Restless Youth in Ancient Rome (review)
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Reviewed by
Emiel Eyben. Restless Youth in Ancient Rome. Translated by Patrick Daly. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. 367. $49.95

The scope of this book is frankly ambitious. Covering a period from 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., it "attempts to provide a survey of the perceptions the ancients had of youth, and of the role of this age group in a wide variety of domains—philosophy, [End Page 91] literature, education, the law, the army, politics; to say nothing of leisure activities, amorous pursuits, family life" (pp. 1-2). The study is organized topically; chapters discuss such issues as "Youth as a Distinct Age of Man," "Youth and the Established Order," "The Leisure Activities of Youth," "Youthful Thinking," and "The Emotional Life of the Young Roman." There is no central thesis argued, but the amassed data is considerable. Given that the sources consulted are largely literary, the picture that emerges is inevitably biased towards the male, urban elite, as the author acknowledges (p. 3).

This book represents something of a "half-way house" between Eyben's doctoral dissertation of 1969, and a subsequent abbreviated version published in English in 1977 as The Hot-Heads: Youth and (Mis)Behavior in Roman Antiquity. The relation of these studies is problematical, as footnotes not infrequently direct the reader to the original dissertation for citations of ancient sources. This is unsatisfactory, especially as Dutch dissertations are not readily available even in most university libraries.

The aim and ambition of this study are admirable. It would be in itself no small accomplishment to establish the cultural construction of "adolescence," especially since other studies, such as that of Wiedemann, posit precisely an erosion of the distinction between adult citizens and children in the late Empire. But the concept of "youth" remains obstinately slippery. As Eyben himself must finally admit, it sometimes refers to the younger generation, sometimes to both children and youths, and sometimes to those specifically between the ages of 15 and 25-30 (p. 256).

Eyben has, moreover, decided to write a separate study on Christian youth, a decision which would seem to diminish the usefulness of this book. For the time span of this work alone would suggest that one of its important subthemes would be the transition from Roman to late Christian antiquity. Such segregation not only seems false to what we know of the integration of Christians into the wider GrecoRoman environment, but paradoxically, it is precisely where Eyben violates his own decision and does discuss Christian youths in their context that some of the most valuable contributions of this work lie. For example, his discussion of the young Augustine and the pear tree episode in the context of the vandalism of Roman youths (pp. 107-12) sheds new light on Augustine's subsequent revulsion for this act. So also his comments on student misbehavior locate the eversores of Carthage, also known to us from Augustine, in a context which makes their behavior explicable (p. 117, 123).

One also regrets the decision not to make greater use of non-literary sources. The discoveries of archeology and epigraphical sources would have enhanced and diversified our understanding of the realia of this age group and period. Here again one feels that the incorporation of Christian sources, particularly sermons, would have broadened both the socio-economic and the sexual range available for scholarly study.

Eyben's use of literary sources seems, at times, too uncritical. Phrases such as "a natural process of maturation" (p. 193) cry out for critical gloss. Neither can excerpts from Suetonius, nor Josephus' comment that "Caligula was adored by [End Page 92] women and young people" (p. 92, 95) be left without some comment on the rhetoric of denigration. This lack of critical caution occasionally leads the author to repeat unexamined commonplaces, for example that "Under the Empire, youth was undoubtedly more extravagant than during the Republic" (p. 98, 104), or that a general laxity overtook all parents in the late empire (p. 207). Given that he himself notes the propensity of Roman authors to nostalgia (p. 103), such ingenuousness seems avoidable.

This same lack of critical attention extends in a more...