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.

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

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.