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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 positively yearning for childishness, a wish that a man of the classical period, Greek or Roman, should have found too humiliating to utter.

What of the idea that children have a role in cult only because they are “marginal” and barely existent? Golden uses the same term in referring to Greece. Where children have a special role in a cult, “in each instance it is presumably children’s very marginality which makes their role appropriate.” I think it at least as likely that the main motive was a different one: the desire to include, symbolically, the whole of society, all age groups and sexes, in religious happenings. Children had a role at weddings, as we still feel it appropriate that they should have: that is connected with the fundamental nature of marriage and the hopes of society for its consequences. Those children are not well described as being “not really there.” And at blood sacrifice, the ritual slaughter of the ox which was the supreme rite of ancient religion, it was thought right that children too should be present and play a part; even girls raised the ritual cry as the animal’s blood was shed.

Wiedemann describes well the change in feeling from the old Republican Rome, in which the child was by definition excluded from holding any public office, to the state of affairs in the late Empire, when supreme significance came to attach not to being a free man (as opposed to a slave, a woman, a child) but to being of the emperor’s family; so that eventually children could hold the consulship and even, however precariously, the throne itself. He also deals with another change, the coming of the Christian feeling that in a deep sense the child was the equal of the adult. He is inclined to paint a dark picture of parenthood: he believes there was little time or inclination for affection, except in the upper class, and most people regarded their children as a necessary but expensive investment to ensure care for themselves in their old age. I think it has to be said that Golden makes a better case for the view that parents, even in societies where infant mortality is high, nevertheless make a large emotional investment in their children and mourn their deaths. Whenever we have private letters—those of Cicero, of Pliny, of Fronto—what we find is, as Wiedemann admits in the case of Cicero and his correspondents, that “Roman parents had a much wider range of feelings about their children than the classical literary genres give expression to.” Below the elite level, too, there is plenty of evidence that children were affectionately cared for and mourned when they died. Wiedemann’s book is well illustrated and, especially in the late Empire and in the upper class, it gives a reasonable picture of Roman attitudes to children.

Golden goes further. His is more sophisticated in the breadth and comparative scope of his work, and he thinks it possible to say more about the pattern of emotional relationship to which such a society gives rise. He makes some bolder suggestions, and his work is thus both more vulnerable and also more interesting. It is the function of criticism, to some extent, to disagree; and the critic naturally singles out points on which he thinks he has something to say. But he must not forget to give credit to a work as a whole; and this is a very interesting book.

In earlier centuries people wrote about the classical world as if it were just like the world in which they lived themselves, and about the people of antiquity as if they were just like their own friends and relations. Thus it is that there are many classical antiquities in the history of the West, and that for example, the Ancient Rome imagined and recreated in the Italian Renaissance (Italian, passionate) is so different from the Ancient Rome which was taken for granted by Pope and Swift (Augustan, serene). Nowadays we tend to do the opposite, and to emphasize the “desperate strangeness” of ancient society, its different assumptions, patterns of thought, and models of behavior. It can indeed seem that there is nothing at all which we can take for granted about Greece and Rome.

Thus Mark Golden sets out support from the ancient texts for the proposition that “Athenians clearly recognized that children could see and hear and possessed other senses from infancy (e.g., Plato Phaedo 75B).” The Platonic passage in fact asserts that our cognizance of abstract qualities must precede our acquaintance with particular things; it refers to inborn mental tendencies, and has no reference to children at all. I need, perhaps, to disclaim the intention of showing that the Athenians did not recognize that their children could see and hear; but can we take seriously, do we need to see refuted, the idea that there ever existed a society which did not know this? A rather similar response is evoked in the reader when he reads, a few pages later, that

In respect to children’s speech, we again find an appreciation for change over time within the period of childhood. Aristotle observes that children at first can’t talk at all and then stumble in their speech for a long time.

Aristotle observes; we seem to be in the presence of a scholastic philosopher of the Middle Ages, for whom the authority of texts is the only convincing evidence. Without Aristotle’s say-so, we should be at a loss to know whether the people of Athens ever observed this in their children. A last example of this tendency to setting out the all-too-obvious: in discussing the use made of children in work of various kinds, Golden finds it worth remarking that “the contributions of poorer children were probably of special importance to their families.” Probably, not certainly (we infer), because no ancient author explicitly committed this gem of the self-evident to paper (or papyrus).

