax and the grimy gods of the house dripping with unguent. The little one had looked at a figure in the shape of Fortune, with her wealthy horn, standing in the house, a hallowed stone, and watched his mother pale-faced in prayer before it. Then, raised on his nurse's shoulder, he too pressed his lips to the flint and rubbed it with them, pouring out his childish petitions, asking for riches from a sightless stone, and convinced that all one's wishes must be sought from thence. Never did he raise eyes and heart and turn them towards the throne of wisdom, but clung with credulous faith to his witless tradition, worshipping gods of his own house with the blood of lambs. And then when he went abroad, and lost in wonder viewed the public festivals on national holy days with their games, and saw the lofty Capitol, the laurelled priests standing at the temples of their gods, and the Sacred Way resounding with the lowing of cattle before the shrine of Rome […].

The importance of the family for the transmission of religious knowledge, as for the greater part of other technical knowledge, is here ridiculed by the Christian Prudentius. Yet it is a given fact for ancient civilizations. By performing certain practices of cult the Roman matron also transmits technical knowledge to her children. Women were responsible for the education of children of both sexes when they were young, but they later specialized in the girls' education. The father begins with the children's education when they are a few years old and mainly takes care of the boys' schooling.15 Ancient narratives show that the father's task was considered to be particularly important. Cato the Elder16 took care of his son's education himself when he could have employed one of the best tutors of his time. He taught him literature, law, and gymnastics. He also wrote a history book ‘in big letters so that his son would have the means to learn about the ancient traditions of his country at home’. Likewise, in his preface to Saturnalia, Macrobius17 states that he wrote this work so that his son had an ‘information tool’ at his disposal. Although no ancient text explicitly states this, one can suppose that teaching ritual practices was part of the same pedagogical (p.78) programme. The Romans like to tell how sons followed their fathers everywhere, and that in the archaic age they even had access to the curia where the senators discussed political affairs.18 In these circumstances, the young boys also witnessed their fathers' religious activities, so that they could declare: ‘I am not without experience because I continually attended sacrifices’.19 A passage from Plato (leg. 887d) which refers to the Athenians who renounce the existence of the gods could also be applied to the Roman context:

the stories which they used to hear, while infants and sucklings, from the lips of their nurses and mothers—stories chanted to them, as it were, in lullabies, whether in jest or in earnest; and the same stories they heard repeated also in prayers at sacrifices, and they saw spectacles which illustrated them, of the kind which the young delight to see and hear when performed at sacrifices; and their own parents they saw showing the utmost zeal on behalf of themselves and their children in addressing the gods in prayers and supplications, as though they most certainly existed (trans. R. G. Bury, Loeb 1926=1961).

Regarding familial ceremonies, J.-P. Néraudau20 states that ‘each father had to transmit the religious knowledge of the family to his son to assure its perpetuity’. The transmission took place from father to son.21 Daughters, by contrast, could not preserve the family's ceremonies, since they moved on to another household after their marriage. Even if traditions were transmitted via the male line, as Néraudau claims, it is wrong, to my mind, to underestimate the importance that participation in familial ceremonies had for daughters. This participation allowed them to familiarize themselves with the ritual syntax and the rules of a system of thoughts. The acquired experience was useful later, when they were integrated into their husband's family and had to perform religious tasks. It should not be forgotten that women brought some of their ancestors' images (p.79) with them and added them to those of their husband's family.22 The link to the traditions of their own family was thus not completely broken off.

I will now analyse in more detail some rites in which children are present as objects or agents. I do not claim to describe every rite, but merely want to give some examples.

The Child as Object of Rites

The life of a child begins with rites that assure him/her the protection of the gods, but which also ritually mark her/his entrance into society. The first feast of which the child is the object is the dies lustricus: a private feast at which the child is given its name. It coincides with the eighth day in the life of girls and with the ninth of boys.23 Through this rite, the family confirms that it accepts the child as one of its members. The children obviously had no direct memory of their own dies lustricus,24 but they might perhaps have had a vague memory of the same rite being performed at the birth of other members of the family.

Children are also at the centre of the public Matralia feast in honour of the Mater Matuta and of the feast of Fortuna, celebrated on the same day.25 On this occasion, the matrons pray for the children at the temples of the two goddesses. This rite is peculiar because in the temple of the Mater Matuta, women do not pray for their own children, but for those of their sisters. The age of the children present at this feast is not known, nor if they are supposed to participate only once or several times. One text states that these children are carried in the arms of their aunts, which leads one to suppose that they were (p.80) quite young.26 It is difficult to establish what memories these children could have of this feast.

