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Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2003
Derrick R. Cartwright, Director

We know a great deal about the lives of men in ancient Greece, and something about the secluded existence of women. Information about children's lives, though, is largely missing. What scholars do know has been pieced together from surviving written texts—chance literary references, writings by ancient philosophers on education and upbringing, and fragmentary inscriptions on monuments and gravestones. 

There is, however, a long overlooked but vital source of information about children—the painted vases and marble sculpture if Athens, the terracotta figurines of Boiotio (the region in central Greece just northwest of Attica), and other scattered artifacts and visual evidence found in Greece and its colonies in the Mediterranean. Coming of Age in Ancient Greece brings together for the first time a large number of these works of art and artifacts, revealing a fascinating world that has been—until recently—largely ignored. The images represented in the Hood’s six galleries range widely in subject matter, covering all phases of childhood from infancy to coming of age. Over 120 art objects and artifacts—dating from around 1500 B.C.E. through the Hellenistic period under the Romans (about 100 C.E.)—are organized by themes related to children’s lives: myth, household, education, work, play, ritual, and transition to adulthood. Perhaps most remarkable in these painted scenes and sculptures is the artists’ sensitivity to the gestures and postures of children. Greek artists are the first of their kind in the history of any culture to show children as they are and not as miniature adults, demonstrating an artistic verisimilitude that is itself an extraordi- nary achievement. In this removable brochure, we will feature highlights from this special exhibition, organized by theme and exhibition number.

1. Young Boy, Pentelic marble statue, Hellenistic, about 200 B.C.E.–100 C.E. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, The Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 89.24 a/b

Statues of young children were often commissioned in ancient Greece as dedications at the sanctuaries of gods and goddesses who were connected to the welfare of young children or who protected women in childbirth. Inscriptions indicate that parents, mostly mothers, and even grandparents dedicated statues such as this young boy to fulfill vows made before birth or to preserve their offspring from harm. The heavy folds of this boy’s cloak do not conceal his childish physique, in particular his protruding abdomen. The sculptor has also lavished attention on the boy’s round face, with its high forehead, chubby cheeks, delicate nose, and fleshy lips. The boy is dressed and posed, with his left arm enveloped in his cloak, like a Greek philosopher. While clearly portrayed as a young child, he nevertheless foreshadows the elite adult male that his parents hope he will become.

126. Grave Stele of the Girl Apollonia, Marble grave stele with polychrome, Attic, Hellenistic, about 100 B.C.E. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 74.AA.13

This gravestone memorializes the girl “Apollonia the daughter of Aristandros and Thebageneia,” as it is inscribed at the top of the stone. She wears a sleeveless chiton cinched above the waist, mantle, and san- dals, and reaches up to stroke the dove that is perching on the architectural structure that frames her. She holds a round fruit, probably a pomegranate. Both the dove and the pomegranate are associated with Persephone, queen of the underworld, and are symbols that associate the girl with the realm of death. The affection shown for the pet on her face makes this memorial for a daughter all the more poignant. The four holes in the stone were for metal pegs that held wreaths, fillets, and other gifts left at the tomb.

MYTH

Ancient Greek myth presents gods and heroes who are as much human as they are divine—they love, quarrel, and plot against their rivals, and some of them, like mortals, are born as infants and then become children. The images from ancient Greek art that portray these special childhoods can depict playful aspects of everyday lives as well as fantas- tic episodes that highlight the skills and mythic attributes of these gifted supernatural beings.

6. Birth of Erichthonios, Attic red-figure calyx-krater, attributed to the Nikias painter, about 410 B.C.E. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 81.70

In ancient Greece, parents who could not afford to provide for their children sometimes abandoned them; some of these unwanted girls and boys were sold as slaves. Myth frequently mirrors real situations, so it is not surprising that mythological parents also did not always raise their biological children. This vase painting shows the goddess Ge holding her baby Erichthonios—who in some versions of this myth would become the king of Athens. Erichthonios was the son of Hephaistos, the god of fire, who is seen leaning on his staff at the left. Erichthonios was conceived when Hephaistos, in an attempted assault on the goddess Athena, accidentally impreg- nated the earth instead. The earth goddess Ge, not wanting the baby, gave Erichthonios to Athena; here she is shown holding her arms out to take him. The amulet on the child’s body is similar to those given by ancient Greek parents to their offspring to protect them from harm.

