Education in ancient Greece
From its origins in the Homeric and the aristocratic tradition, Greek education was vastly "democratized" in the 5th century BCE, influenced by the Sophists, Plato and Isocrates. In the Hellenistic period, education in a gymnasium was considered an inextricable prerequisite for participation in the Greek culture.
There were two forms of education in ancient Greece: formal and informal. Formal education was attained through attendance to a public school or was provided by a hired tutor. Informal education was provided by an unpaid teacher, and occurred in a non-public setting. Education was an essential component of a person’s identity in ancient Greece, and the type of education a person received was based strongly in one’s social class, the culture of one’s polis, and the opinion of one’s culture on what education should include.
Formal Greek education was primarily for men, and was, in general, not offered to slaves, manual laborers, or women. In some poleis, laws were passed to prohibit the education of slaves. A young girl would receive an informal education from her mother and would be taught how to maintain a household to serve her father and, later in life, her husband. The Spartans also taught music and dance, but with the purpose of enhancing their maneuverability as soldiers.
In their early years, Athenian children were taught at home, sometimes under the guidance of a master or pedagogue. They were taught basic morals, until they began elementary education at approximately seven years of age. Children were taught how to read and write, as well as how to count and draw. Children were taught letters and then syllables, followed by words and sentences. Reading and writing were taught at the same time. Students would write using a stylus, with which they would etch onto a wax-covered board. When children were ready to begin reading whole works, they would often be given poetry to memorize and recite. An elementary education was the only education available to most people, especially the poor. Children belonging to the upper social classes would receive formal elementary education since their parents would be able to afford to hire a tutor or to send them to a public school. Children coming from poor families, however, would only be offered informal education, and the extent of their exposure to the above subjects would be directly linked to the knowledge of their parents. In addition to not having the money to pay for a formal education, members of the lower class most likely would have required their children’s service at home just to be able to afford food and other basic necessities.
Having a physically fit body was extremely important to the Greeks. Greek boys would begin physical education either during or just after beginning their elementary education. In the beginning they would learn from a private teacher known as a paidotribe. Eventually, the boys would begin training at the gymnasium. Physical training was seen as necessary for improving one’s appearance, preparation for war, and good health at an old age. Traditionally, attendance at the gymnasium completed the majority of post-elementary education in Athens. It was not until about 420 BCE that secondary education became prominent, which led to controversy between traditional and modern views of education. Those of the traditional view believed that raising “intellectuals” would destroy Athenian culture and leave Athens at a disadvantage in war. On the other hand, those with a more modern view felt that while physical strength was important, it would diminish over time and that education should be used to develop the whole man, including his intellectual mind.
After turning fourteen years old, boys from wealthy families had the option of attending secondary school. A secondary school might have been a permanent one, or it could have been received from traveling teachers such as the Sophists or other philosophers including Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. Secondary education included subjects such as natural science (biology and chemistry), rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing effectively), geometry, astronomy and meteorology. The teaching of these subjects became highly valued within Athenian society, because the Athenians believed that intellectual education was a key component of a person’s identity, making up a significant part of a person’s reputation. Accomplishments in academics could help an individual gain the respect of his peers. With this respect, leaders such as Themistocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades were able to influence political and military endeavors pursued by Athens.
Boys could continue their education after secondary school by obtaining ephebic training. They could petition to become an ephebe at the age of eighteen. In the fifth century BCE, ephebic training began as a military education, followed by two years of military service. Later, however, more advanced academic schooling was included.
As mentioned earlier, children of poor families were often unable to receive a formal education. These children, however, were not totally forgotten. Solon, an Athenian leader who lived during the 7th to mid 6th centuries BCE, did much to reform his polis, and encouraged poor fathers to provide their sons with a vocational education. By teaching these children a trade, they could also be regarded as productive members of Athenian society.
Music and dance were also very important to Athens. Throughout the many stages of an individual’s education, he was encouraged to practice dancing, singing and the playing of instruments. Common instruments used in Athens included the harp, flute and lyre. By advancing in dance, singing and the playing of instruments, an Athenian would help continue their society's traditions.
The Spartan society desired that all male citizens become successful soldiers with the stamina and skills to defend their polis as members of a Spartan phalanx. Thus, only the healthiest male babies born to Spartan citizens were allowed to live. A council convened at the birth of each male child with the purpose of examining the baby for defects and signs of weakness. After examination, the council would either rule that the baby was fit to live or would reject the baby sentencing him to a death by abandonment and exposure.
