2,000-year-old youth organization

In Roman Egypt, 14-year-old boys were enrolled in a youth organisation to learn to be good citizens.

This is according to social historian and historian of idea, Ville Vuolanto, of the University of Oslo, who has joined Dr. April Pudsey, from the University of Newcastle to delve deep into the vast array of material of about 7,500 ancient documents written on papyrus. The texts include literary texts, personal letters and administrative documents. Never before has childhood been researched so systematically in this type of material.

This research makes up part of the University of Oslo project, ‘Tiny Voices from the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe.’

The documents originate from Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, which in the first five hundred years CE was a large town, home to over 25,000 inhabitants. Oxyrhynchos had Egypt’s most important weaving industry, as well as being the Roman administrative centre for the area. Researchers hold a great deal of documentation precisely from this area because archaeologists digging one hundred years ago discovered thousands of papyri in what was once the town’s rubbish dumps.

 Free-born citizens only

Only boys who were born to free-born citizens were allowed to be members of the town’s youth organisation, which was called a ‘gymnasium’. These boys were the children of local Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Their families would necessarily have been rather prosperous, and have had an income that placed them in the ‘12 drachma tax class.’ It remains unknown how many in the population would have qualified, probably somewhere between 10 and 25 percent, Vuolanto explains.


Typically, girls were not enrolled as members of the ‘gymnasium’, but are often mentioned in the administrative documents as the boys’ siblings. This might have been to do with the family status or tax class. Both girls and women were able to own property, but in principle they had to have a male guardian.

 Some boys were apprenticed

For boys from prosperous families of the free-born citizen class, the transition into adult life was initiated with the enrolment in the ‘gymnasium’. Other boys started working before reaching their teens, and might serve and apprenticeship of two to four years. The researchers have discovered around 20 apprenticeship contracts in Oxyrhynchos, most of which related to the weaving industry. Males were not considered to be fully adult until they married, which usually occurred in their early twenties.

Most girls remained and worked at home, and learned whatever skills they needed there. They generally married at a younger age, usually in their late teens.

“We have found only one contract where the apprentice was a girl,” Vuolanto remarks. “But her situation was a little unusual – she was not only an orphan but also had her deceased father’s debts to pay”.

Different for slave children

Slave children also had the chance to become apprentices, and their contracts were of the same type as the boys of free-born citizens. Slaves either resided with their owners or their masters, while free-born children usually lived with their parents.

In one letter, a man encourages his brother to sell the youngest slave children, and some wine – whereas his nephews should be spoiled. He writes “…I am sending you some melon seeds and two bundles of old clothes, which you can share with your children.”

 Little is known about young children

Not much is known about the lives of children until they turn up in official documents, which generally occurs in their early teens. It appears that children began doing light work between the ages of seven and nine. Typically, they might have been set to work as goatherds or to collect wood or dry animal dung for fuel.

There were probably a good number of children who did not live with their biological parents, because the mortality rate was high.

“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.

Contributing Source: University of Oslo

Header Image Source: WikiPedia








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