Fragments of Childhood Growing Up in Ancient Greece

By Riechers, Maggie | Humanities, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Fragments of Childhood Growing Up in Ancient Greece


Riechers, Maggie, Humanities


IN THE GREEK MYTH OF HERCULES, the story's hero demonstrates his superhuman strength and skill even as an infant, strangling snakes sent to his crib by Hera, who was jealous of Zeus's affair with a mortal woman. In another myth, the baby Perseus is put out to sea in a box. Both heroes face and overcome mortal dangers as toddlers, perhaps as a warning of the perils of childhood.

Observing the lives of young deities and heroes in myths can give some sense of what everyday life was like for the average Greek child. The scene of young Achilles being brought to his teacher is depicted on one vase and another shows Hermes spinning a top for children. Yet our knowledge of what childhood was like in ancient Greece has been sketchy, based on what can be gleaned from comments casually made in poetry, history, and plays. An exhibition, "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past," on display at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and supported by NEH, attempts to overcome the lack of textual evidence about childhood in Greece and learn about the lives of children through interpreting the works of art, artifacts, and grave site memorials. A catalog exploring childhood in antiquity accompanies the exhibition.

"No one tells the full story," says Jenifer Neils, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. Neils is cocurator of the exhibition with John Oakley, chair of classical studies at the College of William and Mary. "We wanted to look at depictions in art to see what they could tell about children." The exhibition brings together vase paintings, terra-cotta, bronze sculpture, and stelae-marble grave memorials to individual children who died young-and examines depictions of children and their activities. Included are artifacts relating to children such as high chairs and baby bottles in the shape of animals.

Although childhood is a universal experience, the specifics of children's lives vary from culture to culture, shedding light on each society's values. "The study of childhood in ancient Greece can illuminate both what is universal and what is specific about child rearing, what effects this might have had on Greek civilization," write Neils and Oakley in their introduction to the catalog.

Jill Korbin, professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, considers the question: why study childhood at all? "Children are now no longer seen as mere passive recipients of culture passed on by their elders," she writes. "Children are seen as having agency, and their own perspective on the world around them, as shapers of the forces in turn shaping them. . . . This exhibition . . . can help us to understand children in ancient Greece and help us to better comprehend the questions about childhood that are relevant not only in antiquity but also in the diverse cultures of the contemporary world."

It turns out there was a "youth culture" in ancient Greece. "Half the population in fifth-century Greece was under fifteen," notes Neils. "Greek art in many ways was the first to represent a child's life naturalistically, showing them playing, and as chubby babies and in correct proportions as they grew older."

Neils notes that a series of wine jugs, or choes, made for a child, showed the different stages of development he underwent from the smallest jug showing a crawling baby, to the next size showing a toddler pushing a cart, to a child playing, to a teenager entering the military. "These images reflect that they understood the stages of child development," says Neils. "We thought that idea began with Erik Erikson."

Whether life was hard for a child or fun depended, much as it does today, on which social class a child was born into. Certainly, the life of a child of an aristocrat or citizen was different from the life of a child slave. It is mostly the aristocrats who are shown on the vase paintings. Lives also varied from one city-state to another. …

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