In the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, in a dim hallway where funerary stelae, bronze tablets, and objects of everyday life vie for the attention of passers-by, a small tombstone sits in a glass case. It depicts a young boy, holding a pick and a basket, gazing out at the viewer (though his face has largely worn away). The inscription, whose reading is somewhat disputed, says, “QARTVLVS/ ANORV IIII [or ANOR VIIII] SI/ [TIBI] TERA LE[VIS],” “Quartulus [or Quintus Artulus] of four years [or nine years]. May the earth lie lightly on you.” The accompanying museum description explains that the stele comes from a mining region, and that Quartulus was probably a child laborer in the mines.
For me, one of the strongest pleasures of our recent trip to Spain was the richness of the museums, especially their abundance of objects related to everyday life. In the city of Rome itself—which was, after all, the home of the emperors and highest elites—there are so many of the most impressive statues, paintings, and mosaics from the Roman period that objects more tied to ordinary life get lost in the shuffle, either not displayed at all or relegated to back rooms. In museums of the Roman provinces, you are more likely to see these objects front and center. From Madrid to Tarragona to Mérida, we saw plenty of marble and mosaics, but also much that was humbler and more personal. My own research primarily concerns the Roman economy, and I was duly delighted by coins, weights, and measures. In the end, however, I was most struck by the funerary commemorations. Their personal nature, and often inherent sadness, have a way of collapsing time more dramatically than any other object.
Quartulus’s stone is particularly poignant, for obvious reasons: he is young, and he seems to have already been working hard. There are some mysteries surrounding the stone. The museum label claims his age as four, but a recent reading has argued for nine. The image of the boy himself does not help much in deciding. To me, he looks small, with round arms and legs, and a head rather big in relation to his body—much closer to four than nine, in other words. But Roman visual images of all kinds, including funerary ones, were notoriously unreliable about age. Some of those who died relatively old, like the emperor Augustus, were depicted as young for their entire lives. In funerary commemorations, children were sometimes shown as being younger or older than the accompanying inscription claimed, either for symbolic reasons or because the monument was pre-carved. Finally, bodily proportions might simply reflect the skill of the sculptor. Quartulus’s appearance is thus not definitive, but he does look four.
His age may have some bearing on how likely he was to have been an actual worker. He might not have worked at all: perhaps he simply belonged to a mining family, and is shown with the tools his father expected him to use one day. Still, it is just as likely that he worked. Child labor was not unusual in the Roman world. Since he had only one name and the inscription says nothing of parents, Quartulus may have been a slave (although many free, non-elite children would have worked as well). But while many of us can probably comprehend without much surprise (if with chagrin) that children would have worked as servants, messengers, and so on in Roman houses, could they have really worked in mines? Surely such labor was too hard?
If we think so, we forget more recent history. Children labored frequently in mines in Europe in the 19th century. Various laws in different countries sometimes set restrictions on ages—children younger than thirteen, ten, or nine, depending on the time and country, were prohibited from working in mines. The need for a prohibition suggests that children younger than this were working when the laws were passed. Children can fit into spaces that adults cannot, which was probably one reason for their employment. Some ancient authors, most notably the 2nd-century BCE Greek writer Agatharchides, describe children working in mines, although often in texts that seem to stress the misery of mine workers for rhetorical purposes. Agatharchides claims that children carried out the debris created by the adult workers. We need not imagine all such children as slaves; even free workers in mines might have worked as whole families. Quartulus’s basket would make sense for carrying debris. His pick is more likely to be symbolic, perhaps signaling that he worked in a mine as opposed to somewhere else. But even if he was only carrying, surely he could not have carried much at the age of four?
The question remains unanswerable. We know that, according to Roman law, slave children were assigned a value from the age of five, perhaps suggesting both an awareness of child mortality and some idea that children could work from that age. We might prefer to think they only worked at light tasks, but skeletons of children as young as five and seven from Herculaneum show evidence of work-related injuries. Unfortunately, even if he was only four and not nine, Quartulus may have been working, and there is no guarantee that his work was light.
A final mystery remains for me, however, and that is the commemoration itself. Funerary monuments, even small ones, were not very cheap in the Roman world and were not ubiquitous even for free Romans. Many Romans who were poor or slaves must have died with no monument at all, and commemoration of individual children was only frequent in certain periods and places. Perhaps surprisingly, however, commemoration of slave children was not that rare. Most of these were vernae, slaves born into households, often freed early and often (in the funerary monuments, at least) objects of affection. But some monuments even commemorate servi, ordinary slaves. And most of these children are not shown working, but instead have the same attributes (animals, toys) that free children have. A few even wear a toga (the very symbol of a free child), even though they were not free when they died. Quartulus is thus unusual not so much in being a commemorated slave (if slave he was), but in that he is shown working. Why was his work seen as so important? Who commissioned the stone? An owner? A parent, whether slave or free?
Whoever they were, they were making a rare gesture in commemorating a child in Spain. Of all the provinces in Jason Mander’s Portraits of Children on Roman Funerary Monuments, Spain had the fewest commemorations of children: only 18 in total over four centuries (other western provinces each had over 100). Several of these Spanish monuments follow a pattern very similar to Quartulus’s: a brief inscription, single name, and the phrase “May the earth lie lightly on you,” a phrase that (upon a brief skim, at least) seemed to be uncommon in other provinces. But none of the others in Spain show children working. How old Quartulus was, how much he worked, his status, why he was shown working on his monument when even most slave children were not, and who commemorated him—all remain mysteries. But his image lingers in my mind.
Laes, Christian. “Child Slaves at Work in Roman Antiquity.” Ancient Society 38 (2008): 235-283.
Mander, Jason. Portraits of Children on Roman Funerary Monuments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.