Everyday Lives and Cultures of Children in Roman Oxyrhynchos
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.
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?
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.