Ancient Greece and Rome

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Ancient Greece and Rome


Elise P. Garrison


Susanna Elm


Some contemporary scholarship suggests that adults held children in the Greco-Roman world in small regard, that childhood was simply a period of waiting to grow up, and that what we know today as adolescence was unknown in the ancient world. Others argue that the way children were represented in the literary and material arts in ancient times illustrates the love and pride in which family and community held them. In addition, the careful structure society placed on the stages of childhood in this ancient culture, demarcated by very distinct rituals, indicates how much emphasis adults placed on the progress of their children. The clear distinction between childhood and adulthood was felt in all aspects of Greco-Roman society: domestic, civic, sociopolitical, legal, personal, and ritual.

General Considerations and Source Limitations

Typical Greek city-states (poleis ) shared the values of freedom, competition, individualism, law, commerce, and the use of slaves, and all city-states worshipped the same Olympian gods. Athens and Sparta are two typical city-states, but they each have a uniqueness that makes them of interest, both separately and in conjunction. The majority of ancient written sources that present views or images of children are primarily written by men in classical Athens (fifth to fourth centuries b.c.e.), and none of the sources present evidence for the everyday life of a child or come from the children themselves. Of equal note is the fact that the ancient sources present cultural values on the one hand and social norms on the other. Cultural values are ambiguous. For example, the representation of children in tragedy, though meager, shows the loving care devoted to them by their nurses, tutors, or parents, while the philosophers present a less attractive picture. For Plato, children belong with women, slaves, and animals, and as animals stand in relation to humans, so too do children to adults. Aristotle likened the physical appearance of boys to women, and also considered them physically weak, morally incompetent, and mentally incapable. He believed that children knew little and were gullible and easily persuaded. The norms, however, are well articulated and unambiguous. For example, a male infant must be accepted into his family through a specific set of ritualistic steps.

In Rome, because of the extent of the power (patriae potestas ) of the male head of the household (paterfamilias ), children had few if any rights throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, and surprisingly little attention has been paid to children per se in contemporary scholarship. Most research focuses on the family (which in Rome includes not only the natal family, but also the conjugal, extended, and foster family and slaves) and genealogies and relationships within the family, and scholars have focused on the rich literary evidence supplemented by ample funerary inscriptional evidence. Recent new scholarship on the iconography of children has added a dimension that allows for a broader interpretation of children and their roles, and there is need for more integrated studies of children in the Roman world.

The numerous deaths caused by continuous warfare undertaken by expansionistic Rome and high infant mortality and short life expectancies placed a high value on reproduction, and Roman lawmakers and emperors promulgated class-distinct laws to compensate and make this attractive. Indeed, the primary purpose of a Roman marriage was to produce offspring. Generalizations about children in literature tend to be moralistic or comic stereotypes. Pietas, or piety, formed the foundation of the relations between generations: parents were expected to bear, rear, and educate children, who in return were to honor and obey their parents and maintain them psychologically and materially in old age. As in all cultures, the ideal could differ dramatically from the real.

From Earliest Infancy to Prepuberty

In the Greek world, births most probably took place in the women's quarters, exclusively in the presence of women and with the help of a midwife. Giving birth could be hazardous to the mothers due in part to inadequate standards of hygiene, in part because most first-time mothers had barely passed puberty. To announce the gender of a live birth, the family decorated the doorway with wool to designate a girl, and with a wreath of olive for a boy. The household head, the kyrios, had the right to accept the children and could reject them based on gender, size of the family, physical deformity or frailty, economic considerations, legitimacy, or because they were the offspring of slaves. Disposal was arranged through exposure, a process that involved abandoning an infant to its death to the elements. This practice, rather than simply killing the infant, may have developed because it freed the household from bloodguilt, or because parents truly believed that they were placing their exposed infants in the care of the gods. Exposure remains a topic of continuing controversy. In Sparta, exposure of physically weak or sickly infants was demanded by law and determined by the elders of the tribes rather than the household head.

