Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Childhood in Ancient Life
By John Pentland Mahaffy (1839–1919)
From ‘Old Greek Education’

WE find in Homer, especially in the Iliad, indications of the plainest kind that Greek babies were like the babies of modern Europe: equally troublesome, equally delightful to their parents, equally uninteresting to the rest of society. The famous scene in the sixth book of the Iliad, when Hector’s infant, Astyanax, screams at the sight of his father’s waving crest, and the hero lays his helmet on the ground that he may laugh and weep over the child; the love and tenderness of Andromache, and her pathetic laments in the twenty-second book,—are familiar to all. She foresees the hardships and unkindnesses to her orphan boy, “who was wont upon his father’s knees to eat the purest marrow and the rich fat of sheep, and when sleep came upon him, and he ceased his childish play, he would lie in the arms of his nurse, on a soft cushion, satisfied with every comfort.” So again, a protecting goddess is compared to a mother keeping the flies from her sleeping infant; and a pertinacious friend, to a little girl who, running beside her mother, begs to be taken up, holding her mother’s dress and delaying her, and with tearful eyes keeps looking up till the mother denies her no longer. These are only stray references, and yet they speak no less clearly than if we had asked for an express answer to a direct inquiry. So we have the hesitation of the murderers sent to make away with the infant Cypselus, who had been foretold to portend danger to the Corinthian Herods of that day. The smile of the baby unmans—or should we rather say unbrutes?—the first ruffian, and so the task is passed on from man to man. This story in Herodotus is a sort of natural Greek parallel to the great Shakespearean scene, where another child sways his intended torturer with an eloquence more conscious and explicit, but not perhaps more powerful, than the radiant smile of the Greek baby. Thus Euripides, the great master of pathos, represents Iphigenia bringing her infant brother Orestes to plead for her, with that unconsciousness of sorrow which pierces us to the heart more than the most affecting rhetoric. In modern art a little child playing about its dead mother, and waiting with contentment for her awaking, is perhaps the most powerful appeal to human compassion which we are able to conceive.  1
  On the other hand, the troubles of infancy were then as now very great. We do not indeed hear of croup, or teething, or measles, or whooping-cough. But these are occasional matters, and count as nothing beside the inexorable tyranny of a sleepless baby. For then as now, mothers and nurses had a strong prejudice in favor of carrying about restless children, and so soothing them to sleep. The unpractical Plato requires that in his fabulous Republic two or three stout nurses shall be in readiness to carry about each child; because children, like gamecocks, gain spirit and endurance by this treatment! What they really gain is a gigantic power of torturing their mothers. Most children can readily be taught to sleep in a bed, or even in an arm-chair, but an infant once accustomed to being carried about will insist upon it; and so it came that Greek husbands were obliged to relegate their wives to another sleeping-room, where the nightly squalling of the furious infant might not disturb the master as well as the mistress of the house. But the Greek gentleman was able to make good his damaged rest by a midday siesta, and so required but little sleep at night. The modern father in northern Europe, with his whole day’s work and waking, is therefore in a more disadvantageous position.  2
  Of course very fashionable people kept nurses; and it was the highest tone at Athens to have a Spartan nurse for the infant, just as an English nurse is sought out among foreign noblesse. We are told that these women made the child hardier, that they used less swathing and bandaging, and allowed free play for the limbs; and this, like all the Spartan physical training, was approved of and admired by the rest of the Greek public, though its imitation was never suggested save in the unpractical speculations of Plato.  3
  Whether they also approved of a diet of marrow and mutton suet, which Homer, in the passage just cited, considers the luxury of princes, does not appear. As Homer was the Greek Bible,—an inspired book containing perfect wisdom on all things, human and divine,—there must have been many orthodox parents who followed his prescription. But we hear no approval or censure of such diet. Possibly marrow may have represented our cod-liver oil in strengthening delicate infants. But as the Homeric men fed far more exclusively on meat than their historical successors, some vegetable substitute, such as olive oil, must have been in use later on. Even within our memory, mutton suet boiled in milk was commonly recommended by physicians for the delicacy now treated by cod-liver oil. The supposed strengthening of children by air and exposure, or by early neglect of their comforts, was as fashionable at Sparta as it is with many modern theorists; and it probably led in both cases to the same result,—the extinction of the weak and delicate. These theorists parade the cases of survival of stout children—that is, their exceptional soundness—as the effect of this harsh treatment, and so satisfy themselves that experience confirms their views. Now with the Spartans this was logical enough; for as they professed and desired nothing but physical results, as they despised intellectual qualities and esteemed obedience to be the highest of moral ones, they were perhaps justified in their proceeding. So thoroughly did they advocate the production of healthy citizens for military purposes, that they were quite content that the sickly should die. In fact, in the case of obviously weak and deformed infants, they did not hesitate to expose them in the most brutal sense,—not to cold and draughts, but to the wild beasts in the mountains.  4