16. Hermes and Youth Spinning Top, Attic red-figure kylix, attributed to Douris, about 480–470 B.C.E. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Archaeological Collection, B 9

“To Hermes, Philokles here hangs up these toys of his boyhood: / his noiseless ball, this lively boxwood rattle, his knucklebones / he had a such a mania for, and his spinning top.” This third-century verse from the Palatine Anthology (VI, 309) describes the typical toys of a young boy. Hermes was the patron god of games, and the youth who wrote this inscription dedicates his toys to the god, giving them up as a sign that he is no longer a child and has come of age. It is not surprising, therefore, to find representations such as this vase painting that show Hermes teaching a youth how to whip his top, a toy that he is credited with inventing.

HOUSEHOLD

The ancient Greeks had no word for family; instead, they used the word oikos, which means “house.” The members of the household normally included parents, children, paternal grandparents, and slaves. The Greek house had separate quarters for women and children. Depictions of home life are rare in Greek art, and it is even more unusual to see men interacting with women and children. Representations of the household most often show women (mothers and female slaves) with male infants and toddlers, thus highlighting the importance of male offspring. One of the most common subjects of small-scale Greek terracotta figures—and in the history of art in general—is the mother and child (kourotrophos), and a popular variant is the old nurse cradling an infant. These charming figurines illustrate the intimate bond between women and children that was prevalent in societies like ancient Greece where men spent much of their time apart from the domestic sphere.

42. Baby on Stool with Mother, Attic red-figure kylix, attributed to the Sotades Painter Workshop, about 460 B.C.E. Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels, A 890

Given the rarity of scenes in Greek vase painting in which parents (as opposed to nurses or teachers) interact with their children, this vignette is particularly revealing in the way that mother and baby relate. It shows a well-dressed Athenian citizen wife seated on a stool facing her infant child, who sits squirming in his high chair, which may do double duty as a potty stool. Each reaches out to the other, the mother calmly extending her hand, the baby stretching forth both arms and even one leg. They gaze at each other in a manner that suggests intimacy and attachment. Heightening the effect of a peephole into the women’s quarters is the small size of the tondo in which the image is framed.

28. Old Nurse with Boy and Girl, Terracotta figurine with polychrome, Hellenistic (?), first quarter of the 3rd century B.C.E. Mr. and Mrs. John J. Herrmann, Jr.

Nurses, who could be either slaves or paid servants, were central to the functioning of the domestic sphere of the oikos. They are often shown as older women who treat their charges with care and familiarity—a sign that they are trusted and long-term members of the household. This lively small terracotta of a potbellied old nurse who struggles along with two children is one of the more charming examples of this subject. The boy does not want to go forward, yet she pulls him firmly by the hand. She also carries a small girl, who supports herself by placing her hand above the nurse’s ample breast. The nurse has chopped-off hair, which indicates that she is probably a slave.

EDUCATION

In ancient Greece, one’s education varied according to one’s gender and class. Elite boys learned to read and write, to play musical instruments, and to compete in sports. Although there were specialized teachers for each of these activities, the lessons would all be carried out under the watchful eye of a family servant or tutor known as a paidagogos. From an early age, lower-class boys were apprenticed in order to learn a craft or trade, often that of their fathers. Girls at all levels of society were taught to spin and weave, cook, and perform other domestic tasks. 

48. Youth Writing, Attic red-figure kylix, attributed to the Eucharides Painter, about 480 B.C.E. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, MS 4842

The interior of this red-figure cup gives the viewer a glimpse of what may be a schoolboy hard at work. He sits on a wooden stool and wears his himation so as to leave his right arm free to write. His wooden writing case is open on his lap and he holds a stylus, poised to make an impression in the wax surface of the tablet. The writing case is divided into five sections, rather like our spiral notebooks. The object at the right may be a chest for storing scrolls, which are occasionally depicted in school scenes. If this is an excerpt from a school scene, rather than a lone schoolboy doing homework, then this seated figure is most likely a young assistant teacher, perhaps correcting a student’s writing.

