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Reviewed by:
  • Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy
  • Mark Golden
Ada Cohen and Jeremy B. Rutter, eds. Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2007. (Hesperia Supplement 41.) Pp. xxv + 429. US $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-541-6.

At over 400 hefty Hesperia-size pages, this collection is hard to pick up but (better) hard to put down too. Well illustrated and edited, its seven sections and twenty chapters (listed below) make a substantial contribution to the history of childhood in the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to late antiquity. (The list of references alone will make the most punctilious bibliographer feel paranoid.) They also provide a primer on the interpretation of the evidence of material culture.

A few stand out. Marinescu, Cox and Wachter present a series of mosaic panels from a fifth-century floor, depicting (in colours reproduced here) the trials and triumphs of a boy named Kimbros, "our best visual source for the educational process in late antiquity" (107). His expertise in the language of gesture on Attic vases allows Tim McNiven to track how baby boys, restricted to a few broad gestures, develop a more varied and subtle repertoire as they approach manhood; but while older boys are shown to use their fingers as well as their whole hands, girls never outgrow the hand gestures of infants. In this medium too they are effectively silenced. A sensitive investigation of the crocus-picking girls in the frescoes [End Page 100] of Akrotiri brings in the saffron-clad acolytes of Artemis at Brauron and the darker figure of Persephone, herself plucked from a meadow as she searched for flowers. The work of the late Paul Rehak, it also reminds us that it is not only the young who are snatched away too soon: Rehak died shortly after the Dartmouth conference at which this and the other papers were delivered.

But interesting suggestions and useful information abound everywhere. Framed by two acts of paternal devotion, one for a daughter, one for a son, the Iliad also shows childlike Achilles taking on a father's role and understanding after Patroclus's death (Pratt). Late Geometric art and funerary customs provide "the initial manifestations in Greek material culture of the concept of virginity" (Langdon, 190). Contrary to earlier reports, young boys and girls appear on classical Attic funerary monuments in nearly equal numbers (Grossman, 314). Why is Helen older when abducted by Theseus on Attic vases than literary sources suggest? Because Greeks were uneasy about the social convention of adult males marrying teenagers and wanted to safeguard "a notion of 'innocent' female childhood" (Cohen, 273). Circus scenes on Roman sarcophagi hint at an afterlife for those who died young, invoking both the undying fame of successful charioteers and (less positively) the spells and curses through which dead children might influence races' outcomes (D'Ambra). In late antiquity at least, Roman girls enjoyed a period of adolescence despite their early marriage (Alberici and Harlow).

However persuasive the individual chapters, the most productive reflections may arise from reading contributions alongside and against each other, a feature of the best collections. For example, one of the editors notes the prevalent concern to recognize and define visually stages of childhood and enumerates the remarkable range of indicators contributors rely on: "figure scale, hairstyle, bodily proportions, costume, posture, gestures and other behavioral characteristics such as attention span, and various gender-specific details such as skin color, breast size, and penis dimensions" (Rutter, xxi). Is this evidence of the care ancient artists took to delineate children's development? Or of the desire of modern commentators to find such stages by every means available? At any rate, these invoke other variables which might be thought to render their identification more difficult. Unusual iconography on an Attic votive relief may be explained as a commission by foreigners (Lawton, 53); a Theran fisherboy's bulging muscles are necessitated by the weight of his catch (Chapin, 253); baby Praximenes is large for his age on a tombstone for his elder sister, stressing that he ensures his family's survival (Grossman, 314); artists make jokes (McNiven, 95–96, Chapin, 246...


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