Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe at Manchester Metropolitan University

The Social Sciences and Ancient Children

For the world of classical Antiquity, where demographics dictated that young people were everywhere, children and adolescents are remarkably silent in our source material. We know comparatively little about their positions in society, let alone their experience, their concerns and what they found comforting, frightening, entertaining or even what they aspired to. So how can we even begin to understand youth cultures in the ancient past?

In the course of our respective research on ancient children, we’ve considered theoretical approaches from the Social Sciences to help us to understand the lives, concerns and outlooks of our ancient children and adolescents. In particular what sociologists and historians mean by ‘agency’ in the context of childhood, is one question where our historical sources can enlighten contemporary understanding of youth (previous posts on these pages have shown where we’ve aimed to do this).

Hide and Seek!

These approaches drawn from modern childhood and youth studies, and our historical analysis, together allow us to seek out hidden aspects of ancient children’s engagement with the world around them. But there are many players in this game of hide and seek. The aim of my new research network, Hide and Seek. Past and Present Perspectives on Children’s Agency is to bring together scholars and practitioners of youth and childhood studies, to collaborate on new insights into aspects of youth cultures, both historically and with contemporary young people. Research questions include: how do young people respond to expectations of them in certain contexts? How do they shape their experience of their environment? Are their ‘cultures’ distinct from those oMates,-Mischief-and-Make-Believef adults, or do ‘adult’ and ‘child’ cultures respond to one another in more complex ways? The network plans to host a number of events over the coming years, asking such questions in relation to children and young people in the past and in the present.

Here at Manchester Metropolitan University, numerous Faculty members in Humanities, Languages, and Social Science are working on children and youth from an array of different disciplines and perspectives. Our first international network meeting, Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe. Children’s Peer Cultures, Past and Present , was generously supported by Manchester Metropolitan University and two of its research centres: the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies and the Manchester Centre for Regional History. The day focused on one aspect of children and young people’s cultures: young people’s agency within peer groups. The outcome of this one-day meeting was fruitful in many respects; discussion extended across temporal borders, with researchers on historical youth not only benefiting from the approaches of social scientists, but also contributing to wider research questions by adding cultural depth with historical case studies.

The first session raised important questions about culturally determined and agency-led identity and performance; a socio-linguistic analysis of conversations with young people on the fringes of Manchester’s education system, opened a discussion of language and behaviour as performative, which was key to understanding youth peer cultures in ancient Greek military contexts, boys’ clubs of inter-war Britain and contemporary studies of well-being among young people across Greater Manchester. Behaviour deemed as ‘transgressive’ by some, was the theme emerging from three papers dealing with young people in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the contemporary classroom; we revisited how we define ‘transgressive’ in different cultural and educational contexts in contemporary and historical youth. The more playful aspects of children’s lives were the focus of two papers on  responses to 18th century children’s literature, and children’s production of playthings from ancient Egypt, by comparison with recent anthropological studies of children and their dolls in Africa. For the full programme, and participants’ profiles, see below.

The broad and cross-cultural questions we asked about aspects of youth, both in the past and the present, lay at the heart of working with children and adolescents for all of the assembled historians, socio-lingusists,  criminologists, sociologists and classroom practitioners. How do children and adolescents ‘perform’ in specific physical and social environments? How does their behaviour  upturn the notion of a passive ‘socialization’ into adult society?

Our project on Oxyrhynchos’ youth picks up on some of these themes, and our associated publications (in press and forthcoming) continue to make use of the sociological scholarship to do this.



Colloquium Participants and Programme, April 2016


April Pudsey (MMU, History) Mates, Mischief and Make-Believe. Approaching the Study of Children and Young People’s Cultures


Rob Drummond (MMU, Languages, Linguistics and TESOL) Urban Youth Language and Identity

Owen Rees (MMU, History) Peers and Adolescence in Ancient Greek Military Contexts

Melanie Tebbutt (MMU, History) ‘The Age of Feeling’: Adolescence and Emotion in the Boys’ Clubs of Inter-War Britain

Haridhan Goswami (MMU, Sociology) Social Relationships and Children’s Well-Being: Role of Peer Groups



 Rachel Holmes and Maggie MacLure (MMU, Education and Social Research) Transgressive Behaviours: On Becoming a Problem in School

Ville Vuolanto (Oslo, Philosophy, Classics, History of Ideas)     Elite Children of Late Antiquity – The Problem of Peer Cultures

Oana Cojocarou (Oslo, Philosophy, Classics, History of Ideas) Child Bullying in the Middle Byzantine Period



Feike Dietz (Uttrecht, Languages, Literature and Communication) The Fiction of Peer Learning in Eighteenth Century Youth Literature

Ada Nifosi (Canterbury, Kent, Archaeology) Dolls, Play and Ritual in Ancient Egypt



Future Network Events

A second colloquium is planned for October 2016, kindly supported by the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, and will zoom in on one other aspect of youth: dealing with trauma and/or conflict. A programme will be available soon, but please email if you would like to be involved.

Theon, an Angry Boy from Roman Egypt (P. Oxy. I 119)

Theon to his father Theon greetings. It was so nice of you not to take me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria I won’t write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So, if you go to Alexandria I won’t take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what will happen. And my mother said to Archelaos that he is upsetting me, take him away! It was so nice of you, sending me these great presents, just rubbish. They put me off the track on the 12th, the day when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t, I won’t eat, I won’t drink; there! I pray for your health. Tybi 18th.

Deliver to Theon from Theonas his son.

As far as we are aware, only three children’s letters from Greco-Roman antiquity have survived the ages and present themselves to us, so the text above is quite exceptional.[1] It is a letter written on papyrus, found in the city of Oxyrhynchos (now El-Bahnasa), some 200 km upriver from the present-day Cairo and 400 km from the sea and Alexandria, Roman Egypt’s cultural and administrative centre. The dating of the letter is uncertain, but most probably it dates to the second or third century CE. In any case, the calendar date is January 13th (or 14th, if the year in question was a leap year). The translation above is based on that of Peter Parsons, but it is modified by Ville Vuolanto. For the original Greek text with technical information, see

Even though the letter does not mention its author age, we can reasonably expect him to have been rather young. He seems to have written (and composed) the text by himself, and had therefore already been able to acquire some literacy skills. On the other hand, he is by no means allowed to move around freely and, above all, his way of behaving and expressing himself certainly does have the air of childlike sentiment and concern. This boy was, presumably, over ten years of age, but still not yet reached the legal majority (fourteen).

The text combines two different rhetorical strategies: first, the adult-tone, with recourse to irony: ‘so nice of you’, and with the present, and the socially correct means of addressing and elder. On the other hand, there is the childlike-tone, featuring attempts at emotional blackmail: he won’t speak, greet or eat if his hopes are not fulfilled. Theon even refers to the words of his mother, playing his parents off against one another to back up his claim that he is indeed very, very disappointed.