Acceptance of the child by the household head was celebrated in a ceremony on the fifth day after birth called the Amphidromia (literally, a walking around). The ceremony took place in the home, and marked the infant's official entry into the family with the right to live. Naming the child took place on the tenth day in a ceremony known as dekate (tenth), though girls or children of parents of lower economic classes may have been named at the Amphidromia. The Athenian system of nomenclature included three parts: the personal name, which could be an indication of family values (e.g., Philia, friendship or Hegesippos, horse leader); the father's name; and the demotic name, which indicated to which deme (a politically defined subsection of the city-state) the family belonged; for example, Hegesippos, son of Hegesias, from Sounion (Hegesippos Hegesiou Sounieus).

Introduction of the infant to the public world took place at a festival called the Apatouria, held annually in October/November. All male citizens assembled in their hereditary fraternal groups (phratriai ) and the father or legal guardian was required to swear before the altar of the phratry with his hand on the sacrificial offerings to the legitimacy of the infant. Whether or not girls were also registered in the phratry is unknown. Between the ages of three and four all boys were eligible for participation in a more public spring ceremony called the Choes (pitchers). At this ceremony, which may have marked the end of infancy, each child was presented with a small pitcher from which he had his first taste of wine. The Choes ceremony was confined to Attica (the region around Athens), and marked the first step in the child's progress into the full community.

In the Roman world, births also took place in the presence of a midwife. They generally occurred with the assistance of a birthing chair, in a room with no less than three lights and one entrance, which was guarded by three men and women who inspected everyone who entered or left the room. Upon delivery five nonpregnant free women kept guard and inspected the newborn for health or lack thereof. After delivery, an infant was placed at its father's feet. If he held it up or placed it on his knee, it was fully accepted into the family. If it was not accepted by the father, it was exposed or abandoned.

For girls on the eighth day and for boys on the ninth, a festival of purification (lustratio ) took place, at which time the child received its name and its bulla, a gold charm worn around the neck. Three names were traditional for boys of noble families: the praenomen, or personal name (e.g., Marcus); the nomen, or clan name (e.g., Tullius, from the clan of Tullii); and the cognomen, or family name (e.g., Cicero). First-born sons were often given the same personal name as their fathers or their grandfathers. Other sons were named for other males in the family such as uncles or named in the order they were born (e.g., Sextus, the sixth). There were only about sixteen common personal names during the Republic. In addition to their formal name, boys sometimes earned or were given an agnomen, a kind of nickname (e.g., Scipio Africanus, given the agnomen Africanus because of his victories in Africa). A girl received her name from her clan name (e.g., Tullia, the daughter of Marcus Tullius Cicero). Girls' names were usually feminized versions of boys' names. Because all girls in a family would receive the same clan name, if there was more than one daughter, each would be named in the order she was born (e.g., Julia Prima, Julia Secunda, Julia Tertia ). When she married, she assumed the overall clan name and the possessive form of her husband's name (e.g., Terentia Marci, wife of Marcus from the clan of Terentius). She was sometimes given a family name. Adoption was a common occurrence in Rome, and entailed the transferring of a son from one paterfamilias to another. This might happen between close relations when one family lacked a legitimate male heir. Upon adoption, the son lost the rights to his previous family. Legally girls could not be adopted.


In Athens the upbringing and education of children was the responsibility of the parents until the eighteenth year. Boys and girls to the age of six were confined to the women's quarters and were almost exclusively in the presence of women. During this early period little distinction was made between the activities of girls and boys, but boys wore either no clothes or open-fronted tunics, while girls wore long dresses. At age six, boys were usually sent to private schools, called either the gymnasium or the palaestra. The curriculum consisted of letters (reading, writing, memorizing Homer), music (learning to play instruments and sing), and athletic training. Girls remained at home acquiring skill at domestic arts like weaving, cooking, and helping their mothers with younger siblings. To aid in discipline, parents would call on such imaginary creatures as Mormo, who ate children, and Empusa, a shape-changing gremlin.

In Sparta, infants of both sexes were taught to be peaceful, fearless, and austere in diet and physical needs. All children were indoctrinated into the service of the state, males knowing that they would become a member of a well-drilled military unit and females learning that their adult goal would be to produce healthy children to perpetuate the system. At age six, boys left the home and entered the educational system (the agoge ), where they lived communally with other boys. Literacy was not emphasized, but discipline and athletic/military training were. At age eleven the training program became more demanding, and physical comforts were decreased. Girls also received formal public education, but the degree to which their program differed from the boys' is still uncertain. Recent scholarship has revealed that the typical view of boorish and illiterate Spartans is a result of Athenian propaganda, and, in fact, that literacy played an important role in the management of the Spartan state.

