“The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken…”

Thus did Lloyd deMause begin his 1974 survey of the horrors of childhood in the past. Four decades ago a volume of over thirty essays devoted entirely to childhood in the classical period simply wouldn’t have been conceivable, but progress made over these decades in the study of the history of the family and of the life course in antiquity has meant that just such a tome is now possible.

At least, that is what Judith Evans Grubbs (Emory University, Atlanta, USA), Roslynne Bell, and I (Tim Parkin) have thought was possible over the last few years. We assembled what is, we think, a rather outstanding group of 32 scholars – some young, others not so young – from around the world, who could offer perspectives on the history of children and education in the ancient world. A very diverse and often very different range of perspectives, it should be added.

As many of us as could manage it – as well as some Manchester PhDs and academics working in relevant areas, plus Professor Susan Treggiari from Oxford, to keep a magisterial and maternal eye on us all – got together in Manchester in 2011 for a week of talking, listening, eating, and drinking. It worked very well: the project was well and truly conceived. Two years later The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, all 700 or so pages of it, has been delivered by Oxford University Press (December 2013).

Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Eduacation

We think deMause would be surprised, hopefully pleasantly. The book incorporates a wide range of knowledge about and approaches to the study of children and education in the Greek and Roman world, and in the process it showcases the work of both established and younger scholars from Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What we hope it reflects is scholarly advances and potential futures in the study of the family in antiquity. Historical, literary, and art historical aspects of childhood are explored from the Bronze Age through to Late Antiquity. Attention is given not only to the perhaps more familiar societies of classical Greece and Rome, but also to children in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, and in the Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean. Several chapters focus on legal and medical aspects, showing the relevance of sources not usually used in the study of ancient children. Particular emphasis is placed on material evidence, including the burial and commemoration of newborn infants and very young children.

One of the highlights of the volume, we think, is the wide range of new approaches to the study of children in ancient history incorporated: there is innovative use of material culture alongside literary, historical, legal, papyrological, and medical material. A number of chapters incorporate very recent archaeological research on the disposal of the bodies of neonates and very young children. Along the way one can also find discussion of, for example, the question of when life begins, the practice in the past of breastfeeding and infanticide, childhood diseases and disabilities of the time, and such issues of contemporary relevance as childhood socialization and the role of children in creating their own art and culture.

Beryl Rawson

Beryl Rawson

The volume is dedicated to Beryl Rawson, the woman who can justifiably be called the mother of the study of the Roman family and one of whose last books was on Roman children. Beryl died before our volume could be published, which we much regret, but it is to her that the Handbook is dedicated.

I won’t say it wasn’t a nightmare (to echo deMause’s term) getting the book out into the light of day, but after a lengthy gestation we are quite proud of the end product. We wish it a long and happy life!


One thought on “A new history of ancient childhood

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