It is rather unfair to a book that is, as a whole, intelligent as well as learned to pick up points of this kind. What makes it more than trivial, I think, is the way in which the book veers from that sort of exaggerated scholarly caution, combining meticulous exposition of evidence with an underlying sense that these people were so exotic that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted, to an opposite pole of daring and unsupported generalization. The combination, a heady and really rather strange one, is becoming increasingly familiar in scholarly writing.

Thus Golden has an interesting discussion of the children’s game called drapetinda, in which one boy shut his eyes and tried to catch the others as they ran away from him; a boy who was caught became the chaser in his turn.

Such games of alternation help instill the perception that social relationships depend on the serial adoption of roles of one kind and another. In this instance, however, the reversal of roles implicitly challenges the master-slave hierarchy fundamental to classical Greek society…. Games like drapetinda give children a chance to manipulate and even deny social categories that structure their world and the world of adults too…. It is, I suspect, very rare for play of this sort to lead to a revolution, such as the abolition of slavery…. But we should admit the possibility that the feelings of competence and creativity aroused in such games may not be aroused merely to be appeased; instead, they may be fostered, at least for individual children, and contribute to an abiding interest in change.

The point is that the name of the game means “runaway,” overtranslated by Golden as “runaway slave.” The Greek words connected with the stem drapet—are indeed often used of runaway slaves, but by no means always; they can apply to any kind of running away, or even to skulking out of the front line in battle, and the root has the meaning “run.” And even if that were the meaning, would the consequences follow? When I was nine, the boys at my school used to play a roundup game called “Cops and Robbers” (we also played “Cowboys and Indians”), and yet I doubt that the game produced any very subversive political ideas, or any reflections on the nature and justification of private property, in the heads of my school fellows. Golden indeed says that

Among similarly subversive games we may adduce ring-around-the-rosy, in which (according to one view) children model the social system by acting in concert only to destroy it by collapsing.

Well, maybe.

A second example. Golden’s book has the great merit of directing attention to the difficult but intriguing subject of the emotional relationships between members of the household. A question of much interest is the relationships of the free, citizen members of the household with their slaves. In some prosperous families, with the fathers often out of the house and sometimes elderly or dead, “it must often have been slaves who provided a stable and continuous adult presence, especially a male presence, in the household.” The point is an interesting one, though I find it hard to believe that the number of families with male slaves was as large as Golden thinks—he supposes slaves to have been “rather like another necessary luxury, the automobile”—but it is the consequences that are particularly worth remarking. If a child is largely brought up by slaves and comes to love and trust some of them, will there not be a tension, later on, with his general attitude of superiority and scorn for slaves as a class? And will this not have some effect on the phenomenon of violence in Athenian society, and, specifically, to that of cruelty and physical abuse of slaves?

It would be helpful, here, if writers on the antebellum South had a clear view on the question of the relationship, if any, between slavery and violence in that society; but unfortunately they do not agree. But on the more specific question of violence towards slaves,

I suggest that slaves and children were bound together in a sinister irony that did indeed result in intensified violence. The positive aspects of this relationship, the warm emotional ties between household slaves and children…had two paradoxical results: abuse of slaves as a source of humor on stage, and extraordinary brutality towards slaves in everyday life.

The way in which this works is that Athenians, when young, formed affectionate relations with particular slaves, and later on had to learn a different, more hostile and contemptuous attitude to slaves as a group; and so they distanced themselves from their own early feelings by enjoying overemphatic humiliations of slaves in comedy, and by ferocity in brutal treatment of them in real life.

This is a bold and seductive line of thought, though one which is of course by no means explicitly suggested in the ancient texts. This was not at all the way in which they looked at these matters. But it does depend on the assumption that there actually was “extraordinary brutality towards slaves”—itself an odd and revealing phrase, for who knows, how do we decide, what would be an ordinary degree of it? It seems to me that Aristophanic comedy does not make a great parade of cruelty to slaves; certainly not on anything like the scale of the gruesome descriptions of floggings and torture which are so common in the comedies of the Roman poet Plautus. Slaves who appear on the Aristophanic stage are likely to be humiliated and roughed up, but so is practically everybody else; and Dionysus’ slave in the Frogs gets the better of his master, even in the matter of floggings—not an easy thing to explain, on Golden’s theory.

