The Beginning of childhood – classical Greece

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Did the Greeks see a new baby as a child or just as another person? The reason for having a child can be seen as primarily to do their duty for the polis. There was also the requirement that only those men who had sons would be eligible for inheritance. Men had to have a child of at least twelve years (fourteen years for a boy) in order to be able to inherit. Children can therefore be seen in this context as a device that would enable their fathers to inherit. However, was this merely all they were born for? For what other reasons would children have been needed?


Women were taken into the women’s quarters of a house to give birth. This was due to the fear of pollution from the birth. Women seem to have been assisted only by women and only required the intervention of a doctor if the delivery was very difficult. This can be seen reflected in the medical writing of Soranus, who advises midwives on delivering babies. This can also be seen through earlier medical writers, suggesting that it was a common practice, and not something that began in the Roman period. Although these women could be considered midwives, no official training was required other than that already acquired through their own experience.

After the birth, the midwife would assess the child. According to Soranus, she would indicate whether it was male or female. She was then responsible for laying the baby on the ground and deciding whether it was ‘worth rearing’. Other post-natal duties included judging when to cut the umbilical cord, cleaning and swaddling the baby and then putting the baby to bed.

The child was then laid before the father who would choose whether to rear the child and accept it as his own or to expose it. Those children who were least likely to be accepted into the family were those with deformities, illegitimate offspring and slave offspring, with male babies more likely to be favoured over females. However in Sparta, it was not the father but rather the ‘elders of the tribes [who were] required to pronounce upon its [the baby’s] fitness to live’1.

This can be seen as an important distinction between Athens and Sparta in the classical period. By taking the authority over the child’s life out of the father’s hands it suggests two things. One, that the decision to bring up a child was too important for the father to make alone and two, that the decision was of great importance to the community at large. By deciding for the father, the elders can be seen in deciding with the interest of the community, rather than the father or the family, in mind. From this we can see that the child in Sparta was valued more as just another person, than as a child, for the potential citizen they would grow up to be rather than as someone’s child.

By comparison therefore it would appear that Athenian children were valued more as children, than just potential adults. However, because Spartan society focused on their potential doesn’t deter any value from them being seen as children. These definitions have the problem of being rather inflexible. Aside from the issue of being two- dimensional, they also appear to be closed minded. It can be considered possible for parents to appreciate potential but also to value a child as a child. The question could perhaps be better answered by asking two questions. One, were children seen as potential adults or as someone’s children? And two, when children were born did their parents see them as their child or just as another person?

There are various rituals which took place after the birth. These include allusions to a ritual (amphidromia) in which the father will carry the child around the hearth. However, with this practical problems are discovered such as houses which had no central hearth to walk around. There is also the larger name-day celebration, which took place ten days after the child was born. In this ceremony the child was publicly acknowledged as a family member. Ten days was considered the length of time needed for the pollution from the birth to have disappeared, and presumably children who survived to ten days were sufficiently strong enough to survive to adulthood, as the risk of neo-natal death shrunk (although infant mortality was always a risk). These rituals can be seen as celebrating the life of the child and so the existence of these rituals shows that children were seen as someone’s child when they were born.

Infanticide and exposure:

This is one category in which answers can be found. Infanticide is where a child is killed because it is not wanted. However, although the name pertains to violence, it was more likely that the father would order, or carry out himself, the exposure of a child if it was not wanted. The reason for this was that when the child was abandoned there was a hope that it would die without the need for anyone to be polluted by the death. There was also the slim hope that someone else would find the child and take care of it. Although it was not an uncommon occurrence, this was unlikely and it was most probable that exposure ended in death. The fact that exposure was parodied in Greek Comedy insinuates that it was a sufficiently common occurrence that the audience would understand and could have related to it.

How common infanticide and exposure were is a difficult question, made worse with the lack of evidence to be found about it. It also suffers from the fact that the two practices are often greatly confused: although exposure often ended in death it is a more passive act of causing a child’s death than infanticide. Greek and Latin literature frequently comment upon exposure, but this does not help detect actual levels of the practice. It is often referred to in literature in neutral or condemnatory tone; this sort of population control was not praised. The Greek and Roman authors also wrote about it as a kind of social criticism: it was something that only foreigners were seen doing. This, however, didn’t prevent it from happening throughout Greece and the Roman Empire.

Since some children were exposed, this reflects on how children in general were seen. One advantage of the practice was that it allowed children to be selected based on their sex. Since boys were more valuable, females were more likely to be exposed. This view however, is disputable since evidence of demography as well as osteological evidence can be used to show that infanticide of females was no more common than the infanticide of males. Engels2 argues that a high rate of female infanticide in antiquity was demographically impossible. He argues that the osteological evidence is biased against females and infants in general since their smaller, thinner bones are less likely to survive than men and those broken specimens that do are more likely to be discarded by excavators. Engel also points out that few children, who die within weeks of their birth, receive the same standard burials in cemeteries as adults or elder children did. However, Mark Golden3 has theorised a female infanticide rate of ten per cent or more, because as he argues otherwise there would be an oversupply of marriageable women.

It is possible the Greeks viewed infanticide as another form of late abortion, since from the viewpoint of the mother’s health it was preferable. Many of the contraceptives that Greek women used can be seen as late abortants, which the Greeks viewed as the same thing4. As another source, anthropological studies have also seen infanticide as commonly practiced and ‘frequently killing more female than male infants’5. There were also other groups of children that were exposed: those that were deformed or those that were illegitimate.

Infanticide can be seen to have been practiced in antiquity, perhaps killing more female then male children. However, those children that were killed are important because they were not able to have a childhood and grow up. These reflect how the Greeks viewed the child and the value with which they considered them. Despite this, the Greeks undoubtedly found it as difficult to carry out infanticide as it was to talk about it.

Infant Mortality:

High infant mortality can be anticipated in classical Greece. Aside from the poorer hygiene conditions, including the lack of clean drinking water and the absence of satisfactory waste disposal systems are the most likely causes leading to diarrhoeal diseases. Other factors could include outbreaks of diphtheria, cholera, typhoid and smallpox, which were frequent in antiquity. Garland6 also points to swaddling bands as a cause of possible health problems due to infrequent changing. General better treatment of boys over girls could also lead to increased numbers of female deaths in infancy, especially where resources were stretched or the mother had to support a number of children.

A baby that didn’t march straight into the arms of its mother ‘was obviously less desirable’7. Following this argument, children that died in childbirth can therefore be seen as less desirable. This would imply that the loss of such a child was not felt as much as the loss of a stronger or elder child. This in turn implies that they were not mourned for as much as elder children were, although adults in general were discouraged from mourning children. As Garland describes: ‘perhaps for the obvious reason that the existence of a creature whose chances of surviving its first year were less than bright scarcely merited serious attention.’8

Looking at the burial customs for children upon death

Children can be seen as little more than objects to the Greeks. They were the potential their fathers needed in order to secure their inheritence. The fact that so many died in infancy through infanticide or natural causes implies that it would have been hard to think seriously about a child until it had survived long enough to know that it was strong enough to grow up.

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