Social history research on ancient papyri uncovers some pushy parenting

 Ville Vuolanto and Katariina Mustakallio investigate the living conditions of families and children in Roman antiquity.

Ville Vuolanto and Katariina Mustakallio investigate the living conditions of families and children in Roman antiquity.

Research uncovers children’s every-day life in Roman Egypt.

“The most striking story we uncovered in an ancient papyrus was a fixed match between two high-ranking 13 year-old boys in the third century CE. One father and the coach of another boy made a detailed written agreement on a wrestling match final that was to be held during the competitions of the annual festival,” says Ville Vuolanto, a postdoctoral fellow who studies the social history of Roman children.

Competition winners were rewarded with a modest life-long stipend, but success also brought honour and prestige to all family members. Contracts of sale as late as fifty years later might mention a wrestling tournament victory.

“The win also paved the way for membership of the town council and other economic advantages. The papyrus is not clear about the amount of money that changed hands, so we cannot know for sure if the sum agreed equalled the price of one or three donkeys. The donkey was the micro-car of that era – quite a lot of money. The agreement paper is very detailed and gives a blow-by-blow account of the different stages of the match, including instructions in the event the referee should notice something was amiss.”

Vuolanto is on a leave of absence from his post as a university instructor of history at the University of Tampere. He is investigating social history in antiquity in a project called “Tiny Voices from the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe” at the University of Oslo. Together with Dr April Pudsey of Newcastle University, he has analysed the entire papyrus collection – about 7500 papyri – of the Roman Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus.

“It was a great surprise to us that 700 of the papyri mention children. Now we can use a large, previously unknown dataset on children from the classical period. Before, children in papyri seldom came up in research on antiquity,” Vuolanto says.

Studying the papyri has brought Vuolanto a degree of international renown. The press and information office of the University of Oslo published a story on the texts that dealt with gymnasiums – the elite boys’ “clubs”. The story first grabbed the attention of the blogosphere, such as the blog of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and this was followed by long articles in the Daily Mail and Der Spiegel.

“I also found myself on a short live broadcast for the BBC World Service.”

Family, parenthood and children were important

“The research materials show social historians how important family, parenthood and children were in antiquity. The Church also understood this and built its own organisation on the basis of family rhetoric. In the 300s CE, the Church constructed a hierarchy in which the bishops and other authority figures were the fathers or mothers, the members of the congregation were the children, and the sisters and brothers lived in monastic settlements,” Vuolanto explains.

In the Roman family, the father basically had unlimited powers. The Christian faith further emphasised the father’s role, and discipline in the family could have become even stricter.

“Talk of the family occupied the Church, and the Church occupied the family,” Vuolanto says.

Papyri are excellent research material. Apart from the public documents, receipts and other sundries, they include private letters and data that describe everyday life. This is the first time that the papyri have been systematically used to investigate family history.

“Such data have a lot to offer research on childhood and the family,” says Katariina Mustakallio, Dean of the School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies.

Like Vuolanto, she researches antiquity. From 2009 to 2013, Mustakallio was the director of Villa Lante, the Finnish Institute in Rome. Vuolanto worked in a research group and stayed at Villa Lante in the 1990s.

Strong group of researchers

“We have a strong group of researchers investigating antiquity and the Middle Ages at the University of Tampere, with international contacts that have been established over a long time. Trivium, which received research centre status at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the beginning of 2015, brings together researchers of the antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period across the boundaries of degree programmes and schools. In fact, the research network has been operating for a long time and organising the international ‘Passages from Antiquity and the Middle Ages’ conferences since 2003,” Mustakallio explains.

The sixth such conference will be held in August 2015. It will concentrate on travelling, pilgrimages and being on the road.

Research that crosses time periods and concentrates on the human life cycle and everyday life has been well received, and Trivium’s Passages conferences have created an extensive global network of research collaboration that extends as far as New Zealand.

Text: Taina Repo
Photograph: Jonne Renvall

More on this story from the Daily Mail and Der Spiegel.