Apart from these rites which constitute fixed moments in the life of a child, there are also occasional rites, for example the rites of divination. A famous example is that of Caecilia, wife of Metellus, taking the auspices.27 Caecilia went to a sanctuary at night, accompanied by her niece, in order to enquire about the young girl's wedding. After a long wait, during which no sign appeared, the girl, tired from standing so long, asked her aunt if she could sit down. The aunt told her to take her own place. These words are not without importance: they constitute the answer which the two women sought. Indeed, not long after, the aunt died and the niece married her uncle: she thus really took her aunt's place. Later, when the niece would have to take the auspices of her own niece, she would be careful not to pronounce the same fateful words that her aunt had uttered.

The Child as Agent of Rites

Children can participate in rites as main agents or as secondary ones, together with the adults.

The Child as a Main Agent in Rites

In Roman public religion, men are generally the main agents, although certain public rites for the preservation of the whole community are sometimes entrusted to women and children. The children's public tasks mainly become apparent on two occasions:28 at the lusus Troiae and at the weaving of the rica. The lusus Troiae is a (p.81) ritual parade in which the boys of the nobility participate on horseback and in front of an audience of adults.29 We know that the children are divided into two groups, simulate a battle and then establishment of peace. This rite could represent the initiation to arms and to the cavalry for young Romans.30 John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro31 suppose that it represents concord on which a civic community should be built. According to them, this is a rite which is linked to the metaphor of weaving, as the name Troia indicates, which here does not refer to the city in Asia Minor,32 as authors from the Augustan age believe, but rather to ‘the weft’. Lusus Troiae would thus be ‘the game of the weft’ and its goal was to show that ‘the social union is woven and re-woven’.33

On the female side, the only public task entrusted exclusively to girls (virgines ingenuae patrimae, matrimae, cives) is that of weaving the rica, the garment worn by the flaminica, the wife of the flamen Dialis.34 By weaving this piece of clothing, the girls repeat the action of the flaminica. Indeed, the religious duty of the flamen Dialis commanded him to wear only a garment woven by his wife.35 The young girls thus train for an activity which is characteristic of the exemplary Roman woman, symbolized by the flaminica.36

Looking at the male and the female world together, it becomes clear that the goal of these rites was to familiarize the boys and girls with the fundamental concepts of their future life. Through the lusus Troiae the boys familiarize themselves with their military role or, if one follows Scheid and Svenbro's interpretation, with the idea of civic concord, for which they will one day be responsible. By weaving a ritual garment the girls learn the importance of this activity which is tied to their status as future matron, on which the family's (p.82) harmony depends to a great extent. These rites thus constitute important moments in the children's training and education.

In the domain of domestic religion, there is a particular rite for which children are protagonists: it marks their passage to another age class. Before taking on the toga virilis, that is, around the age of 16, the boys sacrificed their bulla (an ornament which they had hitherto worn around their neck) to the Lares.37 The girls did the same with their dolls, probably on the day before their marriage.38 As Arnold van Gennep39 has shown, the aim of these rites of passage was to prepare the child for its new status: it became aware of a personal change in status and function.

Children as Ceremonial Assistants

There are four kinds of religious activities for which children perform tasks together with the adults:

  1. 1. Singing at public feasts. The pueri and puellae or the virgines sing in choirs at the supplicationes,40 they also sing hymns,41 especially during secular games.42 In the context of private gatherings, we know from Varro43 that pueri sang carmina during the banquets to commemorate the feats of the family's ancestors. In this case it is, however, difficult to establish whether children or slaves of the family are referred to, because the word pueri can actually designate both. (p.83) What is certain, in any case, is that (at least at public feasts) these songs helped the children to memorize the family's traditions and history.

  2. 2. Participating in processions. Boys lead the pompa circensis44 on foot, on horseback,45 or by driving chariots (tensae)46 on which the attributes of the deities are found.47 As for private cults, three young boys participate in the nuptial procession which leads the bride from her father's house to that of her husband:48 one carries a torch, the other two lead the bride, who is very young herself.

