Ancient Kids

Historians of the ancient world are extending their range of interests; or, at least, transferring it. The succession of emperors and the narration of political and military events have long lost their primacy. When a recent popular work on Greece and Rome was being compiled, it was with difficulty that the editors could induce the historical contributors not to omit any narrative of the events of the year 480 BCE (Persian invasion of Greece), the conquests of Alexander the Great, and Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. The history of nutrition, of disease, of trading relationships; or the more exciting histories of death, of women, of children: these flood in to fill the gap.

Mark Golden’s book on children in Athens and Thomas Wiedemann’s on adults and children in the Roman Empire take very different lines of approach. Wiedemann is primarily concerned with changes in the attitudes of adults to children; Golden attempts to go further and establish some of the attitudes of children themselves. Wiedemann’s is the simpler work, little touched by anthropological studies (the name of Philippe Ariès does not appear in his bibliography) and sticking fairly closely to ancient literary evidence. He remarks on “the classical world’s lack of interest in children,” is inclined to answer yes (with Lawrence Stone) to the question whether parents responded to the high mortality rate among young children by investing little emotion in them, and explains the regular appearance of children with prescribed roles in religious ceremonies by saying:

In all those cases, classical society saw children as especially associated with the divine world because they were unimportant, not because they were the same as adults: the child may serve as an acolyte just because he is not an adult, he is not really there…. [T]he “marginality” of boys made them suitable as servers or acolytes at religious ceremonies.

By “lack of interest in children” he means, not lack of concern for the next generation, but lack of interest in the separate nature of the child, who was described chiefly by negatives, by deficiency in strength, rationality, self-control, courage: by being nonadult, in fact. Certainly we do not find much of the nostalgia for childhood so characteristic of the English-speaking world in the last two centuries—or, to be perhaps more accurate, the British nostalgia for childhood (Alice, Beatrix Potter, Winnie-the-Pooh) and the American nostalgia for adolescence (Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, James Dean). Aristotle says, severely, that no rational person should wish to be a child, and Cicero makes the Roman Cato utter the same sentiment. It is overstated, though, to say that the wish to be a child again “would not have made any sense to a Roman audience in Cicero’s day.” Had it made no sense, Cicero would not have thought it necessary to deny it; and we do find in early literature a certain envy of the innocence and the protected existence of young children, sometimes expressed by harassed or unhappy adults. That is not, admittedly, the same as…

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