The translation cannot do full justice to the textual characteristics of the original letter: the editors, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, remark that it is ‘[w]ritten in a rude uncial hand, and its grammar and spelling leave a good deal to be desired’. A good illustration of this is the writer’s problems in reporting indirect speech. Not surprisingly, there are many problems in translation, as it is not always clear what is going on in the text. For example the reference to the present is not completely clear. The word is arakia, which literary means chickling beans (lathyrus sativus). Thus, a translation such as ‘beans’ would be possible. However, here, in line with the general stroppy tone of the letter, if we interpret this to denote ’weed’,’refuse’ (or ‘rubbish’, here, as Jaakko Frösen has pointed out), then we may be more to the point.

We have here a boy whose father does not want take him along with him out into the big wide world of the Roman empire’s second biggest city, Alexandria. Yet, we also have here a, dare we say, precocious child, who certainly is privileged compared with most of his peers: he has access to education and he comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father is doing business in Alexandria for a longer period, and he himself has access to papyrus to write on – and he took full advantage of his situation. Naturally, to write a letter may have been the idea of Archelaos (perhaps an older relative, or a teacher) but the wording shows that the ideas presented were boy’s own. The letter is written in Theon’s home estate, which his father has left without informing his son, to take the boat from the city of Oxyrhynchos further down the Nile. And from Oxyrhynchos the letter was finally found, thus, most probably, it was originally sent – even if we cannot know whether Theon’s father ever received and read it.


Sculpture of an under-age boy with his hair worn in the Egyptian style with a “lock of Horus”. ­The side-lock of hair was cut off and dedicated to the gods in connection with the coming-of-age ceremony marking the transition to adult life. From the first half of the second century CE. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History)

So what can we learn about children’s lives in Egypt from such a letter? We have here an example of a child’s multi-layered agency: Theon wants to experience Alexandria, and he pesters his mother and goes to the effort of writing a letter; he is also proclaiming his agency by greeting or not greeting his father, and – though perhaps not so convincingly – by eating or not eating. Certainly, he presents himself as a subject in his own life. The intervention of an adult may account in part for the idea of writing a letter in the first place, or in formulae of address and conclusion (although these could simply reflect such well-embedded cultural conventions, that a boy Theon’s age and position could discern and mimic them). In particular the shifting tone at the end of the letter is amusing, and shows that ‘I pray for your health’ is there because (and only because) one should end letters with this expression in polite circles. It is also of interest that at the beginning of the letter he uses his real name, Theon – but when adding the address, he shifted to use his pet name, Theonas.

Theon is actively trying to influence decision-making in the family. The letter is a rhetorical exercise. He tells what he chooses to tell about his experiences: he works hard to convince his father of his deep disappointment at the family decision. The interplay of social conventions and his immediate concerns are made visible in an exceptional manner: he is socialized with regard to his ‘family culture’ rather than with the requirements of the wider cultural discourses. There is little sign of the kind of filial piety which ideally should permeate all interaction between children and their parents. The milieu in which his action takes place is convincingly depicted: a household with his mother and some other people, with freedom to action and to express his opinions and experiences. Perhaps the most interesting point in our present context is that he seems to think this actually could help. Theon is not an oppressed or frightened child. He is not afraid of losing the emotional support of his nearest and dearest even if he is himself angry and irritating.

As such, this is an isolated text, and, as noted, nearly unique. No firm conclusions about the ‘usual’ experiences of childhood or prevalent patterns of family dynamics can be drawn from this kind of anecdotal evidence: it is his own world Theon is experiencing. But it shows what was possible within certain limits, at least in some contexts and in some families. This kind of micro-historical evidence of life in the ancient world’s cities and communities, is invaluable in showing us the cultural expectations and the, usually well-hidden, lives of their inhabitants.


[1] Another is SB III 6262 (Third century, of unknown provenance). The third case is a fourth century BCE lead table found in the Athenian Agora (Agora inv. IL 1702).


Your hand-picked song to go with this blog text is Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by the Smiths:

Children on the Road in Roman Egypt

The Egyptian papyri are a gold mine for research on wide-ranging  topics in ancient cultural and social history. This was proved to us when we decided to take part in the conference On the Road: Travels, Pilgrimages and Social Interaction. Passages from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, held in Tampere, Finland, in early August 2015. Had Ville not been on the organizing board of the event, this theme may not have registered on our radar and attracted our attention. But now it gave us a chance to see how far our material could get us in terms of ‘social approaches to travelling, mobility and cultural exchange’. Thus we set off on our own road to exploring children’s mobility around Roman Oxyrhynchos, hoping to follow in their tiny footsteps…

Our first road block: papyri from the Oxyrhynchos area do not in fact feature many travelling children (statistically speaking) – but our material does include some 35 cases which can be interpreted as referring to some kind of travel for children outside of their local environments. For the majority of children, it was only in their early teens that their perspectives would have widened beyond the household; for most, this was due to their work in fields, workshops or even in other households. Elites children were in a position to move away from their homes for a higher education in the city centre of Oxyrhynchos, or in some cases much farther away – 200 kilometres downriver in Alexandria.

Forced Mobility

The most well-recorded group of travelling children in our sources were of slave status, who were recorded in documents related to transactions of slave-trading. This kind of movement – born of circumstances beyond the person’s control – was a huge feature of mobility in the ancient world; the results of such trading in people, and often movement of free people in the aftermath of war or political turmoil, accounts for the overwhelming majority of mobility in the Roman world.

For these recorded slave children, we can see clearly that they were freely sold and separated from their families of origin, and that many of them had to travel far from very young ages. This was not an uncommon experience, given the size of the slave population across Antiquity and the scale of slave-trading. Among these traveling slaves, those working or studying were mainly boys, but girls were equally prominent.  One example is recorded in the middle section of a slave sale transaction record found from Oxyrhynchos:

Aurelius Quintus son of Hilarius of the city of Caesarea [of Mauretania] … has sold through the landed bank under the herald Marcus Aurelius Dionysius son of Dionysius son of Dionysius son of Aponetus, a slave girl (korasion) called Vic… [alias?] Rufina aged ten… , a mauron by birth, at the price of …50 denarii. Aurelius Epimachus … has bought [her?].

Here, a slave girl, Rufina, who was originally from Caesaria Mauretania (present-day Cherchell, near Algiers), was sold in Rhodes (where this document was drafted) when she was ten years old (the age can also be as high as nineteen). Rufina eventually ended up in Oxyrhynchos (P.Oxy L 3593). Quite a journey, quite a fate.

Map for on the road

Working and Walking the Land

It was not only children of slave status who were on the road, even if for them their travels were unquestionably much longer and farther than for others. A primary example of this is shepherd named Petemounis, mentioned to be a minor (thus under fourteen), whose home was at the village of Kerkemounis in the upper toparchy (1st pagus), but who was pasturing in the neighbourhood of the town of Pela in western toparchy (3rd pagus), at minimum some fifteen kilometers from home. While this distance easily could have been covered on foot in a half a day when off duty, he is also mentioned occasionally to have tended his flock ‘throughout the entire nome’, that is, even much farther away from home. For him, the rural areas of the Oxyrhynchite nome must have become quite familiar early on, with also the responsibility of the flock – mentioned to consist of twelve sheep and three goats with their lambs and kids in 29 CE (P. Oxy XXXVIII 2850).