  3. 3. Participating in rites as religious assistants to the priests. For example, for the reconstruction of Jupiter's temple on the Capitoline Hill, pueri and puellae help the Vestals to sprinkle the area of the temple with water.49 During the expiation rites they help the decemviri to carry out the sacrifices;50 during the Arval rites they take part in the banquets and direct the public slaves that had to carry the offerings to the altar.51 A special category of these young people, called camilli and camillae, help the flamen Dialis in performing his (p.84) rites.52 It seems that children had the same subordinate role in a private context as in public religious ceremonies. Varro53 states that freeborn children of both sexes (pueri liberi et puerae) took part in domestic activities as servants. A scene from Satyricon (60) by Petronius depicts three boys, wearing short tunics and the bulla around their neck, who carry statuettes of the Lares gods and a chalice of wine, invoking the goodwill of the gods. Regarding the private ceremonies involving children or slaves, the most famous account is that of the magic rite as described by Ovid (fast. 2.571–82). An old woman performs a complicated rite to tie up evil tongues. She does so in mediis puellis, that is, surrounded by girls. These puellae do not partake in the action, apart from the fact that, together with the old magician, they drink the wine used for the libations. For the remainder of the ceremony, they presumably watch and listen to the formulas. One day, these girls, having become expert magicians themselves, will be able to pass on the ritual procedure and the magical words to other apprentices. Another family custom, attested by Columella,54 describes a child entering the part of the house called penus, where food was kept:

    All these writers held that he who undertakes the performance of these duties ought to be chaste and continent, because it was of prime importance that neither drinking vessels nor food should be handled except by one who had not reached puberty or, at any rate, only by one who was most abstemious in sexual intercourse. Any man or woman who indulged in it ought, they thought, to wash in a river or running water before touching food; consequently in their view one must employ the services of a boy (p.85) or maiden to give out the food required for daily use (trans. E. S. Forster and E. H. Heffner, Loeb 1955).

Thanks to this purity,55 the child is responsible for certain practices which confirm his religious importance within the community. Again, one cannot confirm that this refers to a freeborn child, but it is clear that we are dealing with a young child, since his sexual abstinence is fundamental.

  1. 4. Participating in divinatory rites. At banquets, after the food sacrifice has been thrown into the domestic hearth, before continuing the meal, one waits for a child (puer) to announce if the gods have appreciated the victuals.56 This divinatory role can be compared to the one children have in sanctuaries, where the goodwill of the gods is consulted by drawing the sortes, as is the case in the sanctuary of Fortuna in Praeneste. Here, a child has to descend into a hole to draw the sortes which announce the answer of the deity.57

All the above-mentioned rites underline the fact that purity is a fundamental characteristic for the children to be able to assist in the performance of public ceremonies and in the social activities of the family.58

Patrimi matrimique

As I have emphasized before, it is sometimes difficult to assert whether the pueri who act as religious assistants are children rather than slaves. However, in certain cases, and mainly with regard to (p.86) public services, the sources explicitly mention that the pueri and puellae are freeborn (liberi, ingenui),59 citizens (cives)60 and, in the deeds of the Arval brethren, they are said to belong to the senatorial order.61 Yet the attribute that these ancient texts chiefly insist on is that these young boys and girls are patrimi matrimique.62 These terms are quite difficult to explain from a linguistic point of view. The -imus suffix of these two adjectives has no parallel which might shed light on its function.

As for the meaning, we have more information. A single text63 specifies that this refers to children born from marriages that were celebrated by confarreatio, a matrimonial practice reserved for patricians. According to other texts, this expression designates children whose parents are still alive (Paul. Fest. 113 L.: quibus matres et patres adhuc vivunt).64 Patrimi matrimique children thus correspond to the paides amphithaleis in Greek religion, that is children that ‘bloom’ (thaleuein) from both sides (amphi-, from the father's and the mother's side). Incidentally, this relation was already expressed in antiquity. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ant. 2.22.1), Cassius Dio (59.7), and Zosimus (2.6.21) translate the formula patrimi matrimique, which becomes paides amphithaleis in Greek.

Did Roman religion therefore copy this kind of ceremonial assistant from the Greek religion, as some assume?65 To establish the origin of Roman religious roles remains a difficult exercise and it certainly does not better our understanding, but merely shifts the problem. Even if one admits that they imitated the Greek model, why did the Romans entrust religious duties to children that were not orphans?

