CHAPTER XVII. CHILDREN AND EDUCATION

Unlike too many couples of the same class, Silius and Marcia are blessed with children. We will assume that there are two, a boy, whose full name shall be Publius Silius Bassus, and a girl, who is to be called Silia Bassa. It is perhaps to be regretted that there is not a third, for in that case the father would enjoy to the full certain privileges granted by law to parents who so far do their duty by the state. As it is, he will in the regular course of things receive preference over childless men, when it comes to candidature for a public office or to the allotting of a governorship. The decline in the birthrate had become so startling at the close of the republic that the first emperor, Augustus, had decided that it was necessary on the one side to penalise persons who remained either unmarried or childless, and on the other to grant fixed concessions to all who were the parents of three. A bachelor could not, for instance, receive a legacy from any one but a near relative; a married man without children could only receive half of such a legacy; a man with three children could not only enjoy his legacy in full, but could take the shares forfeited by any bachelor or childless legatee who figured in the same will. It does not appear that the law produced any great effect, and, to make it still more futile, the later emperors began to bestow what was called the "privilege of three children" on persons who actually had either fewer or none at all.

The power of the father over the children is theoretically almost absolute. Even when a son is grown up and married he legally belongs to his father; so does all his supposed property. The same is the case with a daughter, unless she becomes a Vestal Virgin, or unless she marries according to the stricter of the two kinds of matrimony already described. In the older days of Rome the father could, and sometimes did, put his children to death if he chose. Though too free an exercise of so extreme an authority was no longer recognised, it was still quite legal to make away with an infant which was badly deformed. Says Seneca, in the most matter-of-fact way, "We drown our monstrosities." It was quite legal also to expose a child, and leave it either to perish or to be taken up by whosoever chose. In most such instances doubtless the child became the slave of the finder. Not only was this allowable at Rome and in the romanized part of the empire; it was a frequent practice throughout the Greek or Eastern portion. Again, a father might sell his child as a slave, particularly for continual disobedience. All these things the parent might legally do; but it is extremely difficult to discover how far they were actually done, inasmuch as our information in this respect hardly touches the lower classes, while among the upper classes there was naturally far less temptation to be rid of the burden of maintaining such few children as most families produced. On the whole it appears highly improbable that in the truly Roman part of the empire there was any considerable destruction of infant life or exposure of infants. It does not follow that, because the strict law does not prevent you from doing a thing, you will therefore do it, in the face of public disapproval and of all the promptings of natural affection. In their family relations the ancient Romans possessed at least as much natural feeling as is commonly shown in modern times. The fact is that in matters of law the Romans were eminently conservative; they left as much as possible to the silent working of social opinion. In the oldest times the patriarchal system existed in the family, and new Roman legislation interfered with parental power only just so far as experience had loudly demanded such intervention. There can have been no very pronounced abuse of the powers of the father, and, as the discipline of the family was regarded as essential to the discipline of the state, the law was always unwilling to weaken in any way the hold of such family discipline. The strictly legal authority of the father was therefore maintained, while its abusive exercise was limited by the risk, if not the certainty, that it would meet with both public and private censure.

Nevertheless, to return to the point which called for this explanation, it is quite in the power of Silius to expose or sell little Publius or little Silia. But for a man in his position to do anything of the kind would bring the scorn of all Roman society about his ears; and, among other humiliations, almost undoubtedly his name would be expunged from the senatorial list. Moreover Silus, though a pagan, is a human being, and his affection for his children would certainly be no less warm than that of the average Christian man of to-day.

Immediately after birth there is a little ceremony. The babe is brought and laid upon the hearth or floor before the household gods for the father to inspect it. As has been said already, if it is a monstrosity, he may order it to be made away with. Otherwise it is still open to him either to acknowledge the infant or to refuse to have anything to do with it. The act of acknowledgment consists in stooping down and lifting up the child from the ground. For this reason the expression used for acknowledging and undertaking to rear a child was "lifting" or "picking up." In our instance the little son and daughter are, of course, not only picked up, but welcomed as the young hopes of the proud house of Silii Bassi.