ANCIENT GREEK MARRIAGE, FAMILIES AND CHILDREN

ANCIENT GREEK MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE

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Wedding procession
Greek marriages were usually arranged by parents and families. Men tended to marry relatively late, around 30, and women married when they were relatively young, around 14..

It was common for well-traveled, high-status middle aged man to marry a virgin of 16. The main duty of the new bride was to produce children. Menader wrote: "I give you this woman (my daughter) for the ploughing of legitimate children."

As the years wore on, married life lost some of its appeal. One Roman magistrate described marriage as "legalized hardship" and the historian Plautus once said to his wife: "Enough is enough, woman. Save your voice. You'll need it to nag me tomorrow."** Marriages who often arranged and men sought satisfaction with courtesans or male lovers.

Divorces were fairly common and easy to get in ancient Greece and Rome. Providing legal grounds for divorce was not necessary. A man could divorce his wife simply if he didn't like her anymore. All he had to was get a document from a magistrate. There is no record of one ever being denied.

Ancient Greek Weddings

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family scene on funerary stele
It is likely that many ancient Greek brides and grooms never even met each other before their wedding day. Greek historian Ian Jenkins speculates that for some young brides the shock of being taken away from home and placed in a house with a complete stranger was "a frightening, even traumatic, experience." To symbolize the passing of her youth, on the day before her wedding, the bride sacrificed all of her toys to the virgin goddess Artemis and took a ritual bath with perfumed water from a vessel depicting a marriage scene and then swore fealty to Demeter, the goddess or agriculture and married women.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

On the wedding day itself, rich couples rode in a chariot to the groom's house, where the ceremony was held; poor couples were taken in an ox or mule cart. Before she was picked up the bride often pleaded with her mother to be hidden somewhere. When the couple arrived at the groom's house they were showered with dates, figs, nuts and small coins by the groom's family. After some verses were recited in a small ceremony, the couple was ushered into a bedroom where the marriage was consummated. It wasn't until the next day that the two families got together for a big wedding party. Presents, which were given only to the bride, were held in a trust so that if her husband died prematurely (not an uncommon occurrence) she would have a way of taking care of herself.||

Ancient Greek and Roman Wedding Customs

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a kiss
Greek brides wore veils. In Aphrodisias it was a common custom for women to prostitute themselves in the Temple of Aphrodite before they were married. The money they earned was donated to the goddess. Women who didn't want to go along with this could sacrifice their hair instead. Aphrodite was a metamorphosed form of the Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar, who Julius Caesar, Romulus and Remus, and the Trojan Aeneashave were all said to have descended from. [Source: Kenan T. Erim, National Geographic, October 1981 **]

In Sparta, the bride was usually kidnapped, her hair was cut short and she dressed as a man, and laid down on a pallet on the floor. "Then," Plutarch wrote, "the bride groom...slipped stealthily into the room where his bride lay, loosed her virgin's zone, and bore her in his arms to the marriage-bed. Then after spending a short time with her, he went away composedly to his usual quarters, there to sleep with the other men."||

At Roman weddings, guests sang bawdy songs, boys dived for nuts as a symbol of fertility and rings were placed on the bride's middle finger of her left hand. A nerve, Roman believed, ran from the middle finger to the heart.**

The tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold began with the Romans. The groom first went into the house to light the hearth while the bride smeared oil and grease around the doorway as a sign of good luck. To ensure that the bride wouldn't do anything like stumble, bringing bad luck to the house, she was carried into the house left foot first. The only difference between the way the Roman's did it and the way we do it today is that slaves carried her into the house not her husband.**

The world's first known stag parties were held by the Spartans. At these parties Spartan grooms were given a feast by their friends and comrades the night before his wedding. There was no doubt singing, drinking and lewd jokes. The ritual marked the end of bachelorhood and the groom assured his comrades he would remain loyal to them and not leave them.

