These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.
- Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
- From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
- Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.
We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.
Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.
While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.
Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.
Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.
He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.
Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.
He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.
In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.
Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."
He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.
He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.
He died by suicide.
Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)
Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.
Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images
The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.
Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.
His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.
He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.
Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.
Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.
He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.
Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.
He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.
Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)
One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.
Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.
As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.
He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."
"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.
Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."
There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.
After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
The mummy was first thought to be a male priest. But a recent radiological analysis revealed a surprising anomaly.
- The woman was likely from a noble background, buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt.
- The researchers said it's curious that she was buried with the fetus inside her, considering organs were typically removed and embalmed before burial.
- The peculiar burial may suggest that ancient Egyptians believed unborn babies possessed spirits.
Since the 1920s, researchers in Poland were under the impression that an ancient Egyptian mummy they were housing was a male priest named Hor-Djehuty. But a recent radiological analysis revealed an anomaly near the pelvis of the entombed: a tiny foot.
The discovery, reported by researchers with the Warsaw Mummy Project, marks the first-known case of a pregnant mummy. The woman was likely buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.
"She came from the elite of Theban community and was carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics, and equipped with a rich set of amulets," the study states. "Closer examination has revealed that the woman died between 20 and 30 years of age together with the fetus in age between the 26th and 30th week of the pregnancy."
The Warsaw Mummy Project has named the entombed "the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw," where she is housed.
It's not the first time this mummy has puzzled researchers. When it was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826, the staff thought it was female, possibly because of the elaborate decorations on its sarcophagus. But after translating an Egyptian text on the sarcophagus, it seemed the mummy was Hor-Djehuty:
"Scribe, priest of Horus-Thoth worshiped as a visiting deity in the Mount of Djeme, royal governor of the town of Petmiten, Hor-Djehuty, justified by voice, son of Padiamonemipet and lady of a house Tanetmin," the translation read.
But computer tomography conducted in 2016 suggested the mummy might be female, revealing a delicate bone structure, long hair, and mummified breasts.
How did a pregnant mummy end up in the sarcophagus meant for a male priest? The researchers weren't quite sure. It could have been a mistake. Or it's possible that grave robbers or antiquities dealers swapped the mummies to increase its resale value, a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In any case, the main mystery centers on the fetus.
"This whole discovery brought our attention to the question of why it was not removed," Wojtek Ejsmond, a co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project, told CNN. "We don't know why it was left there. Maybe there was a religious reason. Maybe they thought the unborn child didn't have a soul or that it would be safer in the next world. Or maybe it was because it was very difficult to remove a child at that stage from the womb without causing serious damage."
That the fetus wasn't extracted is especially curious considering that several of the woman's organs seem to have been removed, embalmed, and reinserted into the body, per the common mummification practices of Ancient Egypt. Could it be that the Egyptians believed the unborn baby had a soul?
It's unclear. The Egyptians had strong and complex beliefs about the afterlife. While these beliefs changed over the millennia, Egyptians generally believed that the physical body — called khet — needed to be preserved in order for the spirit (and its various parts) to journey into the underworld and, perhaps, beyond.
Given this belief system, it's understandable why the Egyptians developed such elaborate funeral and mummification rites, which often took 70 days. Of course, this process was time-consuming and expensive, usually reserved for those of royal or noble background. Common people were typically buried in the desert, wrapped in cloth and surrounded by a handful of everyday objects.
The researchers at the Warsaw Mummy Project hope their discovery will shed light on how the Egyptians conceptualized the souls of unborn children and that further interdisciplinary research can establish a cause of death for the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.
- Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
- The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
- The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
One of the oldest activities carried out by humans has been identified in a cave in South Africa. A team of geologists and archaeologists found evidence that our ancestors were making fire and tools in the Wonderwerk Cave in the country's Kalahari Desert some 1.8 million years ago.
A new study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Toronto proposes that Wonderwerk — which means "miracle" in Afrikaans — contains the oldest evidence of human activity discovered.
"We can now say with confidence that our human ancestors were making simple Oldowan stone tools inside the Wonderwerk Cave 1.8 million years ago," shared the study's lead author Professor Ron Shaar from Hebrew University.
Oldowan stone tools are the earliest type of tools that date as far back as 2.6 million years ago. An Oldowan tool, which was useful for chopping, was made by chipping flakes off of one stone by hitting it with another stone.
An Oldowan stone toolCredit: Wikimedia / Public domain
Professor Shaar explained that Wonderwerk is different from other ancient sites where tool shards have been found because it is a cave and not in the open air, where sample origins are harder to pinpoint and contamination is possible.