In his article concerning the camilli and the camillae in the Daremberg–Saglio,66 Hunziker submits an idea that is worth examining. (p.87) According to him, these children take part in the ceremony with their own parents: that is why they had to be patrimi.67 This implies a direct transmission of technical knowledge from father to son. Hunziker's idea corresponds to an explanation that was already provided in antiquity. In a passage cited above, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ant. 2.22.1) underlines the blood relationship between the father and his ceremonial assistants.

And because some rites were to be performed by women, others by children whose fathers and mothers were living, to the end that these also might be administered in the best manner, he ordered that the wives of the priests should be associated with their husbands in the priesthood; and that in the case of any rites which men were forbidden by the law of the country to celebrate, their wives should perform them and their children should assist as their duties required; and that the priests who had no children should choose out of the other families of each curia the most beautiful boy and girl, the boy to assist in the rites till the age of manhood, and the girl so long as she remained unmarried (trans. E. Cary, Loeb 1937 = 1960).

Obviously, for Dionysius of Halicarnassus children that appear in public ceremonies together with priests are primarily their sons, and only in the second instance children of the same curia. Oddly enough, Hunziker does not use this passage to support his point of view. However, he proposes three texts in which one learns that the deceased father is replaced by his son in his role as augur.68 Another passage that Hunziker invokes is a statement found in Servius auctus.69 According to this text, in ancient times, sons succeeded fathers in their priesthoods. In contrast to Hunziker's interpretation, it should be clarified that such successions within the family are not frequent. Also, in one of the texts that Hunziker relies on, Cicero (Phil. 13.5.12) explicitly states that he will try to allocate the office of augur to Pompey's son after Pompey's death. His aim is to reward the son for the kindnesses that Cicero received from Pompey and not because the son had acquired the knowledge of his progenitor. Besides, this connection between priests and their sons seems difficult to prove. Having studied the prosography of children that (p.88) participated in the ceremonies of the Arval brethren, John Scheid has shown that only a quarter of these young people were sons or grandchildren of masters of the brethren.70 Finally, even if the direct succession could explain why patrimi children participate in the ceremonies, it does not explain why these children also have to be matrimi. To have a mother that is still alive does not seem particularly relevant for this explanation.

In his article ‘Patrimi et Matrimi’, published in the Pauly–Wissowa, Carl Koch71 proposes a different approach. He maintains that these children are able to participate in these ceremonies because their life has not yet been overcome by a bereavement in the family. This idea cannot be accepted without qualifications. In fact, children whose father and mother are still alive, might have suffered other bereavements in the family, such as that of brothers or sisters.72 Being patrimi et matrimi does thus not mean that they are safe from the contamination of death.

Indeed, more than the idea of contamination, it is the idea of integrity, of perfection and completeness which is fundamental. In order to understand this, one has to compare the symbolic value of the priestly couple of the flamen Dialis and the flaminica. The flamen Dialis can fulfil his religious duty as long as his wife lives by his side: in case of divorce or if the flaminica dies, the flamen has to hand in his resignation. The couple presents perfect unity: the flamen and the flaminica complement each other by their masculine and feminine skills. Equally, having both progenitors alive is a sign of perfection: the children are sons and daughters of a complete family which has not had one of its essential members amputated. That is why the patrimi matrimique children are complete.

(p.89) Thus, restricting ceremonial participation to these children does not seem to be due to practical reasons (sons whose parents are alive are more competent than orphans), but rather to symbolical values. Moreover, returning to the above-cited passage by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (ant. 2.22.1), one notes that the chosen children are chariestatoi, that is, those that are most ‘graceful, charming’. It is thus more important that the cult of the gods should be entrusted to the best children, those who are perfect through their condition and attitude. The choice of the Vestals confirms this idea: they also have to be patrimae matrimaeque and free from any physical defects at the time of their co-optation (Gell. 1.12.2–3). The bodily perfection of priests is confirmed by a passage from Roman Questions where Plutarch73 compares it to that of sacrificial animals. He proposes two answers to the question of why it was forbidden for priests to take the auspices if they were wounded. According to the first answer, this wound could signify a suffering of the soul which would distract him. In the second explanation, he maintains that one cannot use wounded animals for sacrifices or for divination and that the same precautions need to be taken by the priest: he needs to be ‘pure, intact and complete’ when he receives the sign of the gods. ‘The wound seems to be a mutilation and a soiling of the body.’

