Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.29

Judith Evans Grubbs, Tim Parkin (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World. Oxford handbooks.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxiii, 690.  ISBN 9780199781546.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Reading (


This volume contains thirty chapters divided among six sections: ‘Gestation, birth, disease, and death’, ‘Children and childhood in ancient Greece’, ‘Children and childhood in ancient Rome’, ‘Education and educational philosophy in the Classical world’, ‘Children in the Eastern Mediterranean’, and ‘Late antiquity and early Christianity’. As suggested by these headings, the writers pay much more attention to childhood than to education; there are only five chapters in the section focussing on education, and surprisingly few of the chapters in the other sections devote significant space to the issue. So although this work is not a good investment for those interested in education, it is better value than it appears for those interested in other aspects of childhood.

The work opens with an introduction summarizing previous literature relevant to the topics in this volume, nearly all of which is said to have been written in the past three decades; earlier work is generally mentioned only to make the point that it is superseded. This is unfortunate, for particularly in the area of ancient education quite a lot that was written a long time ago has not been superseded, not even in the most basic sense of there being a more recent work to which one can turn for approximately the same factual information. Indeed one rather gets the impression from the discussion of literature that in the minds of the editors factual information is not what matters; for example, despite falling within the three-decade period, Raffaella Cribiore’s fundamental work Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta 1996), which collects and publishes the papyri, ostraca, and tablets from ancient schools, is not mentioned once. Interpretations are important, certainly, but facts are an indispensable basis for interpretation, and readers new to the subject in particular — a significant part of the target audience for this volume — need to be told what factual information is available and how to find it.

Fortunately, some of the contributors have a healthy appreciation of the value of hard evidence. One such is the intriguingly-titled chapter ‘Babies in the well: archaeological evidence for newborn disposal in Hellenistic Greece’ (pp. 62-82), by Maria A. Liston and Susan I. Rotroff. The authors of this chapter do a marvellous job of making technical archaeological evidence accessible to non-specialist readers, as they sort through the thousands of bones found in layers of fill in a well in Athens. These bones include 449 skeletons of very young babies and fetuses, a few older humans, and more than 150 skeletons of dogs and puppies. The authors suggest that the babies and fetuses represent the results of the high infant mortality rates known to have existed in ancient Athens; most probably died at or soon after birth (some skeletons show signs of defects and illnesses likely to lead to early death, and one slightly older child appears to have been battered) and may have been deposited in the well by midwives, perhaps with the accompaniment of dog sacrifices, at a rate of about 30 per year for approximately 15 years from c. 165 to c. 150 BC. Regular cemeteries contain a far lower percentage of newborns than actually died, so the information from the well is crucial to filling gaps in our understanding of infant mortality in ancient Athens.

Lesley Beaumont’s chapter ‘Shifting gender: age and social status as modifiers of childhood gender in ancient Athens’ (pp. 195-206) considers the interaction between (social) age and (social) gender in the classical period. The author claims that babies had ‘gender-neutral status’, on the grounds that their grave goods do not contain gender-specific items; social gender began around the age of three and progressed differently for males and females. Girls went almost directly from childhood to full maturity, being expected to marry and have their own children immediately after puberty, while boys had a long and sexually ambiguous adolescence in which they could play the part of the eromenos. While much of this argument makes good sense, I was surprised at the gender-neutral babies. Can it really be the case that funerary practices constitute the entire evidence for the gender of Athenian infants, and does the burial of an infant, who in life would not have been capable of using toys, with nothing but a feeding bottle really demonstrate that in the eyes of its parents it had no gender?

Another interesting chapter is Mark Golden’s ‘Children in Latin Epic’ (pp. 249-63). After a sweeping overview of the treatment of child characters in epics from Ennius to Silius, Golden focuses on the peculiar position of foster children. Historical Romans, including some of the epic poets themselves, often raised foster children, including favourite slaves, and like any adoptive parent they could become deeply attached to these children. Golden points out the prominence in Silver Latin epic of foster-children and their tragic deaths and suggests a connection with social changes in the Roman aristocracy in the late first century AD: the old biological, patriarchal families were breaking down, leading to social debate about nature and nurture.

Matthew Dillon’s chapter ‘Engendering the scroll: girls’ and women’s literacy in classical Greece’ (pp. 396-417) begins by pointing to clear evidence for the education of girls in fifth-century Athens. He argues that Spartan girls, who are often thought to have been educated, were illiterate even in the royal family, but that many Athenian citizen women learned to read and write; the main evidence in this direction comes from vase paintings. Certainly the vases depicting human girls and women reading or carrying writing implements are persuasive in this direction, but I was more uncomfortable about the author’s assertion that depictions of the Muses and the Sphinx as literate reflect literacy among real Athenian women. How far can one take the extrapolation from mythological to historical women — do depictions of Athena as a warrior reflect the military training of Athenian women? It is clear from the author’s protests that earlier scholars have interpreted many of the literate women on the vases as slaves or hetairai, an interpretation that he rejects in favour of citizen women (even Aspasia, he argues, was not literate); I wished that some evidence for this re-interpretation had been presented, since to my eyes no distinguishing features in either direction were evident on the photographs provided. I would also have liked to know the reason for the claim ‘Nor are these vase scenes mere stereotypes of women as engaged in reading and music rendition, but actual portrayals of living women’ (p. 404). But the point that adult men are never shown reading or writing on Attic vases, and that in vase iconography literate boys are less common than literate women (it is not stated whether these figures include Muses and the Sphinx), is a striking one.

In sharp contrast to the small amounts of evidence available for some portions of the ancient world, Roman Egypt is illuminated by mountains of papyri. April Pudsey’s chapter ‘Children in Roman Egypt’ (pp. 484-509) makes use of several different types. Census records reveal a family structure very different from our own: newly-married couples tended to live with the man’s family, so most children were born into households that contained not only their parents but also their paternal uncles and, very often, their paternal cousins. One might expect that such households would also contain grandparents, but owing to short lifespans most men and even a fair number of women died before their grandchildren were born. The children of individual couples tended to be widely spaced, so that some might be adults while others were babies; the author attributes this spacing to the combined effect of high infant mortality and a high birth rate (the latter being the parents’ reaction to the infant mortality). The type of family into which a child was born therefore tended to include numerous siblings and cousins of widely varying ages, a group of aunts and uncles, and sometimes a grandmother; all these people might be involved in caring for a child. Many children were exposed at birth, and many of those were collected and raised as slaves; such children needed wet-nurses, who were also used in some families where babies remained with their biological mothers.

Although in general the volume is well edited, there are occasionally surprising statements (for example, the definition on p. 1 of ‘the classical period’ as ‘the Mediterranean world between ca. 800 B.C.E. and ca. 500 C.E.’ seems to conflate ‘classical period’ with ‘antiquity’ in a way that will distress readers used to more subtle distinctions). There are also more punctuation and typographical errors than necessary; for the price charged for this book, the reader deserves proper copy-editing.

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