Studying the cave, the researchers were able to pinpoint the time over one million years ago when a shift from Oldowan tools to the earliest handaxes could be observed. Investigating deeper in the cave, the scientists also established that a purposeful use of fire could be dated to one million years back.
This is significant because examples of early fire use usually come from sites in the open air, where there is the possibility that they resulted from wildfires. The remnants of ancient fires in a cave — including burned bones, ash, and tools — contain clear clues as to their purpose.
To precisely date their discovery, the researchers relied on paleomagnetism and burial dating to measure magnetic signals from the remains hidden within a sedimentary rock layer that was 2.5 meters thick. Prehistoric clay particles that settled on the cave floor exhibit magnetization and can show the direction of the ancient earth's magnetic field. Knowing the dates of magnetic field reversals allowed the scientists to narrow down the date range of the cave layers.
The Kalahari desert Wonderwerk CaveCredit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor Ari Matmon of Hebrew University used another dating method to solidify their conclusions, focusing on isotopes within quartz particles in the sand that "have a built-in geological clock that starts ticking when they enter a cave." He elaborated that in their lab, the scientists were "able to measure the concentrations of specific isotopes in those particles and deduce how much time had passed since those grains of sand entered the cave."
Finding the exact dates of human activity in the Wonderwerk Cave could lead to a better understanding of human evolution in Africa as well as the way of life of our early ancestors.
Did the 20th century bring a breakthrough in how children are treated?
It took several thousand years for our culture to realize that a child is not an object. Learning how to treat children as humans continues to this day.
Double standards in people's approach to children were not unusual in the past. In ancient Greece, no one condemned parents for leaving a baby by the road or in the garbage. Usually, it was torn apart by animals. Less often, a passer-by would take them – not necessarily guided by mercy. After raising the orphan, the 'Good Samaritan' could sell the child at a slave market, recovering the money invested in their maintenance with interest. This kind of practice did not shock, because in the world of ancient Greece a child had the status of private property, and therefore the public and authorities were indifferent to their fate.
The exception was Sparta, but this did not mean anything good for minors. While in other poleis infanticide was left to parents, in Sparta it was managed by the council of Fyli. In Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch wrote about how the child was inspected by the Fyli elders forming the council: "If they found it stout and well made, they gave order for its rearing, and allotted to it one of the nine thousand shares of land above mentioned for its maintenance, but, if they found it puny and ill-shaped, ordered it to be taken to what was called the Apothetae, a sort of chasm under Taygetus; as thinking it neither for the good of the child itself, nor for the public interest, that it should be brought up, if it did not, from the very outset, appear made to be healthy and vigorous." The boys who passed the selection faced a rather short childhood – when they were seven, they were taken to the barracks, where they were trained to be excellent soldiers until they came of age.
Greek standards for dealing with children were modified slightly by the Romans. Until the second century BCE, citizens of the Eternal City followed the custom to put each new born baby on the ground right after delivery. If the father picked the baby up, the mother could care for it. If not, the newborn landed in the trash – someone could take them away or wild dogs would consume them. It was not until the end of the republic that this custom was considered barbaric and gradually began to fade. However, the tradition requiring that the young man or woman should remain under the absolute authority of their father was still obliged. The head of the family could even kill the offspring with impunity, although he had to consult the decision with the rest of the family beforehand.
When the Greeks and Romans did decide to look after their offspring, they showed them love and attention. In wealthier homes, special emphasis was placed on education and upbringing, so that the descendant "would desire to become an exemplary citizen, who would able to govern as well as obey orders in accordance with the laws of justice," as Plato explained in The Laws. According to the philosopher, children should be carefully looked after, and parents have the duty to care for their physical and mental development. Plato considered outdoor games combined with reading fairy tales, poetry and listening to music as the best way to achieve this goal. Interestingly, Plato did not approve of corporeal punishment as an educational measure.
The great Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch was of a similar opinion. He praised the Roman senator Cato the Elder for helping his wife to bathe their son, and not avoiding changing the baby. When the offspring grew up, the senator spent a lot of time with the boy, studied literary works with him, and taught him history, as well as horse riding and the use of weapons. Cato also condemned the beating of children, considering it to be unworthy of a Roman citizen. As prosperity grew, the revolutionary idea became increasingly popular in the republic. Educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (Quintilian) in his Institutes of Orator described corporeal punishment as "humiliating".
Another consequence of the liberalization of customs in the first century CE was taking care of girls' education and gradually equalizing their rights with those of boys. However, only Christians condemned the practice of abandonment of newborns. The new religion, garnering new followers in the Roman Empire from the third century onwards, ordered followers to care unconditionally for every being bestowed with an immortal soul.