Being an orphan can therefore be compared to having a physical defect. This seems to be true for officiating children, as I have just shown, as well as for children who are victims. A passage from the Augustan History about the life of Elagabalus (SHA Heliog. 8.1) narrates how the emperor decided to offer human sacrifices to his favourite god and that he chose children from the most noble families, who were also of great beauty and whose parents were both still alive (patrimi matrimique). The explanation provided is that the emperor's aim was to provoke greater grief for the parents because both suffered from the loss of their child. Yet behind this rather simplistic explanation, another seems to be hidden: the desire to favour among potential victims those who distinguish themselves by their perfection.

(p.90) 2. Deliberate Memorization

I have so far analysed the presence of children at ceremonies where they acquire knowledge through mechanical memorization. Now the few cases of deliberate transmission of religious knowledge will be analysed, that is, those which constitute a conscious learning process, governed by a framework and specific structures.

The Technical Knowledge of Priests

Those who were chosen or co-opted for priesthood had to learn how to deal with the religious questions related to that duty. They did so with their colleagues that were already in the collegiate organization. Cicero (dom. 135) gives an example in his invective against L. Pinarius Natta, Clodius' brother-in-law, who, encouraged by Clodius, had consecrated to Liberty the house he had confiscated from Cicero. Pinarius had just been co-opted as pontiff (135: novus pontifex). Cicero imagines him as he consecrates the house, which was Pinarius' first rite after he had taken office. Cicero presents him as an adolescent without experience (139: imperitus adulescens) and, later, without knowledge (ignarus). It seems that the young pontiff was not able to master the ceremony (140): ‘with inverted words and sinister predictions, constantly pulling himself together, hesitating, trembling and stammering’. Cicero implies that Pinarius' clumsiness was due to the unjust act that he was performing, but his inexperience obviously also played a big role. According to Cicero, he pronounced everything differently from the instructions in the pontiff's documents. Returning to this theme (141), Cicero maintains that this new pontiff found himself in the position of teacher before having learned anything himself. The previous pontiffs' training was evidently essential.

Nevertheless, we know next to nothing about this apprenticeship. The only interesting piece of information is one about the Vestals. We know that they were co-opted between the age of 6 and 10 and that they remained Vestals for a period of thirty years.74 During the first (p.91) ten years they had to devote themselves to an apprenticeship directed by the eldest.75 They then spent the next ten years performing rites. Finally, in the last ten years, they taught the youngest ones. The apprenticeship for other priesthoods was probably not as long.

Even if this religious knowledge was transmitted orally, as in a familial setting, the priest's apprenticeship, once they took office, probably involved more deliberate memorization. There had to be specific moments at which the older colleagues taught the newcomers the ‘secrets of the trade’.


Religious knowledge as other technical knowledge was transmitted outside of programmes or pedagogical structures. However, a passage from Statius qualifies this statement. The poet's father was a tutor, first in Campania, and later possibly in Rome.76 The poet briefly informs us about the new programme his father adopted after the ‘transfer’ of his office. He knew that his pupils would one day fulfil the most important administrative functions. Perhaps the future emperor Domitian was among them.77 To prepare them for their future political careers, Statius' father instructed them in matters of religion:78 the pontifex maximus (‘the Dardan inspector of the (p.92) hidden fire’) learns the rite from his tutor when he is a child (sacrum didicit puer); this tutor also shows (monstrasti) the Salii how to wear their shields, and the augurs how to draw predictions from the sky; to the quindecemviri he introduces the priests of the Mother of the gods. Statius concludes this passage by mentioning the Luperci: they were beaten by the tutor. Statius here plays on the reversal of the rite: the Luperci who usually give the women lashes during the festival of Lupercalia, are here presented as undergoing the same punishment.

Hubert Cancik, who has studied this text in detail, proposes two interpretations. According to the first one, Statius' father presented his young audience with texts in which the adolescents could read about these priesthoods. According to the second interpretation, he made them read technical and possibly legal treatises dealing with religious questions. In both cases, it seems that what was transmitted in these classes was the rites' cultural apparatus. The tutor read texts to instruct his young audience theoretically about the cults' history and the composition of the colleges of priests. It was not a matter of transmitting the rules for performing rites. The school thus provided the children with cultural knowledge thanks to which the future politician could show his worth in society.


We saw that technical knowledge was transmitted to children by their parents or by older priests. As for the school, it transmitted knowledge about history and the composition of priesthoods. And yet, was the memorization of religious practices merely reduced to the memorization of a series of technical gestures?