If any of our readers has any idea how quickly such a flock with a shepherd can move (km per day?), we would be happy to hear!


The experience of children’s lives was not universal (as it is still not, today), and for many children in or from Roman Oxyrhynchos their local environment extended beyond their immediate home and family into wider communities, environments and sometimes other countries. Such mobility would have had significant cultural, social and psychological impact on those children, and undoubtedly would have helped them to shape their lives and the meaning they attached to the world around them.

Refugees and Mobility

A case in point are the Goths in service at the Apion estates near Oxyrhynchos in 560s AD, who seem to have formed a small Gothic community of their own, with their wives and children. These immigrants or refugees in the aftermath of the Gothic wars – which had laid waste much of Italy – found a new home far away across the Mediterranean. You can listen to a podcast of Professor Peter Heather (of King’s College London) speak on refugees in the Roman Empire, here as part of the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre.

The ‘new world’ was peaceful and gave people their daily bread (see  PSI VIII 953 and 956 with Norman Underwood’s fascinating article online), but for their children the cultural shock must have been tremendous.


footsteps 2

April and Ville presenting to the enthusiastic audience (photo by — seated in front of more enthusiastic audience! —  Samuli Simelius)

The conference was live-tweeted, and you can see some of the comments on the discussions here (like: ‘Overheard at the conference “17-year-old is too old for us”‘ (Reima Välimäki)).


There are many more cases of mobile children in the material, and we’re putting together an article on what these might tell us about  the impact of travel for any reason on children’s lives. Further cases of child slaves or children in refugee communities are giving us a lot to think about, particularly in terms of children’s agency and emotion, in terms of coping, obligation and duty as they find themselves  Anywhere on this Road…

Lhasa de Sela, Anywhere on this Road

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: City of the Sharp-Nosed fishes…

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s history stretches back a long way. Labour and movement in and around the North East, and cultural integration, are prominent features of its history, and Newcastle is now host to a number of immigration and refugee services. This kind of movement is, of course, not new. People travelled widely in the ancient world and landed in the big cities for strikingly similar reasons. Flight from war and its aftermath, political turmoil and religious and other persecution was not uncommon, and mobility for economic reasons was a huge part of life across the ancient Mediterranean.  Its impact and influence on families – and children in particular – would have been vast, either negatively or positively.

So how can we use the ancient world to help children in Newcastle frame their own experience of meeting other children and families in circumstances like these? And, of course, vice versa: what can children’s perspectives on mobility today tell us about likely patterns in the past?

Where better to explore this locally than with children in West Jesmond Primary School? A school which teaches pupils from an extraordinary wide range of ethnic, social  and religious backgrounds, and works hard to bring the University and local community into its pupils’ education (see their Twitter account!).

Beyond Frontiers

For a research contribution to Newcastle University’s new Beyond Frontiers project, I created two workshops for Year 4 pupils. Our research on the Children in Oxyrhynchos project (Pudsey and Vuolanto) seemed like a good opportunity to test the waters: how do children in modern-day Newcastle think about movement to a new city and all that it entails? Beyond Frontiers provided a chance to ask that question of children, using role play scenarios based on the lives of their ancient counterparts — and to use ancient historical research to do so. The pupils were of course enthusiastic about the workshops (and not only because it got them a few afternoons off school…), and I learned a good deal about what sorts of perspectives children can take on cultural diversity.


Role play scenarios in Oxyrhynchus. Photo: Arto Polus

Role-play scenarios

After some introductory family-tree-building with Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits,  each class of Year 4 pupils was set the task of exploring the city of Oxyrhynchus (specially set up in their classroom with the help of inflatable crocodile and ‘nile boat’, and a weaving loom) in search of their missing neighbourhood  cat, Sarapis. The pupils had to set themselves in the role of the city’s children and ask questions of the people they encountered in order to find out why Sarapis the cat had visited each location…


Pupil with mummy portrait of young girl: what’s her story? Photo: Arto Polus


Meeting the Mummy Embalmer, Stephanos (Jordan Bayley, MA student) visiting Oxyrhynchus from Greece. Photo: Arto Polus

On their travels, our intrepid young adventurers met Stephanos, a Greek man who had travelled from Greece to become a mummy embalmer in the village of Tebtynis, and then moved to the city of Oxyrhynchus. The pupils were guided to ask questions about why Stephanos was embalming a crocodile in the first place, and thought about the importance of local and regional beliefs and customs. How important is this sort of religious worship to people who practice it? Why had Stephanos become an embalmer and moved to Egypt, and then this city? What was different here for him? What animal would they embalm and use to represent Newcastle?


Contract for an apprenticeship in Seuthes’ weaving workshop (Chris Mowat, PhD student). Would you sign…? Photo: Arto Polus

Next stop, they met the owner of the local weaving workshop, who asked if they wanted to sign a contract to become an apprentice in his workshop. The pupils cautiously examined an adaptation of an actual contract from second century A.D. Oxyrhynchus, and asked questions about the experience of working there (see our previous posts on these pages, on Romano-Egyptian apprenticeships).


Apprenticeship contract.


How many other children were there? Where had they come from? Would they all share the same language and play the same games? Did they have to live together? I was surprised by how many of the pupils were so keen to sign a contract which had them working from ‘sunrise to sunset’ largely, it seemed, out of intrigue and excitement for talking and playing with other kids from different places…


Meeting Marcus the Nile Boat driver (Maria Dougan, PhD student), in search of his brother… Photo: Ato Polus


After a brief visit to the ancient city’s theatre and markets, our explorers finally met Marcus, a  Nile boat driver and Roman citizen searching for his brother who had fled from war in Dura Europos. Marcus’ missing brother had gone ‘somewhere with a river’ — was it the Nile? Or the Tyne? Marcus carried with him an amulet which his brother had given to him as a memento, and the pupils thought about what kinds of objects from their homes they would give to family members and friends travelling away. They shared drawings and discussion about objects of their own they would like to keep with them if they left home (ranging from cuddly toys and kitchen implements, to super-soakers and smartphones with the family photographs on them). This tied in nicely with one of the other workshops the pupils had done on the biography of objects, based on one of our undergraduate Archaeology modules.

As it turned out, Sarapis had been hiding out on Marcus’ boat all along with vague hopes of catching sight of the elusive and eponymous ‘Sharp-Nosed Fish’ of Oxyrhynchus. She’d been following our young explorers around the city and listening in to each encounter they had, hoping to find clues of her own. Ultimately, leading them a merry dance around the city…


Sarapis the cat: on the hunt for the ‘Sharp-Nosed Fish’ of Oxyrhynchus.