Ancient Greek Families and Men

In ancient Greece and Rome inheritance was transferred from father to oldest son. A typical household consisted of a wife, children, unmarried brothers and sisters and slaves.

Upper class Greek men have been characterized as creatures who worked out in gym in the morning and discussed philosophy and democracy in the afternoon.

Aristotle wrote that men were more perfect embodiments of human beings than women and it was natural that they live longer. Priam of Troy had 60 children.

Children in Ancient Greece

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Adonis, boy in beauty
The Greeks seemed to be very fond of young children. In ancient Greek art they were depicted as children doing children things not as mini adults as was the case with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Infants were often depicted in works of art and lyricists wrote poems about being woken up in the middle of the night and taking care of a crying baby. Archaeologists in Athens uncovered a ceramic "potty" and an urn showing a child sitting on the potty shaking a rattle; apparently the rattle was to show he was done.

On a socio-economic and spiritual level, it was important for Greeks to have children. People who died unmarried and childless were thought to have tormented and unresolved souls which could come back to haunt relatives. Children were also seen as insurance policies for old age; it was their responsibility to take care of their parents when they got old. To pay respects to the older generation, children were often named after their grandparents in a ceremony in which the infant's mother ran around a hearth with the infant in her arms ten days after the birth. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Rites of passage included three-year-old children being given their first jug, from which they had their first taste of wine, and older children taking their toys to a temple to be consecrated signifying the official end of their childhood.

Education in Ancient Greece

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Socrates with a student
by Wilhelm von Gloeden
For the most part, upper class youths were the only Greek children who received an education. Teachers, in most cases, were either educated slaves or tutors hired out for a fee. Most children began their studies at age seven. but there were no strict rules governing when a child's schooling began or how long it should last.

In the classroom a tablet and slate were used for writing and an abacus was used for calculating. Students wrote by hand onto papyrus scrolls with ink made of soot, resin, wine dregs and cuttlefish. . Schools were sometimes set up in front of shops by street teachers who were paid a few coins by noblemen to teach their children.**

In the 7th and 6th century B.C. education was thought of as preparation for war and membership in the upper classes. Sports and athletic were taught to prepare boys for war and music and dance was learned by both boys and girls for acceptance among the elite. In the 5th century B.C. the Athenians developed schools that were not all that much different from those today. Younger students were taught reading, writing and arithmetic and older students studied philosophy, rhetoric and geometry.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A typical upper class education included instruction in poetry, music, oratory and gymnastics. The emphasis was more on the spoken word than the written word. At the gymnasiums, men taught boys about their duties to the community, proper behavior and how to carry oneself as a man,.

The Lyceum was one of the great schools of philosophy in ancient Greece along with Plato's Academy and the school created by the Cynics after the death of Socrates in 339 B.C. See philosophy.

For the most part there were few established centers of learning, nothing like modern universities anyway. Teachers tended to teach wherever they could: in their own homes, those of wealthy patrons, city hall or rooms in public baths.

Book: A History of Education in Antiquity by M. Marrou.

Hardships for Children in Ancient Greece

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family tomb in Athens
The Greeks were not quite so loving if there was something wrong with the child. The Spartan checked newborn infants for physical deformities and mental problems; if an abnormality was discovered the child was tossed off a cliff. Citizens in less violet city-states left their unwanted children outdoors to die of exposure, or abandoned them in the marketplace where they could be claimed as slaves. The latter is what happened to Oedipus Rex in the Sophocles play...so maybe his parents deserved what they had coming to them. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Some parents reportedly rarely saw their children. There were sharp differences in education opportunities given boys and girls and those given the children of aristocrats and slaves. One image on a piece of pottery shows a slave girls suffering under a heavy load while her mistress relaxes with a glass of wine. another shows a naked girl being taught to dance for male prinking parties.

Early death was an unfortunate reality in the ancient world. Parents commissioned tombstones and works of pottery that lovingly rendered dead children playing with pets. One for a girl named Melisto shows her holding a doll in one hand and a pet bird in another. Sadness over loss was also reflected in poems. One goes: Here I stand Emainete, daughter of Prokles Fate took me away from my pet birds and my maid I was granted a dirge instead of a husband. This grave instead of a husband .