In one of his articles, Christoph Auffarth79 focuses his attention on the transmission of technical knowledge in the performance of sacrifices. He states that in Greece not only priests perform rites but that each man has to know the sacrificial procedure because he has performed it on different occasions, first and foremost in the (p.93) community of his own family. Children, as well as women, assist the head of the family with religious practices. According to Auffarth, religious tradition is learnt as one learns a language, that is, by watching and by trying it out.80 In Greek sanctuaries, if there are ritual instructions, they do not indicate all the steps of a ‘normal’ rite. The ‘normal’ sacrificial procedure is never entirely formulated. Auffarth concludes that in the performance of a rite ‘accuracy was not required’ (20). Indeed, in his opinion, the ‘significance of the rite’ seems to have been more important than the correct reproduction of the series of movements. But what is this ‘significance of the rite’ and what does it tell us about Rome?

As Scheid81 remarks, the Roman rite in itself is not devoid of meaning. There is a basic meaning visible while the movements are being performed. A sacrifice, for instance, is a banquet that humans offer to the gods. The performance of movements in a specific order reveals a fundamental message of the sacrifice, namely the hierarchy amongst the beings that populate this world (gods, humans, animals). Scheid, citing Charles Malamoud, maintains that the rite, and the obligation to fulfil it, represent the only certainty for the Romans, and that it has the same place that revelation has in other religious systems.

Roman citizens thus not only learned the sequence of movements during their childhood, but they also acquired a sense of their religion through them, without needing further theoretical explanations. By observing the ritual rules and in the contemplation of the primary meaning of the rites (that is, the most elementary and most immediate one), as Scheid insists,82 the Romans found ‘profound moral and spiritual satisfaction’. To experience this satisfaction, young Romans trained alongside their parents. (p.94)


(*) My thanks go to Jörg Rüpke, John Scheid, and Christoph Auffarth for their bibliographical advice. I would particularly like to thank Philippe Borgeaud who has followed all the stages of my research and Maurizio Bettini for discussing this text with me in great detail and for his precious advice. I thank Kareen Klein for the English translation of my chapter, and Daniele Morresi for helping me with my English. In the Roman world, this subject has received little attention, see Bremmer 1995.

(1) Ov. fast. 5.431–2.

(2) Scheid 1998: 20.

(3) Plut., de liberis educandis, mor. 1 A – 13 E, quotation 9 E (trans. F. Cole Babbitt, Loeb 1927 = 1960).

(4) Borgeaud 1988: 9.

(5) Ibid. 10.

(6) See the distinction between socialization and education put forward by A.-C. Harders in this volume.

(7) See, for example, Brelich 1969; Brulé 1987; Calame 1996 (esp. 186 ff.).

(8) Bourdieu 1972: 189.

(9) Bourdieu 1972: 190.

(10) See Plat. rep. 2.377c2–4: women and nurses are in charge of shaping the children's souls with myths more than shaping their body with the care of their hands. See also Plat. leg. quoted below. Brisson 1994: 69 explains that the task of narrating myths is entrusted to women because of their special relationship with the children. See also Rudhardt 1988: 43–4 with regard to young Athenians.

(11) See Plat. Prot. 320c2–4 and Brisson 1994: 68, who explains that in a society that transmits its knowledge orally, elderly people have accumulated knowledge and, because of their old age, are closer to the original message, because their story has undergone fewer stages of transmission.

(12) Rudhardt 1988: 44.

(13) Hor. sat. 2.6.77–8: anilis fabellas; see Bettini 1989.

(14) Prud. Contra Symmachum 1.197–244 (trans. H. J. Thomson, Loeb 1949=1962).

(15) See Thomas 1986: 228.

(16) Plut. Cato 20.

(17) Macr. Sat. praefatio 1–2.

(18) Having told the story of Papirius Praetextatus, Gell. 1.23 states that the presence of children at the curia had been forbidden only in recent times.

(19) The quotation is from Xen. an. 5.6.29 and concerns young Greeks, but it can just as well be applied to the Roman world.

(20) Néraudau 1984: 226.

(21) Regarding the transmission of familial memory, see Maurice Halbwachs' standard work, published in 1925 (Halbwachs 1994: 146 f.).

(22) Bettini 1986: 182–5.

(23) Paul. Fest. 107–8 L.

(24) Even if Ausonius (Parent. 3.21 f.) speaks of his own dies lustricus (see Bettini 2008b: 327), it cannot be confirmed that he personally remembers it.

