BMCR 2004.07.44

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past

, , , , , Coming of age in ancient Greece : images of childhood from the classical past. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2003. xvii, 333 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 31 cm. ISBN 0300099592. $40.00 (pb).

This catalogue is a valuable contribution to the growing discipline of childhood studies. The essays in the collection admirably accomplish that difficult task of being accessible to the non-specialist while remaining useful to the specialist. While the objects in the exhibition were primarily drawn from N. American collections (a limitation determined by logistics), the items the organizers collected is quite comprehensive. Moreover, images of further artifacts not included in the exhibit amply highlight the essays (these figures are numbered separately in each essay). A summary of the developments in the history of childhood and previous image collections of Greek children appears in the editor’s introduction. A brief glossary (pp.319-21) provides a helpful guide to transliterated Greek terms for the non-specialist.

The first half of the volume comprises six essays by important scholars on a well-organized spectrum of topics. Korbin’s “Prologue: a perspective from contemporary childhood studies” begins the collection with an outsider’s perspective on the exhibit. She reflects the recent scholarly trend of treating children not “as mere passive recipients of culture” but rather as agents themselves, who help shape their own world as well as are molded by it (p.8). Yet, attaining that child’s perspective is problematic when our ancient sources, visual as well as textual, are almost all the works of adults. They often, as Korbin notes, “address the concepts of childhood [rather] than the actual lives of children” (p. 8). Nevertheless, as the exhibit was designed with active participation of actual children in mind, so the book includes artifacts of actual children and their own perspectives to the extent possible. The catalogue includes artifacts which demonstrate a shift towards a realistic portrayal of children, along with tools and toys employed by children, e.g., infant feeders (cat. 30-33), knucklebones (cat. 88-90) and other toys (cat. 69-74), and writing exercises and instruments (cat. 49-53). Rutter cites the palm prints of children on linear B tablets as perhaps reflecting their task of preparing the unbaked tablets for older scribes (p.48). Foley provides an epigram dedicating a garment woven by the poet and her mother (p. 118-119). Golden not only discusses a letter written by a child (p. 14, n. 5) but also quotes from modern children on ancient childhood (p.16). Thus, while much of the volume is limited to ancient conceptions about children, valuable in and of themselves, the contributors have not ignored the actual children.

While Korbin notes commonalities of childhood, ancient and modern, she also draws out the alterities. She speaks of “multiple childhoods rather than a universal lifestage experience” (p. 9). In this, she is not just arguing for the importance of cultural and historical contextualization but also for the recognition of a varied intra-societal experience according to class, age, and gender. The subsequent articles exemplify this nuanced approach to childhood well. Indeed, Golden opens his article “Childhood in ancient Greece” on precisely this point, comparing how Aeschines and Plutarch describe Demosthenes mourning for his daughter. Through these, Golden introduces the issues of “gender, diversity within and across communities, continuity and change over time, sentiment, power, and conflict” (p.13). Golden proceeds to address all these issues, and the breadth of his topic thus entails a rather cursory examination of the evidence. Golden’s essay nevertheless provides an impressive multitude of ancient examples. While space disallows in-depth discussion of these, Golden is careful to note where controversies exist which he necessarily glosses over (e.g., in his conventional description of Spartan childhood). Moreover, he provides adequate references in the notes for the reader to follow up further both on the primary examples as well as secondary scholarly discussion.

The breadth of Golden’s topic results from its function as a holistic introduction to ancient Greek childhood. His essay is followed by two historical surveys in chronological order (Rutter on prehistoric and Beaumont on historic childhood), two essays on gender and familial relations (by Shapiro on fathers and sons and Foley on mothers and daughters), and two on ritual and religious aspects by the editors (Neils on religion and Oakley on death). Nevertheless, Golden tends to focus on classical Athenian childhood and primarily on textual evidence. His article, thus, becomes a nice complement to the survey by Beaumont in “The Changing Face of Childhood.”

Beaumont examines how perception of childhood was filtered through art in the sixth through fourth centuries BCE. She pays attention not only to changes in the physical characteristics of the children themselves (from miniature adults to realistic children) but also to their circumstantial characteristics (from infrequent appearances, secondary to adult scenes, and in inexpensive media to more frequent appearances, in child-centered scenes, and in more expensive media such as stone statuary). Beaumont links many of the iconographic developments to the social effects of political changes.

Beaumont argues that archaic art reflects the “insignificant social status,” even the “social irrelevance” of children per se. Their significance, she suggests, lies with the continuation of aristocratic oikoi and creation of alliances between such and thus derives only from their potential as future adults. During this period, children appear as miniature adults and even then rarely, and usually as tangential props in adult-centered scenes. Kourotrophos figurines are one exception to the scarcity of young children, as are adolescents, who, as those about to achieve their adult potential, are commonly depicted.