Military dominance was of extreme importance to the Spartans of Ancient Greece. In response, the Spartans structured their educational system as an extreme form of military boot camp, which they referred to as agoge. The pursuit of intellectual knowledge was seen as trivial, and thus academic learning, such as reading and writing, was kept to a minimum. A Spartan boy’s life was devoted almost entirely to his school, and that school had but one purpose: to produce an almost indestructible Spartan phalanx. Formal education for a Spartan male began at about the age of seven when the state removed the boy from the custody of his parents and sent him to live in a barracks with many other boys his age. For all intents and purposes, the barracks was his new home, and the other males living in the barracks his family. For the next five years, until about the age of twelve, the boys would eat, sleep and train within their barracks-unit and receive instruction from an adult male citizen who had completed all of his military training and experienced battle. The instructor stressed discipline and exercise and saw to it that his students received little food and minimal clothing in an effort to force the boys to learn how to forage, steal and endure extreme hunger, all of which would be necessary skills in the course of a war. Those boys who survived the first stage of training entered into a secondary stage in which punishments became harsher and physical training and participation in sports almost non-stop in order to build up strength and endurance. During this stage, which lasted until the males were about eighteen years old, fighting within the unit was encouraged, mock battles were performed, acts of courage praised, and signs of cowardice and disobedience severely punished. During the mock battles, the young men were formed into phalanxes to learn to maneuver as if they were one entity and not a group of individuals. To be more efficient and effective during maneuvers, students were also trained in dancing and music, because this would enhance their ability to move gracefully as a unit. Toward the end of this phase of the agoge, the trainees were expected to hunt down and kill a Helot, a Greek slave. If caught, the student would be convicted and disciplined-not for committing murder, but for his inability to complete the murder without being discovered.
The students would graduate from the agoge at the age of eighteen and receive the title of ephebes. Upon becoming an ephebe, the male would pledge strict and complete allegiance to Sparta and would join a private organization to continue training in which he would compete in gymnastics, hunting and performance with planned battles using real weapons. After two years, at the age of twenty, this training was finished and the now grown men were officially regarded as Spartan soldiers.
Education of Spartan Women
Spartan women, unlike their Athenian counterparts, received a formal education that was supervised and controlled by the state. Much of the public schooling received by the Spartan women revolved around physical education. Until about the age of eighteen women were taught to run, wrestle, throw a discus, and also to throw javelins. The skills of the young women were tested regularly in competitions such as the annual footrace at the Heraea of Elis, In addition to physical education the young girls also were taught to sing, dance, and play instruments often by travelling poets such as Alcman or by the elderly women in the polis. The Spartan educational system for females was very strict, because its purpose was to train future mothers of soldiers in order to maintain the strength of Sparta’s phalanxes, which were essential to Spartan defence and culture.
- Downey, "Ancient Education," The classical Journal52, no.8 (May 1957): 339.
- Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Leedsives (London: Penguin Classics, 1960), 43.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, "Daily Life and Customs," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, I)
- Ed. Sienkewicz, "Education and Training," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc., 2007), 245.
- Mavrogenes, "Reading in Ancient Greece," Journal of Reading 23, no.8 (May 1980): 693.
- Downey, "Ancient Education," The Classical Journal 52, no.8 (May 1957): 340.
- Plutarch, The Training of Children, c.110 CE. (Ancient History Sourcebook), 8-9.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, "Education and Training," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc., 2007), 344.
- Plutarch, The Training of Children, c. 110 CE (Ancient history Sourcebook), 7.
- Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 65.
- Plutarch, The Training of Children, c. 110 CE (Ancient History Sourcebook), 5-6.
- Downey, "Ancient Education," The Classical Journal 52, no.8 (May 1980): 340.
- Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (London: Penguin Classics, 1960), 168-9.
- Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 66, 82,122.
- Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (London: Penguin Classics, 1960), 78, 188, 246-7.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, "Education and Training," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc. 2007), 346.
- Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (London: Penguin Classics, 1960), 43, 64.
- Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 113, 124.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, "Education and Training," Ancient Greece (new Jersey: Salem Press, Inc. 2007), 344.
- Adkins and Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), 104.
- Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 104-5
- Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 104, 275
- Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 105
- Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 275
- Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 27-29.
- Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 13-14.
- Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 24.
- Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 5-12.
- Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 4.
Primary sources (ancient Greek)
- Aristotle. Athenian Constitution. Wikisource.. See original text in Perseus program.
- Lycurgus, Contra Leocratem.
- Aristophanes (2002). Lysistrata and Other Plays. New York: Penguin Classics.
- Plutarch (27 January 2010). The Training of Children, c. 110 CE. Ancient History Sourcebook.. See original text in .
- Plutarch (1960). The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives. New York: Penguin Classics.
- Xenophon (28 January 2010). Xenophon on the Spartans. Ancient History Sourcebook.. See original text in .
- Marrou, Henri-Irénée (1956). A History of Education in Antiquity. University of Wisconsin Press.
- Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece. New York: Facts On File, Inc.
- Downey bra, Glanville (May 1957). "Ancient Education". The Classical Journal 52 (8): 337–345.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, Thomas J (2007). Ancient Greece: Daily Life and Customs 1. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, Inc.
- Ed. Sienkewicz, Thomas J (2007). Ancient Greece: Education and Training 2. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, Inc.
- Mavrogenes, Nancy A (May 1980). "Reading in Ancient Greece". Journal of Reading 23 (8): 691–697.
- Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002). Spartan Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.