  This brings us to the first shocking contrast between the Greek treatment of children and ours. We cannot really doubt, from the free use of the idea in Greek tragedies, in the comedies of ordinary life, and in theories of political economy, that the exposing of new-born children was not only sanctioned by public feeling, but actually practiced throughout Greece. Various motives combined to justify or to extenuate this practice. In the first place, the infant was regarded as the property of its parents, indeed of its father, to an extent inconceivable to most modern Europeans. The State only, whose claim overrode all other considerations, had a right for public reasons to interfere with the dispositions of a father. Individual human life had not attained what may be called the exaggerated value derived from sundry superstitions, which remains even after those superstitions have decayed. And moreover, in many Greek States, the contempt for commercial pursuits, and the want of outlet for practical energy, made the supporting of large families cumbersome, or the subdivision of patrimonies excessive. Hence the prudence or the selfishness of parents did not hesitate to use an escape which modern civilization condemns as not only criminal but as horribly cruel. How little even the noblest Greek theorists felt this objection appears from the fact that Plato, the Attic Moses, sanctions infanticide under certain circumstances or in another form, in his ideal State. In the genteel comedy it is often mentioned as a somewhat painful necessity, but enjoined by prudence. Nowhere does the agony of the mother’s heart reach us through their literature, save in one illustration used by the Platonic Socrates, where he compares the anger of his pupils, when first confuted out of their prejudices, to the fury of a young mother deprived of her first infant. There is something horrible in the very allusion, as if in after life Attic mothers became hardened to this treatment. We must suppose the exposing of female infants to have been not uncommon, until the just retribution of barrenness fell upon the nation, and the population dwindled away by a strange atrophy.  5
  In the many family suits argued by the Attic orators, we do not (I believe) find a case in which a large family of children is concerned. Four appears a larger number than the average. Marriages between relations as close as uncle and niece, and even half-brothers and sisters, were not uncommon; but the researches of modern science have removed the grounds for believing that this practice would tend to diminish the race. It would certainly increase any pre-existing tendency to hereditary disease; yet we do not hear of infantile diseases any more than we hear of delicate infants. Plagues and epidemics were common enough; but as already observed, we do not hear of measles, or whooping-cough, or scarlatina, or any of the other constant persecutors of our nurseries.  6
  As the learning of foreign languages was quite beneath the notions of the Greek gentleman, who rather expected all barbarians to learn his language, the habit of employing foreign nurses, so useful and even necessary to good modern education, was well-nigh unknown. It would have been thought a great misfortune to any Hellenic child to be brought up speaking Thracian or Egyptian. Accordingly foreign slave attendants, with their strange accent and rude manners, were not allowed to take charge of children till they were able to go to school and had learned their mother tongue perfectly.  7
  But the women’s apartments, in which children were kept for the first few years, are closed so completely to us that we can but conjecture a few things about the life and care of Greek babies. A few late epigrams tell the grief of parents bereaved of their infants. Beyond this, classical literature affords us no light. The backwardness in culture of Greek women leads us to suspect that then, as now, Greek babies were more often spoilt than is the case among the serious northern nations. The term “Spartan mother” is, however, still proverbial; and no doubt in that exceptional State, discipline was so universal and so highly esteemed that it penetrated even to the nursery. But in the rest of Greece, we may conceive the young child arriving at his schoolboy age more willful and headstrong than most of our more watched and worried infants. Archytas the philosopher earned special credit for inventing the rattle, and saving much damage to household furniture by occupying children with this toy.  8
  The external circumstances determining a Greek boy’s education were somewhat different from ours. We must remember that all old Greek life—except in rare cases, such as that of Elis, of which we know nothing—was distinctly town life; and so, naturally, Greek schooling was day-schooling, from which the children returned to the care of their parents. To hand over boys, far less girls, to the charge of a boarding-school, was perfectly unknown, and would no doubt have been gravely censured. Orphans were placed under the care of their nearest male relative, even when their education was provided (as it was in some cases) by the State. Again, as regards the age of going to school, it would naturally be early, seeing that the day-schools may well include infants of tender age, and that in Greek households neither father nor mother was often able or disposed to undertake the education of the children. Indeed, we find it universal that even the knowledge of the letters and reading were obtained from a schoolmaster. All these circumstances would point to an early beginning of Greek school life; whereas, on the other hand, the small number of subjects required in those days, the absence from the programme of various languages, of most exact sciences, and of general history and geography, made it unnecessary to begin so early, or work so hard, as our unfortunate children have to do. Above all, there were no competitive examinations, except in athletics and music. The Greeks never thought of promoting a man for “dead knowledge,” but for his living grasp of science or of life.  9
  Owing to these causes, we find the theorists discussing, as they now do, the expediency of waiting till the age of seven before beginning serious education: some advising it, others recommending easy and half-playing lessons from an earlier period. And then, as now, we find the same curious silence on the really important fact that the exact number of years a child has lived is nothing to the point in question; and that while one child may be too young at seven to commence work, many more may be distinctively too old.  10
  At all events, we may assume in parents the same varieties of over-anxiety, of over-indulgence, of nervousness, and of carelessness, about their children; and so it doubtless came to pass that there was in many cases a gap between infancy and school life which was spent in playing and doing mischief. This may be fairly inferred, not only from such anecdotes as that of Alcibiades playing with his fellows in the street, evidently without the protection of any pedagogue, but also from the large nomenclature of boys’ games preserved to us in the glossaries of later grammarians.  11
  These games are quite distinct from the regular exercises in the palæstra. We have only general descriptions of them, and these either by Greek scholiasts or by modern philologists. But in spite of the sad want of practical knowledge of games shown by both, the instincts of boyhood are so uniform that we can often frame a very distinct idea of the sort of amusement popular among Greek children. For young boys, games can hardly consist of anything else than either the practicing of some bodily dexterity, such as hopping on one foot higher or longer than is easy, or throwing further with a stone; or else some imitation of war, such as snowballing, or pulling a rope across a line, or pursuing under fixed conditions; or lastly, the practice of some mechanical ingenuity, such as whipping a top or shooting with marbles. So far as climate or mechanical inventions have not altered our little boys’ games, we find all these principles represented in Greek games. There was the hobby or cock horse (kálamon, parabênai); standing or hopping on one leg (askōliázein), which, as the word askos implies, was attempted on a skin bottle filled with liquid and greased; blindman’s buff (chalkê muîa, literally “brazen fly”), in which the boy cried, “I am hunting a brazen fly,” and the rest answered, “You will not catch it;” games of hide-and-seek, of taking and releasing prisoners, of fool in the middle, of playing at king: in fact, there is probably no simple child’s game now known which was not then in use.  12
  A few more details may, however, be interesting. There was a game called kyndalismós [Drive the peg], in which the kyndalon was a peg of wood with a heavy end sharpened, which boys sought to strike into a softened place in the earth so that it stood upright and knocked out the peg of a rival. This reminds us of the peg-top splitting which still goes on in our streets. Another, called ostrakínda, consisted of tossing an oyster shell in the air, of which one side was blackened or moistened and called night, the other, day,—or sun and rain. The boys were divided into two sides with these names; and according as their side of the shell turned up, they pursued and took prisoners their adversaries. On the other hand, epostrakismós was making a shell skip along the surface of water by a horizontal throw, and winning by the greatest number of skips. Eis ömillan [At strife], though a general expression for any contest, was specially applied to tossing a knuckle-bone or smooth stone so as to lie in the centre of a fixed circle, and to disturb those which were already in good positions. This was also done into a small hole (trópa). They seem to have shot dried beans from their fingers as we do marbles. They spun coins on their edge (chalkismós) [game of coppers].  13
