BMCR 1990.01.05

Children and Childhood in Classical Athens

, Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Ancient History and Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. xix, 268 pages. ISBN 1421416859

This intelligent and readable survey begins with an uncharacteristically vague chapter on “Characteristics of Childhood” (they’re childlike), a chapter on “The Child in the Household and the Community” (very active in religion) and a chapter on “The Child and His or Her Peers” (games and festivals for both, homosexuality for boys). The bulk of the book studies the “affective relations involving children and their parents (Chapter 4), their siblings and grandparents (Chapter 5), and the slaves and other outsiders who shared the household with them (Chapter 6).” Although the topic sounds impossible given the ancient evidence (and that conclusion is never far from the surface), G raises such interesting issues and brings so much thoughtful analysis to the exiguous material that one hardly notices the (often signalled) lack of striking conclusions.

The lack of forced conclusions is one of the book’s main strengths—G knows how impressionistic, incomplete and inconclusive the evidence is and yet can be thoughtful about the most familiar texts and sceptical about about the most obvious conclusions. Thus, “Euripides’ characters can be quoted as evidence for almost every attitude” (90); “data from one society cannot replace evidence missing from another; they can only and at best lead to hypotheses that may make sense of scanty or unsatisfactory sources, or provide a connection with evidence that might otherwise appear irrelevant” (158); and, my favorite, “any classicist of average ingenuity can link most changes affecting any branch of social life to them [large-scale datable events] with a fair chance of persuading many of those outside his special field and none of his fellow workers” (171).

G’s range is wide—literary, historical, forensic and epigraphical texts, vases and funeral stelae—and in most cases his treatment sophisticated. He admits to amateur status about vases and may be a bit optimistic in his use of philosophical texts, but he is never obtuse. He cites half a thousand works in his bibliography (a significant minority from non-classical sociology, psychology and anthropology), and his notes, mainly references to primary sources, run to half a hundred pages. This may sound heavy, but G presents his material with light hand, leavening the mass with modern authors (Bellow, Forster, Mao Zedong), with modern thought-bites (child-rearing was not, as claimed, “ghastly slaughter”; grandparents and grandchildren seem not to have Radcliffe-Brown’s “joking relationship”), usually tested and discarded, and with a quick but not breezy tempo (even a bad pun or two). There is originality as well: extended arguments for the boy’s introduction to the phratry via the koureion at 16; for the Greek dowry being, like the Roman, not large; for the controlling presence of slaves in the Choephoroi indicating disorder.

The book is filled with thoughtful, challenging comments and judgments such as: 24—”girls’ names were for the most part simply feminine forms of boys'”(some statistics would help); 46—children played children’s roles in drama; 48—Brelich’s proposed initiation system based on Lys. 641ff is wrong; 55—in the game “runaway slave” the role-reversal “implicitly challenges the master-slave hierarchy fundamental to classical Greek society” (though I doubt that blindfolding the “master” constituted “role-reversal” as much as it made the game interesting); 58—Athenians had no “notion equivalent to statutory rape” (vs Cohen); 59—vase conventions that deny the eromenos’ subordinate status (older partner bends knees) are less to distinguish them from women (the usual view) than citizen paides from slave paides (questionable hypotheses but worth pursuing); 72—”wagons for boys, ducks and dolls for girls” on funerary monuments; 111—based on Saller’s tables “only one or two of every ten men reaching the age of marriage would still have a father alive” yet “more fathers would live to see at least one son married”; 128—a survey of 186 societies found “nonparental caretaking is either the norm or a significant form of caretaking in most…we can say no more than that this presumption is consistent with the [Athenian] iconographic evidence”; 132—”dowries at Athens were moderate, comparable to those at Rome”; 135—”a student of the modern Mediterrranean family observes that sisters rarely squabble over property”; 146—”even among the relatively well-to- do many mothers breast-fed their own children”; 147—slaves were “like another necessary luxury, the automobile”; 155-57—Gouldner’s hypothesis that a child’s relationship to slaves, who must “speak on behalf of values manifestly not possessed by him,” causes him “to develop a special sensitivity to the reponses of others … to be a member of a shame culture” is ultimately rejected: “I suspect that the values of parents and slaves differed less…and that differences which did exist relatively rarely came to the attention of children”; 162-63—father-beating and slave-beating in Comedy both rely on “the tension between individual emotional responses and community values…the closeness of childhood attachments to the household’s slaves might pose problems for a society based on the dehumanization of slaves in general.”

I missed Brule’s La Fille d’Athenes (Paris 1987) and Sourvinou-Inwood’s Girls’ Transitions (Athens 1988); Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (Princeton 1989) undoubtedly came out too late. G’s bibliography, though aging (28 items from 1987, 18 from 1988, 3 from 1989), has something for everyone. Finally, the 17 illustrations are, though unsurprising, a nice complement to the text, and the index is very good.