On display through April 15 at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, and later in Cincinnati and Los Angeles, "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece" is a revelation, disclosing many similarities to growing up today, even though ancient Greek children were more strictly regimented. Even their toys were not unlike some of those enjoyed by today's youth.
One of the toys on display, an appealing terra cotta female doll with jointed legs and arms, served as the inspiration for the Olympic mascot for the 2004 Olympic Games that will be ubiquitous in the months to come. It dates from 700 B.C., and some anonymous artist has decorated the doll's skirt with geometric designs, including a swastika and two herons.
The ancient Olympic games (776 B.C. to 395 A.D.) included the Pan-Hellenic games held in Olympus, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia and the quadrennial Panathenaia in Athens. Boys 16 to 18 years of age took part in youth events at the Olympics, and a first-place finish could make a teenager wealthy since the prize was usually 50 amphora (storage jars) filled with olive oil worth the equivalent of $45,000 today.
Several of these Olympic prize amphora are in the show, some standing as tall as 3 feet, including one from a 5th century B.C. Panathenaia painted in black on a red background, decorated with images of the goddess Athena, to whom the games were dedicated. Other prize amphoras are decorated with boxers and wrestlers in strenuous combat, depicted -- as are all athletes -- nude.
Another relic related to athletic games is a heavy marble discus from the late 6th century B.C. that was not intended for actual use in a throwing contest but as a prize awarded at a funeral game, probably for a dead warrior, as indicated by an inscription reading "from the burial mound." The Greeks are the original sports fanatics, and any ritual occasion seemed to call for a game, even a funeral.
During early childhood, privileged Greek boys and girls were raised together in the women's quarter of the house and both sexes played together, as illustrated by several of the 80 objects on loan from American and European collections. By age 6 or 7, boys began their schooling at an academy to prepare them for two years of military service and full citizenship at age 18, while girls stayed at home to learn domestic skills in preparation for marriage at 14 or 15. Men didn't marry until their late 30s.
"By focusing on the previously unexamined theme of childhood in ancient Greece, we understand better how these children were raised and educated in the country that gave birth to the Olympic spirit," said Stelio Papadimitriou, president of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, at a preview of the show, which was organized by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College where it opened last August.
Papadimitriou noted that Greek artists were the first to depict children as they really appeared, postured, and gestured, and not as miniature adults.
Validating this thesis are painted depictions on terracotta pots of a girl on a swing and two girls on a seesaw. They also are shown juggling balls and playing a game similar to jacks called knucklebones (ancient knucklebones are also displayed), learning to dance from an instructor, and hurrying to school carrying a packet of books. A terra cotta sculptural group shows a woman teaching a girl to cook food in a cauldron.
There is even a touching gravestone of a little girl, sculpted in high relief, that shows her cradling a doll in her arms while her pet goose looks on. Death in childbirth was common, and there is also a gravestone memorializing a woman named Lysistrata who died giving birth. Both the mother and the child, held by a nurse, are movingly depicted.
Boys are more often pictured in gymnasium pursuits, training as boxers, discus throwers, high jumpers and charioteers, but they also are shown learning to play the lyre. There is a display of school equipment including a bronze stylus for writing on wax tablets, a pen, an inkwell and papyrus that served as writing paper, and terra cottas showing boys rolling hoops, spinning tops, and driving a goat-drawn chariot.
Perhaps the most human of all childhood scenes is painted on a large handled jar showing a small boy being fitted for sandals by a shoemaker, perhaps his first sandals for school.
The show also includes depictions of birth, restricted to the mythical births of gods, goddesses and heroes such as Achilles, on a series of magnificent urns and handled vases, and ends with a large idealized marble of a handsome Greek youth of about 16. He is looking down pensively, perhaps regretting giving up his childhood toys by sacrificing them to a male deity as a ritualized sign of his willingness to face more manly obligations.