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Coming of Age in Ancient GreeceReview - Coming of Age in Ancient Greece
Images of Childhood from the Classical Past
by Jenifer Neils and John Oakley
Yale University Press, 2003
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Mar 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 12)

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece composes an extraordinarily rich work of scholarly collaboration. Its production involved years of extensive research begun with travel across Europe and the United States to a plethora of museums of art and history. The book's authors, Jenifer Neils and John H. Oakley, examined and selected objects of art from antiquity that express, from a wealth of perspectives, what it was like to be a child growing up in the Greek world in classical times.

The work began as an exhibition in the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (August to December, 2003). The exhibition was the first of its kind, a unique collection of artifacts that offered insight into such questions as: what activities and games did ancient Greek children play? What was the nature of their schooling? How were the roles of girls and boys in classical society related and distinguished? What ceremonial and religious rites of passage did children undergo and how were they figured in mythical articulations? How were these ritual and mythical practices crucial to children's development into citizens and parents?

From the Hood Museum exhibition, 251 black-and-white, and 170 color illustrations of the exhibition artifacts were assembled. Neils and Oakley supply both the seminal essays of the book, as well as descriptive contributions they had written for the exhibition catalogue. Renowned scholars, Lesley A. Beaumont, Helene Foley, Mark Golden, Jill Korbin, Jeremy Rutter and H. A. Shapiro, join Neils and Oakley in assembling a collection of meditations on ancient Greek representations of children, as depicted in literature and art. The work maps the shifting lifeworlds and social status of children in the Greek world, and charts the evolving attitudes toward children and their changing relations with parents and other adults.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece unfolds the evolving realities of childhood life from Stone and Early Bronze Ages through the classical period and into the Hellenistic Era, and its meditations stretch geographically across the city-states of mainland Greece--Corinth, Athens, Sparta--to Greek colonies in Southern Italy and along the coast of Asia Minor. The book features and discusses in vivid detail how the Greeks understood their children and how their children understood their roles in Greek society.

This work composes a fascinating collection of illustrations worthy of any coffee table. But Coming of Age in Ancient Greece is so much more than a pretty book. Its analyses offer groundbreaking interpretations of child life in the ancient Greek world. The book argues a novel artistic thesis: that Greek depictions of children demonstrate that the ancient Greeks were the first culture to represent children and their activities in a naturalistic form. It also argues for a new interpretation of the ritual and mythical lives of Greek children, claiming the extensive participation of children in the ritual life of the society, as well as illuminating the plethora of childhood imagery in mythical articulations of the Greek world.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece offers an entirely innovative explication of artistic representations of childhood in the Greek world. The most innovative argument raised in the work, however, is the introduction of the paradoxical notion that, though children across the ancient world enjoyed a lowly social status, children in the Greek world imposed a significant influence on their society. This paradox illuminates the perennial truth that, though attitudes toward children in the Greek world are specific to their time and place, there is something universal about children in all human societies: that children, however insignificant they may appear and however lowly their social station, across all human time, human lives and human cultures, have profound effects upon their social worlds.

 

© 2005 Wendy Hamblet

 

Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Philosophy Department, Adelphi University, New York, author of The Sacred Monstrous: A Reflection on Violence in Human Communities (Lexington Books, 2003).


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