PLAY

Play is an integral part of any child’s life, and the ancient Greeks had a wide variety of toys, games, and pets. Archaeology and Greek literature provide considerable information about these forms of entertainment. Commonly preserved toys include rattles, tops, dolls, knucklebones, and terracotta rattles with animal forms. Depictions on vases and sculpture show other toys, such as yo-yos, wooden hoops, see-saws, swings, kites, and roller carts. These were made mostly out of perishable materials and are now long gone.

83. Girls Playing Ephedrismos, Terracotta figurine, Hellenistic, about 300 B.C.E. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.4

This animated terracotta group, which still preserves much of its red and white paint, shows two young girls playing ephedrismos, a game similar to blind man’s bluff. Both are dressed in chitons and have curly hair, but the rider wears a crown, while the carrier wears a thick floral wreath. The girls’ movement is suggested by their poses: the forward right leg of the carrier and the backswung left leg of the rider.

70. Horse on Wheels, Terracotta pull toy with slip decoration, Attic, about 800–750 B.C.E. Leo Mildenberg Collection, Zurich

Once babies could crawl or walk, they might receive a toy on wheels to push or pull. These often take the form of animals, and horses are the most popular. No doubt many of these were made of wood, as one finds in Roman Egypt, but in Greece only the clay specimens survive. The earliest example was made in Athens in the eighth century B.C.E. and is, along with toy tops, the first recognizable type of Greek toy.

86. Boys Playing Knucklebones, Attic red-figure chous, attributed to Group of Boston 10.190, about 440–430 B.C.E. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 96.AE.28

Three youths are shown in the midst of a game that is played with pieces made from the anklebones of sheep and goats. A variety of knucklebone games were played by boys and girls, and sometimes determining which game is being played in vase paintings is difficult. The boys on this particular vase may be playing eis omil- lan, the goal of which was to knock your opponents’ game pieces out of the center of a defined circular playing field by throwing your knucklebones at them. All three youths wear wreaths and head- bands. Their realistic squatting poses give viewers the sense that they are seeing a true snapshot of children’s play in action.

RITUAL

Many rituals punctuated the life of a Greek child from birth to adolescence. In addition to making dedications in sanctuaries—where they also often participated in rituals devoted specifically to children—girls and boys took part in adult rituals, either as assistants to the officiating priest or priestess or as family members. They are regularly depicted on votive reliefs visiting sanctuaries and on funerary vases mourning the dead.

2. Girl with Melon Coiffure, Marble, probably Pentelic, statue, Hellenistic, about 300 B.C.E. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, 96.AA.106

Although most of the nose and part of the right ear are missing, this lifesized head of a young girl has lost none of its charm. Her eyelids are slightly lowered, as if she is modestly glancing down, and her full lips are carved in a faint smile. Her distinctive hairdo, known as a melon coiffure because of its division into lobes, consists of a double braid or twist encircling the back of her head and wavy sections at the front. This head almost certainly once belonged to a votive statue of a girl draped in a chiton and holding a small animal or bird. Such statues have been found in the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron. Known as arktoi or “bears” because the bear played a role in the mythology of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, these girls between the ages of five and ten served the goddess in her rural sanctuary, after which grateful parents dedicated statues of them.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, promoting excellence in the humanities. The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (U.S.A.) is also a major supporter of the exhibition, the exhibition catalogue, and the scholarly symposium, and the Onassis Cultural Center will be one of the venues of the exhibition, with an additional special section entitled The Olympic Spirit. The presentation of this exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art is generously supported by the Philip Fowler 1927 Memorial Fund, The Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund, the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. J. Hall Fund, the Friends of Hopkins Center and Hood Museum of Art, and the Fannie and Alan Leslie Center for the Humanities at Dartmouth College.

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