Category: Historical subjects

Education in Classical Athens

Education -paideia- for the Athenians of the Classical era meant the moral edification of freeborn youths that involved bodily exercise, musical instruction and basic literacy skills. Affluent families could further arrange advanced instruction for their children, specializing in mathematics (geometry), rhetoric or philosophy.

Curriculum

By the Archaic period, most Greek cities were chiefly interested in providing their citizens with proper military training in hoplite phalanx warfare. Apart from Sparta, which developed early on a comprehensive and prolonged program of physical and martial training, most cities only provided rudimentary training. In Classical Athens, all youths entitled to full citizen status were given training in the use of arms upon reaching their 18th year, and one year later they were assigned with guarding the city's borders. Beyond this two-year long military service, the youths’ education and upbringing remained a family and private affair.

Moral upbringing began at home, with the recounting of myths and the recitation of verses. This responsibility belonged to mothers and wet nurses, but also to grandparents. This ‘curriculum’ became enriched when children reached the age of seven. Affluent families could afford to hire teachers, or utilized their educated household slaves. The vast majority of freeborn youths, however, usually attended a private school, and had to pay the relevant tuition fees. The care of a pedagōgos, a household slaved assigned with escorting youths to and fro their school, was essential. Schooling lasted approximately seven years.

They teach and admonish them from earliest childhood till the last day of their lives. As soon as one of them grasps what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the tutor, and the father himself strive hard that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is just, and that unjust, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that. If he readily obeys,—so; but if not, they treat him as a bent and twisted piece of wood and straighten him with threats and blows. (Plato, Protagoras 325c-d, trans. James A. Towle).

Without neglecting moral edification, the school curriculum greatly emphasized musical and dance instruction, which was anyway essential for participating in religious ceremonies. Musical instruction, often combined with the teaching of lyric poetry, was usually carried out by the kitharistes.

The grammatistes taught reading, writing and arithmetic. He was usually a free individual, but he could employ slaves as assistants. Literacy was apparently quite widespread in Classical Athens – several of the city’s institutions actually required it. Apart from Athenian citizens, it appears that many emigrants (the so-called metoikoi) were also literate.

and the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken and the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken, are furnished with works of good poets to read as they sit in class, and are made to learn them off by heart: here they meet with many admonitions, many descriptions and praises and eulogies of good men in times past, that the boy in envy may imitate them and yearn to become even as they. (Plato, Protagoras 325e, trans. James A. Towle).

From the age of 12 onward, almost all Athenians frequented the palaestrae (=wrestling schools), where the paedotribae (=physical trainers) coached them in wrestling, the long jump, running, discus and javelin throwing.

From the age of 12 onward, almost all Athenians frequented the palaestrae (=wrestling schools), where the paedotribae (=physical trainers) coached them in wrestling, the long jump, running, discus and javelin throwing.

Athenian young women did not go to school along with the males. They were taught the essential skills at home and became acquainted with music, poetry and dancing in women’s groups and in the context of religious celebrations. Many of them were obviously literate, although more often than not this education is not mentioned.

Several slaves in Athens were also educated. Some of them were employed as readers, scribes and copyists. Given that they were not admitted into schools or the palaestrae it is safe to assume they were educated in the households where they served. In fact, some of them were probably educated before their enslavement. Many of the female slaves destined to work as flute-players and dancers were also instructed in music and dance.

Teaching method

All educational institutions in ancient Athens were private, and sometimes provided specialized instruction. Obviously some were more affordable and attracted more students, while others were superior and were intended for more affluent youths in search of the best education. The city’s laws, however, prescribed general rules for their operation: teaching hours, the age of the students and their maximum number. The state was also interested in matters of moral behavior. Special archons were charged with overseeing these schools.

Training the youth involved discipline and often corporeal punishments. The teaching method relied on repetition and insistence. Learning how to read and write was a prolonged and tortuous affair, for it involved memorizing the alphabet from start to end, and vice-versa, but also in many other combinations. According to Plato, students were expected to be able to recognize letters even on the surface of the water, or in a mirror (Republic 402b).

Once the youths were acquired literacy they continued with memorizing and reciting poetry. Homer’s epics and Hesiod held pride of place. Poetry was employed as a primer, but also as a guide to life. Almost all educated Athenians would have been able to identify Homeric verses, and most could recite lengthy passages.

In the palaestrae, youths usually followed a rigorous program. Special exercises were used for each sport, which the whole group of young athletes had to complete meticulously (Plato, Statesman 294d-e).

Schools

Educated men from all over the Greek world began arriving at Athens in the 5th century – they became known as the Sophists. Many wealthy youths sought higher learning from them in mathematics, astronomy and, chiefly, ethics or rhetoric, often bestowing on them exorbitant amounts of money. Their presence and their curricula caused sensation in the city, and elicited various responses. Around the same time the first organized medical schools were established.

Two great schools opened in the 4th century: that of Isocrates and Plato’s Academy. Rhetoric was taught in the first, while the latter offered instruction in philosophy. Both offered a wide variety of courses, and largely relied on lengthy discussions and debates. In 335 Aristotle founded the Lyceum which was to become antiquity’s most important centre of scholarship and learning. These three schools continued to operate during the Hellenistic era and attracted students from all parts of Greece, rendering Athens the capital of higher learning.

Author: Dimitris Kirtatas
  • Golden, M. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Βαλτιμόρη και Λονδίνο, 1990.
  • Missiou, A. Literacy and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens. Καίμπριτζ, 2011.
  • Marrou, H. I. Histoire de l’education dans l’antiquité. Παρίσι, 1950.
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