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 http://www.hf.uio.no/ifikk/english/research/projects/childhood/ for fuller information.