Iconography of children gradually changes over the fifth century. Social changes brought about by the Cleisthenic democracy, Beaumont argues, led to increased prominence of children. While new, child-centered scenes appear, she also notes shifts even in types of scenes continued from the archaic period. For example, mother and child move from being secondary props in archaic warrior farewell scenes to being accorded equal space and significance in red-figured variations.

In their discussions of the classical period, Beaumont and Golden form two sides of the scholarly debate over how exclusive or inclusive were the democracy and its institutions. In respect to children (future citizens), this debate plays out as a question of the extensiveness of education and literacy. Beaumont draws on red-figure schoolroom scenes, with their new emphasis on literacy, to suggest that a broader spectrum of Athenians was investing in formal education for sons to prepare them to fully engage in civic and political life (pp. 65-7). On the other side, while Golden argues that “most boys probably got some taste of school,” he emphasizes the restriction of any extensive education to the very elite (pp. 18-19). He suggests that even the tribal choruses — one form of public investment in widespread training of Athenian boys, involving 500 annually in the City Dionysia alone — probably overrepresented the sons of the elite (p.19).

Beaumont follows developments at Athens down through the fifth century. She links interest in actual domestic scenes (vs. mythic ones, see below) in the second half of the fifth century to the Periclean citizenship law of 451/450. Beaumont notes that in this same period children also emerge in sculpture and other expensive, monumental art. The greatest naturalism appears in the late fifth century, which she links again to historical effects: demographic woes of war and plagues. Her perspective broadens back out to the Greek world in general as she considers the fourth century and Hellenistic periods. Here, Beaumont finds that trends in the depictions of children in art match larger, general trends in art: an increased interest in individualism and sentimentalization. The emphasis is now on the child as individual rather than as member of the family or polis. Servant and slave children are also depicted. Votives now include expensive stone statues of infants and young children, but they now appear solo or accompanied by a pet rather than in a kourotrophos group.

Accompanying her discussion of mortal children, Beaumont also considers the changing depictions of mythic children, a topic she has examined more in depth elsewhere.1 The chronology of depictions of mythic children diverges from that of mortal children. Beaumont defines the greatest floruit of mythic children on vases from 490-440 BCE. Their depictions drop off as those of mortal children in daily-life scenes increase and become more realistic.

Preceding Beaumont’s essay, Rutter traces childhood for ten thousand years, from the Mesolithic down to the beginning of the Iron Age in “Children in Aegean Prehistory.” Rutter examines burial practices and goods as well artistic depictions. He organizes his material primarily by chronology and secondarily by site. A table (p. 32) provides a handy guide to periods, places, and societies covered in his essay. Much of his discussion focuses on the identification of children in art, a primary concern before one can consider their activities and social roles depicted. As part of this identification of children, he also provides a summary of age-signs used in analyzing prehistoric iconography, noting that scholars have identified “up to five stages of female development and as many as nine for males” (n.66).

The schematic modeling of most Neolithic and early Bronze Age figurines prevents the positive identification of child-figurines except in cases of undisturbed assemblages, such as the kourotrophos from Sesklo (the first of this very common type in Western art) or the familial group in the house model from Platia Magoula Zarkou. Yet, since figural groups of two or more are extremely rare down through the middle Bronze Age, identification of human children is rare. Identifiable children are also absent in Mycenean wall painting, although the kourotrophos terracotta figurine is one of the most frequent Mycenean types. The preponderance of visual evidence for Aegean childhood thus derives from Minoan art, with its greater realism and abundance (both in types of depictions and numbers).

Indeed, the accurate child physiognomy of Minoan depictions is not recaptured until the late 5th century BCE. Despite this realistic physiognomy, Rutter notes, discussions of age-signs have tended not to focus on bodily proportions but rather on hairstyle and stature. Rutter provides illustrations of a variety of hairstyles as age-signs in figures 22-23 (p.44). Nudity provides a further age-sign and sex-sign, denoting male children. While there is debate over whether white skin in frescoes serves as an age- or sex-sign, Rutter comes down with the majority that it denotes females rather than youth. On Thera, skin color does seem to denote the age of the youngest boys, but there they appear with yellow ocher skin color (as opposed to red or white). Outside frescoes, gender seems an important dividing category among different genres in Minoan art. Rutter notes ivory figurines are almost exclusively male (a Late Minoan female triad with a little girl proves the exception), as are terracotta model groups and low relief images of possible rites of passage on various vessels. Signet rings and seals, on the other hand, depict girls rather than boys. Most intriguing is Rutter’s conclusion about the differences between mainland and Minoan conception of childhood. On the mainland, the children appear “first and foremost as junior family members” whereas Minoans focus on children per se and their development through stages of life as individuals or in peer groups (p.49).