Mummy Portraits

I ran follow-up sessions as part of the project, in the Great North Museum: Hancock. In these sessions the same pupils in groups of three or four used sample mummy portraits to think about creating their own characters and then to paint portraits of them onto canvas. Each portrait character needed a back story, for which the children used those role play encounters as a guide. Who was their character? How had they come to be in the city? What cultures, dreams and attributes had they brought with them? As I was shuffling around the small groups (ensuring some of the paint hit the canvas!) I overheard pupils  compare these experiences with friends in their class, or people they knew about on t.v. or in their street. We learned about these made up characters’ likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, families, friends and travels — and it was clear the children had associated with these imagined situations in Roman Egypt, their own school, neighbourhood and city.

This idea of using an ‘imagined contact’ is a widely acknowledged theoretical approach to the question of how, psychologically, social prejudices can be addressed and reduced. You can read about Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner’s work on this, here.


Painting ‘David’, the Greek man in Oxyrhynchus. He likes pizza, music and his family.  He has traveled around the Mediterranean. Photo: April Pudsey.


Painting ‘David’, the Greek man in Oxyrhynchus. He likes pizza, music and his family. Photo: April Pudsey.


‘Tom’ has traveled throughout the desert and is worried about getting lost and finding his way home. He likes his family, but is frightened of snakes. He wears clothing that his family gave to him. Photo: April Pudsey


Painting with April Pudsey and Joe Skinner at the Great North Museum: Hancock. Photo: Jordan Bayley.


Painting with Joe Skinner at the Great North Museum: Hancock. Photo: April Pudsey


‘Maximus the III’ has traveled away from home, bringing stuffed toys with him to remind him of his pets and family. Photo: April Pudsey

Photo 18-03-2015 14 40 32

This man wears special clothing that ties him to his local social and religious group.

Photo 18-03-2015 14 40 55

This woman wears a special design on her clothes, that reminds her of home. She also wears an amulet, given to her by her sister to remind her of home.


Thinking of questions you would ask a new person in your city. Photo: April Pudsey


Jacob, who wears a tuxedo and plays the saxaphone. He’s travelled to the city to be a musician. Photo: April Pudsey










The Children in Oxyrhynchus activities made up the research element of the Beyond Frontiers project.  Colleagues in Classics and in Archaeology at Newcastle (Dr Joseph SkinnerDr Sally Waite, Dr Mark Jackson and Rose Mockford), along with those in the Great North Museum: Hancock, ran workshops in tandem, based on our undergraduate teaching: coinage and local identity; and on important and significant personal objects – object biographies.


An Inspector Calls…!

All Year 4 pupils had the opportunity to participate in the full range of activities, and to think and talk about cultural diversity in the ancient world, applying it to their own modern-day life in the city of Newcastle.

The theme was prominent in the Year group’s work for the year, and the success and innovative nature of Beyond Frontiers activities were mentioned in the school’s ‘outstanding’ Offsted report (we were lucky enough to meet Offsted inspectors on a day when these workshops were happening!).

In addition to the workshops in the West Jesmond Primary School and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the Beyond Frontiers project also held an exhibition for parents in West Jesmond Library, an exhibition for parents and teachers in Newcastle University, and a public exhibition in the gallery of the Great North Museum.

IMG_0068      IMG_0075Exhibition of the pupils’ work for parents and teachers, at Newcastle University. Photo: April Pudsey

For more details on the whole Beyond Frontiers project, you can watch this two-minute Video documentary featuring both myself and Dr Joseph Skinner, who co-ordinated the BF project. 

Beyond Frontiers is a collaboration between the School of History, Classics & Archaeology at Newcastle University, West Jesmond Primary and the Great North Museum: Hancock.

You can email the project on The website for the project will be updated with material soon.

Children and asceticism in Late Antiquity

“He has children, he is not dead”

Cover Vuolanto

In Late Antiquity, asceticism challenged the traditional norms and practices of family life. The resulting discussions of the right way to live a Christian life provide us with a variety of texts with information on both ideological statements and living experiences of Late Roman childhood and children. Ville’s book, which came out in April 2015, Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Continuity, Family Dynamics and the Rise of Christianity, is the first major book-length study of the interplay between children, family and asceticism in Christian ideology; it is also the first to scrutinise in depth the roles of children in family dynamics for any area of the Roman World.

“Better than to have children is childlessness with virtue, for in the memory of virtue is immortality”  (Wisdom of Salomo, 4.1)

Why did parents want their children to become ascetics instead of contributing to their family lineage and, thus, their own continuity? By taking this question as its starting point, the study contributes to the discussions on family ideology, role of children and family dynamics in Late Roman world; to the study of Christian asceticism in Late Antiquity; and to modern theories on family strategies and continuity. Christian authors of the late fourth and early fifth centuries challenged the traditional Greco-Roman view that family was the central means by which the immortality in the continuity of the name, lineage and memory was assured, pointing to the superiority of asceticism in safeguarding meaningful life. “‘I will give you an eternal name’ … what more do you seek?” (Augustine, On Holy Virginity 25).

In the book, childhood and children are approached both from the ideological and social historical perspectives: first, what was the place reserved for children in the emerging Christian family ideology; second, what was the place for children in the actual family dynamics and life course; third, what were the limits of children’s own action? In analyzing the ideological side, the stress is on Christian family rhetoric: evading death and striving for continuity through family life is shown to have been conceived as a basic component for good life in the Late Roman world. “Each day we die, each day we change, and yet we are convinced that we are eternal” (Jerome, Letters 60.19)

Indeed, old ways of life were deeply embedded in the culture. It is shown in the book how asceticism fitted into the upper class culture and mentality, and how it was put into practice on the family level and in the lives of children, with some promised to God at their birth, some others driven to conflicts with their parents. These processes are informative in showing how the late Roman elite families worked, and what was the role of children in the contemporary culture.

“Thus, happy are those who leave behind children to succeed them and take over their possessions. He has children, he is not dead”  (Augustine, Expos. on the Psalm 48, 1.14)


You can purchase Ville’s book online from Ashgate, with a 20% discount (just click this text)

Uptown Girls in Roman Oxyrhynchos?

Mummy Portrait of a girl, 120-150 CE, Liebieghaus Sculpture Museum

Mummy Portrait of a girl, 120-150 CE, Liebieghaus Sculpture Museum

In a world where gender, age and social group so heavily defines an individual’s life and their access to socio-economic and political power it’s easy to imagine that, in antiquity, girls would perhaps have had a tougher time of things than most, and that different expectations were placed upon them by their families, peers and communities. But how did a gendered experience manifest in a place like Roman Egypt? And how did gender cut across the influences of the other defining factors such as social status, location and age? In the first of a series of posts on girls in Oxyrhynchos, we examine some of the documented girls from our sources. As we might expect, the evidence for girls’ experiences and concerns in Antiquity is quite sparse and often limited to ideal notions of what adults think girls ought to be concerned with. Our analysis of the papyri from Oxyrhynchos gives us some indication of the lives and experiences of girls growing up in this particular city. Life appears to have been different for girls, but in some perhaps unexpected ways…