Infanticide was common. Pat Smith, a physical archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told National Geographic, “We know that infanticide was widely practiced by the Greeks and Romans. It was regarded as the parents’ right if they didn’t want a child. Usually they killed girls. Boys were considered more valuable---as heirs for support in old age. Girls were sometimes viewed as burdens, especially if they needed a dowry to marry.”

Children in Sparta

20120221-Pankration_panathenaic_amphora.jpg Spartan training began in the womb. A pregnant woman was required to do exercises to make sure her child was strong, The Spartans checked newborn infants for physical deformities and mental problems; if an abnormality was discovered the child was tossed off a cliff.

Spartan boys were taken from the mothers at the age of seven and moved into barracks and taught to be men until they were aged 20. The new recruits were bullied by older boys, forced to play brutal games and walk barefoot in the winter, and were ritually flogged in a temple devoted to the goddess of the hunt. Those that did well were made leaders. Young boys were paired with older boys in a relationship that had homosexual overtones. Plutarch wrote: “They were favored with the society of young lovers among the reputable young men...The boy lovers also shared with them in their honor and disgrace.”

The training was mostly in the form of physical drills and the martial arts. There was not so much instruction in philosophy, music or literature as was the case a the famous academies in Athens. Sometimes boys were purposely left hungry so they would steal food and develop shrewdness and resourcefulness.

When a boy reached 18, they were trained in combat. At twenty they moved into a permanent barrack-style living and eating arrangement with other men. They married at any time, but lived with men. At 30 they were elected to citizenship.

Ancient Greek Art and Children

20120221-PaestumTaucher.jpg Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from The Classical Past was the name of an exhibit held ay a number of museums in the 2000s, including . Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. Among the objects displayed there were a sculpture of a woman carrying a child on he shoulders; papyri with school exercises; vase paintings of children playing with pets; images of children playing chariot with goat- propelled carts.

The renderings of children on the vases is quite natural. They are depicted with love Jennifer Neils, a classics professor at Case Western University and co-curator of the exhibit, told U.S. News and World Report, “You can see them making baby gestures, reaching for their mothers.” She said one of her favorite images was a an image on a cup of a baby with outstretched on a high chair that likely doubled as a potty. “It’s almost like a little peephole, a view into a secluded home life. It shows what a mother treasurers---her relationship with her baby.”

Children’s Toys and Entertainment in Ancient Greece

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Toy horse, 10th century BC
Excavated toys and include push carts, terra cotta tops, marbles, knucklebones, ivory counters, ivory dolls, dancing dolls with movable arms and castanets. Archaeologists have also found dice with the same number configurations as modern dice and a baby feeder inscribed with words "drink, don't drop." Monkeys and dogs were kept as pets, and a few lucky children even got to have pet cheetahs. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Among the toys at the Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from The Classical Past exhibit were baby dolls and baby rattles in the shape of pigs. Kids seem to have been particularly fond of knuckbones made from the ankles of sheep and goats, They threw them like dice and carried them around in little pouch, John Oakley, a classics professor at the College of William and Mary told U.S. News and World Report, “They’re all over the place.” Girls were encouraged to juggle to improve their motor skills.

The word "marble" comes from the Greek marmaros , which means polished white agate. Marbles made from polished jasper and agate, dated at 1435 B.C., have been found in Crete.

Yo yos are also believed to have been used in ancient Greece where they were made from wood, metal and terra cotta.

Greeks and Romans had dolls with human hair and movable limbs that joined to hip, shoulder and knee sockets with pins. Most Greek dolls were females. The few male Roman dolls that have been found were mostly male soldiers fashioned from wax and clay. By the Christian era infant dolls were popular and children dressed painted dolls in miniature clothes and placed them in doll houses.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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