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….)
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.
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.
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!