In early Rome, education was more informal and geared toward teaching children how to conduct simple business: children learned reading, writing, and arithmetic at home with their fathers. A great deal of education focused on teaching children respect for tradition and piety (pietas ). Children were trained to be good citizens. Job skills were taught through apprenticeships. But since the Roman government did not oversee education or require that children be educated, a father could decide to let his children grow up uneducated.

As Rome grew in power, it was necessary for education to become more formal. At an early age, guardian tutors or nurturers were hired for male children, be they upper class, poor but free-born, freed, or slaves. A male child-minder (paedagogus ) was expected to be of serious disposition, trustworthy, reliable, Greek, and learned, and would have a formative influence on the child as well as accompany him outside the house. Occasionally, girls also had chaperons of this sort. These guardians provided education, nurturing, and moral protection of the children, and guardians and their charges could develop strong ties that continued past the child's maturity. Upper-class male children would be encouraged to prepare for a successful life in politics and government; upper-class female children received the same education as boys, and would be inculcated with the values of the Roman matrona. Moral education for girls and boys continued at home, but at age twelve boys' formal academic education (music, astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences, and rhetoric) now took place outside the home. Physical punishment by teachers of students who misbehaved or failed to learn their lessons was commonplace. Children of slaves could look forward to earning their manumission in return for faithful service or to earning a livelihood through the skills they acquired. Children of upper-class families would have leisure time for games and study or accompanying their parents in their daily pursuits; children of lower classes or slaves would be put to work at an early age for obvious economic reasons.

Art and Religion

In art until the end of the fifth century b.c.e., children were represented as miniature adults, but artists became increasingly interested in depicting them with the appropriate characteristics of their age, perhaps suggesting that there was concurrently an increased interest in children for their own sake. Greek vase paintings often depict young children at play with pets and toys; terracotta statues show children and their activities: babies in cradles, toddlers carried on adults' shoulders, a young girl learning how to cook. Reliefs on Roman sarcophagi show groups of boys playing roughly and groups of girls at quieter activities with their toys, including wagons and scooters. In religion, children played many significant roles. In public service, their duties ranged from temple servants, choirs dancing and chanting poetry, participating in processions, or serving as priests or Vestal Virgins. Vestal Virgins entered their state service between the age of six to ten and served for thirty years; boys as young as fourteen or fifteen could enter into priestly service. In private religious observances like funerals their participation was prominent. Scholars have suggested that this prominence came about because youth symbolizes purity, or because it was believed that they had been minimally polluted through contact with the dead and therefore did not threaten the Olympian gods with physical corruption. It is interesting to note that specific ritual roles for girls (e.g., their role in the annual festival in honor of Athena's birthday in Athens or for Artemis's birthday at Brauron) in which they performed cult functions in the city-states were more elaborate than those for boys. However, participation was limited to a few girls, probably of aristocratic birth, and it can be argued that the few stood symbolically for young girls as a group. More attention was paid to indoctrinating boys as a group into the civic or sociopolitical structure rather than the religious.

Medicine and Law

Pediatrics was a recognized branch of ancient medicine, and we know that at least ten pediatric treatises were written. Childhood diseases were categorized, showing an awareness of childhood vulnerability to certain diseases or infections. From the evidence given by Galen and by Hippocratic writings, common childhood diseases included rickets and anemia, diphtheria, chicken pox, mumps, and whooping cough. Much attention was given to female problems. For example, according to Hippocrates, unmarried girls at menarche frequently grow delirious and try to throw themselves down wells. The problem, in Hippocrates' view, comes from the inability of the menstrual blood to flow properly through an unopened orifice. The solution, he suggests, is intercourse.