As for society as a whole, we simply do not know how common a thing such brutal treatment of slaves really was. A reactionary pamphleteer of the late fifth century, the so-called Old Oligarch, complains that slaves in Athens are out of hand, they show no respect for free men in the street; you can’t tell them apart by their dress (still less, of course, by their color), and so you dare not chastise them when they push you out of the way. That, too, was a partial perception, but an interesting one, tending in a rather different direction. Another straw in the same wind is the taste which clearly existed for generalizations, common in the tragedies of Euripides and the comedies of Menander, on the theme “slaves are just the same as free men.”

These, then, represent the two poles of caution and boldness, between which Golden steers. Much of the book, however, is not vulnerable to either of these criticisms. For instance, Golden makes the good point that we see two contrasting attitudes to childhood at the same time. On the one hand, childhood and adulthood were different, separate, discontinuous; on the other, the actions and experiences of a child could be seen as predicting those of the adult he was to become (most ancient biographies are of men, not women). He finds examples of Greek appreciation of cuteness, and of the chatter and the games of young children. He sees how taking part in religious ceremonies strengthened the child’s sense of belonging to a family; the Greeks had no priestly class, and the head of the household performed sacrifice and offered prayer. Religious life, in fact, gave children more of a role, and a greater variety of experience, than did the routine of politics or the law, from which they were excluded. Especially was this so for girls, who got out of the house to take part in choirs and special female cults, thus acquiring some help in bridging the gap between domestic seclusion in the parental home and entering a new household as a bride. As for schooling, he emphasizes that discipline was generally represented as harsh, and the aim of school education the inculcation of discipline and morality rather than fancy literary skills.

In general much of his reconstruction of the emotional life of the Athenian family rings true. But the relationship of brothers with sisters and of sons with fathers is very speculative. As Golden imagines the increasing tension between the father and his maturing son, he writes, in the course of a single page, “Much must be left to the imagination…. It is possible (one can hardly say more)…Sons might also find…. It is perhaps not out of place to support such speculation with a citation from a character in a modern novel….”

I conclude with a point which has some application to both books: the significance of diminutives. It happens that English, so rich in many ways, is notably poor in diminutives, which in languages like Italian and German (and Yiddish) play an important role in giving what is said its emotional color. Naturally they are important for any discussion of children. It is an oddity of English that it tends to say not “poverino” and “carina,” but “poor old” and “dear old.” Both Latin and Greek—Mediterranean languages, let us not forget—are in their rather different ways rich in diminutives, and English-speaking scholars often find it hard to catch their nuance. Golden gets into a tangle over Greek words for little children, struggling to find an age at which a boy began to be called, say “pais” (child), and ceased to be called “paidion” (little child), and so on: “Usage,” he complains, “is thoroughly inconsistent.” But the difference between a pais and a paidion was often not one of size but of emotional tone: the diminutive is more affectionate. That is why both can be used, in the same sentence, to the same person.

Wiedemann, on the other hand, maintains that

It is noteworthy that the word for “baby” originates in the culture of north-western Europe, where for some centuries a child’s chances of surviving into adulthood have been exceptionally good. Romans, Greeks, and most European peasant cultures, in which there were actually far more babies (proportionately), did not allow themselves to feel enough affection for the young child to need a specific word for him.

There are, actually, several words for “baby” in Greek (brephos, neognos), though Latin is less fertile; but “baby” is an emotional word as much as a factual one, and both aspects alike can be conveyed in Latin and in Greek by diminutives like parvulus. Not all languages work just the way English does.

A last variant on this theme. Golden remarks that some Greek women had names that were diminutives and consequently, like so many diminutives in German, neuter in form. “These may have contributed,” he says “to a tendency to depersonalize and objectify women, to present them as things—and rather insignificant things, at that.” We think of “Mädchen mein Mädchen,” and “Mein Mädchen ist wie der Himmel gut,” and those notorious neuter diminutives Hansel and Gretel, and we doubt it. We also feel discontented with Wiedemann when he fails to draw the right inference from the fact that a Roman father called his son a puer (boy), but he used the diminutive form, puella, for his girls. That was an indication of a difference of attitude, a greater tenderness; and it suggests something interesting about that essentially mysterious institution, the Roman family.

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