(25) The feast is celebrated on 11 June in Rome. Women go to the twin temples of the two goddesses situated in the Forum Boarium.

(26) Plut. Camillus 5.2: ‘during this ceremony they [scil. the women] carry in their arms (enagkalizontai) and honour their nephews and nieces instead of their own children’.

(27) Cic. div. 1.104; Val. Max. 1.5.4. For this story, see also Bettini 1986: 98 ff. and Böels-Janssen 1993: 138 f.

(28) I have excluded from my list the priesthoods of the Luperci and the Salii at which young people participated (it is not known at what age precisely), but which were not reserved exclusively for them (see Estienne 2005: 85 and Romano 2005: 90).

(29) Verg. Aen. 5.545; Tac. ann. 11.11 speak of two squadrons of twelve boys each. One squadron is made up of children up to 11 years old, the other of children aged from 11 to 14.

(30) Martinez-Pinna 1995.

(31) Scheid and Svenbro 2003: 40–6.

(32) See also Binder 1985.

(33) Scheid and Svenbro 2003: 44.

(34) Paul. Fest. 369 L.

(35) Scheid and Svenbro, 2003: 77–8.

(36) Brulé 1987: 116–23 compares the weaving rites in Greece and Rome and emphasizes that in both cases this forms part of female education.

(37) Ps.-Acr. Ad Hor. Sat. 1.5.65: Solebant pueri, postquam pueritiam excedebant, dis Laribus bullas suas consecrare, similiter et puellas pupas (‘At the end of their childhood, the young men had the habit of dedicating their bullae to the Lares gods, the girls consecrated their dolls in the same fashion’).

(38) Boëls-Janssen 1993: 66–7.

(39) Van Gennep 1981 calls them ‘rites of age classes’ (ch. 6).

(40) Liv. 27.37.7; 31.12.6–8; 37.12–4; Serv. Aen. 3.438.

(41) Macr. Sat. 1.6.14.

(42) Schnegg-Köhler 2002: line 147 of the inscription. See also the commentary on pp. 146–7.

(43) Varro, vit. pop. 2.84 (ap. Non. p. 77.2): 〈sic aderant etiamin conviviis pueri modesti ut cantarent carmina antiqua in quibus laudes erant maiorum et assa voce et cum tibicine (‘At the banquet chaste children were present who sang ancient poems containing praises of the ancestors. They sang without accompaniment or to the sound of flutes’). Riposati (1939: 191–2) explains that the adjective modestus means that the children that have been chosen to sing are chaste and pure.

(44) Arnob 4.31; 7.44.

(45) Dion. Hal. ant. 7.72.1. Even the ludiones are described by Dion. Hal. (ant. 2.71.4) as young people, but not exclusively of noble birth.

(46) Cic. har. resp. 23: An si ludius constitit, aut tibicen repente conticuit, aut puer ille patrimus et matrimus si tensam non tenuit, si lorum omisit, aut si aedilis verbo aut simpuvio aberravit, ludi sunt non rite facti, eaque errata expiantur, et mentes deorum immortalium ludorum instauratione placantur (‘Let's see if the dancer has stopped or if the flute player has suddenly fallen silent, if the child who still has father and mother, has stopped to hold the chariot or if he let go of the belt, if the aedile made a mistake in the formula or with the ladle, the games have not been ritually celebrated, the mistakes are expiated and the dispositions of the immortal gods are appeased by a renewal of the games’).

(47) Fest. 500 L.

(48) Paul. Fest. 282 L.: patrimi et matrimi pueri praetextati tres nubentem deducunt; unus, qui facem praefert ex spina alba, quia noctu nubebant; duo, qui tenent nubentem (‘three children that still wear the toga praetexta and whose parents are still alive conduct the bride: one carries a hawthorn torch in front, because marriages take place at night, two hold the bride’).

(49) Tac. hist. 4.53.

(50) Liv. 37.3.6: decem ingenui, decem virgines, patrimi omnes matrimique, ad id sacrificium adhibiti et decemviri nocte lactentibus rem divinam fecerunt (‘Ten freeborn young people and ten girls that all still had their mothers and fathers were chosen for the ceremony and at night the decemviri sacrificed sucking animals’. See also Obseq. 40.

(51) Scheid 1990: 535–6.

(52) Varro, ling. 7.34; Fest. 82 L.; see Fless 1995: 45–51.

