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children and childhood in classical athens

13 july 2015

Mark Golden's Children and Childhood in Classical Athens is now available in a revised second edition – well, full disclosure: I didn't know the first edition (1990) and I'm no specialist in classical studies. I do love to read and teach Greek literature in translation, and I need all the help I can get in understanding it. And Golden's book is very much geared toward the general reader with some background and interest in his field. He argues from evidence and with methodologies that are central and current in that field, but his imagined audience is wider: people of varied knowledge who would like to know what growing up was like during a storied period of Western civilization.

I'm greatly impressed by Golden's work on two general counts. First, there's his ability to make clear for the non-specialist the thought-processes of his discipline: how one extrapolates from evidence, the level of certainty of the claims one can make, the relative value of the quantity and quality and genre of the many and fragmentary ways we know about the distant past. And second, the range of his reference to various other fields, to modern literature and history, to the diversity of cultural experience and the universals of human existence.

History and archeology are "hard" disciplines, based on the stern facts of archives and artifacts. But Golden never lets the reader forget that to make sense of the hard facts, historians and archeologists are obliged to use their imaginations. And when it comes to imaginative understanding, any means are valid. (Which is not to say that every conclusion is valid, only that there's no intrinsic limit to the resources you can bring to bear on imagining the past.)

Golden combines exposition with interventions in key problems. Among other issues, he addresses a long-standing debate that spans several periods of historiography: did ancient (or medieval or early modern) people really care about their children? A substantial trend in scholarship claims that they did not. The argument is mostly deductive: people had a lot of kids, and many of them died young, and caring too much was counter-productive. That sounds cold, but it's surprisingly hard to refute; the rhetoric of precious childhood didn't flourish till the 19th century.

For all that, expressions of love between parents and children are common in ancient texts. One way classicists have explained away this apparent benevolence, Golden explains, is to couch it in terms of narrow self-interest. Parents, grudgingly enough, provide for children, and children are obliged to maintain their parents in old age, bury them well, and attend to rituals that help them into the afterlife. But, Golden asks,

How could we tell if many or most Athenians did in fact care for their children only because they brought them certain benefits? … The more parents need and depend on children, in other words, the more they will care for them, like them or not. It is certainly theoretically possible to differentiate this care from what some have come to consider the real thing, concern for children as unique human individuals, though many parents do not find it so simple. But I do not know how a historian would make such a distinction with any confidence, and I suspect an Athenian could not help. (80-81)
Though we don't have direct access to Athenians' thoughts, we have more of their imaginative literature than we do for just about any other ancient society. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens is exemplary in its use of literary evidence to build a picture of historical lives. As Golden recognizes, large caveats apply when inferring contemporary attitudes from literary uses of legend. Athenian tragedy was not set in classical Athens, and the comedies of Aristophanes are outrageously over the top.

But when characters and choruses express ideas, or refer tangentially to cultural practices, they engage the assumptions of their audience in ways that let historians observe their norms. Golden returns frequently to Medea by Euripides, for instance. The horror of Medea's murdering her own children wouldn't be quite so awful on a emotional scale if she'd seen them merely as a kind of flesh-and-blood 401K. And so with Oedipus and his daughters in Sophocles, or the dynamic (from Homer to Aeschylus to Lucretius) where Agamemnon really does think of his daughter Iphigenia as a chit to be traded for good tailwinds, and her mother Clytemnestra never forgives him. Agamemnon cannot come off as the justified party in that dispute.

Golden also uses comparative history, using parallels from the present or more recent past to gain insights into the distant past. Athens was a slave society, and the relations between slaveowners' children and the slaves who tended them are a vexed question. Golden (132-34) applies lessons from the study of American slavery, with caution, to the understanding of classical Athens. One big issue is whether the casual violence that Athenians inflicted on their slaves made their children casual about violence in all areas of their later adult lives. The conclusion may be that it's hard to say, but that the same concerns and dynamics characterize both historical periods.

The discussion of slavery shows Golden at his best, making use of a very wide range of reference to try to understand the human condition. He works with classical literature, legal records, epigraphy, and archeology; he also works with modern literature, the Canadian present, TV and movies, and his own personal experience living in a contemporary family. The present moment in North American academics is paradoxical: multidisciplinarity is hugely valued, but individual scholars' knowledge of much outside the theory that resides at the intersections of their chosen disciplines can be pretty thin. Mark Golden has the invaluable advantage of active, living insight.

Golden, Mark. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Second Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. [Ancient Society and History] HQ 792 .G73G65