Book of the week: Youth of the ancients

12th September 2003 at 01:00

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: images of childhood from the Classical past
Edited by Jenifer Neils and John H Oakley
Yale University Press pound;45, pound;27.50 (paperback)

Will future historians take as dim a view of our concept of childhood as we have taken of that of our predecessors?

We may be the generation that has forced children off the streets and on to the school run, but we have long tended to assume that we care about our children more than they did in the past.

Old portraits showing the children of the wealthy wearing smaller versions of the periwigs or ruffs of their parents have led us to assume that children were treated as young adults, shunted away from their parents' gaze into nurseries and attics, to learn under the instruction of stern-faced nannies or tutors to grow up.

Historians of childhood have now largely blown that idea out of the water, but childhood in antiquity remains a problem. The sources for Ancient Greece seem dominated by mythology, and although many Greek heroes and gods appear as children, it is too difficult to draw a general picture from Herakles strangling two serpents in his cradle, or the awful fate of Medea's two young sons. Yet there is a wealth of evidence which allows us to construct a good idea of the Greek concept of childhood.

Read more in this week's TES Friday magazine

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