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.

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.