It’s Worth A Stay at the… gymnasium

Last November this blog caught a brief glimpse of fame as a University of Oslo press release drew attention to our research on Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis. Somewhat unexpectedly, the press’ attention was directed towards our thoughts on the gymnasium and its role in the lives of this ancient city’s youths. Some journal and internet articles likened the the activities of the gymnasium to the more modern experience of ‘a scout group’, other youth organisations and even a kind of fore-runner to the Y.M.C.A. Of course a (perhaps nostalgic/haunting) association with secondary schooling lurked behind some of these comparisons; activities familiar from our own childhoods often present a convenient short hand for the customs of raising and training children in ancient cities. It’s very easy to understand why we might want to compare some aspects of life in the ancient world with their more modern counterparts, when we’re dealing with an experience as universal as moral and civic education of children.

Yet there are some very important differences between the ancient gymnasia (plural for gymnasium) and modern scouts organisations. These institutions were prevalent not just in Egypt, but were a continuation of sorts of the classical Athenian gymnasium which we know about from some of our classical sources:

“Some rich persons have private gymnasia, baths, and dressing-rooms, but the people have built for their own use many wrestling-quarters, dressing-rooms, and public baths. The rabble has more enjoyment of these things than the well-to-do members of the upper class.” (pseudo-Xenophon Constitution of the Athenians 2.10)

And from classical Greek vase paintings:

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 - 500 B.C.) Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta 6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 – 500 B.C.)
Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta
6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

In our research, we take into account that we are not dealing with the gymnasia of Athens, known to Pericles, Aristotle and other writers. Many hundreds of years and many hundreds of miles separate the gymnasia of Roman Egypt from their classical and Hellenistic predecessors, even if they still were considered as the cradle of the civilized urban life. Indeed, one of the aims of our project is to achieve an overall picture of the working of the gymnasia in connection to the city life in general, and its role in the lives of young men in particular.

Our research in this area is still preliminary, but we can say a few things about the gymnasium in Oxyrhynchus.

First of all, the gymnasium was not open to everyone. Unlike the origins of the Scouts  and the Young Men’s Christian Association ancient gymnasia were only open to the youth of the privileged groups. In Oxyrhynchus we lack detailed information on the initial ‘birth’ of the gymnasium – when this institution starts to show in our sources, in the latter half of the first century, it was already welcoming new generations of young men in through its doors through a recruiting process of scrutiny (epicrisis). The family background of the applicants was the deciding factor in this scrutiny; boys turning thirteen or fourteen (or rather their fathers or guardians, sometimes even mothers) had to prove that from both sides of their family, their older male relatives had been also been accepted into the gymnasium (usually in the same city). Secondly, the gymnasium was the focus of an entire social and political group, the gymnasial group. In fact, people of privileged status in Oxyrhynchos were divided in two: the metropolitan group, which represented the lower elite status group who enjoyed reduced taxation and presumably functioned as a recruitment pool for the top group of the city, and the gymnasial group. From the gymnasial group were recruited the members of the city council (boule) and the highest officials of the community – and it was only  the male offspring of this latter group who were given access to the gymnasium proper.

A Sporting Chance?

