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Friday, March 12, 2004

Arts & Letters

Ancient Children

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past and the supplemental exhibit, Striving for Excellence: Ancient Greek Childhood and the Olympic Spirit, Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, January 22-April 15, 2004.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past is the first major art exhibit to examine childhood in ancient Greece. The exhibition, which originated at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum before traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum, has now had a sidebar exhibit, Striving for Excellence: Ancient Greek Childhood and the Athletic Spirit — a selection of eight works from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and one from the Hood — added to it by the Onassis Cultural Center, where it can currently be seen. Together, the two groupings provide an intriguing overview of the ancient family and gender roles, educational practices, domestic organization, athletics, and play.

Childhood as a cultural idea has been the subject of intensive scholarly study over the last 40 years, beginning with Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood, which included a bleak reading of children’s images in Greek art. Further research and analysis, however, has effectively challenged the depiction of childhood as subsumed by work and responsibilities. Children in ancient Greece played games, went to school, lazed about, and negotiated family life, much as children do now. Or, to be more precise, certain children did — those of privileged classes (and even here distinctions must be made between the lives of boys and girls). One important point that Ariès and other historians of the mentalités approach established is that, from the ancient Greeks on, cultural ideas of childhood have been influenced by class, gender, and cultural and religious norms, among other things. The Onassis Center’s exhibit offers detailed glimpses into and raises questions precisely as to how these differences played out in daily life. How did the lives of girls differ from those of boys? Of slaves from those of the freeborn? Who cared for children in well-to-do homes? What roles did children play in religious ritual? What was school like? What games did children play? What kinds of toys did they have?

The answers to some of these questions might seem obvious. We know that slave children, for example, had to work when and howsoever their masters desired. So, one might assume, representations of them would be narrowly defined. A vase painting that depicts a woman taking a drink at her leisure as a slave child, with an enormous bundle on her head, marches along behind, is evidence of such exploitation. The disparity in power and status between the girl and the woman is apparent; but one might ask just why this scene is depicted. Is it possible that the image is satirical on some level? To say one way or another, one would have to know a good deal about who created the image, and the context in which the work was sold and used — but it is interesting to speculate.

Conversely, there might be less to an image than first appears. A painting of two young women, one carrying a writing tablet and the other leading her by the wrist, seems entirely at odds with our notions of women in ancient Greece, for the scene resembles typical images of boys led to school by their instructors. We do know that, as a rule, women in this culture were denied education beyond private instruction, for the few, at home. Given this, are we seeing overlooked evidence for the institutionalized education of girls in this society? According to John Oakley, in his essay on girls in ancient Greece for the exhibition’s catalogue, further study of the image suggests otherwise. Painted on a bowl to be used at a symposium (or drinking party), the image likely depicts not a student and teacher but two hetairae, the courtesans whose services would have included not just sex, but also more intellectual companionship. It is nevertheless difficult to determine with any assurance just what the image signifies; the girl could be bringing the tablet to a philosopher (Socrates, say), or she might be an artisan’s idealized image of an educated, lovely young woman.

Somewhere between the ambiguous social commentary regarding the mistress and slave girl and the obscure subtext of the young women with the writing tablet is a scene that depicts a young dancer training with her instructor. The child wears only a cloth about her chest. The instructor, carrying the long staff common to images of athletic activity among the ancient Greeks, extends her arm to make a point about the girl’s movement or posture. Such a workaday image from the world of women is so unusual in ancient Greek art that the figures stand in a kind of limbo. Are they slaves or members of the lower class? Does the painting offer a glimpse into the lives of female performers, or would such a scene have been a common occurrence in an ancient Greek city?

Early childhood is another area of mystery in ancient Greek family life, not because the visual records are ambiguous, but because they are so scarce. The children of aristocratic and other freeborn families were raised through age six in the gynaikeion, the women’s quarters, a domain set apart from ancient Greek society’s male-dominated mainstream — thus the interest in the glimpses offered by the few images we have of children in women’s quarters. Even the gynaikeion had its hierarchy, with the mother presiding over wet-nurses and slaves. In an Attic red-figure vase painting (ca. 440 BCE), a mother hands her child to a wet-nurse while the father looks on, a scene paralleled in a vase painting depicting Erechtheus’ birth (earth goddess Gaia’s child, Erechtheus would later become the mythic king of Athens). Given the ancient world’s high rates of infant and childhood mortality, this seemingly innocuous moment must have held great significance; the child had survived its dangerous first weeks and could now be brought into the larger household. One of the more beautiful works in the exhibit is an Attic red-figure painting of an infant on a high chair reaching toward its mother; the tiny, keyhole-size image is emblematic of our limited access to this period in the life of children in classical Greece.