The Apprentice

From the Hellenistic period onward we have evidence of girls becoming apprentices, particularly in weaving workshops; they were contracted specifically to learn the craft often alongside other girls and boys under the same apprentice master. But these were usually girls of slave status and most frequently found in the towns and villages of the Fayyum region, like Tebtynis – one example, P.Mich. V 241 (16 CE), text and translation here, details a contract in which the prominent local weaver Orsenouphis agreed with Herakleon to teach his slave girl Helene the art of weaving, for the standard two and a half year period in which he would be obliged to feed and clothe her. In general, girls who were contracted as apprentices in weaving, whether slave or free, were subject to the same sorts of contracts for work and learning the craft. In Oxyrhynchos we have plenty of apprenticeship contracts for boys (we’ll come to those in a future post) but very few for girls.  There was also another side to the apprenticeship deal for freeborn children: the contracts often featured details of loans which had been made to the parents of the child being apprenticed, and a suggestion of a repayment schedule in line with the duration of the apprenticeship. In the only apprentice contracts for a freeborn girl in Oxyrhynchos, Aurelius Polydeuces arranged for his young daughter Aurelia Aphrodite to learn the craft of weaving for four years. She would live with the weaver master (here a woman) until the loan he had simultaneously taken was repaid by the girl’s work. Accordingly, she was to live with the master rather than go home at the end of each day:

‘…for this period of time her father will see that his daughter abides with Thonis, not spending a night or a day away, being fed and clothed for the whole period by Thonis instead of receiving wages…’  P.Oxy.  LXVII 4596 (264 C.E.). in Greek, here.

It seems it was only because of the father’s financial situation the girl was to leave the protective sphere of her own household. Thus, here the focus of the apprenticeship was not necessarily borne of the desire for the girl to learn a trade, instead it was a convenient means of securing a loan to the family — of course, it’s difficult to say how this might have impacted on Aurelia Aphrodite’s experience of that four years with Thonis the weaver (it may well have made little difference…).

The Pastry Cook and the Donkey-Driver

From the daughter of a family in significant debt, to girls who were slaves. Girls of this status appear frequently throughout these documents, in a number of scenarios. In one very heavy-handed petition to the local strategos (a high-ranking official) Aurelius Aphynchis sought redress from a pastry-cook who he claimed had assaulted the young slave girl Sarapias who ‘belonged’ to his son (both Sarapias and Aurelius’ son were children). Aurelius claimed that the pastry cook had damaged Sarapias’ lip and then, quite audaciously, assaulted Aurelius himself in a later confrontation about the incident:

‘…hand[s] in the petition and request you to order him to be brought before you and to proceed against his outrages so that the girl can receive redress and treatment.’ P.Oxy. XXXIII 2672 (218 CE)  (trans. adapted from original editors), in Greek, here.

The general tone of this petition suggests not only that Aurelius feels he has been done a dishonour,  but that the family was in fact concerned for Sarapias as a member of their household. It was common for children of slave status to live and be raised in the same household as freeborn children their own age (as we see in the many census returns from Roman Egypt – which I discuss in detail in this book); so it’s perhaps not surprising to observe close bonds forming between those children over the course of their lives as they grew up. In another petition from a woman, Thermuthion, to the local strategos, we see a slave girl – “a little maidservant of mine, slave by birth, Peina” –  who had been injured by a donkey driver in the streets as she accompanied certain Eucharion, a freedwoman, around the city. Thermuthion claimed that she loved and cared for her as a little daughter:

“… in the hope that when she came of age I should have her to tend my old age, for I am a woman helpless and alone”

Peina would had taken the role of a biological child in securing the old age well-being of a lonely woman in a society without pension system. The petition further claims that the incident wasn’t reported straight away,  but that Peina’s hand was crushed, most of it mutilated and:

“… the rest is gaping open … since it is incurable and I cannot bear distress about the maidservant – when you see it with your own eyes you too will be upset. Then I have fled to you…”  P.Oxy. L 3555 (60-130CE) (trans. adapted from original editors)

Both of these girls lived as slaves in households in Oxyrhycnhos, and we see them here as particularly  significant, even cherished members of those families.

Uptown Girls?

It seems that in Oxyrhynchos, girls experienced their surroundings in slightly different ways, but these ways very much depended on their social position. For some upper class girls, growing up meant putting their girlish concerns and fears behind them as they prepared for the trappings of womanhood: marriage. In Egypt women could legally own, inherit and sell property, and they were very active in their children’s affairs. Unquestionably, we have more information about women’s agency from Egypt than from other parts of Graeco-Roman world, but is this simply because of the differences in our sources, or did women actually have more freedom to act? The case is not closed. For freeborn girls within other social groups, apprenticeships may have been an option, but this was a double-edged sword: it’s possible that the these contracts are little more than a simple pledging of children against a loan, disguised as apprenticeships. In any case, their youth was a period to prepare for married life and household tasks it included. For girls of slave status, working filled their days, and apprenticeship was for many a very real option, particularly to learn the trade of weaving. Still, the documents seem to reflect a certain degree of compassion, friendship and concern in their daily household lives. In one Hellenistic literary text found from the city we can catch a glimpse of the concerns of a young woman looking back on her childhood as she set aside playing with her dolls and prepared for marriage. This poem, The Distaff, was written by Erinna, an educated and literary woman; her narrated self claims to have been only nineteen when she wrote the text in memory of her girlhood friend, Baucis, in the 4th century BC.  For someone in Oxyrhynchos this text was relevant and meaningful enough to be copied out in the first century BC:

“. . . . These things I
 lament, sad Baucis.
 These are my memorial,
 warm trails back through my heart:
 now all we once shared, smoulders in ash. Young, without a care, we held our miming girl dolls in the pretense of young brides 
(and sometimes I was playing mother, allotting dawn wool to women,
 calling for you to help spin out the thread). 
What trembling when we were small and feared Mormo —
 huge ears, long tongue,
 forever walking on all fours, always changing from one shape to other. But mounted in the bed of your husband, Baucis, 
you forgot things heard from mother,
 while still we were children.
 Fast Aphrodite set your
 heart and your memory deceived you. Here is my lament,
 my neglected friend:
 I can’t bear this darkness, my feet may not leave this house, nor I will cut my hair nor cry to disgrace your corpse
. O Baucis,
 purple grief lays hold of me.
 Wretched Erinna! Nineteen, 
I moan with a blush to grieve. . . . mortal bloom of women growing old . . . . cries out the laments . . . flame . . . O Hymenaeus! . . . .” PSI IX 1090 (1st c BCE) (trans. adapted from the transs. by Daniel Haberman 1993 and Josephine Balmer 1996).