In law, an Athenian child was completely under the authority of his father or legal guardian, and until the time of Solon (at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e.) could be sold into slavery. If they suffered physical abuse at home, they had no legal recourse. Children could be introduced in court by a male plaintiff or defendant for melodramatic attempts to receive pity, although there is no evidence that they actually could testify. In Rome, the law of the patriae potestas made children, wives, and slaves subject to paternal authority. Sons were recognized as independent only when their fathers died, regardless of their age, and girls remained dependents. Laws concerning rape did exist. In Crete, a man who raped a free person, male or female, or a female household serf, was subject to a fine. In Athens, a fine would be imposed for rape, whereas death was the penalty for adultery. In Rome, violators of female wards were subject to deportation and confiscation of property.

From Puberty to Adulthood

Greek city-states created rituals to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, and these rituals were sex specific. Boys went through rituals that were public and civic, focusing on their political life as citizens and socioeconomic status as heads of households, while girls underwent private and domestic rituals, focusing on their biological status as childbearers and social status as wives. Ancient writers agreed that the onset of puberty was in the thirteenth year, but there was no widespread agreement as to the duration of puberty.

A Spartan boy at age fourteen became an ephebe (ephebos), and military training became more serious. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth years Spartan ephebes entered a group called the krupteia, a sort of secret police organization. They lived isolated from society and probably secretly. After this two-year period of service they were not yet full citizens but were eligible for military service.

In Athens the transitional period lasted from the sixteenth to the twentieth year, during which time the youths were indoctrinated into their social and civic roles. At age sixteen a boy was introduced again to his phratry on the day known as the Koureotis during the Apatouria festival. The ceremonial cutting of his hair marked the event. At age eighteen, the Athenian boy was registered in his deme and attained legal majority. He then began a two-year period of compulsory military training as an ephebos. During the first year the boys lived in barracks and learned light-armed warfare; in the second year they acted as patrolmen along the Attic borders. At the end of this second year, they reentered the citizen body as young adults. Ephebic service was no longer compulsory by the end of the fourth century b.c.e., and by the beginning of the third century b.ce. had been reduced to one year.

In Rome, boys at the age of fifteen or sixteen underwent a ceremony to mark puberty at the Liberalia, held on March 17th. Young boys with their fathers and other males marched to the temple for sacrifices and then returned home for domestic sacrifices and a family party. At this time they gave up their bulla and changed from child's clothing (toga praetexta ) to adult dress (toga virilis ). These young males were now free of their guardians, and had to choose a public career in politics or enter a period of military service (tirocinium ).

In neither Sparta nor Athens nor Rome did the same type of graded initiations occur for girls, suggesting that whereas boys take on a social persona as an adult, girls do not. For girls marriage was the goal, and in marriage a girl passed from girlhood to womanhood, and from the legal and economic control of her father or guardian to that of her husband. Though a few select girls took part in several ritual activities, like weaving the robe for Athena or serving as a Vestal Virgin, it is still unclear whether the few were symbolic of the many.


In Greco-Roman society the position of children vis-à-vis the family, the government, religious activities, and economic considerations was complex, and the recovery of the nature of childhood by scholars is made more difficult on the one hand by the lack of direct testimony by children and on the other hand by the complexity of the ancient sources at our disposal. Scholars conclude that children's marginality in society is highlighted by a lack of legal rights, infanticide, neglect, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. However, the complicated portrayal of children in other literature, including drama, poetry, medical writings, biography, novels, and histories, shows the sincere affection or intense pride that parents may have felt for their children. Many funeral monuments attest to the depth of fondness of parents for their deceased children. Likewise the material evidence of toys, games, and pets shows that serious attention was paid to playfulness in the development of human personality and individual talent.

See also: Abandonment; Ancient Greece and Rome: Self-Formation; Theories of Childhood.


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Elise P. Garrison


Most inhabitants of the Roman Empire saw their world in strictly hierarchical terms and had little reason to do otherwise, even though some thinkers, especially those influenced by Stoic philosophy, posited something akin to the notion that all men were created equal. Daily life in the ancient Mediterranean world provided numerous proofs that a few were created far better than the many: they had more and better food, did not work, were protected from heat and cold, were by law exempt from torture, and as a result looked different and lived longer. Indeed, the superiority of a select few over the many was foundational for a society understood to function just like the human body, dominated by the head (i.e., the mind), which ruled over a well-organized body, in which every member had its preordained place and function. Only the harmonious operation of all members in strict accordance with their place could assure the well being of the community.