This new trend turned out so strong that it survived even the fall of the Empire and the conquest of its lands by the Germanic peoples. Unwanted children began to end up in shelters, eagerly opened by monasteries. Moral pressure and the opportunity to give a child to the monks led to infanticide becoming a marginal phenomenon. Legal provisions prohibiting parents from killing, mutilating and selling children began to emerge. In Poland, this was banned in 1347 by Casimir the Great in his Wiślica Statutes.
However, as Philippe Ariès notes in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life: "Childhood was a period of transition which passed quickly, and which was just as quickly forgotten." As few children survived into adulthood, parents usually did not develop deeper emotional ties with their offspring. During the Middle Ages, most European languages did not even know the word 'child'.
Departure from violence
During the Middle Ages, a child became a young man at the age of eight or nine. According to canon law of the Catholic Church, the bride had to be at least 12 years old, and the groom, 14. This fact greatly hindered the lives of the most powerful families. Immediately after the child's birth, the father, wanting to increase the resources and prestige of the family, began looking for a daughter-in-law or son-in-law. While the families decided their fate, the children subject to the transaction had nothing to say. When the King of Poland and Hungary, Louis the Hungarian, matched his daughter Jadwiga with Wilhelm Habsburg, she was only four years old. The husband chosen for her was four years older. To avoid conflicts with the church, the contract between the families was called an 'engagement for the future' (in Latin: sponsalia de futuro). The advantage of these arrangements was such that if political priorities changed, they were easier to break than sacramental union. This was the case with the engagement of Hedwig, who, for the benefit of the Polish raison d'etat, at the age of 13 married Władysław II Jagiełło, instead of Habsburg.
Interest in children as independent beings was revived in Europe when antiquity was discovered. Thanks to the writings of ancient philosophers, the fashion to care for education and educating children returned. Initially, corporeal punishment was the main tool in the education process. Regular beating of the pupils was considered to be so necessary that in the monastery schools a custom of a spring trip to the birch grove arose. There, the students themselves collected a supply of sticks for their teacher for the entire year.
A change in this way of thinking came with Ignatius of Loyola's Society of Jesus, founded in 1540. The Jesuits used violence only in extraordinary situations, and corporeal punishment could only be imposed by a servant, never a teacher. The pan-European network of free schools for young people built by the order enjoyed an excellent reputation. "They were the best teachers of all," the English philosopher Francis Bacon admitted reluctantly. The successes of the order made empiricists aware of the importance of non-violent education. One of the greatest philosophers of the 17th century, John Locke, urged parents to try to stimulate children to learn and behave well, using praise above all other measures.
The aforementioned Rousseau went even further, and criticized all then patterns of treating children. According to the then fashion, noble and rich people did not deal with them, because so did the plebs. The newborn was fed by a wet-nurse, and then was passed on to grandparents or poor relatives who were paid a salary. The child would return home when they were at least five years old. The toddler suddenly lost their loved ones. Later, their upbringing and education was supervised by their strict biological mother. They saw the father sporadically. Instead of love, they received daily lessons in showing respect and obedience. Rousseau condemned all of this. "His accusations and demands shook public opinion, women read them with tears in their eyes. And just like it was once fashionable, among the upper classes, to pass on the baby to the wet-nurse, after Emil it became fashionable for the mother to breastfeed her child," wrote Stanisław Kot in Historia wychowania [The History of Education]. Still, a fashion detached from the law and exposing society to the fate of children could not change the reality.
Shelter and factory
"In many villages and towns, newborn babies were kept for twelve to fifteen days, until there were enough of them. Then they were transported, often in a state of extreme exhaustion, to the shelter," writes Marian Surdacki in Dzieci porzucone w społeczeństwach dawnej Europy i Polski [Children Abandoned in the Societies of Old Europe and Poland]. While the Old Continent elites discovered the humanity of children, less affluent residents began reproducing entirely different ancient patterns on a massive scale. In the 18th century, abandoning unwanted children again became the norm. They usually went to care facilities maintained by local communes. In London, shelters took in around 15,000 children each year. Few managed to survive into adulthood. Across Europe, the number of abandoned children in the 18th century is estimated at around 10 million. Moral condemnation by the Catholic and Protestant churches did not do much.
Paradoxically, the industrial revolution turned out to be more effective, although initially it seemed to have the opposite effect. In Great Britain, peasants migrating to the cities routinely rid themselves of bothersome progeny. London shelters were under siege, and around 120,000 homeless, abandoned children wandered the streets of the metropolis. Although most did not survive a year, those who did required food and clothes. The financing of shelters placed a heavy burden on municipal budgets. "To the parish authorities, encumbered with great masses of unwanted children, the new cotton mills in Lancashire, Derby, and Notts were a godsend," write Barbara and John Lawrence Hammond in The Town Labourer.
