Children in Ancient Athens

In the fifth century approximately half of the population in ancient Athens was under the age of fifteen. Most of the information known about these children and adolescents has been gleaned from mythology, art, poetry, theatre and history.

The Life of a Child in Athens from Infancy to School

Survival was very difficult for infants born in ancient Athens. Babies were not given a name until they were between 7 – 10 days old because the mortality rate was so high. Fearing their child would die, parents delayed the formality of naming their child. If an infant had any imperfection, they were often killed or abandoned. Unfortunately nearly any excuse passed as a reason to abandon a baby, especially for females. Sometimes abandoned infants were taken in and adopted by a wealthy family, but most of the time they became a slave of the adoptive family.

While infanticide by exposure was an acceptable practice in Athens some scholars believe history has been harsh on the Athenians in this regard. Pieces of artwork have been studied that show both parents and an Athenian society attempting to defend young children. One gravestone shows a father with his arms lovingly wrapped around a young daughter. This depicts a theory that is not generally discussed; Greeks did love their children and felt a deep loss when their children died.

There was no word in ancient Greece that referred to the family. The word oikos, meaning household, comes the closest. It refers to all things domestic. This word was inclusive of slaves and servants. The mother, with assistance from nurse maids, was responsible for the care of the children. Everyone lived with the mother in the women’s quarters.

While living with their mother, infants and children slept in wicker baskets or wooden cradles. There is also evidence on pottery, in paintings and from archeological digs that babies used high chairs and had baby bottles in the shape of animals. In order to insure straight and strong bones babies were sometimes wrapped up tightly in cloth. This practice lasted until the child was approximately two years old. Brothers and sisters stayed with their mother until they were about seven years old.

At that time their lives changed dramatically depending on their sex.

Growing Up As a Girl in Ancient Athens

While boys went off to school at age seven, young girls continued to stay at home until they were married. The lives of girls and slave children took a far different course than the boys. Girls were not formally educated, but a few mothers did teach their daughters to read and write. Others learned to dance or play an instrument, although a good family did not consider musical instruments to be proper. A young girl was to assist her mother in the home. If asked to help she was also required to work in the fields.

Of utmost importance was instructing a young girl in her future role as a mother. All girls learned domestic jobs such as weaving, working with textiles, taking care of children, embroidering, and cooking. Girls were able to attend festivals, funerals and sometimes visit neighbors. They were also called upon to take part in rituals. One ritual, known as aiora, took place every spring and was practiced to make up for the suicide of a legendary Athenian girl named Erigone and to prevent future suicides of young girls. During this ritual, girls were placed high in the trees on swings, so that the girls would swing safely from the limbs instead of hanging themselves like Erigone.

Girls reached puberty by ages twelve or thirteen and at that time were able to get married. As a signal that their childhood had ended and they were ready for marriage, they gathered all of their toys and put them on the altar at the temple of Artemis. Traditionally they would marry by age fourteen or fifteen, and then would live in their husband's home. Once married, she rarely went out in public, subsisting in seclusion and only interacting with the household.

Shortly after marriage the women were expected to have a baby. If she was unable to get pregnant she was considered to be cursed by the gods.

Growing Up As a Boy in Ancient Athens

Children took part in many religious rituals. At age 3 a young boy tasted his first wine at the festive of Dionysus and also served as temple boys where they assisted at sacrificial rituals. By age seven boys in Athens began attending school. The young wealthy boys were accompanied to school by their paidagogos or male tutor. Sometimes in other families a male slave would take a masters’ son to school.

Books were extremely rare and very expensive in ancient Athens, so students did their work on waxed-covered tablets and a stylus. Subjects were not unlike those taught today. Many scenes on pottery and in art illustrate young students seated around their teacher. They were taught math including fractions, addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. They learned the words of Homer, to read and to write. Music instruction usually included learning to play the lyre. Physical education was extremely important in Athens, and sports included use of the bow and arrow and the sling, competitions in wrestling and swimming were also included in the curricula. The more wealthy were taught the skill of horseback riding.

By age 14 boys were promoted to another school for the teen years. By age 18 all boys were expected to attend military school. By age 20 they graduated. Often many cities required young men to reach the age of 30 before they participated in politics. It was also around this age that they usually married.

Athenian Children Found Time to Play

Although many view the life of children in Athens as difficult, boys and girls spent reasonable time playing with one another. The Greek culture believed that play was important and embodied the word paignia as the goddess of playfulness. Hermes was one of the most playful gods, always getting into playful mischief and making deals to get out of tough spots.

Many archeological digs turned up toys used in ancient Athens, and are surprisingly comparable to many of the toys children use today. Some of the simple toys found include:

  • dolls with movable arms and legs
  • tops
  • rattles
  • pull toys
  • dice
  • hoops
  • seesaws
  • swings

Games were also played. Ephedrimos was a version very similar to the game blind man’s bluff. In this version, children carried a partner on his or her back. Another game was called knucklebones which was a combination of jacks and dice, using the ankle bones of a goat or sheep. Children typically kept the knucklebones in small sacks. If the ankle bones were not available, glass or metal was used. Many of these have been found in the graves of children.

Digs have also shown indications of domesticated animals and pets, including dogs, pigs, and tortoises. Bird cages have also been found.