Usually, the voices of the ancient elite shout louder than those across the rest of the social spectrum; from Oxyrhynchos, the voices of ‘uptown’ girls are matched by those of all sorts of girls working, living, learning and playing in and around the city…

It’s Worth A Stay at the… gymnasium

Last November this blog caught a brief glimpse of fame as a University of Oslo press release drew attention to our research on Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis. Somewhat unexpectedly, the press’ attention was directed towards our thoughts on the gymnasium and its role in the lives of this ancient city’s youths. Some journal and internet articles likened the the activities of the gymnasium to the more modern experience of ‘a scout group’, other youth organisations and even a kind of fore-runner to the Y.M.C.A. Of course a (perhaps nostalgic/haunting) association with secondary schooling lurked behind some of these comparisons; activities familiar from our own childhoods often present a convenient short hand for the customs of raising and training children in ancient cities. It’s very easy to understand why we might want to compare some aspects of life in the ancient world with their more modern counterparts, when we’re dealing with an experience as universal as moral and civic education of children.

Yet there are some very important differences between the ancient gymnasia (plural for gymnasium) and modern scouts organisations. These institutions were prevalent not just in Egypt, but were a continuation of sorts of the classical Athenian gymnasium which we know about from some of our classical sources:

“Some rich persons have private gymnasia, baths, and dressing-rooms, but the people have built for their own use many wrestling-quarters, dressing-rooms, and public baths. The rabble has more enjoyment of these things than the well-to-do members of the upper class.” (pseudo-Xenophon Constitution of the Athenians 2.10)

And from classical Greek vase paintings:

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 - 500 B.C.) Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta 6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 – 500 B.C.)
Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta
6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

In our research, we take into account that we are not dealing with the gymnasia of Athens, known to Pericles, Aristotle and other writers. Many hundreds of years and many hundreds of miles separate the gymnasia of Roman Egypt from their classical and Hellenistic predecessors, even if they still were considered as the cradle of the civilized urban life. Indeed, one of the aims of our project is to achieve an overall picture of the working of the gymnasia in connection to the city life in general, and its role in the lives of young men in particular.

Our research in this area is still preliminary, but we can say a few things about the gymnasium in Oxyrhynchus.

First of all, the gymnasium was not open to everyone. Unlike the origins of the Scouts  and the Young Men’s Christian Association ancient gymnasia were only open to the youth of the privileged groups. In Oxyrhynchus we lack detailed information on the initial ‘birth’ of the gymnasium – when this institution starts to show in our sources, in the latter half of the first century, it was already welcoming new generations of young men in through its doors through a recruiting process of scrutiny (epicrisis). The family background of the applicants was the deciding factor in this scrutiny; boys turning thirteen or fourteen (or rather their fathers or guardians, sometimes even mothers) had to prove that from both sides of their family, their older male relatives had been also been accepted into the gymnasium (usually in the same city). Secondly, the gymnasium was the focus of an entire social and political group, the gymnasial group. In fact, people of privileged status in Oxyrhynchos were divided in two: the metropolitan group, which represented the lower elite status group who enjoyed reduced taxation and presumably functioned as a recruitment pool for the top group of the city, and the gymnasial group. From the gymnasial group were recruited the members of the city council (boule) and the highest officials of the community – and it was only  the male offspring of this latter group who were given access to the gymnasium proper.

A Sporting Chance?

So, what is a gymnasium in Roman Egypt? We don’t know much about this side of things for many ancient cities at all but our systematic approach to the Oxyrhynchus material has led us down some interesting paths. Certainly, the gymnasium in Roman Egypt represents a later interpretation of the classical institution, in which the boys ideally developed ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. The gymnasium was still used (also) as a bath-house; in one document we note that clothes were checked at the door of the gymnasium, as in any bath house in the Roman world (P.Giss. I 50).
In this period, the gymnasium seems still to have been still used both for learning grammar, literature and the art of public speech, and as a premises for practicing sports (esp. wrestling and running) for public games and festivals. Victory in these games would have been a thing to be commemorated in many public contexts for the rest of one’s life, and so was a potential source for honour and pride. We can see this in this panegyrical poem to celebrate Theon, a youth who had made a donation to the gynmnasium and was later appointed to the position of gymnasiarch:
“Hermes, do you yourself hasten to sing for me of your young interpreter, and help the bard, striking with your hand the seven-stringed many-toned lyre, which you yourself first made new-dropped at your mother’s feet and gave to Apollo in ransom for his oxen; therefore do latter-day bards celebrate your service of the Muses, and herdsmen in the fields proclaim thee as pastoral god, while athletes in the stadium call on Hermes ruler of the games, and cities hymn you as warden of the gymnasia. And here too this youth, O King, honours you in your hallowed folk, pouring a fount of oil for the citizens. For it is not newly that we know you, Theon, holding chief office among your youthful comrades, but of old, whether anointing ourselves with oil-distilling flasks, or partaking of the gifts of chaste Demeter. Such blessings did you of your favour bestow on the folk; and blessings on blessings here you give now to the youths, yea more precious still. For those in truth a rich man too might bestow, since vainglorious are the gifts of vain wealth; but these come from a man learned in the wisdom of the Muses. Therefore we honour you more highly for these than for them, because they were taught you by your father, and these by the Muses.”  (adapted from P. Oxy 7 1015 (3rd c CE))
Here it is clear that social status and wealth was used in accumulating social capital for advancement in the local community. But the gymnasium also had a peculiarly military connection in some instances, which appears by this time to be purely symbolic or administrative. For the families, also the prospect of reduced tax played an important incentive to register also other family members than their sons, like daughters and slaves, as having a ‘gymnasial status’. In one document we find details of the epicrisis held in Alexandria by the prefect of the fleet, even though the children were from the Oxyrhynchos area (nome); it appears that this examination was held in Alexandria, as the family members held Roman citizenship, a formal status valued differently in different cities, but particularly strongly in Alexandria.  The thirteen-year old son and eleven-year old daughter of a Roman veteran were here entered into the epicrisis together with their three home-born slaves (aged nine, five, and one unknown). Their widowed mother was in charge of making the declaration:
“… of which a copy is appended, with three witnesses, to the effect that Trunnia Marcella is the sister of Trunnius Lucilianus, and of the examination of my slaves Euphrosynus, …olytus and Plutarchus; and I swear the usual oath made by the Romans that they are my children and I have made no false return…” (extracted from P.Oxy. 12.1451 (175 CE)) 
It seems that the gymnasium as both a place and an institution of sorts, was primarily one in which sons of the urban elite were to learn how to be good citizens, while growing up to conserve the values of a particular social group with a very distinct heritage in the city. Training in both sports and the principles of classical Greco-Roman learning (paideia), were a highly suitable means of achieving and perpetuating this kind of group social identity, and of being able to serve their city as adults (for instance, as benefactors or as members of the town council, the boule). And what was important was that they made connections between themselves for their future success, seemingly even across the gymnasia of different cities.

Eton Mess?