At the beginning of the 19th century, English shelters became a source of cheap labour for the emerging factories. Orphans had to earn a living to receive shelter and food. Soon, their peers from poor families met the same fate. "In the manufacturing districts it is common for parents to send their children of both sexes at seven or eight years of age, in winter as well as summer, at six o'clock in the morning, sometimes of course in the dark, and occasionally amidst frost and snow, to enter the manufactories, which are often heated to a high temperature, and contain an atmosphere far from being the most favourable to human life," wrote Robert Owen in 1813. This extraordinary manager of the New Lanark spinning mill built a workers' estate complete with a kindergarten. It offered care, but also taught the children of workers how to read and write.
However, Owen remained a notable exception. Following his appeal, in 1816 the British parliament set up a special commission, which soon established that as many as 20% of workers in the textile industry were under 13 years old. There were also spinning mills where children constituted 70% of the labour force. As a standard, they worked 12 hours a day, and their only day of rest was Sunday. Their supervisors maintained discipline with truncheons. Such daily existence, combined with the tuberculosis epidemic, did not give the young workers a chance to live for too long. Owen and his supporters' protests, however, hardly changed anything for many years. "Industry as such is seeking new, less skilled but cheaper, workers. Small children are most welcome," noted the French socialist Eugène Buret two decades later.
Among the documents available in the British National Archives is the report of a government factory inspector from August 1859. He briefly described the case of a 13-year-old worker, Martha Appleton, from a Wigan spinning mill. Due to unhealthy, inhumane conditions the girl fainted on the job. Her hand became caught in an unguarded machine and all her fingers on that hand were severed. Since her job required both hands to be fast and efficient, Martha was fired, noted the inspector. As he suspected, the girl fainted due to fatigue. The next day, the factory owner decided that such a defective child would be useless. So, he dismissed her.
Where a single man once worked, one now finds several children or women doing similar jobs for poor salaries, warned Eugène Buret. This state of affairs began to alarm an increasing number of people. The activities of the German educator Friedrich Fröbel had a significant impact on this: he visited many cities and gave lectures on returning children to their childhoods, encouraging adults to provide children with care and free education. Fröbel's ideas contrasted dramatically with press reports about the terrible conditions endured by children in factories.
The Prussian government reacted first, and as early as 1839 banned the employment of minors. In France, a similar ban came into force two years later. In Britain, however, Prime Minister Robert Peel had to fight the parliament before peers agreed to adopt the Factory Act in 1844. The new legislation banned children below 13 from working in factories for more than six hours per day. Simultaneously, employers were required to provide child workers with education in factory schools. Soon, European states discovered that their strength was determined by citizens able to work efficiently and fight effectively on the battlefields. Children mutilated at work were completely unfit for military service. At the end of the 19th century, underage workers finally disappeared from European factories.
In defence of the child
"Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip – a rawhide. The whip always left a black and blue mark on my body," 10-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson told a New York court in April 1874. Social activist Etty Wheeler stood in defence of the girl battered by her guardians (her biological parents were dead). When her requests for intervention were repeatedly refused by the police, the courts, and even the mayor of New York, the woman turned to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help. Its president Henry Bergh first agreed with Miss Wheeler that the child was not her guardians' property. Using his experience fighting for animal rights, he began a press and legal battle for little Wilson. The girl's testimony published in the press shocked the public. The court took the child from her guardians, and sentenced her sadistic stepmother to a year of hard labour. Mary Ellen Wilson came under the care of Etty Wheeler. In 1877, her story inspired animal rights activists to establish American Humane, an NGO fighting for the protection of every harmed creature, including children.
In Europe, this idea found more and more supporters. Even more so than among the aristocrats, the bourgeois hardly used corporeal punishment, as it was met with more and more condemnation, note Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby in A History of Private Life: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War. At the same time, the custom of entrusting the care of offspring to strangers fell into oblivion. Towards the end of the 19th century, 'good mothers' began to look after their own babies.
In 1900, Ellen Key's bestselling book The Century of the Child was published. A teacher from Sweden urged parents to provide their offspring with love and a sense of security, and limit themselves to patiently observe how nature takes its course. However, her idealism collided with another pioneering work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The authors postulated that we ought to "replace home education by social". The indoctrination of children was to be dealt with by school and youth organizations, whose aim was to prepare young people to fight the conservative generation of parents for a new world.
Did the 20th century bring a breakthrough in how children are treated? In 1924, the League of Nations adopted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The opening preamble stated that "mankind owes to the child the best that it has to give." This is an important postulate, but sadly it is still not implemented in many places around the world.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel