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Coming of Age in Ancient Greece



What was life like for children who grew up in ancient Greece some 2,500 years ago? While some things have changed, many elements of childhood remain surprisingly familiar today, from the toys they played with and the games they enjoyed, to the pets they cherished and the schoolwork they had to do.

As it is today, play was viewed as an important part of childhood in ancient Greece. Classical authors discussed the role of play in shaping the character and physical abilities of children. Many of the toys that Greek children enjoyed thousands of years ago are still recognizable today. They include rattles, dolls, yo-yos, push- and pull-toys, and wooden hoops. As is still the case, many were modeled in the shape of animals, but using materials such as terracotta, bronze and glass. Toys were also gender specific in many cases, with girls playing with dolls and boys playing with toy chariots.

Among the most popular toys were knucklebones. Original knucklebones were small animal anklebones (usually from the hind legs of sheep or goats) that were used like dice by both boys and girls. They were thrown, with each side assigned a different numerical value. Gaming pieces made to look like knucklebones were fabricated in all sizes and from a variety of materials, including glass, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. A game of knucklebones was similar to playing jacks.

The top was another favorite. Two types are known: the twirler, which had a stem on top for spinning; and the whipping top, which spun when it was struck by a whip. They were made using materials such as bronze, stone, glass, and lead, but wood and terracotta tops were the most common.

Girls in ancient Greece were fond of dolls with movable limbs. These were made in Greece over a period of approximately 700 years. Although dolls were fashioned from a wide range of materials, terracotta was by far the most common. Some ancient dolls held the castanets of dancers, and many had a hole in the top of the head to accommodate a string, which may have been used to make the figures dance like marionettes.

Games played in ancient Greece included aporrhaxis, which was like dribbling in basketball, and ephedrismos, which was a piggyback game. Other activities, such as juggling, balancing sticks, and playing on the seesaw, can still be seen on playgrounds today.

Even in ancient Greece, children were drawn to animals as pets. The most popular were birds, dogs, cocks, hares, goats, and deer. Wealthy aristocratic youths had more exotic pets, including cheetahs or monkeys, which were imported from the East. For older boys, racehorses and hunting hounds were highly desirable. One surviving inscription tells of a girl mourning the passing of her cherished grasshopper. Another ancient artifact shows a girl with her pet goose.

Although paper did not exist in antiquity, children in ancient Greece still had to do homework. Instead of pen and paper, they used sharp, pointed instruments to form letters on wooden tablets covered with a layer of wax, which could be smoothed for reuse. Older students wrote with reed pens and ink. For their exercises, recycled materials-like broken pieces of terracotta vases-were used instead of expensive papyrus scrolls. Surviving examples of schoolwork from ancient Greece show that young students delighted in practicing the alphabet by writing their own names, as children still do today.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past will be on view September 14-December 5, 2004, at the Getty Center.

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Maureen McGlynn
Getty Communications Dept.

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