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Childhood in the Greco-Roman World

Children in the Greco-Roman world were considered full of varying potentials, depending on their social status and biological sex.

Childhood in the Greco-Roman world varied significantly depending on a child’s social class. For the free born, it was a time before adulthood and thus included education as well as play, but for slaves, childhood was a never-ending status.

What was it like to be a child in the Greco-Roman world?
Being a child in the Greco-Roman world depended greatly on social status. Noble, free-born boys were expected to lead the state and become men (Philo, Opif. 103–4; Seneca, Ep. 88; Aristotle, Ethica nicomachea). A girl of similar status was expected to become a woman, a married wife who produces children for her husband’s household (Xenophon, Oeconomicus; Soranus, Gyn. 1.6–11). Free children were more educated and received daily care from household slaves, relatives, and parents, although only boys received a full education. Rather than just book-learning, boys also underwent physical training in order to make them balanced men (see Plato, Rep. 3–7).

The stories that circulated about children were considered indicative of their adult personalities. For example, as a child, Alcibiades was quickly identified as someone who wanted to win at all costs when he bit his friend while wrestling to secure a victory (Plutarch, Alc. 2). His desire for victory was a constant feature of his adult life as well.

Fathers had the power to accept their children and raise them or to demand their exposure (P. Oxy. 4.744). Exposed infants who survived often became slaves, while the children of slaves were slaves at birth. These children could be educated, since slaves regularly served as stewards in households, but they were taught separately from free children. Enslaved children did not control the physical boundaries of their bodies and could be used for sexual pleasure in brothels and in their masters’ households.

Did Greco-Roman people care about their children?
Greco-Roman parents and societies valued children and actively cared for them, but the mortality rate for children was very high. Some estimate that less than half of children born survived to age fifteen. Roman boys wore pendants, called bullae, to ward off illness and the evil eye in an attempt to protect them from harm. The first-century rhetorician, Quintilian, lost both of his sons at a young age (Inst. 6.preaf.), and the moralist, Plutarch, also suffered the loss of his three-year-old daughter, Timoxena, along with two older sons (Mor. 608b–12b). Scholars used to argue this high mortality rate explained the dismissal of children in ancient literature, including the New
Testament (e.g., Mark 10:13–15). Yet, ancient writings also record parents and care-takers, including masters, seeking healing for children and slaves (e.g., Mark 7:24-30). They also communicate deep grief over child illnesses and death. While adult children were mourned more acutely, parents and family members grieved the deaths of children (Seneca, Marc.; AP VII.486.G; Peek 1243.G). Greco-Roman people understood children as not-yet-fully-formed people. Children were full of potential, but that potential depended on their social status and their biological sex. Enslaved children did not have potential for maturity and were thus considered child-like throughout their entire lives. A grown male slave, for example, would never be called a man, but always a boy. The transference of such terminology in the United States, and its deep history of racism, should not be overlooked.

  • meyers-alicia

    Alicia D. Myers is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School. She is the author of Blessed among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2017), which explores the ancient medicinal understandings of and cultural expectations for girls, women, and mothers in the ancient Roman world. She also writes regularly on the Gospel of John.