Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Ada Cohen, Jeremy B. Rutter (ed.), Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy. Hesperia Supplement 41. Princeton: ASCSA Publications, 2007. Pp. xxv, 429; ills. 178, tables 8. ISBN 978-0-87661-541-6. $75.00 (pb). Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Department of Classics and World Religions, Ohio University

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This beautifully produced volume collects papers originally presented at a conference at Dartmouth College in 2003 organized in conjunction with the exhibition "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece" at the Hood Art Museum.1 The contributors to this volume successfully address multiple aspects of ancient Mediterranean childhood with very little of the repetitive overlap or loss of thematic focus that can sometimes weaken edited collections. This volume represents the state of the art in Greco-Roman childhood studies and offers valuable resources to scholars of the ancient family, household, and lifecycle.

Though the contributions cover a time-span ranging from the Minoan period through late antiquity, they are united by several shared methodological and theoretical presuppositions. In contrast to an earlier generation of childhood scholars,2 the contributors agree that the perception of childhood as a unique stage of human social development is not a recent cultural invention. Though very high rates of infant and child mortality appear to be a constant, adults' responses to the loss of their children differ across the cultures studied in this volume. The degree of integration of children into adult society also varies by culture, and several papers accordingly assert that literary and visual representations of children must be understood as part of coherent, localized cultural patterns rather than a premodern norm. The volume's methodological considerations offer some of its most significant contributions to childhood studies. Several papers discuss the barriers to the goal of reconstructing the lives of ancient children. To take some ready examples: a figure's smaller size in visual representation may indicate not chronological youth but social inferiority, and the remains of infants and children are often underrepresented in the archaeological record as the result of differential burial practices and incomplete recovery.

Pratt reads the parent-child relationship as an essential theme of the Iliad, one idealized in the affecting interaction between Hector and his son Astyanax. Numerous passages show parents, both human and animal, caring for their children and grieving at their loss. Care for children represents a special case of fulfilling the obligations due to one's philoi. In the case of Priam's risky attempt to ransom his dead son, investment may become an act of self-sacrifice that may never be repaid.

Lawton examines the representation of the stages of childhood development on Attic votive reliefs. While babies are represented on votive reliefs as pre-social, toddlers have already begun to participate in worship with their families, and prepubescent children perform specific ritual actions such as raising their right hands or roasting meat. For males, shorn hair and full or partial nudity indicate discrete postpubescent stages (see the koureion, that is "the ritual that marked the final acceptance of the boy into his father's phratry, celebrated by the sacrifice of an animal by the boy's father and the cutting of the boy's hair" (57), and the ephebeia). This discussion of visual representations of childhood development is complemented by McNiven's survey of the age-related vocabulary of gesture on Athenian vases. Younger children are portrayed as having a more restricted vocabulary of gesture, and boys are more communicative than girls in their gestures. The gestures of younger boys are more similar to those of women, while those of older youths are more similar to those of the men they will become. Determining the relative ages of children, however, can become difficult when artists follow restrictive compositional schemata and do not provide adequate individuating detail. Chapin compares the physical proportions of individual figures in the Bronze Age frescoes from Akrotiri by placing grids over them. This device enables her to assign particular figures to discrete several stages of childhood development: thus the Boxing Boys appear to be between 6 and 10 years old, the Fisherboys between 12 and 14, and so on.

Educational curricula, both ancient and modern, present another typical way of marking the developmental stages of childhood. Marinescu, Cox, and Wachter present an interpretation of fifteen fifth-century AD mosaics, now in private collections, that offer "an unparalleled opportunity to view the process of Classical education in action" (114). The mosaics depict the maturation of Kimbros, a young Roman man, along with other characters such as his pedagogue Ph(e)ilios, his didaskalos Marianos, his grammatikos Alexandros, several of his fellow students, as well as personifications such as Philia and Paideia. Katz examines Jerome's 107th letter, which proposes a curriculum for the education of the newborn Paula, as part of a convincing argument against previous scholars who have credited this author with affection for children. Unlike some of his Christian contemporaries, Jerome shows no sensitivity to the developmental stages through which children pass, and evinces "an active antipathy toward children" (125) elsewhere in his writing. Alberici and Harlow return to this letter of Jerome in their discussion of the rhetoric of Christian virginity.

As the different curricula plotted out for Kimbros and Paula suggest, heavily gendered social and representational conventions governed passage through an ancient childhood. Langdon examines the gender-specific grave goods that accompanied the burial of early Greek girls, which she concludes "are the initial manifestations in Greek material culture of the concept of virginity" (190). Rehak examines the religious activities of girls from a variety of Minoan and Mycenean sites. Cohen discusses the impact of gender on visual representations of mythological scenes of abduction. Though her age varied slightly, the literary tradition made clear that the youthful Helen was considered too young to marry her 50-year old abductor Theseus. Visual artists responded by producing images that "close the age gap" (266) between the pair. There was no similar problem, however, in portraying Chrysippos as very young in scenes of his abduction by Laios.

