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Youth of the ancients

Sean Lang finds surprises in a powerful rethinking of childhood in Classical Greece

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. Statuettes, vases, funeral objects and writings all portray children, and Jenifer Neils and John H Oakley have done us a great service in bringing all of these together in this scholarly collection of essays, which is beautifully illustrated by Yale University Press.

The book was published to accompany an exhibition on childhood in Ancient Greece at Dartmouth College in the United States, and it looks at the evidence for various kinds of relationship: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and the role of children in the practice of religion. The gods and their offspring are certainly here, but the book's greatest strength lies in the evidence it has gathered for the relationship between real-life parents and their children. Contrary to what is often supposed, the frighteningly high infant death rate did not inure the Greeks to losing their children: funerary monuments and the toys and statuettes placed in children's graves suggest a deep sense of loss. Although they did value boys more than girls, the pain could be just as great at the loss of a daughter, particularly if she had not reached child-bearing age.

Much of the evidence comes from vases, which often show children being cuddled by their mothers, visiting the shoemaker or, in one case, a young man being taken by his proud father for his first visit to a brothel. The father-son relationship is particularly tricky as it features less frequently than the mother-daughter, and the images are not always easy to interpret. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most obviously loving and joyful family scenes are playful romps among the usually priapic satyrs, though a 5th century BC vase has a lovely scene of two proud parents watching their (admittedly rather elderly-looking) baby learning to crawl.

The mother-daughter relationship was heavily influenced by the prospect of marriage: the story of Persephone given in marriage by Zeus to Hades, King of the Underworld, against the wishes of her mother Demeter played an important part in bonding mothers and daughters, and was central to female ritual. Demeter's despair at the loss of her daughter as portrayed on a 4th century BC vase is still obvious across the centuries and differences in artistic convention. Equally touching are the vase images of mothers and daughters making the necessary offerings and preparations before more orthodox nuptials.

Elegant as the vases are, perhaps some of the most refreshingly striking material lies in the sculpture and artefacts. There are feeding bottles which look as if they could have come from a slightly more upmarket version of Mothercare, and a 4th century BC rattle from Cyprus in the shape of a pig which made me laugh out loud: all it needs is a slot in its back and it would look at home on any bedroom shelf today. The statuettes of the children themselves are quite beautiful and capture the nuances of children's faces and expressions perfectly. There is the delicate touch of a young 4th century BC Athenian girl carefully holding on to a small bird, and the rather more robust approach of a suitably double-chinned baby playing with a puppy. The gravestone carving of the girl Appollonia stroking a bird from 100BC is so exact in the way it shows her features and her movement that you feel you would be able to recognise her in the street.

Inevitably, school life features. Vases show young boys - it was always boys - playing the lyre, reciting poetry or standing patiently while the teacher marks their work on a wax tablet which, bizarrely, looks uncannily like a laptop. Of course, some of the pupils' respect for their teachers was linked to an even healthier respect for the heavy stick carried by the dagogos, the family slave who went with them to school and beat them if they were inattentive - not a role classroom assistants today would be able to get away with. As always, the gods had something to say on the subject, and a popular theme for vases was Herakles killing his music teacher for being too strict.

The Greek for child, pais (plural paides) is at the root of our words paediatric and, of course, paedophile. Much of the Greeks' approach to childhood can horrify us: some newborn infants were exposed on hillsides to die, and many were born into slavery. But if Greek methods were different, many of their concerns were surprisingly contemporary: they established a cult ritual with children's swings specifically to counteract a spate of copy-cat child suicides. Perhaps an age when adolescent suicide figures exceed those for road accidents has something to learn from the Greeks and their subtly observed, recognisably human approach to childhood.

Se...n Lang is editor of Modern History Review. For the inside story on Greek philosophers, see this week's Teacher magazine

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