Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2004
Jenifer Neils and John H. Oakley, eds. Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2003. 352 pp.; 170 color ills.; 251 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (0300099606)
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., August 23–December 14, 2003; Onassis Cultural Center, New York, January 19–April 15, 2004; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 1–August 1, 2004; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, September 14–December 5, 2004
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The status and experience of children in ancient Greek society receive fresh attention and thoughtful consideration in Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. Both the catalogue and the exhibition that it accompanies probe the social realities of childhood in ancient Greece by examining portrayals of children in Greek art and other articles made for children’s use. As the contributing authors stress throughout the volume, works of art offer tantalizing glimpses into the lives of children, but they do not tell an objective story. The sculptors and painters of the ancient world were adults, and they were not specifically commissioned to record children’s activities or experiences. On the other hand, these artists frequently included young people in scenes placed on funerary monuments, votive reliefs, and painted ceramics. Jenifer Neils and John H. Oakley, organizers both of the catalogue and the exhibition, compile and analyze this hitherto overlooked evidence.

The essays in the first part of the catalogue highlight the methodological problems that complicate the search for children in ancient art. In the introduction, Neils and Oakley defend the use of images as evidence of ancient attitudes toward children. They present the well-known gravestone of Ampharete, whose touching epitaph and beautiful relief depicting a seated woman holding a baby may demonstrate that grandmothers helped to care for grandchildren and also felt real affection for them. The conclusion seems justified, and yet it raises a second question: Does the sense of tenderness apparent in the gravestone not tell us more about the conventions of Greek sepulchral art than about actual family relationships in antiquity? The authors anticipate the question and answer it thus: “While admittedly this scene is an idealized construct, its emotive quality can inform the viewer, more than any text, about the value of children and family life in ancient Greece” (3).

The essays that follow adopt a broad range of approaches, each with a strong interdisciplinary basis, but all must confront the same fundamental problem: since artistic convention defines the character of so much Greek imagery, it is as difficult to discern authentic attitudes in ancient monuments as it is to “read” them for evidence of children’s lives. In her contribution, Jill Korbin introduces the perspective of childhood studies in contemporary anthropology, which stresses the diversity of children’s experiences across cultures and from individual to individual. In an essay remarkable for its humanity and freshness, Mark Golden discusses children’s status and the ways in which differences in gender and class affected children’s lives in ancient Greece; he analyzes aspects of religion, law, and literature and finds contradictory attitudes toward children both in ancient and current society. Jeremy Rutter considers evidence uncovered in archaeological excavations to suggest the presence and absence of children in different aspects of prehistoric Aegean culture, and he shows the difficulties that attend even the identification of children in very early Greek material. Lesley Beaumont uses insightful visual analysis to trace changes in the mode of representation applied to children between the sixth and third centuries B.C., and she proposes interesting links among artistic conventions, prevailing attitudes, and the historical events that might have modified them. 

Gender seems to have determined the experience of childhood in antiquity, a point that the content and structure of the catalogue reinforce throughout. For example, H. A. Shapiro’s essay addresses fathers and sons as distinct from mothers and daughters, the topic of a separate essay by Helene Foley. The implication is that men and women experienced parenting differently, just as boys and girls faced childhood differently, and both Shapiro and Foley adduce ample testimony in support of this idea. The emphasis, method, and evidence used in their essays, however, differ; read in tandem, they underline the degree to which the ancient Greek family cannot be interpreted simply as a symmetrical unit divided along gender lines. Shapiro finds extreme examples of fatherly and filial conduct in such mythological figures as Zeus, Dionysus, Achilles, Theseus, and Herakles, and then considers their relevance to the socialization of boys in Classical Athens. He delves most deeply into the depiction of mythological families in vase-painting; what relationship these images bear to real-life families, so differently portrayed in the same medium, remains an implicit question. Foley’s discussion of the female side of the family dwells more on the mother–daughter relationship than on the childhood of girls, which was usually shortened by marriage in their early teens. Her sensitive analysis of literary passages and survey of visual material consider the bride and young mother as children, since their ages would qualify them as such in modern terms even if the ancient Greeks regarded them as grown women. Indeed, in Greek art, whose conventions are closely aligned with prevailing custom, brides are represented looking more adult than childish, with full breasts and tall figures.