Ethnic affiliations and social status further complicate the visual representation of childhood. Uzzi observes distinctions between the representation of Roman and non-Roman children in the official art of the Roman empire. Roman children commonly appear with their fathers but are rarely portrayed in the company of their mothers. Non-Roman children, however, most often appear in scenes of submission to Roman military forces, where they are shown torn away from helpless mothers or handed over by defeated fathers. Ammerman examines terracottas from Paestum that indicate the blending of different artistic traditions within a multiethnic population. Grossman observes that when slaves are included in depictions of family groups on classical Attic funerary monuments, they are more likely to be female and prepubescent. Huskinson draws distinctions between Roman funerary reliefs and more individualized funerary altars with portraits of children. The assertion of civic status is an essential goal in the reliefs erected by freedmen, and so in all but one case only a single child is represented as a token rather than as an accurate account of family composition. On the funerary altars, however, children emerge as individuals: visual representations and accompanying inscriptions emphasize the prematurity of the child's death and the parents' unfulfilled aspirations for him or her.

Several papers discuss children or childlike figures as visual symbols. Smith examines the appearances of the character Komos on red-figure vases. He appears as a satyr in the company of Dionysus but as a human boy on vases that may reflect the Choes ritual, an important transition in the lives of Athenian boys. Once associated with the elite symposium, Komos became a figure of democratic ritual aimed in part at ensuring the survival of young boys. D'Ambra examines the chariot-racing scenes commonly used on sarcophagi to commemorate children. The childlike Erotes who participate in the dangerous horse-race suggest "a parallel universe in which death had no purchase" (343). In other contexts, the spirits of dead children were invoked by curse tablets whose authors attempted to influence the outcomes of chariot races. Sorabella examines the development of the figure of the Sleeping Eros from a cunning god into a more realistic human child. The presence of the reclining childlike figure on funerary monuments may have been intended to comfort the bereaved, while the lizard who often accompanies this figure recalls the children's pets.

Differing conceptions of the status of the child in society appear to have affected burial practices. Becker finds that an important transition took place around the age of 5 and a half at Etruscan Tarquinia up until the early seventh century: children below this age were buried under the eaves of the house, but older children were buried in cemeteries also occupied by adults. Lagia surveys Athenian cemeteries from the Late Archaic through the early Roman period and concludes that the burial of infants and young children prior to the early Roman period depended on individual familial choice. The adoption of Roman customs, however, led to greater rates of burial of the youngest members of the family.

Ambühl's essay closes the volume with observations on Callimachus' literary constructions of childhood. Though the Hellenistic poet may offer a charming portrait of the goddess Artemis sitting on her father's lap, he has no interest in nostalgically recalling children's supposed naivety or purity. Artemis' requests of Zeus form part of an aetiological narrative explaining the attributes that she comes to possess as a mature goddess, and Callimachus' own recollections of his experience as a child prodigy in the prologue to the Aetia are testament to his early claim to an adult's poetic authority (a far cry from the "naive" child as "natural" poet fantasized by the Romantics). Like the other studies of ancient conceptions of childhood collected in this volume, this essay offers a compelling rebuttal to earlier cultural historians who would locate the "invention" of childhood in the Enlightenment or Romantic eras.


Ada Cohen, "Childhood between Past and Present: An Introduction"


Louise Pratt, "The Parental Ethos of the Iliad"

Carol L. Lawton, "Children in Classical Attic Votive Reliefs"

Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, "The Power of Parenthood in Official Roman Art"

Socialization and Enculturation

Timothy J. McNiven, "Behaving Like a Child: Immature Gestures in Athenian Vase-Painting"

Constantin A. Marinescu, Sarah E. Cox, and Rudolf Wachter, "Paideia's Children: Childhood Education on a Group of Late Antique Mosaics"

Phyllis B. Katz, "Educating Paula: A Proposed Curriculum for Raising a 4th-Century Christian Infant"

Rituals and Life Transitions

Rebecca Miller Ammerman, "Children at Risk: Votive Terracottas and the Welfare of Infants at Paestum"

Amy C. Smith, "Komos Growing Up among Satyrs and Children"

Susan Langdon, "The Awkward Age: Art and Maturation in Early Greece"

Lisa A. Alberici and Mary Harlow, "Age and Innocence: Female Transitions to Adulthood in Late Antiquity"

Paul Rehak, "Children's Work: Girls as Acolytes in Aegean Ritual and Cult"

Gender and Representation

Anne P. Chapin, "Boys Will Be Boys: Youth and Gender Identity in the Theran Frescoes"

Ada Cohen, "Gendering the Age Gap: Boys, Girls, and Abduction in Ancient Greek Art"


Marshall Joseph Becker, "Childhood among the Etruscans: Mortuary Programs at Tarquinia as Indicators of the Transition to Adult Status"

Anna Lagia, "Notions of Childhood in the Classical Polis: Evidence from the Bioarchaeological Record"


Janet Burnett Grossman, "Forever Young: An Investigation of the Depictions of Children on Classical Attic Funerary Monuments"

Janet Huskinson, "Constructing Childhood on Roman Funerary Memorials"

Eve D'Ambra, "Racing with Death: Circus Sarcophagi and the Commemoration of Children in Roman Italy"

Jean Sorabella, "Eros and the Lizard: Children, Animals, and Roman Funerary Sculpture"

Childhood and the Classical Tradition

Annemarie Ambühl, "Children as Poets, Poets as Children? Romantic Constructions of Childhood and Hellenistic Poetry"


1. The exhibition catalog is published as: Jennifer Neils and John H. Oakley, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) and reviewed in BMCR (2004.07.44). The exhibition website is accessible here.

2. Cohen's introduction traces the developments in premodern childhood studies in the decades since the publication of Philippe Ariès' Centuries of childhood; a social history of family life (1962).

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