Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.03.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.03.17

Mark Golden, Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Second edition (first edition 1990). Ancient society and history.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.  Pp. xix, 243.  ISBN 9781421416861.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jennifer Martinez Morales, University of Liverpool (


In this revised second edition of his pioneering work on childhood in Classical Athens, Mark Golden once more delivers an engaging and informative account of ancient Athenian children and childhood. The volume could not have appeared in a more appropriate scholarly context, as recent trends in scholarship reflect the growing interest in ancient Greek children and childhood.1 Golden’s revised edition is the pinnacle of this.

The structure of the volume is the same as the first edition. The chapters, for example, retain their headings and organisation. Thus, with the exception of the last chapter, I will not address the main arguments chapter by chapter. Rather, I will shed light on the new additions and changes that affect the main arguments. New evidence has been added to the content and, most importantly, the last chapter (which was criticised by earlier reviewers2) has been completely rewritten to include some of Golden’s post-1990s work. Footnotes have also been amended, recent scholarship introduced, and the index divided into a source index and a subject index.

Of notable mention in this second edition is the use of new and recent archaeological evidence. In chapter 1, Golden recognises the difficulty of identifying ‘visual cues’ for distinguishing children in Athenian art (grave stelae, Greek painted pottery). He presents the example of Epherus: an adult athlete in his grave stele, but a young boy in the burial (15). The stele of Xanthippus, which Golden previously thought depicted only Xanthippus’ daughters, has been reinterpreted and seen in a new light following Lesley Beaumont, who argues that the tallest female in the stele is perhaps Xanthippus’ wife.3 On occasion, new and additional material evidence is introduced to strengthen a particular argument. For example, in chapter 2, when addressing the role of children in household rituals, Golden takes account of the number of Attic votives that depict children to reinforce his argument about the importance of children in sacrifices and rituals in a private domestic environment (26). The use of archaeology may be problematic in only one instance. When addressing the social life of girls, Golden argues that the girl holding the tablets in the famous kylix in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (06.1021.167) is perhaps ‘an educated (and expensive) hetaera, not a respectable citizen girl at all’ (62). Besides Beaumont, there are other recent studies demonstrating that the identity of girls and women in Attic painted pottery is a complex topic and challenging to say the least.4 A quick acknowledgement in the footnote would have been helpful here. Nevertheless, Golden does (as in the first edition) successfully recognise the different childhood experiences of boys and girls (38-39, 69-70). He is aware of the context of the artistic evidence and situates children among others in the scene (in keeping with the emphasis on child-adult relationships).

Modern comparative material has been incorporated, sometimes replacing old comparative examples. For instance, when arguing that children were considered a ‘prudent investment’ in ancient Athenian society (79), Golden considers the difference from today’s world where the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (80) attempts to regulate the exploitation of children through forced labour. However, another perspective is that of children actually demanding to work (Golden refers here to the Bangladeshi garment industry in the 1990s). These conflicting viewpoints coexist today. The main point is to demonstrate how difficult it is to separate ‘practicality and sentiment’ (80). These examples (as well as that of British young workers) replace a discussion in the first edition (93) of Bernard Vennier’s analyses of Dodecanese village marriages. These new examples better demonstrate Golden’s main argument.

It is refreshing to see that despite earlier minor criticism5 Golden has retained his sceptical approach to reaching one final conclusion with regards to childhood in Classical Athens. The diversity and flexibility for which Golden argues is very much welcome. Working in a field suffering from fragmentary evidence and the different agendas of ancient sources (and indeed, genres), Golden makes a convincing case for recognising some change within boundaries. Scepticism is what actually allows him to formulate his argument for diversity throughout. Without Golden’s cautionary approach, this would have been just another book on ancient childhood, but thankfully it is not.

The last chapter, which in the first edition focused on New Comedy, has been completely re-written to focus on ‘change’ in ancient Athenian childhood. It first addresses a case study from Hellenistic childhood and ends with Golden’s concluding thoughts on ancient Athenian childhood. The reader will not find a concluding answer here. Instead, Golden shows the difficulty of identifying one particular change in attitudes towards children, particularly in the cases of the representations of young children and in the exposure of children. The tendency of modern scholars to identify major trends in one particular period (whether Classical, Hellenistic or Roman) is also challenged. Golden convincingly argues: (i) that it is hard to address change over time when the evidence for the Classical period is so fragmented, (ii) that there will never be agreement, and (iii) that what we today may perceive as a ‘change’ is in fact due to the lack of evidence for ancient childhood.

Golden ends up arguing for many changes in ancient Athenian childhood during the Classical period. Unlike others, however, he actually questions whether they are really changes. He convincingly cautions us against the mounting (and worrying) tendency to interpret the increasing prominence of children in art as evidence for a rise in status (150-151). A modern example is very illustrative. Golden uses Canada’s youth, the country’s ban on corporal punishment in schools, and the government’s promise to eliminate poverty back in 1989, among other things, to demonstrate how the visibility of children in society, politics and media does not actually correspond to the status of those individuals – in this case, Canadian children. In a very Goldenesque way, he then turns the question on itself, asking whether loss of visibility equates to a loss of status, and status is yet again not pertinent.

It is ironic that Golden feels he has reached a dead end when, in fact, this revised edition shows the way forward. There is no aporia here. Golden’s call for methodological diversity, constant fluidity and caution is the way forward. Without realizing it, the author has already reached his most important conclusion. I hope, as Golden does, that future studies grow out of this. In the meantime, in response to Golden’s final words, I will take his advice and spend my energies on changes I can make today.

There are no factual errors and, as far as one can see, no grammatical errors (only one minor inaccuracy on page 80 when addressing child labour discussed in a previous chapter – i.e. a reference to ‘chapter 3’ should refer to ‘chapter 2’). Overall, this is a very practical book that does not dwell on theoretical ideas and debates about ancient Athenian childhood. Rather, it addresses the social reality of children and childhood, especially in relation to adults. Students of the ancient world will find a wealth of new evidence here (especially archaeological), while academics will find the new arguments presented in a renewed and appealing way.


1.   Not by any means an exhaustive list, but see for example, Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy edited by Ada Cohen and Jeremy B. Rutter (2007) and The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World edited by Judith Evans Grubbs and Tim Parkin (2013).
2.   Garland, R. (1993) The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 113, 205-206. Strauss, B. S. (1993) Classical Philology, 88, 90-94.
3.   Beaumont’s recent work is a major influence on this new edition. Beaumont, L. (2012) Childhood in Classical Athens: Iconography and Social History.
4.   For example, Lewis, S. (2002) The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook, especially pages 22, 31.
5.   Strauss 1993, 92.

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