Children in Ancient Egypt
- Article written by: Peter Toth
Papyri are made from the fibres of the papyrus plant that grows only in Egypt. Writing on long rolls made of papyrus sheets has thousands of years of history in Egypt, with many papyri in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but there are hundreds of thousands surviving that bear texts in Greek or Latin alike.
Many of these contain literary texts, while others are seemingly dry documentary material. These contracts, receipts, and private letters, give us precious glimpses of family life from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD.
Just as today, the birth of a baby in Greco-Roman Egypt (3rd century BC – 7th century) was anticipated with excitement and anxiety. Women gave birth to their babies in their own homes, assisted by experienced midwives and/or by their families, and occasionally by their husbands.
Families often wanted to ensure a prosperous future for their children, and commissioned professional astrologers to draw up the horoscope of the newborn. These horoscopes were issued to the families in multiple copies to be handed down later to the children themselves.
Such is the case with a fragmented papyrus sheet from around 138 AD, which is a copy of a horoscope made for baby Anubion soon after his birth. The astrologer identifies the star Venus as Anubion’s ruling constellation and wishes him good luck throughout his life.
Horoscope for a baby
The end of the horoscope for baby Anubion with a wish for ΑΓΑΘΗ ΤΥΧΗ (‘good luck’) in the last line (Papyrus 110, f. 4r).View images from this item (4)
It was common practice in both Hellenistic (3rd to 1st century BC) and Roman (1st to 7th century) Egypt to entrust babies to nurses for breastfeeding. Women, usually slaves or servants from the neighbourhood, who also had their own children, agreed to feed other babies as well for payment in money or in goods.
This was a contractual employment between the nurse and the families with clearly outlined tasks. Hiring wet nurses was probably an indicator of wealth and status, which might explain the angry tone of a letter written by a woman to her son-in-law.
In this letter, preserved on a papyrus fragment from about 275–299, an unnamed mother blames her son-in-law for compelling her ‘sweet daughter Apollonia’ to nurse the baby. She makes it very clear that ‘I do not permit my daughter to nurse’ and orders the young father to hire a nurse for the infant child.
Letter to a son-in-law
A letter from a woman to her son-in-law, asking him not to let his wife breast-feed an infant but hire a wet nurse instead (Papyrus 951).View images from this item (1)
Children in the household
Growing up, children would be part of a large household. In Greco-Roman Egypt the most common family model was male-oriented, or in technical terms, virilocal. This means that after marrying, boys usually stayed with their family and brought their wives to their family home. By contrast, married women usually left their homes and went to live with their husbands’ families.
Thus several brothers would have lived together in the same house with their families, so children grew up together with their cousins and nephews. As a result, uncles and aunts played just as important roles in their lives as parents, together with their paternal grandparents (usually grandmothers). Meanwhile maternal grandparents had almost no connection to them.
We can get an insight into these ancient households through the so-called census declarations. These are declarations by individuals listing all people in their household and outlining their family relationship to each other, submitted to the local authorities to serve as guidelines for taxation.
In a document made in 131 AD in Southern Egypt, for example, we see a house where four married brothers lived together with their families. The youngest (Pantbeus, 38) and his wife (Thaesis, 21) had one son (age 4). The next (Herpaesis, 42) and his wife (name lost, but 29 years old) had a 20-year old son and two daughters (8 and 4).
Thenthnoupis, 45 and his wife (Demetrous, age lost) had one son (6 years old) and a 10-year-old daughter; the eldest brother (Pathermouthis, 47) and his wife (Thaneutis, age unrecorded) had one daughter with no age registered. This indicates that, in what is probably a rather typical scenario, there were 15 people as well as the grandparents living together in one house.
In a situation like this, we can imagine that children would have spent most of their time outside, playing with their siblings and cousins or helping their parents, uncles and aunts.
Census declaration for a household
A letter from Anikos to his sister Thamistis with an earlier census declaration, listing members of their family’s households to provide evidence that they are siblings from the same parents (Papyrus 324, f. 1r)View images from this item (1)
Education usually began in the family with mothers, grandmothers or aunts teaching children to work on the fields or in their family business, and occasionally even to write. More formal school education started at around the age of seven. It was more common for boys to go to elementary school, however, there is clear evidence that girls learned to read and write as well – probably at home.
The main focus of primary schools was to teach children to write and simple arithmetic. There is ample material preserved, usually on wax or wooden tablets and pottery pieces (ostraca), which show what and how was taught in schools in Greco-Roman Egypt. A wax tablet from about 1900 years ago preserves a complete homework book with both literacy and numeracy exercises.
2,000-year-old homework book
Two parts of a homework book with writing, numeracy and reading exercises from a primary school in 2nd-century Egypt (Add MS 34186)View images from this item (2)
The upper part of the tablet bears two lines of a Greek saying (‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’), scratched in the wax by the teacher, which the child was supposed to copy at home. The two copies preserved above are both written by the child, who with a rather shaky handwriting, has made a couple of mistakes.
Once closed, the little booklet could be carried to school by the child where it would have been presented to and marked by the teacher, who could erase the text easily from the wax and reuse the tablet to set new homework.
After primary school, children or rather their families, could choose between learning a profession or continuing in higher education. Those intending to learn a profession would start as apprentices with established businesses. An apprenticeship was a contractual agreement between parents and craftsmen and many such contracts survive in papyri.
In an agreement dated 66 AD, for example, we hear about a boy, Thoonis, who starts a one-year apprenticeship with Ptolemaeus, a weaver in Oxyrhynchus. Ptolemaeus was supposed to teach and instruct Thoonis as best as he could and Thoonis’s parents had to pay for the child’s accommodation, food and costs during his apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship to a weaver
An apprenticeship agreement between the parents of the boy Thoonis and the weaver Ptolemaeus in Oxyrhynchus (Papyrus 794, f. 1r)View images from this item (1)
For those who could afford higher education in a more prominent school in the capital of the country (Alexandria) or of a province (such as Oxyrhynchus), a wide range of opportunities was available. Besides the study of Greek language, rhetoric and philosophy, students could pursue a career in sports, acting, or music. Their talents could be tested in various sports games or artistic contests that all promised highly-regarded rewards for winners.
Studying in the capital, away from one’s family, may have had its downsides, however. Financial difficulties, loneliness and homesickness are all reflected in papyrus letters sent home by children or young adults studying abroad.
In a papyrus from the third century, a boy called Thonis complains to his father that this was his fifth letter left unanswered by his dad.
Letter from a schoolboy to his father
A letter from a schoolboy Thonis to his father Arion complaining for not being visited by him for a long time (Papyrus 1575, f. 1r)View images from this item (1)
Looking at these Greek papyri documenting the life of children in Greco-Roman Egypt, one may be surprised that – although millennia separate us from the people whose voices are preserved – so little has changed in how people, parents and children, feel, love and behave.