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Adolescence

  1. Mark Golden

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah22004

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Golden, M. 2012. Adolescence. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

Greeks and Romans recognized adolescence, a stage of life between childhood and full maturity. Imprecise in its vocabulary and chronological range, it extended from physiological puberty (generally set around fourteen) to marriage, but varied according to social class and (especially) gender. Girls (Greek: korai, parthenoi, Latin: virgines) were thought to reach puberty rather earlier and everywhere married young, in their mid- and later teens. Their adolescence was therefore short and, since sexual desire and fertility were thought to dawn with the signs of puberty, carefully controlled. Male adolescents (Greek: ko(u)roi, meirakia, neaniskoi, Latin: adulescentes, iuvenes) were likely married by their mid-twenties, by thirty at the outside. They were indulged to some degree in the weaknesses and mistakes that characterized this stage of life. Both puberty and marriage came sooner for the better-nourished elite; the need to work shaped adolescence for the mass of the population.

Adolescents are sometimes portrayed distinctively in art. On Classical Greek vases, for example, male adolescents are somewhat shorter than adults, slimmer and more lithe, with down on their faces and a hint of pubic hair; girls have small breasts outlined beneath their clothes and wear their hair long and loose or in braids. Their emotional and intellectual traits likewise placed them in transition. Most stress shortcomings: extravagance, pugnacity, rashness, sexual excess, frivolity, drunkenness, inexperience, instability, lack of self-control. The warmth of their bodies made them passionate, their strength made those passions perilous. At the same time, their warm hearts caused adolescents to be generous and forgiving. Their vigor and courage were desirable in soldiers and their spontaneity and beauty desirable in themselves. (Roman law put citizen boys as far off limits as girls, but the adolescent sons of Greek citizens were pursued as passive partners in homosexual pairs. The full growth of their beards prompted them to move on to the active role.) Exceptional members of the elite, of ruling families above all, might be given political posts and administrative responsibilities usually reserved for their elders.

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Eyben, E. (1993) Restless youth in ancient Rome. New York.
  • Garland, R. (1990) The Greek way of life from conception to old age. London.
  • Harlow, M. and Laurence, R. (2002) Growing up and growing old in ancient Rome. New York.
  • Kleijwegt, M. (1991) Ancient youth: the ambiguity of youth and the absence of adolescence in Greco-Roman society. Amsterdam.