Childhood in Greece: How Difficult Was it to Survive?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D, Colgate University

Childhood in Greece was anything but ideal. The very survival at birth was difficult. Children were at the mercy of their parents or the state who decided whether they would live or not.

Image of ancient Greek children being selected.
The image shows the selection of the infants is underway in ancient Greece.
(Image: Giuseppe Diotti / Public domain)

The childhood that we have lived or the children of today live has not been there always. This kind of childhood has been there for barely 100 years. In fact, ancient people would be startled by the kind of attention that today’s children receive. Childhood in ancient Greece, in fact, was most uncertain.

In the play Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie, there is an instance where Tinkerbell is about to die but she could survive only if the audience declared they believed in fairies. Peter Pan asked the audience if they believed in fairies, and if they did, then they must clap. At the first opening of the play in London in the year 1904, the producers of the show were so sure that the audience wouldn’t clap that they prepared their orchestra to clap. But what actually happened was that the whole audience burst out clapping, meaning they wanted Tinkerbell to survive. Such emotionalism was successfully reenacted in Toy Story 3 where a young male adult does away with his toys before going off to university. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Childhood Trauma in Ancient Greece

That is the kind of childhood we have been depicting. However, let’s be very clear, if the audience were Greek, they would not have declared their belief in fairies by clapping for Tinkerbell to survive. And unlike many other older men, who cried at the end of Toy Story 3 reliving their childhood, they would not have cried. In fact, they would rather not recall their childhood. This is so because for them childhood in Greece was not about enjoying it but surviving it. 

Childhood in Greece, for them, was that dangerous period in life which they had to negotiate on the dangerous road to adulthood. It was a dangerous period because there were many of them who didn’t survive this period. The hard truth is that many of the children were stillborn or died within a short period of birth or during their childhood. Out of those who survived, many died during their adolescence. Another sad truth is that many women died while giving birth. This did not happen in Greece only but in Persia, Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, and many other cultures that came after them right up through medieval times. 

Learn more about what was it like to be an ancient Egyptian.

Fate of Girls in Ancient Greece

For those who survived the trauma of their birth, there was one more obstacle to cross. It was for their fathers to decide whether to raise them or not. If their fathers didn’t like their appearance or they were born abnormal or were not responding to stimulation, they would be abandoned. And for girls, it was all the more difficult. They would be abandoned in any case because Greeks preferred boys. So irrespective of how the girl looked or whether she was normal or not, she would be dumped. Greeks had their own reasons not to prefer girls. For one, if a suitable husband was to be found for them, a considerable amount of dowry had to be given which heavily ate into the family’s resources. And if there were more than one girl, it would be a greater problem. And then they could contribute only in a limited way as they could only work at home or in the fields. Such was the childhood in Greece for girls.

A painting on vase depicting women engaged in wool making in ancient Greece.
A painting on vase depicting women engaged in wool making in ancient Greece. Women had very limited contribution in the society, they worked mostly at home or in the fields. (Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

The fact that girls held lesser worth for Greeks was very potently expressed by Herodotus when he commented about Spartan King Cleomenes saying, “He died childless leaving behind only a girl child.” The same sentiment was expressed by Poseidippus, the comic writer, who said, “You bring up a son, even if you are poor but if you have a daughter you abandon her, even if you are rich.” 

So, if a father took a decision to abandon a child, he would order his slave or even the midwife who had helped in the delivery of the child, to take the child away, dump it, and leave it to its fate. If the child was fortunate, it would be left at a place which is visited by many people, and some noble soul or a sympathetic person would see the child and would take pity on it. Oedipus was very fortunate in this respect. He was noticed by herdsmen and was rescued by them and handed over to a childless couple. So his childhood in Greece was still better.

Learn more about growing up in ancient Greece.

Children in Sparta

For the children born in Sparta, it was the state that took the decision whether the child was fit to be taken care of and raised. Elders of the tribe would examine the child and decide about its fitness. If it was not found to be fit enough, it would be taken to what was called Place of Exposure or apothetai and left there where wild animals, elements of nature, and raptorial birds would do their job. It was like elders had sentenced the child to death. He could not have any childhood in Greece and retrieving the child was considered illegal.

A painting showing slaves in ancient Greece.
Slaves were an important part of ancient Greek society. A slave was given the responsibility to dump the baby if its father decided to abandon it. (Image: Huesca / Public domain)

Each city-state had its own laws. For example, abandonment was banned in the city of Ephesus, which was near the coast of Turkey, except when, in the words of Plutarch, “the ankles became large as a result of famine.” On the other hand, in mainland Greece, in the city of Thebes, it was not allowed at all and was considered illegal under all circumstances.

It is very clear that being given a chance to live right after birth was the first major challenge for the children born in Greek society. If the child remained alive after birth and was thought fit to be raised, it didn’t mean the child’s problems had ended. In fact, it was only the first hurdle of childhood in Greece the child had crossed. Thinking that all problems had ended for the child would be a folly. There were many more ahead in his journey toward adulthood.

Common Questions about the Ancient Greek Life

Q: Did the people in ancient Greece prefer girl child over a boy?

In ancient Greece, people preferred a boy over a girl child because having a girl meant arranging a considerable of dowry later. Girls were more of a liability than an asset in the ancient Greek society.

Q: What was apothetai?

Apothetai or the Place of Exposure was a place in Sparta where the abandoned babies were left at the mercy of their fates.

Q: How was the society in ancient Greece?

Ancient Greek society was mostly dominated by men. They had all the rights like owning properties, voting, holding offices, etc.

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