At this point in our research, the answers to some quite crucial questions remain beyond our grasp, and that of the source material. How many of the city’s boys got to engage with gymnasial life: was it indeed reserved only for the boys from the highest echelons of the local community, the uncontested local elite –  this would mean only five percent or less of the age group. But if the selection (epicrisis) was more liberal, and the status had spread during the many decennia of the institution’s history, we might be dealing with even 15 to 20% of the age bracket. And given its upper-status character, how much privilege, power and networking was actually preserved for the futures of the young members of the Oxyrhynchos elite?
In all, as we already warned, if we are going to draw parallels with more modern groups of boys and young men being trained for future success by their social group, we might better look in this direction. The gymnasium in Roman Oxyrhynchos seems to have been more of a state-sustained elite club than anything like this:

Media Spotlight for Oxyhrynchos’ Kids

Over the past week, our project has caught the attention of the world’s media, following the University of Oslo’s Press Release of a brief interview with Ville. Something about children’s lives in the past, and what we know about them, has struck a chord in the hearts and imaginations of many of those who have (re-)tweeted, republished and re-blogged the interview.


Well, who wouldn’t want to know more about how we can relate to children in the past, as we do our own children? Who wouldn’t want to know what they did for work and play, where they learned, and how they engaged with their families and the bustling urban world around them — including with other children? The wonderfully-documented ancient metropolis of Oxyrhynchus is the perfect place to look. In later blog posts we’ll show you some of the most interesting (we think!) of these aspects of children’s lives in the city of Oxyrhynchus; watch out for the wrestling match, the big-brotherly advice, the friendship between a young boy and the girl living with his family as a slave, the pushy parent getting his son into the city’s gymnasium, the aunts and uncles and relatively young grand-parents who look after their orphaned younger relatives…


Talking about children 

The most significant – and terrifying! – episodes in this surge of interest were our interviews with @bbcworldservice for the Newsday breakfast radio programme, aimed at African audiences. Both of us had the opportunity to talk on the issue for a few minutes (Ville was even brave enough to do it live!)  So, not enough time for a very deep analysis but at least the children of this ancient multi-cultural city with one leg firmly in the Egyptian tradition, the other in the Classical, got some world-wide attention after 2,000 years sitting quietly, being seen and not heard, on many a set of library shelves…


Ville: unplugged (short interview from 55’53”)

April, speaking from the comfort of her office: link to follow

You can also see April speak in relation to this project in her interview with Classics Confidential earlier this year



Sarah Griffiths of the Mail Online was particularly interested in aspects of the gymnasium. It was genuinely pleasant to be able to talk about our research, in a way which would be presented to a public audience with interests in the past.


Other archaeology/history specific news sites around the globe were also keen to pick up on this theme, and on the different experiences of boys and girls in Egypt — there’s a surprising range of general and specific interest sites who judged their readers would be interested in children’s lives 2,000 years ago! Happy Reading! (And I bet you’ll leave to the tune of Y.M.C.A….)


Heritage Daily

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Archaeology

Past Horizons

Archaeology News Network

Science Daily

Ancient Origins

Message to Eagle

History of the Ancient World


Zamora proto historica

Alpha Galileo

NewsSoftpedia – *** note: Y.M.C.A. ! ***


Colorado Newsday

The Cairo Post


April  & Ville.



Below is an edited version of the original press release:


In Roman Egypt, 14-year-old boys were enrolled in a youth organization in order to learn to be good citizens. So says social historian and historian of ideas Ville Vuolanto, University of Oslo, who has joined forces with Dr April Pudsey of Newcastle University to dive deep into a mass of material of around 7,500 ancient documents written on papyrus. The texts comprise literary texts, personal letters and administrative documents. Never before has childhood in the ancient world been researched so systematically using this type of material.

The documents originate from Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, which in the first five hundred years CE was a large town of more than 25,000 inhabitants. Oxyrhynchos had Egypt’s most important weaving industry, and was also the Roman administrative centre for the area. Researchers possess a great deal of documentation precisely from this area because archaeologists digging one hundred years ago discovered thousands of papyri in what had once been the town’s rubbish dumps.

Little is known about the lives of children until they turn up in official documents, which is usually not before they are in their early teens. It seems that children began doing light work between the ages of seven and nine. Typically, they might have been set to work as goat-herds or to collect wood for fuel.

Camelboys Konstantinopel

Boys on a camel. Mosaic from late antiquity, early 6th century CE. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. (Photo: Reidar Aasgaard)

Only boys born to free-born citizens wealthy enough were entitled to be members of the town’s youth organization, which was called a gymnasium. These boys were the children of local Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Their families would necessarily have been quite prosperous, and have had an income that placed them in the ‘12 drachma tax class’. It is uncertain how large a proportion of the population would have qualified, probably somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent, Vuolanto explains.

Girls were not typically enrolled as members of the ‘gymnasium’, but are often mentioned in the administrative documents as being the boys’ siblings, and in a few cases enrolled alongside them. This may have had to do with family status or tax class. Both girls and women could own property, but in principle they had to have a male guardian.

There were probably a good number of children who did not live with their biological parents, because the mortality rate was high.

Some boys were apprenticed, some children enslaved

For boys from well-off families of the free-born citizen class, the transition to adult life started with enrollment in the gymnasium. Other boys started working before reaching their teens, and might serve an apprenticeship of two to four years. The researchers have found about 20 apprenticeship contracts in Oxyrhynchos, most of them relating to the weaving industry.

Oslo inv 1470r

A father, Ophelas, requests that his underage son, Pakhois, be registered as an apprentice in the tax lists for the weaving industry. The document is dated 11 June in the year 70 CE. (Photo: Papyrus Collection, University of Oslo Library)

Most girls remained and worked at home, and learned what they needed to know there. They generally married in their late teens – thus younger than boys who usually married only in the ir early twenties at the earliest.

“We have found only one contract where the apprentice was a free-born girl,” Vuolanto remarks. “But her situation was a little unusual – she was not only an orphan but also had her deceased father’s debts to pay.” *

But life was different for slave children. Vuolanto says they have found documents to show that children as young as two were sold and separated from their parents.

In one letter, a man encourages his brother to sell the youngest slave children, and some wine — whereas his nephews should be spoiled. He writes “…I am sending you some melon seeds and two bundles of old clothes, which you can share with your children.”

“It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. By examining papyri, pottery fragments with writing on, toys and other objects, we are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt,” explains Vuolanto.




* There are other cases: more to come in later blog posts!

Children and Everyday Life in the Roman World – in Oslo

Ville Vuolanto and April Pudsey


This May saw the three-day international workshop at the University of Oslo with the title Children and Everyday Life in the Roman World. The main purpose of this workshop was for leading experts in fields relating to the history of ancient children to present and develop articles for a new publication which would address the everyday lives of children in Late Antiquity. Children, and their perspectives, served as the starting point and, in as far as possible, their experiences and agency were our central focus. The initial call was to push the very limits of our previous knowledge and to explore new means of tracking children’s cultures, experiences and agency as far as possible from the evidence, and from interdisciplinary approaches.

Both workshops

Participants of the Children and Everyday Life -workshop, along with remnants of an Origins of Western Childhood workshop which took place earlier the same week.

Together we were twenty experts in ancient childhood, education, families and popular culture. Participants were well prepared, having read and digested pre-circulated drafts of one another’s papers, which created a good opportunity for in-depth discussions. As such, this was the first academic meeting of its kind – one in which we attempted a task often viewed as near-impossible, to view children’s lives in the ancient past from the perspectives of those children themselves. This approach, as yet un-developed in publications on ancient children, yielded many exciting results.