Nuptial rites are excluded from Neils’s thoughtful essay, which examines children’s roles in Greek religion, including the separate but comparable rituals that marked the maturation of boys and girls. She analyzes a diverse collection of material and suggests reasons for discrepancies between visual and textual sources. Children’s participation in burial customs figures in Oakley’s interesting essay, “Death and the Child,” but his primary theme is the affection between parents and children that funerary monuments and grave goods seem to convey. He notes categories of work, such as Classical grave stelai and white-ground lekythoi, where depictions of children are common and often bear apparent emotional charge.

The issue of whether parents cared about their children in antiquity is repeatedly raised in the catalogue, and with reason. When Philippe Ariès proposed in 1960 that, for demographic reasons, parents in early modern Europe could not afford to love their children, his idea was received with hostility, since it seemed to deny the humanity of our own ancestors. Greek art may exonerate Athenian adults of Ariès’s charge, for they appear attentive to babies’ needs, proud of children’s promise, and pained by children’s deaths in monuments made for various purposes. The increasing tendency of late Classical and Hellenistic artists to represent babies and young children naturalistically is often interpreted as a sign that the younger generation commanded more attention and affection from their elders. Yet artists were not commissioned to record children’s activities for their own sake, and the works invariably present an adult point of view intended for adult patrons and mainly adult audiences.

The objects included in the catalogue bear witness to the close affiliation among artistic conventions, cultural values, and contemporary customs. As recent research has shown, differences in costume, hairstyle, and body type designate persons at different stages of maturation in Greek art, and these traits are noted throughout the book. Different modes of representation receive less comment. Entries on naturalistic images, for instance, often point out the emotional message implicit in such works. They stress what is represented rather than the peculiar capacity of the naturalistic mode to convey tender affection and restrained emotion. Often a general statement about children’s behavior is inserted into the commentary, for example, “This small, charming group of three young children huddled together reminds one of just how quickly the seemingly endless energy of toddlers can give way to sleep so deep that it can be hard to wake them” (238). The implication seems to be that the image, in this case, a small bronze in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (cat. no. 39), has prompted distinct recognition of a universal human trait. But departures from naturalism, such as the Archaic tendency to depict children as miniature adults, are also widespread in Greek art. On Attic ceramics, children sometimes appear prematurely aged for participation in institutions such as homosexual courtship, which brought young adolescents in contact with much older men in ancient Greece. Newborns in vase-painting often strain away from the adults who carry them, holding up their own heads and squirming with unlikely strength. Such artistic transformations of reality also reflect Greek attitudes and stand in need of further interpretation.

Of the 128 entries in the catalogue, roughly half are Attic painted vases of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.; also included are other ceramics, stone sculpture, small bronzes, terra-cotta figurines, jewelry, toys, implements, and coins. The selection is bound to emphasize child life in Athens over other centers, but the better preservation of Attic texts as well as artifacts constantly skews our conclusions in their direction—a fact that the authors acknowledge. Life-size statues of small children are presented first in the catalogue, and the last works are two intimations of the passage out of childhood, a marble statue of an ephebe and a lebes gamikos adorned with bridal scenes. Between these poles, objects are grouped by the aspect of child life to which they relate, namely, myth, the household, education, play, and ritual. Most of the material in the exhibition comes from American collections and will be familiar to American specialists, but many of the children depicted in scenes with several figures, particularly on painted vases, may have escaped notice heretofore. By examining these images, Neils and Oakley brilliantly demonstrate what evidence is contained in small things forgotten.

Like Neils’s earlier volume, Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), which she also prepared in conjunction with an exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece is beautifully produced and richly illustrated. Every object in the exhibition is reproduced in color at least once. Vases are shown from multiple points of view, including sides where no images of children appear, so that the reader can begin to reconstruct the context for them in the comprehensive ornament of a single vessel.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece adjusts our perception of ancient civilization while renewing our appreciation for the limitations as well as the merits of the monuments that bear witness to the past. Although considerable evidence indicates the ways in which childhood was different in antiquity, much Greek art points in the opposite direction. Thus, the exhibition and catalogue reveal both faces of childhood, directing attention to the distinctiveness of Greek culture while searching the seeming timelessness of the images that enshrine it. 

Jean Sorabella
Department of Art and Art History, Adelphi University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.