The Greco-Roman Cosmologies

The predominant Greco-Roman cosmologies reflected this strictly hierarchical ordering of the world as divinely ordained and natural. Those who belonged to the elites were by nature (i.e., by the very fact of their birth to elite parents) higher up and closer to the divine realm, which in its turn had been created and was guided by the Supreme Good or the Supreme Intellect (i.e., Zeus/Jupiter, etc.). Thus those belonging to the elites (or so the theory went) were intrinsically good and had more intellect by virtue of their good birth (eugenes ), an inner virtue outwardly manifested by their physical beauty (kalos kai agathos ).

Intrinsic to this world view, which was widespread throughout the Roman Empire and helped forge unity among elites originating from a wide variety of local backgrounds, were three interrelated concepts.

First, the cosmos was considered an undivided whole and humans but a micro-cosmos mirroring the macro-cosmos. Thus each person (as well as society as a whole) was ruled by the mind, which was of the same essence as the Supreme (divine) Mind/Intellect.

Second, unlike the divine Mind, the human one was intrinsically linked to something ontologically different from the divine realm, namely matter, or the body. This link created an inherent instability, since both matter and the body embodied the opposite of the divine: if the divine was eternal and calm then matter was transient and changing; if the divine was good and just, then the ethical aspects of the physical were the opposite.

Third, since one of the quintessential divine characteristics was the capacity to create and therefore to form matter, so the human mind too created and therefore formed its matter, the physical body and its characteristics (such as desires for food and sex, but also anger, greed, jealousy, etc.), and the physical body in its turn outwardly reflected the inner ruling of the mind (or the lack thereof) through gestus and habitus. Yet, because everything was essentially one whole, external factors could also imprint the mind; for example, excessive attention to food would leave traces on the mind and incapacitate its ruling facilities. Expressed differently, to be good and beautiful was both the result of good birth and of a lifelong process of self-formation according to the demands of the mind, which were also those of the Supreme Divinity.


In practice, this lifelong process of self-formation, also known as paideia, was perhaps the single most significant marker indicating elite status in the Roman Empire for the simple reason that it began at birth, continued along a prescribed path of further formation or higher education, and had to be demonstrated at all times throughout the life of an elite male. Each slip in an elite male's behaviorwhich would be immediately noticed by eyes trained to notice such things since infancysignified a slip of the mind, which might render the person in question unfit to rule, since whoever cannot govern his own body and its desires cannot govern his own household, let alone an empire.

The precondition for this continuing process of self-formation (or self-control) was, of course, wealth. Only those who were rich enough to be free from any pursuit of material gain had the wherewithal to devote themselves to such lifelong formation. Consequently, paideia was considered the essential precondition for all forms of governance, since it began at conception and required wealth; those who acquired positions of power by any other than the "natural" way and thus came to paideia late in life were never permitted to forget the peculiarities of their accent or gait.

Formation during Pregnancy and Early Childhood

Initiated at conception, the process of formation began in earnest during pregnancy. According to the second century. e. gynecologist Soranus of Ephesus, who practiced in Rome, elite mothers had to ensure "the perfection of their embryo" through "passive exercise," which consisted of being carried in a large sedan chair and leisurely walks, "fairly warm baths," massages, and the consumption of appropriate food: non-greasy fish and meat as well as "vegetables that are not pungent," and large quantities of water before meals "with a little wine" (book 1.14.46). Birth itself required numerous preparations: a midwife, three female helpers, a soft and a hard bed, a midwife's chair, warm oils, and so on. As soon as the child arrived, "the subject of rearing children" forced issues such as "which of the offspring is worth rearing, how should one sever the navel cord and swaddle and cradle the infant which is to be reared. What kind of nurse should one select, and which milk is best." (Gyn. 2.5.9-10). A child "worth rearing" could be identified by its crying as well as by the fact that "none of its orifices are obstructed, all limbs and joints [are present and] bend and stretch, and it is properly sensitive in every respect" as ascertained by squeezing. Soranus never mentions gender as a criterion. "Unworthy" children were frequently exposed, though Soranus does not suggest this in case of a negative judgment.

