Friday, 3 April 2015

Maria Doerfler: The Sense of an Ending: Childhood Death and Parental Benefit in Late Ancient Rhetoric

In late antiquity, as in the present era, a society's youngest members were also among its most vulnerable. Demographers suggest that 35 to 50% of children in the Roman Empire died before reaching their tenth year, whether as the result of war, natural disaster, accident, or disease.
Despite such a high rate of childhood mortality, however, families evidently experienced the death of a child or infant as grievous. Christian homilists accordingly sought to reassure parents concerning the fate of the untimely departed, and the divine justice and mercy displayed by their passing.  This was the case, in fact, even in instances where the deceased children in question had not been members of the congregation, but were merely part of the scriptural narrative, as, for example, in the case of the “Holy Innocents” allegedly killed by Herod in Matthew 2:16-18.

On occasion, moreover, late ancient writers and exegetes went beyond projecting favorable circumstances for the dead, and focused instead on the benefits bereaved parents could expect to reap as a result of having so "sacrificed" their children. Such boons ranged from enjoying personalized intercession to experiencing the crowns of vicarious martyrdom. These might have proved cold comfort to the grieving; they nevertheless provide a glimpse into the emergence and transformation of late ancient thought on parental bereavement and at the surprising tenacity of familial bonds.

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