Images of birth and scenes from infancy in ancient Greek art most often come from the lives of gods and mythic heroes. Heracles, of course, endured a famously difficult early childhood, thanks to Hera’s jealousy. He appears on a medallion and in bronze as an endearingly ordinary-looking infant, his great strength concealed under a swell of baby fat. Compared to the bizarre births of Athena and Helen, that of Heracles seems remarkably human, a reminder that he is a kind of lunchbucket hero, a figure as much of human overcoming and vulnerability as of superhuman strength. The toy-sized Athena emerging from Zeus’ head, depicted on a black amphora from the sixth century, is so odd that one wonders if, on some level, the image has to do with an ambivalent male appropriation of the awe of childbirth. It certainly looks painful, and one wonders whether even Eileithyia, the birth goddess who soothed the pangs of labor, was up to the challenge of relieving the migraine Zeus was in for. Helen’s birth from a swan’s egg makes an entirely different impression; this is birth as the apotheosis of anarchic sexuality. Leda, Helen’s mother, runs away in fright, while Eros and the nude shepherd who find the egg hover over the infant, who gestures for attention. If Helen represents female seduction and sexuality, then it is interesting to observe how disruptive, how out of place, she is from the start. Perhaps one reason so few images directly link sex and childbirth has to do with the fact that the Greeks themselves had not resolved this relationship. Then again, given the high rates of unwanted or unanticipated (read: teenage) pregnancies in our society, neither have we.

A good many objects on display at the Onassis Center have to do, thankfully, with more innocent concerns: reading and writing, games, and sports contests. The exhibit includes a number of objects so ordinary and simple, they seem to erase time. These include a black terracotta inkwell (in the shape of a ball) from the third century BCE, a wooden writing tablet (Greco-Egyptian, fourth century CE), and a papyrus filled with a child’s writing (Greco-Egyptian, third century CE): objects that bear the trace of those who used them. There are knucklebones for games of chance, dolls, and drinking vessels shaped as animals: objects that are not art, but vividly the stuff of art. The religious importance of dolls (the recent subject of Victoria Nelson’s seminal study, The Secret Life of Puppets) is suggested by a Boeotian terracotta doll from the Late Geometric period, which is decorated with an eight-armed swastika. Visitors to the exhibit who have not read Nelson’s work, however, might be puzzled by this doll’s inclusion in a group of sports images; an attempt might have been made to link it conceptually to the later dolls, some with articulated limbs, in the main room. Otherwise, the examination of play in ancient Greece is nicely rounded out by vase paintings of children playing knucklebones, seesaw, and spin-the-hoop, as well as a throwing game for girls (the loser had to run a distance, carrying the winner on her back). There was a slightly surreal quality to the stark image of two girls, in flowing robes, standing on a seesaw by a tree set against a black background — like something from an avant-garde performance piece — but, otherwise, the representation of child’s play was endearingly familiar.

Striving for Excellence, the special exhibition of ancient athletic images, has topical interest. It is a remarkable coincidence, for example, that the Olympic Games are returning to Athens just as Western societies, the United States especially, struggle with what appears to be a crisis of childhood obesity, with all its attendant health problems. The idea of a sound mind in a sound body goes back to ancient Greece, of course, and has been the guiding principle behind everything from school recess to public playgrounds and jogging paths. Perhaps the idea is losing force, but the images of perfectly formed young men running, wrestling, and training with javelins bear convincing witness to the beauty of the ethos of discipline and self-perfection under divine auspices. Lest one overestimate this athletic ideal, however, a late Hellenistic marble statue of a boy wearing a toga dominates the exhibition’s main room. His head is tonsured, and he has the pensive, downcast gaze of a scholar or religious acolyte. He is still a boy, and his young belly curves under the voluminous drapery covering it. Still, it appears that he is given, even at this age, to a discipline of mind and spirit. One would like to know more about him, and about all the children depicted in this exhibition, which offers tantalizing and sometimes fragmentary glimpses into ancient Greek childhood. And one can only hope for more exhibitions of this kind.

Christopher Moylan is a poet and associate professor of English at New York Institute of Technology; he also writes art criticism for a number of print and online publications.
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