If all was in order and the umbilical cord had been properly severed, the newborn had to be swaddled in such a way that all limbs were "molded according to their natural shape" with soft and clean woolen bandages; the aim was to ensure the proper symmetry of limbs and head, considerations which also governed the manner in which the newborn was laid down, bathed, and massaged, as well as the choice of the wet nurse and her milk (Soranus considers the mother's own milk "unwholesome" for the first twenty days, although others did not). A wet nurse (usually a slave) was, ideally, "between 20 and 40 years old, healthy, of good habitus and color. She should be self-controlled, sympathetic, notill-tempered, a Greek, and tidy" (Gyn. 2.12.19). In short, from the very first, everything had to ensure that the newborn corresponded to the prevailing notions of "beauty and goodness": the child's body should be symmetrical and well-proportioned and its internal "qualities" fostered through correct food, provided by a wet nurse of the appropriate characteristics.

Swaddling ended when the child had become firm enough to avoid "distortions," at which point all attempts at standing and sitting were to be constantly monitored for the same reasonsthe legs might become too bowed, which would affect the adult's gait. At around three to four years of age the constant care of nurses was replaced both for girls and boys by that of a tutor and then a paidagogos, slaves in charge of supervising the first steps of literary education, which began inside the house but moved with advancing years into a school setting, where the actual instruction was taken over by a grammarian, though the paidagogos would often accompany the pupil.

With the beginning of writing exercises, the child further "wrote himself" or herself into one social class, based again on the underlying notion that the mind is both formed and formative (like a wax tablet): each act of writing, speech, and thought impressed notions of ethics, morals, and social class into the child's mind as well as its body, and thus continuously formed the whole person. In their first exercises (often bilingual, in Greek and Latin), schoolboys wrote and recited their days, beginning with orders to their slaves, greetings to persons according to hierarchy, lists of gods and of distinguished teachers. The pupil's advancement in grammar was also advancement in proper expression through memorization of classical authors (Homer, Hesiod, Plato, the tragedies), each act of writing and its correction reifying the social order and the student's place within it. The more advanced the student, the stronger the formative power of written and recited words.

Higher Education

Higher education always occurred outside the house (and thus was rarer for women) and usually in cities other than the native one under a rhetor, a person chosen for his fame and the advancement he could ensure for his students through his own connections. Central to the education under a rhetor was a further deepening of the classical readings as well as the so-called declamations, set pieces akin to modern American legal case studies. Confronted with admittedly contrived situations (a soldier deserts but then saves his commander; should he be executed? a young man marries against his father's will and the father kills him, as is his right; did he act justly? a freedman seeks to marry a person above his status, etc.), students learned the intricacies of the law and of forensic speech, but even more importantly practiced being a paterfamilias and thus a member of the ruling elitea patronus.

Training to take on an adult persona involved training in persuasion so that those who depended on the patron's advocacy (such as women, who were not persons under the law) could speak through him, or rather he could speak for them, in their voice. Thus the young man learned to speak both in his master's (i.e., his father's) voice, as a master, and in the voice of his (and his master's) dependents and subordinates without ever being confounded with one of the latter.

Declamatory training in rhetoric and advocacy was the precondition for public office, and most members of the elite received it. A smaller number continued on to more advanced training as legal experts (in the later empire, Beirut was a center for the advanced study in Roman law), physicians (e.g., in Alexandria), or philosophers (in Athens and Alexandria)but by the time a student had completed his rhetorical training at around age twenty-five he had been sufficiently formed to know how to walk, talk, dress, eat, drink, think, and governin short, how to be an elite man and be recognized as such by all at all times.

See also: Ancient Greece and Rome: Overview; Aristotle; Plato.


Dionisotti, A. C. 1982. "From Ausonius' Schooldays? A Schoolbook and Its Relations," Journal of Roman Studies 72, no. 1: 83-125.

Gleason, M. 1995. Making Men: Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marrou, H. I. 1982. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Soranus. 1956. Soranus' Gynecology. Trans. O. Tempkins. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.

Susanna Elm

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