Scholarship, new and bit older, on children in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Pretty much the entire scholarship on children in Antiquity and the Middle Ages!

In two particularly inventive papers, for example, we pondered how the cityscape would have appeared to the eyes of a child, both from the perspective of Roman children in Pompeii, and that of a Jewish boy in Tiberias; discussions of the graffiti inscribed by children added interestingly to this discussion on children’s spaces and agency. Children’s environments comprised not only walls, streets and fields, but also people; these interpersonal contexts and social environments were dealt with in our paper on children and the wider network of relatives in Oxyrhynchos, in Roman Egypt, using children’s relationships with their uncles and aunts as a case study for exploration.

How children spent their time was one of the main areas for discussion throughout the workshop, and presentations on children’s leisure and play spoke directly to this question. While child-work was not much discussed, a paper from a paediatric surgeon on ancient children and accidents gave many insights into the (often perilous) activities of children, showing them taking care of carrying items and caring for animals, for instance (and, of course, the expected collection of breakages, cuts and swallowed items!). The lives of children in the margins were tracked through the themes of illegitimate and disabled children, both in law and in practice. Some children, naturally, also had access to formal education with strict discipline in schools and, later, monasteries. Also here, the theme of emotions and responses to adult expectations was a central one, and the papers on death on one hand and touch on the other were involved directly with the issues.

While it was sometimes difficult to focus on children’s perspective and culture, the workshop well presented the newest wave of childhood studies in antiquity: the discussions prompted by Philippe Ariès, that is, the need to challenge the notion of a lacking in parental emotional investment in their children and of childhood as a separate phase in life in ancient world, are now over, and the field is open for other questions and inspiration from modern childhood studies. It will be very interesting to see the final versions of the chapters in the forthcoming volume.

Reidars presentation

The workshops were organized under the aegis of the project “Tiny Voices From the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe” (University of Oslo / Norwegian Research Council), with prof. Reidar Aasgaard as the project leader – in the picture above he presenting the project; standing on the right Director of the host institute (IFIKK), Mathilde Skoie.

The project (2013–2016) studies the lives of children and attitudes to childhood in a culturally formative stage of European culture: Antiquity and the Early/High Middle Ages. Please visit for fuller information.

Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis

Everyday Lives and Cultures of Children in Roman Oxyrhynchos

April Pudsey and Ville Vuolanto


We’re currently working on our joint project ‘Children in Oxyrhynchos: Everyday Life in an Ancient Metropolis’. In it we aim  to reconstruct as possible the lives of children within the particular physical and social environment of a populous and diverse (and well-documented!) ancient metropolis. We’re systematically analysing the environments, activities and experiences of children in the city, their web of social relationships, and their agency in shaping these aspects of their lives.

Our case study is Oxyrhynchos:  a major, heavily populated and Hellenised metropolis in the Roman empire at the centre of administrative, political, religious and socio-economic life for an urban population.  Over 2,000 literary and 4,000 documentary papyri edited so far make up our source material and are testament to a range of socio-political statuses within the population. The ruling elite of the city were known as the gymnasial group – a hereditary social through which local and regional political power was distributed, within which there were Hellenised, literary circles who read, learned and adapted classical Greek literature. Beyond the gymnasial group were sub-elite and ordinary families, households and individuals, slaves, lodgers, tradesmen and migrants — all of whom are represented in the papyrological documents from Oxyrhynchos.

We are in the process of collating and analysing these texts, especially those which explicitly relate to children.   These documents range from household census returns, to official applications, petitions, legal documents and school texts and even private letters between family members and friends.


Why did Didyme do what she did?

Children of various ages, social groups and both boys and girls, feature in these documents and their experience of life in a Hellenised city in the Roman empire is here evidenced. The papyrus below, from the collection in the University of Oslo, tells an intriguing story about living conditions and housing in Oxyrhynchos – you can read a translation of the text, here.

POslinv1482  P.Osl. inv. 1482 (3rd century CE)

In this document Aurelius is writing to petition  the local police magistrate (ἐπεὶ τῆς εἰρήνη̣[ς]), complaining that he has been treated with insolence and assaulted by  a woman named Didyme, the wife of Agathos Daimon the cook, when staying in his home. It seems from this petition that Didyme came in, insulted and physically struck him, and then railed furiously at some of his daughter’s sons (whom he now calls as witnesses).  There are lots of interesting questions that this document raises. First,  the sons mentioned here are living with their maternal grandfather (their mother’s father) and are to be relied upon to provide valuable witness. How common was it for grandparents to share an active role in children’s home lives and up-bringing? And where are the children’s parents in this household? Second, the implication here is that Didyme has accused the boys of having done something to warrant her anger — but what? Third, the children were living in a household environment in which non-kin household members, or even adjunct family units (in this case a cook and his wife) were workers and/or lodgers — how common was this?

Barber Boy

Children also feature in contexts outside of the family home. From the age of 10 years upwards boys (and sometimes girls) could be contracted as apprentices  for a specified nubmer of years to learn trades such as weaving, and were often sent to live with their new apprentice master or at least work with them ‘from sunrise until sunset’. Numerous formal contracts are testament to some of the working and learning arrangements in place. Conditions for children learning a trade would have varied – particularly if there were other children engaged in work at the same workshop – and it is possble that, once they grew up, children maintained a strong relationship with their master.  In  a letter (P.Oxy. LV 3809, 2nd/3rd c. CE) a young barber writes proudly to his former master to give news of his success in finding a job – he boasts about his responsibilities and asks to pass on greetings to his fellow apprentices and former peers.

The children of Oxyrhynchos experienced life growing up in a major metropolis from a range of perspectives, and their experience was often determined by their age, gender and social status. We have documents telling us about: the movement of children who were bought and sold as slaves; applications for boys’ (and sometimes girls’) registration into the metropoliltan urban elite group known as the gymnasium (the group to which 14 year old boys would have been officially registered, in a similar manner as the ephebate in Classical Athens); and private letters referring to children in affectionate terms. Others children were involved in aspects of religious, cultic, economic, or political life in the city.

Seen and not heard?

So why is it interesting to study children in the context of this ancient metropolis? The demographic profile of the ancient world was such that we can expect the populations of Roman Egypt to have been very ‘young’, that is, the proportion of children to adults was relatively large by modern, western standards. This means there were plenty of children around within households, around the city and in the fields. Why do we know so little about their perspectives on life in the ancient world? Children are a group (if we can consider them a social or cultural group) whose voices are rearely heard from the sources,  but the ways in which children viewed and negotiated their physical, social and cultural environment, and their place within it, tells us a lot about those cultures.

All children, of course, grow up. Transitions from birth, through infancy, childhood and adolescence to adulthood are culturally construed and determined. If we can reconstruct children’s lives in an ancient metropolis like Oxyrhynchos then this can tell us a lot about everyday life in general in an ancient city. This enriches our understanding of how ancient societies and cultures operated and varied.