Children in Greece: Hurdles in Their Growth in Ancient Times

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D, Colgate University

Surviving birth in itself was a great achievement for the children in Greece. It was only the first hurdle in the growth story of their lives. Growing up to adulthood was a big challenge in ancient Greece.

Image showing Greek goddess, Hestia.
Hestia was the goddess of the hearth and the protector of families in ancient Greece.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Surviving Early Childhood in Ancient Greece

Children were subjected to selection which meant only those who were fit in the judgment of their fathers or the state would be kept to be raised and others were abandoned. This meant only fewer children survived to live on. But even their infancy was not smooth. There were still a lot of hurdles in their lives. Right from the beginning of their childhood until the end, they had to face many hazards. The first few days after their birth were very crucial for a baby. So much so that the children in Greece were not given any kind of social status or identity. The child was not integrated into the household or oikia, as it was called, for five days after the birth lest he didn’t survive. The reason was the lack of hygiene which could cause infections that could lead to various ailments, and the child could succumb to those ailments. Therefore, it was a pragmatic decision to wait for some time before including the child into the household. 

Learn more about what was like to live in the world without modern medicine.

Swaddling of Babies in Ancient Greece

Right after birth, the child was wrapped in cloths from head to toe. These were called swaddling bands. The child remained in these bands for about 60 days and they were not changed at any fixed intervals. The second to third century A.D. Greek gynecologist Soranos, who was the author of the book Gynecology, suggested that clean soft woolen bands be used which were not too worn out and whose width would be three to four fingers. This meant that at least someone was concerned about hygiene and was recommending it to the people.

Since the children in Greece were wrapped in swaddling clothes, they could not indicate what they wanted. So it was difficult to tell whether they were hungry, or thirsty, or wanted to relieve themselves. The baby feeding bottles were made from terracotta and had a hole at the top to fill the milk. A nozzle was provided at the side for drinking. Soranos had suggested that the bottles be provided with an artificial teat, preferably made of leather or cloth to give a feeling of drinking from a real teat. It can be easily assumed that many bottles would be thrown to the ground by the infant in anger and would break.

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.

The Ceremony of Amphidromia

Once the children in Greece survived for the first five days, they were formally included in the oikos in a ceremony. This ceremony was called amphidromia. At least in Athens, this practice was followed although nothing can be said surely about other places. During amphidromia, the ritual that was performed had an apparent similarity to a Christian christening or a Jewish brit.

The amphidromia ceremony was held at home, just like other Greek rituals. It was not held in a church, temple, or synagogue and no priest oversaw it. The name of the ceremony is taken from the ritual itself which involved taking the newborn child around (amphi) a hearth at a run (dromê). The ceremony itself looked quite hilarious with the father running around the hearth carrying the child and the child crying loudly. But it must have had a deep religious significance for the natives of Athens. Otherwise, they wouldn’t subject the children in Greece to this kind of trouble.

This is so because the hearth was the center of the house, both actually as well as symbolically. And the goddess of the hearth, Hestia was also the protector of the home as well as the family life. So effectively, it was a rite of passage. The amphidromia was both a solemn and a joyful occasion, attended by relatives, who would bring gifts for the newborn. They also give charms to strap around the baby’s body so as to protect it against bad luck or demons or the evil eye. The Greeks had no medical explanation for why so many newborn children died. So, they ascribed them to external factors. The amphidromia ended with a sacrifice, followed by feasting, like most Greek rituals.

Life after Amphidromia

Image of a Greek boy playing with a yo-yo.
Toys were an important part of a child’s life in ancient Greece. People in ancient Greece mainly made toys at home. (Image: Altes museum/Public domain)

Then, if the children in Greece survived up to the tenth day, they were given their names. The tradition was to name the boys after their grandfather. This tradition is still prevalent in Greece. This stressed the importance of continuity in the family. And the climax to all this was that Greeks didn’t practice circumcision. As per the historian Herodotus, Greeks thought an uncircumcised penis was fancier. 

If the boys in Athens lived up to the age of three, they were brought to Anthesteria meaning flower festival. This festival was held in early spring. These children in Greece were then given wreaths to put on their heads, small carts, and a small jug known as chous. A very important thing for Greeks was wine, which was considered a gift from the god Dionysus. They took it as a source of release from cares and stress but knew it was dangerous if not used moderately. So, Anthesteria was another significant stage of life for the children in Greece. This was their introduction to one of the most important gods and their formal inclusion into the Athenian community.

Image showing an illustrated chous.
During the flower festival, chous was given as a gift to Athenian boys to drink wine. (Image: Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

For those children in Greece, who did not survive up to this stage, their parents sometimes put a chous in their graves. Since their fathers were out of the home most of the time, either attending the council meeting or serving in the army or in the city, children in Greece spent the majority of their time with their mothers or slaves. So in that way, the influence of mothers on the children was very noticeable. 

To conclude, the growth of children in Greece in ancient times was not easy. They had a new hurdle at every stage of their lives and society as a whole did not have much clue about improving the situation.

Learn more about one of the most bizarre religious systems in human history.

Common Questions about Children in Ancient Greece

Q: What did children in ancient Greece do?

Children in ancient Greece played games involving strength and stamina and listened to the stories of the heroes and the gods.

Q: What was Anthesteria?

Anthesteria was a flower festival in ancient Greece. It marked the formal inclusion of an Athenian boy into the Greek community.

Q: Which pets were liked most by children in ancient Greece?

Children in ancient Greece liked pets such as birds, dogs, geese, hares, goats, and even monkeys.

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