So, what is a gymnasium in Roman Egypt? We don’t know much about this side of things for many ancient cities at all but our systematic approach to the Oxyrhynchus material has led us down some interesting paths. Certainly, the gymnasium in Roman Egypt represents a later interpretation of the classical institution, in which the boys ideally developed ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. The gymnasium was still used (also) as a bath-house; in one document we note that clothes were checked at the door of the gymnasium, as in any bath house in the Roman world (P.Giss. I 50).
In this period, the gymnasium seems still to have been still used both for learning grammar, literature and the art of public speech, and as a premises for practicing sports (esp. wrestling and running) for public games and festivals. Victory in these games would have been a thing to be commemorated in many public contexts for the rest of one’s life, and so was a potential source for honour and pride. We can see this in this panegyrical poem to celebrate Theon, a youth who had made a donation to the gynmnasium and was later appointed to the position of gymnasiarch:
“Hermes, do you yourself hasten to sing for me of your young interpreter, and help the bard, striking with your hand the seven-stringed many-toned lyre, which you yourself first made new-dropped at your mother’s feet and gave to Apollo in ransom for his oxen; therefore do latter-day bards celebrate your service of the Muses, and herdsmen in the fields proclaim thee as pastoral god, while athletes in the stadium call on Hermes ruler of the games, and cities hymn you as warden of the gymnasia. And here too this youth, O King, honours you in your hallowed folk, pouring a fount of oil for the citizens. For it is not newly that we know you, Theon, holding chief office among your youthful comrades, but of old, whether anointing ourselves with oil-distilling flasks, or partaking of the gifts of chaste Demeter. Such blessings did you of your favour bestow on the folk; and blessings on blessings here you give now to the youths, yea more precious still. For those in truth a rich man too might bestow, since vainglorious are the gifts of vain wealth; but these come from a man learned in the wisdom of the Muses. Therefore we honour you more highly for these than for them, because they were taught you by your father, and these by the Muses.”  (adapted from P. Oxy 7 1015 (3rd c CE))
Here it is clear that social status and wealth was used in accumulating social capital for advancement in the local community. But the gymnasium also had a peculiarly military connection in some instances, which appears by this time to be purely symbolic or administrative. For the families, also the prospect of reduced tax played an important incentive to register also other family members than their sons, like daughters and slaves, as having a ‘gymnasial status’. In one document we find details of the epicrisis held in Alexandria by the prefect of the fleet, even though the children were from the Oxyrhynchos area (nome); it appears that this examination was held in Alexandria, as the family members held Roman citizenship, a formal status valued differently in different cities, but particularly strongly in Alexandria.  The thirteen-year old son and eleven-year old daughter of a Roman veteran were here entered into the epicrisis together with their three home-born slaves (aged nine, five, and one unknown). Their widowed mother was in charge of making the declaration:
“… of which a copy is appended, with three witnesses, to the effect that Trunnia Marcella is the sister of Trunnius Lucilianus, and of the examination of my slaves Euphrosynus, …olytus and Plutarchus; and I swear the usual oath made by the Romans that they are my children and I have made no false return…” (extracted from P.Oxy. 12.1451 (175 CE)) 
It seems that the gymnasium as both a place and an institution of sorts, was primarily one in which sons of the urban elite were to learn how to be good citizens, while growing up to conserve the values of a particular social group with a very distinct heritage in the city. Training in both sports and the principles of classical Greco-Roman learning (paideia), were a highly suitable means of achieving and perpetuating this kind of group social identity, and of being able to serve their city as adults (for instance, as benefactors or as members of the town council, the boule). And what was important was that they made connections between themselves for their future success, seemingly even across the gymnasia of different cities.

Eton Mess?

At this point in our research, the answers to some quite crucial questions remain beyond our grasp, and that of the source material. How many of the city’s boys got to engage with gymnasial life: was it indeed reserved only for the boys from the highest echelons of the local community, the uncontested local elite –  this would mean only five percent or less of the age group. But if the selection (epicrisis) was more liberal, and the status had spread during the many decennia of the institution’s history, we might be dealing with even 15 to 20% of the age bracket. And given its upper-status character, how much privilege, power and networking was actually preserved for the futures of the young members of the Oxyrhynchos elite?
In all, as we already warned, if we are going to draw parallels with more modern groups of boys and young men being trained for future success by their social group, we might better look in this direction. The gymnasium in Roman Oxyrhynchos seems to have been more of a state-sustained elite club than anything like this:

Media Spotlight for Oxyhrynchos’ Kids

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….)


Heritage Daily

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Archaeology

Past Horizons

Archaeology News Network

Science Daily

Ancient Origins

Message to Eagle

History of the Ancient World


Zamora proto historica

Alpha Galileo

NewsSoftpedia – *** note: Y.M.C.A. ! ***


Colorado Newsday

The Cairo Post


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.

Camelboys Konstantinopel

Boys on a camel. Mosaic from late antiquity, early 6th century CE. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. (Photo: Reidar Aasgaard)

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.

Oslo inv 1470r

A father, Ophelas, requests that his underage son, Pakhois, be registered as an apprentice in the tax lists for the weaving industry. The document is dated 11 June in the year 70 CE. (Photo: Papyrus Collection, University of Oslo Library)

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!

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.