(53) Varro, vit. pop. 2.83 (ap. Non. p. 156): sic in privatis domibus pueri liberi et puerae ministrabant (‘thus the freeborn boys and girls serve in private houses’). In this passage, note the use of the rare word puera instead of the more common puella. Riposati 1939: 186–92 comments on the difference between this passage and the information found in Cic. Brut. 19.75 and Val. Max. 2.1.10, according to which the ancestors (maiores natu) are the ones singing the family's praises.

(54) Colum. 12.4.3: his autem omnibus placuit eum, qui rerum harum officium susceperit, castum esse continentemque oportere, quoniam totum in eo sit, ne contrectentur pocula vel cibi nisi aut inpubi aut certe abstinentissimo rebus veneriis; quibus si fuerit operatus vel vir vel femina, debere eos flumine aut perenni aqua, priusquam penora contingant, ablui; propter quod his necessarium esse pueri vel virginis ministerium, per quos promantur, quae usus postulaverit.

(55) In the passage cited above, regarding the children who sing the family's history, Varro defines these children as modesti, an adjective that, according to Riposati 1939: 191–2, means ‘chaste and pure’.

(56) Serv. Aen. 1.730.

(57) Champeaux 1982: 55–83.

(58) According to Parker 1983: 79–81 the idea of passing on to another status is more important than the idea of purity. He explains that if the question related to purity one could have entrusted these rites to old women, who more readily abstain from sexual relations than children. I would like to distance myself from this statement: firstly because I am not sure that an old woman is more abstinent than children, and secondly because it seems to me that the texts emphasize that children and purity are closely linked.

(59) Liv. 37.3.6; for Macr. Sat. 1.6.14, they can be free(ingenui) and emancipated (libertini).

(60) Paul. Fest. 369 L.

(61) Scheid 1990: 539–1.

(62) See Koch 1949.

(63) Serv. georg. 1.31.

(64) See also Fest. 266 L., the expression pater patrimus which designates a father whose father is still alive. See also Fest. 282 L.

(65) See Smith 2006: 351–2.

(66) Hunziker 1887: 859.

(67) The same explanation is also given by Oepke 1934: 44–5.

(68) Cic. Phil. 13.5.12; Liv. 27.6.16; 30.26.7.

(69) Serv. Aen. 768.

(70) Scheid 1990: 535.

(71) Koch 1949. The same idea, but with regard to the paides amphithaleis, is also expressed by Nilsson 1955, I. 117–18. See also Brelich 1969: 401 n. 207; Néraudau 1984: 229.

(72) The Novellae 115, caput 5.1 state that after a death, the heirs, the parents, the children, the spouse, the agnates and cognates, other close relatives, and the warrantors could not be cited to court or implicated in political affairs for nine days. This period represents the normal time of mourning for men (see Prescendi 1996). This passage comprises not only the family members from the vertical line, but also the brothers and sisters that were affected by the bereavement. Brothers and sisters were thus also soiled by death.

(73) Plut. mor. 281 C. See Brulé 2007: 292.

(74) Gell. 1.12.1.

(75) Dion. Hal. ant. 2.67.

(76) According to certain scholars (for example Cancik 1973: 181; Gibson 2006: 334–5), Statius' father went from Campania to Rome in 69–70; according to others (Vollmer 1898: 541; Bremmer 1995: 37), the Roman pupils joined their tutor in Campania. From my point of view, it is not essential to take a stance on this matter. What counts is the adverb mox (‘then’) in the text which seems to indicate that a change took place: from a certain point onwards, the pupils were young Romans (Romulea stirpis).

(77) See the commentary by Gibson 2006: 334–5.

(78) Stat. silv. 5.3.175–84: ‘Presently too you instruct the stock of Romulus and notables to be, ceasing not to lead them in their fathers’ footsteps. Under your direction grew up the Dardan inspector of the hidden fire, who conceals the sanctuary of that which Diomedes stole, and learned the ritual as a boy. You approved the Salii and showed them their arms, you showed the Augurs the sky that gives them foreknowledge, showed who is authorized to unroll the song of Chalcis and why the hair of the Phrygian Flamen is concealed; and greatly did the girt-up Luperci fear your stripes' (trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Loeb 2003).

(79) Auffarth 2005.

(80) Auffarth 2005: 16.

(81) Scheid 2007: 42.

(82) Ibid. 53.