Both ancient and modern discussion of Greek father-son relations often focus on the conflicts between the two, especially as the latter came of age. Shapiro takes a different tack, however, in “Fathers and Sons, Men and Boys,” examining absent and surrogate parents of pre-ephebic boys in myth and society. Shapiro begins his essay with two considerations of mythic families. First, he considers the absent divine parent (excepting Dionysos, who appears as an affectionate father-figure). Myth, Shapiro finds, is not concerned with the absent, if not also apathetic, father. The mythic parental relationship is significant mostly in its status rather than actual paternal involvement. Thus Ion, virtually ignored by his father, nevertheless allows the Athenians to claim Apollo as their ancestor. Shapiro turns then to heroic sons as providing both positive and negative examples of familial relations. Although the father is absent here as well, replaced by one or more surrogates, it seems to be the mother who plays the heavy. So, for example, Achilles is sent off by Peleus to Chiron not only for education but also to provide a surrogate mother in Thetis’ absence. In a variation of the black-figure departure of warrior scenes, Amphiaraos says goodbye to his wife, Eriphyle, and son, Alkmaion. As Eriphyle has taken a bribe to send his father on this fatal expedition to Thebes, myth tells us that Alkmaion will kill her to avenge his absent father. Herakles, surprisingly, becomes the model of the present, loving father/husband at the beginning and end of the fifth century.

With this mythic foil, Shapiro then considers what sorts of activities bring mortal fathers and sons together in Athenian art. Most depictions appear in a religious context rather than one of secular daily life. Where the father and son appear apart from the broader family, often the scene is associated with a maturation ritual or deity. This is true both of sculpture and of vase painting. Among these, Shapiro notes two large choes which depict father and sons together (fig. 18 and one by the Eretria Painter). While both of Shapiro’s examples do seem connected with Anthesteria ritual, it is worth noting that adult males are virtually absent on the smaller choes whose iconography is more closely tied to the rituals of the Anthesteria than that of the full-sized choes. Even in the frequent banqueting scenes with boys on the small and miniature choes, at which one might expect to find the accompanying fathers, the older males are absent.

In secular contexts, once again Shapiro finds the fathers absent. When they do make a rare appearance in domestic contexts, the fathers tends to stand to one side as passive observers. Shapiro finds fathers engaged in daily activities with their sons primarily where there is a financial concern, such as a the purchase of new shoes or a female prostitute for the son. Shapiro thus suggests that the purse becomes a symbol of adulthood and “economic power and hence freedom and independence.” In contrast to the possible scene of father and son at a brothel (cat. 62), youths are not under their fathers’ care in scenes of homosexual courtship but are left to fend for themselves. These might involve gifts, but would not be financial transactions if the boy was to maintain his citizen status.

If recovering the insider’s view of ancient childhood is difficult, how much more so that of girls and their relationship with their mothers. So Foley notes at the outset of “Mothers and Daughters.” The privacy of Greek women’s lives engenders close and lasting relationships among female family members but also hinders our access to those relationships. Thus, one finds a mixture of evidence in her account, from the mythic to the historical, literary and documentary, textual and iconographic, Archaic through Hellenistic, from all around the Greek world. Foley is careful, however, to note where possible the geographic and temporal provenance of her evidence and to distinguish idealizing portraits from probable realities. She includes several ancient quotes at length, including a Hellenistic marriage contract (p. 122). She draws on this diverse evidence to trace the relations of daughters and their mothers throughout the life-cycle of women, from birth, through childhood, marriage, post-marriage relations between adult daughters and their mothers (and sometimes sisters), and finally death.

Foley focuses on secular, daily life of girls and women. She pays attention to the activities engaged in, the values to be instilled, and the emotional relationships, both positive and negative. She discusses festivals and rituals, but primarily insofar as they affect the participants’ social lives (festivals occasioning rape, which leads to marriage and motherhood; marriage mainly insofar as it removes a girl from her natal home and childhood). Foley does detail wedding preparations and rituals depicted on vases. Her concern, however, is not with the ceremony itself, but how the painters romanticized the ceremony and thus affected its reception by the bride. So, for example, although the groom was likely to be bearded and much older than the bride in reality, on vases he often appears as “youthful and beardless, making him less a threatening and perhaps more romantic figure to a teenaged bride” (p. 126). Nevertheless, her removal from the natal home remains one of the most traumatic events of a girl’s life.

