How do you say 'family' in Greek?

In classical Greek, the word pais means either "slave" or "child." The word for "family" doesn't exist - the closest term is oikos, or "house." From this kind of evidence, it would seem that ancient Greece, the society whose thinking forms the basis of Western civilization, had a low esteem for children. That would dovetail with at least one popular historical view, which holds that the modern ideal of children as precious and in need of special care is no more than a couple of hundred years old. (Large families and high mortality rates, this theory posits, kept parents in ancient times from bonding with a child.)

Written evidence as to how the ancient Greeks viewed children is scanty and inconclusive, making the archaeological record of even more importance. "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past" has for the first time created a traveling exhibition that reveals a previously invisible part of that society: its children.

This new view has proved to be complex, though not necessarily self-contradictory.

"The ancient Greeks used baby bottles and potty chairs, gave their children toys, sent them to school, taught them games and sports, and mourned their early deaths, just as parents do today," write co-curators Jenifer Neils and John Oakley in the exhibition's hefty 333-page catalog. They also left newborns with birth defects to die, meted out excessive corporal punishment, "put slave children to work at an early age, indulged in pederasty, and married off girls in their teens - all activities we would consider criminal today."

The more than 120 objects on view at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. - the first of four stops for the exhibition - include painted vases, terra-cotta figurines, statues and sculptures, coins, grave monuments (stelae), baby feeders (one, in lighthearted fashion, shaped like a pig), and toys on loan from 54 museums in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The objects represent more than a millennium of Greek civilization between 1,500 BC and AD 100. The exhibit is arranged in six themes: children and myths, children in the home, education and work, play, rituals, and the transition to adulthood.

"From day comes night, and from the boy comes the man," said Aristotle, and the exhibition argues that to understand the civilization that brought us thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, and concepts like democracy, we must understand its views of children.

And evidence does abound that children were more than slaves to their parents, who provided them with playthings and, apparently, the time to play with them. Children's toys of that era included tops, hoops, rattles, pull toys, and knucklebones (animal bones used to play games similar to dice). Girls played with dolls or miniature furniture; boys with carts and toy chariots. Both might have had pets such as cats, birds, goats, or, if wealthy, perhaps a cheetah or monkey.

From a purely artistic point of view, the later years of the ancient Greek civilization can claim the first accurate portrayals of children in art, with their larger heads and thicker limbs.

Previously, children were depicted as miniature adults, a practice that has sometimes confounded modern scholars, since these smaller figures also can represent adults who are of a lower social order.

But there's no mistaking the real bonding going on in "Baby on Stool with Mother," a decorated kylix, or earthen drinking bowl, from about 460 BC Here a smiling mother reaches out to her baby, in a high chair or possibly a toilet-training stool. The baby returns the gesture, aching for his mother's arms.

The bowl was found in a tomb, indicating that this scene might have represented more a wish to have been a mother rather than a scene from the woman's life.

In "Girls Playing Ephedrismos," an elegant terra-cotta figurine from about 300 B.C., one young girl carries another on her back in a popular children's game.

"To see things that children actually played with really brings home the fact that play is really valued," says Katherine Hart, a curator at the Hood Museum who helped coordinate the exhibition. "It's something you don't think often when you think about ancient Greece."

"Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past" will remain at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., until Dec. 14. For information, see www.hoodmuseum.dartmouth .edu. A smaller version will be seen at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York Jan. 20 to April 15, 2004. The full exhibition will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum May 21 to Aug. 1, 2004, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from Sept. 14 to Dec. 5, 2004.

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