  Here are two games not perhaps so universal nowadays: pentalithízein [Fives, Jackstones] was a technical word for tossing up five pebbles or astragali, and receiving them so as to make them lie on the back of the hand. Mēlolónthē, or the beetle game, consists in flying a beetle by a long thread, and guiding him like a kite; but by way of improvement they attached a waxed splinter, lighted, to his tail,—and this cruelty is now practiced, according to a good authority (Papasliotis), in Greece, and has even been known to cause serious fires. Tops were known under various names (bembix, strómbos, stróbilos), one of them certainly a humming-top. So were hoops (trochoí).  14
  Ball-playing was ancient and diffused, even among the Homeric heroes. But as it was found very fashionable and carefully practiced by both Mexicans and Peruvians at the time of the conquest, it is probably common to all civilized races. We have no details left us of complicated games with balls; and the mere throwing them up and catching them one from the other, with some rhythmic motion, is hardly worth all the poetic fervor shown about this game by the Greeks. But possibly the musical and dancing accompaniments were very important, in the case of grown people and in historical times. Pollux, however,—our main authority for most of these games,—in one place distinctly describes both football and hand-ball. “The names,” he says, “of games with balls are—epískyros, phainínda, apórraxis, ouranía. The first is played by two even sides, who draw a line in the centre which they call skyros, on which they place the ball. They draw two other lines behind each side; and those who first reach the ball throw it (rhíptousin) over the opponents, whose duty it is to catch it and return it, until one side drives the other back over their goal line.” Though Pollux makes no mention of kicking, this game is evidently our football in substance. He proceeds: “Phainínda was called either from Phainindes, the first discoverer, or from phenakízein [to play tricks],” etc.,—we need not follow his etymologies; “and apórraxis consists of making a ball bound off the ground, and sending it against a wall, counting the number of hops according as it was returned.” And as if to make the anticipations of our games more curiously complete, there is cited from the history of Manuel, by the Byzantine Cinnamus (A.D. 1200), a clear description of the Canadian lacrosse, a sort of hockey played with racquets:—
          “Certain youths, divided equally, leave in a level place, which they have before prepared and measured, a ball made of leather, about the size of an apple, and rush at it, as if it were a prize lying in the middle, from their fixed starting-point [a goal]. Each of them has in his right hand a racquet (rhábdon) [wand, staff] of suitable length, ending in a sort of flat bend, the middle of which is occupied by gut strings dried by seasoning, and plaited together in net fashion. Each side strives to be the first to bring it to the opposite end of the ground from that allotted to them. Whenever the ball is driven by the racquets (rhábdoi) to the end of the ground, it counts as a victory.”
  Two games which were not confined to children—and which are not widely diffused, though they exist among us—are the use of astragali, or knuckle-bones of animals, cut so nearly square as to serve for dice; and with these children threw for luck, the highest throw (sixes) being accounted the best. In later Greek art, representations of Eros and other youthful figures engaged with astragali are frequent. It is to be feared that this game was an introduction to dice-playing, which was so common, and so often abused that among the few specimens of ancient dice remaining, there are some false and some which were evidently loaded. The other game to which I allude is the Italian morra, the guessing instantaneously how many fingers are thrown up by the player and his adversary. It is surprising how fond southern men and boys still are of this simple game, chiefly however for gambling purposes.  16
  There was tossing in a blanket, walking on stilts, swinging, leap-frog, and many other similar plays, which are ill understood and worse explained by the learned, and of no importance to us, save as proving the general similarity of the life of little boys then and now.  17
  We know nothing about the condition of little girls of the same age, except that they specially indulged in ball-playing. Like our own children, the girls probably joined to a lesser degree in the boys’ games, and only so far as they could be carried on within doors, in the court of the house. There are graceful representations of their swinging and practicing our see-saw. Dolls they had in plenty, and doll-making (of clay) was quite a special trade at Athens. In more than one instance we have found in children’s graves their favorite dolls, which sorrowing parents laid with them as a sort of keepsake in the tomb.  18
  Most unfortunately there is hardly a word left of the nursery rhymes, and of the folk-lore, which are very much more interesting than the physical amusements of children. Yet we know that such popular songs existed in plenty; we know too, from the early fame of Æsop’s fables, from the myths so readily invented and exquisitely told by Plato, that here we have lost a real fund of beautiful and stimulating children’s stories. And of course, here too the general character of such stories throughout the human race was preserved.  19

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