Neils provides a more central focus on ritual and religion in her essay “Children and Greek Religion.” Here, she surveys what has been said on three aspects of religious life: children as objects of worship, rituals for children, and children as participants in adult rituals. In the first section, Neils discusses gods who are youthful abstractions of positive qualities, especially Eros, and hero cults to ahoroi (untimely dead, though she does not use the term). She notes that the males who become worshipped are victims of accidents or murder. The girls are sacrificial victims or suicides (or both — sacrificial suicides). One might also note that the males seem to be infants or young boys whereas the girls are adolescent.

Neils’ second section covers rituals done on behalf of children (for the unborn and newborn) as well as those actively participated in by children. She begins with rituals concerning the very young, and then those of girls, then returns to a more general survey of ritual activities of boys (athletic and musical contests) and ends with mixed choral performances of boys and girls. Although these rituals and festivals are loosely organized, she creates a natural flow between the festivals. She provides age of participation insofar as possible. Among these, she suggests an age of 14 for the koureion rite at the Apatouria. While fourteen was seen as the age for hebe (as physical puberty), one should note most scholars set the age of the koureion later, usually at 16.2

In her final section, Neils reviews the roles that children played in adult rituals, both as members of a family group and in public sanctuaries and rituals. She concludes with one of the most famous and most controversial images of children assisting in ritual: the central scene of the Parthenon’s east frieze (fig. 24). She argues that the child assisting the priest must be male. Her earlier discussion in this section has set up this conclusion, both in terms of examining clothing and drapery as sex markers and in discussing the male identity of priests’ assistants on vases.

Oakley ends the essays with “Death and the Child.” Death was far too common a part of ancient childhood, both in terms of the high child mortality rates (Oakley cites ca. 1 in 3 during 480-323 BCE) and in terms of loss of a parent. Funerary preparations were carried out in the household, and Oakley provides a well-illustrated account of these and the presence and participation of children. Most notable is a plaque by the Sappho Painter (fig. 3) on which the familial relations to the dead are labeled. In this and other scenes, Oakley notes that the emotional response of children, male and female, is equated with that of adult females, i.e., lacking the restraint of the adult males. Children also seek contact with their deceased loved ones, as a terracotta model from Vari so movingly shows: a child has climbed on top of the shrouded corpse (fig. 6). Oakley follows the funeral out to the grave, illustrated with beautiful, often full-color photos of vases, especially white ground lekythoi, both of children mourning (fig. 8) and deceased (Cat. 116).

Oakley then turns to the grave itself and the evidence for child burial. Practices varied over time and place, and Oakley centers his discussion on Athens but with some examples from elsewhere. He examines the disposition of the body and grave goods. The small choes, which unsurprisingly play a leitmotif throughout the volume, receive note, as do other miniatures, jewelry, baby feeders, and, more surprisingly, pets buried with their young owners. Summarizing previous work by Houby-Nielsen, he provides a useful analysis of burial practices in the Kerameikos by age, gender, and time period. In contrast to the care given the immature members of the community at death, Oakley concludes this section with a discussion of infanticide.

Oakley’s final section reviews children on Classical and Hellenistic gravestones, in terms of iconography and epitaphs. He pays some attention to the attributes with which children appear (i.e., toys, animals, etc.), in particular to the lack of gender-specific objects in the graves of the very young. More attention is paid to the persons themselves, the age and gender of the children, with whom children appear, and their expressions, gestures, and positions. In many ways, this recalls nicely his first section. There we saw the grief felt by children. Here, we find the grief felt for children: “Fate took them away, and they left great grief / to both their dear father and mother / because having died, they went to the house of Hades” (p. 182).

The second half of the volume is the impressive catalogue by Neils and Oakley (pp. 195ff.). The catalogue is divided thematically as was the exhibit: Myth (pp. 204-220); Household (pp. 221-242); Education (pp.243-262); Play (pp. 263-282); and Ritual (pp. 283-308). Finally, a very brief section “Transition to adulthood” touches upon male and female adolescence (so amply covered elsewhere in scholarship) with one statue of a youth and one lebes gamikos.

Each section includes a brief introductory overview (most starting with a relevant ancient quotation) and a bibliography for further reading on the topic. In addition, each entry has a brief physical description as well as discussion indicating the item’s broader significance. Each entry ends with a brief bibliography both on the item and also on its type or even on relevant issues raised in the entry. This collection will prove a invaluable tool.


1. L. Beaumont, “Mythological Childhood: A Male Preserve?” BSA 90 (1995) 339-65 and “Born Old or Never Young? Femininity, Childhood and the Goddesses of Ancient Greece,” in The Sacred and the Feminine, ed. S. Blundell and M. Williamson, (1998) 71-95.

2. Although Lambert, The Phratries of Attica (1993) 167, does not accept a set age at all (see there for earlier bibliography).