Following a study of over 7,500 ancient documents on papyrus, originating from Oxyrhynchos in Egypt and discovered over a hundred years back in a rubbish dump, University of Oslo and the University of Newcastle presented what is perhaps the most systematic research of childhood in Roman Egypt, according to the university’s website.
Among their discoveries? Some 2,000 years ago, Oxyrhynchos, a town of around 25,000 inhabitants, had a youth organisation, called a “gymnasium,” in which any free-born child could enroll – slaves and girls not allowed.
Somewhere between 10 and 25% of local Egyptian boys, in addition to Greek and Roman residents of Egypt would have qualified, but typically members of affluent families and higher tax classes enrolled, according to an overview of the study released earlier this month by social historian Ville Vuolanto of the University of Oslo and April Pudsey of the University of Newcastle.
Enrollment in the gymnasium marked the transition to adulthood.
“It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. By examining papyri, pottery fragments with writing on, toys and other objects, we are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt,” explains Vuolanto.
While well-off boys were part of the prestigious gymnasium, learning to be good citizens, others worked or landed what is termed “apprenticeship contracts,” mainly in the weaving industry. Either way, boys in ancient Egypt were not considered fully adult until they got married, usually in their early twenties. Most girls remained or worked at home, according to the study.
Slave children could also become apprentices, however, unlike “free-born” citizens they lived with their owners or “masters” not their parents during. Vuolanto says that children as young as two were separated from kin and sold as slaves.
“Little is known about the lives of children until they turn up in official documents, which is usually not before they are in their early teens,” says University of Oslo’s press release.