Leslie Beaumont’s aim in Childhood in Ancient Athens is to use iconography to understand both Athenian constructions of childhood and children’s experiences. The research here presented was developed from her doctoral research about the iconography of divine and heroic children, which she completed in 1992 at University College, London. Since then she has been among the prominent scholars in the expanding field of childhood in the ancient world. In this book she turns her attention to mortal children, using Athens’s rich visual culture to understand childhood in its socio-historical context. Beaumont’s work is an important contribution to the field of ancient childhood and is notable for its broad scope and the way she brings together the iconography with the historical and archaeological evidence. The book also contains a large number of high-quality black and white images that supplement the text well.
The first chapter addresses the well-established theory that childhood is a culturally constructed social phenomenon rather than a given biological condition. Beaumont provides a concise, if standard, survey of important works on childhood in the past. Her coverage is wide, spanning from the classic work by Philip Aries,1 who was among the first to write about childhood as a cultural construct, to seminal archaeological works, such as Grete Lillehammer’s article, 2 which jump-started the current intense interest in the archaeology of childhood, to works on children in antiquity, like Mark Golden’s monograph3 on the historical evidence of childhood in ancient Athens. For readers unfamiliar with the research into Greek or Roman childhood this introduction will be informative. For those already well versed in the field, it will likely feel familiar in terms of both the works highlighted and the manner in which they are discussed.
Building on her introduction Beaumont’s second chapter addresses the particulars of Athenian society with regard to its construction of childhood. A discussion about the necessity of contextualizing artistic representations in social-cultural norms presents some of the Athenian attitudes and ideas as evident in historical sources. She reviews the historical evidence regarding childhood, particularly those addressing the physical nature of children and how childhood was broken down into stages based on age. A key aspect of her methodology is to look at the depiction of childhood in terms of the approximate age of children, though she maintains that precise age is impossible to determine from two or three-dimensional depictions. She lays out the iconographic elements she uses to identify children’s approximate ages: “size, height, and bodily forms,” “hair length, facial and body hair,” gesture, dress, and attributes.
The subsequent two chapters examine her findings regarding the iconography of children. Beaumont distinguishes two “stages” of children’s lives, defined in accordance with historical evidence: “birth and infancy” (from birth to 3 years of age, Chapter 3) and “the developing child” (Chapter 4). She examines a range of material, including figured pottery, votive sculpture, funerary reliefs, and plaques. For the period of infancy she looks at issues of birth, daily care, protection, roles in cult and ritual, and treatment in death and is able to discern that the Athenians regarded the first year of life as a distinct stage of infancy. For the post-infancy period she covers nurturing, work, education, and participation and agency in rituals, and death. She also addresses how gender and social status were represented in the iconography.
Beaumont’s conclusions are insightful, if brief. She drives home her main point: that in order to gain a much more nuanced understanding of Athenian childhood it is necessary to contextualize the iconography through consideration of historical and archaeological evidence. She also presents an interesting theory— that the high visibility of children in Athenian visual culture and iconography is related to the rise of the Athenian ‘middle class.’ Drawing a parallel with Victorian Britain, she argues that children became part of a competitive display. While she is readily admits that she developed this idea through few assumptions, this is nonetheless an interesting conjecture worth investigating.
One minor matter is worth noting. In a few instances she fails to integrate the archaeology with the iconography, particularly in her discussion of many of the objects, such as strigils and aryballoi, depicted with ‘living’ boys exercising (p. 143). She notes later in the chapter that such objects were found in children’s graves (p. 186). The presence of these items in both contexts warrants a discussion of the relationship between grave goods and artefacts potentially used by children in life. There is an ongoing issue in archaeology, even beyond the classical world, as to what constitutes children’s material culture (beyond toys and infant feeders) and the difficulty in determining it.4 Beaumont makes reference to this issue (p. 10), though she does not discuss it in detail.
As with any monograph that covers a topic broadly, there are naturally places where Beaumont might have gone into greater depth. For any reader looking to understand more on a particular topic, she provides thorough notes accompanying each chapter. What she has produced here is an authoritative and comprehensive book on Athenian iconography as evidence of the perceptions of childhood and experiences of children.
1. Ariès, P. 1960. L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime. Paris: Plon. Translated from the French by Robert Baldick.
2. Lillehammer, G. 1989. “A Child is Born: the Child’s World in an Archaeological Perspective.” In Norwegian Archaeological Review 22, pp.89-105.
3. Golden, M. 1990. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
4. See for example J. Sofaer Derevenski 2000. “Material Culture Shock: Confronting the expectations in the material culture of children.” in Sofaer Derevenski (ed.) Children and Material Culture, pp. 3-16 ; or J.E. Baxter 2005. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture. Altamira Press.