Education in ancient Greece

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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 essential for participation in the Greek culture. The value of physical education to the ancient Greek and Romans throughout history society has placed a different value on physical education and sport. 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

Formal Greek education was primarily for males and non-slaves.[1] In some poleis, laws were passed to prohibit the education of slaves.[2][3] The Spartans also taught music and dance, but with the purpose of enhancing their maneuverability as soldiers.

Athenian system[edit]

Classical Athens (508–322 BCE)[edit]

Old Education[edit]

A view of Athens from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to Mount Lycabettus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Old Education in classical Athens consisted of two major parts - intellectual and physical, or what was known to Athenians as "gumnastike" and "mousike."[4] Gumanstike was a physical education that mirrored the ideals of the military - strength, stamina, and preparation for war.[5] Having a physically fit body was extremely important to the Athenians. Boys would begin physical education either during or just after beginning their elementary education. Initially, they would learn from a private teacher known as a paidotribe. Eventually, the boys would begin training at the gymnasium.[6] Physical training was seen as necessary for improving one's appearance, preparation for war, and good health at an old age.[7] On the other hand, mousike was a combination of modern-day music, dance, lyrics, and poetry.[8] Mousike provided students with examples of beauty and nobility, as well as an appreciation of harmony and rhythm.[9] 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. Mythopoeic legends such as Hesiod and Homer were also highly regarded by Athenians, and their works were often incorporated into lesson plans. Old Education lacked heavy structure and only featured schooling up to the elementary level. Once a child reached adolescence his formal education ended.[10] Therefore, a large part of this education was informal and relied on simple human experience.[11]

Higher Education[edit]

It was not until about 420 BCE that Higher Education became prominent in Athens.[12] The introduction of philosophers such as Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), as well as the sophistic movement, which led to an influx of foreign teachers, created a shift from Old Education to a new Higher Education in classical Athens.[10] This Higher Education expanded formal education in classical Athens, and Athenian society began to hold intellectual capacity with higher regard than physical.[10] This shift caused controversy between individuals with traditional and modern views of education. Those of a traditional lens believed that raising "intellectuals" would destroy Athenian culture and leave Athens at a disadvantage in war.[12] On the other hand, those in support of the change felt that while physical strength was important, its value in relation to Athenian power would diminish over time.[13] These individuals believed that education should be a tool to develop the whole man, including his intellectual mind.[14] Higher Education prevailed and an introduction of secondary and post-secondary levels of education provided greater structure and depth to the already existing Old Education (the elementary gumnastike and mousike education) framework.[10] More focused fields of study included mathematics, astronomy, harmonics, and dialect - all with an emphasis on the development of a student's philosophical insight. It was necessary that individuals possessed the ability to take knowledge in a field and apply it towards an understanding based on logic and reason.[15]

Isocrates sculpture located at the Parc de Versailles (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wealth played an integral role in classical Athenian Higher Education. In fact, the amount of Higher Education an individual received often depended on the ability and desire for a family to pay for such an education.[16] The formal programs within Higher Education were often taught by sophists who charged for their teaching. In fact, sophists would introduce their educational programs through the use of advertisements in the attempt to reach as many customers as possible.[17] Thus, in most circumstances, only those who could afford the price could participate.[10] Therefore, individuals within the peasant class (who lacked any capital) were financially limited in the education they could receive. Women and slaves were also barred from receiving such an education. Societal expectations isolated women to the home, while a societal belief in their intellectual ability resulted in women having little to no access to a formal education.[18] Slaves were also prevented access to education due to their status as slaves. In fact, they were legally barred from receiving an education in Athens. After becoming part of the Roman Empire, educated Greeks were often used as slaves by affluent Romans. These slaves were the primary way in which affluent Romans were educated, and this education led to a continuance of Greek culture in Ancient Rome.[19]

Classical Athenian Educators[edit]

Isocrates (436 - 338 BCE)[edit]

Isocrates was an influential classical Athenian orator.[20] Growing up in Athens exposed Isocrates to educators such as Socrates and Gorgias at a young age and helped him develop exceptional rhetoric.[21] As he grew older and his understanding of education developed, Isocrates disregarded the importance of the arts and sciences, believing rhetoric was the key to virtue.[22] Education's purpose was to produce civic efficiency and political leadership and therefore, the ability to speak well and persuade became the cornerstone of his educational theory.[23] However, at the time there was no definite curriculum for Higher Education, with only the existence of the sophists who were constantly traveling.[21] In response, Isocrates founded his school of Rhetoric around 393 BCE. The school was in contrast to Plato's Academy (c. 387 BCE) which was largely based on science, philosophy, and dialectic.[24]

Plato (428 - 348 BCE)[edit]
Plato bust on exhibition at The Louvre (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Plato was a philosopher in classical Athens who studied under Socrates, ultimately becoming one of his most famed students. Following Socrates' execution, Plato left Athens in anger, rejecting politics as a career and traveling to Italy and Sicily.[25] He returned ten years later to establish his school, the Academy (c. 387 BCE) - named after the Greek hero Akademos.[25] Plato perceived education as a method to produce citizens who could operate as members of the civic community in Athens.[9] In one sense, Plato believed Athenians could obtain education through the experiences of being a community member, but he also understood the importance of deliberate training, or Higher Education, in the development of civic virtue.[26] Thus, his reasoning behind founding the Academy - what is often credited as the first University.[27] It is at this school where Plato discussed much of his educational program, which he outlined in his best known work - the Republic. In his writing, Plato describes the rigorous process one must go through in order to attain true virtue, and understand reality for what it actually is.[28] The education required of such achievement, according to Plato, included an elementary education in music, poetry, and physical training, two to three years of mandatory military training, ten years of mathematical science, five years of dialectic training, and fifteen years of practical political training.[29] The few individuals equipped to reach such a level would become philosopher-kings, the leaders of Plato's ideal city.[30]

Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE)[edit]
Bust of Aristotle (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Aristotle was a classical Greek philosopher. While born in Stagira, Chalkidice, Aristotle joined Plato's Academy in Athens during his late teenage years and remained for nine-teen years, withdrawing following Plato's death.[31] His departure from the Academy also signaled his departure from Athens. Aristotle left to join Hermeias, a former student at the Academy, who had become the ruler of Atarneus and Assos in the north-western coast of Anatolia (present-day Turkey).[31] He remained in Anatolia until, in 342 BCE, he received an invitation from King Philip of Macedon to become the educator of his thirteen-year-old son Alexander. Aristotle accepted the invitation and moved to Pella to begin his work with the boy who would soon become known as Alexander the Great.[32] When Aristotle moved back to Athens in 352 BCE, Alexander helped finance Aristotle's school - the Lyceum.[33] A significant part of the Lyceum was research. The school had a systematic approach to the collection of information. Aristotle believed dialectical relationships among students performing research could impede the pursuit of truth. Thus, much of the school's focus was on research done empirically.[34]

Spartan system[edit]

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. There is a misconception that Spartans killed weak children, but that is not true. It was a rumor started by Plutarch, a Greek historian, who evidently got his history wrong.[35] After examination, the council would either rule that the child was fit to live or would reject the child sentencing him to a death by abandonment and exposure.[35]


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.[36] 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.[36] 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.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[39] 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.[40] Toward the end of this phase of the agoge, the trainees were expected to hunt down and kill a Helot, a Greek slave.[35] 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.[35] 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.[35] After two years, at the age of twenty, this training was finished and the now grown men were officially regarded as Spartan soldiers.[36]

Education of Spartan women[edit]

Spartan women, unlike their Athenian counterparts, received a formal education that was supervised and controlled by the state.[41] 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.[42] The skills of the young women were tested regularly in competitions such as the annual footrace at the Heraea of Elis,[43] 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.[44] 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.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Downey, "Ancient Education," The classical Journal52, no.8 (May 1957): 339.
  2. ^ Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Leedsives'tau gutdon: Penguin Classics, 1960), 43.
  3. ^ Ed. Sienkewicz, "Daily Life and Customs," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, I)
  4. ^ Lynch, John P. (1972). Aristotle's School: A Study of a Greek Educational Institution. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 33. 
  5. ^ Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 36. 
  6. ^ Sienkewicz, Joseph, ed. (2007). "Education and Training". Ancient Greece. New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc. p. 344. 
  7. ^ Plutarch (1927). "The Training of Children". Moralia. Loeb Classical Library. p. 7. 
  8. ^ Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 37. 
  9. ^ a b Beck, Frederick A.G. (1964). Greek Education, 450–350 B.C. London: Methuen & CO LTD. pp. 201–202. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 38. 
  11. ^ Lodge, R.C. (1970). Plato's Theory of Education. New York: Russell & Russell. p. 11. 
  12. ^ a b Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 65.
  13. ^ Plutarch The Training of Children, c. 110 CE (Ancient History Sourcebook), 5-6.
  14. ^ Downey, "Ancient Education," The Classical Journal 52, no.8 (May 1980): 340.
  15. ^ Lodge. Plato's Theory of Education. p. 304. 
  16. ^ Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 33. 
  17. ^ Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 39. 
  18. ^ O’pry, Kay (2012). "Social and Political Roles of Women in Athens and Sparta". Saber and Scroll. 1: 9. 
  19. ^ Plutarch (1960). The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives. London: Penguin Classics. pp. 168–9. 
  20. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 253. 
  21. ^ a b Matsen, Patricia; Rollinson, Philip; Sousa, Marion (1990). Readings from Classical Rhetoric. Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 43. 
  22. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 255. 
  23. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 257. 
  24. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 293. 
  25. ^ a b Beck. Greek Education. p. 227. 
  26. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 200. 
  27. ^ Beck. Greek Education. p. 240. 
  28. ^ Lodge. Plato's Theory of Education. p. 303. 
  29. ^ Plato (2013). Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 186. 
  30. ^ Plato. Republic. p. 188. 
  31. ^ a b Anagnostopoulos, Georgios, ed. (2013). "First Athenian Period". A Companion to Aristotle. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 5. 
  32. ^ Anagnostopoulos (ed.). Companion to Aristotle. p. 8. 
  33. ^ Anagnostopoulos (ed.). Companion to Aristotle. p. 9. 
  34. ^ Lynch. Aristotle's School. p. 87. 
  35. ^ a b c d e Ed. Sienkewicz, "Education and Training," Ancient Greece (New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc. 2007), 344.
  36. ^ a b c d Adkins and Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), 104.
  37. ^ Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 104-5
  38. ^ Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 104, 275
  39. ^ a b Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 105
  40. ^ Adkins and Adkins, Handbook, 275
  41. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 27-29.
  42. ^ Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 13-14.
  43. ^ Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 24.
  44. ^ Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 5-12.
  45. ^ Pomeroy, Spartan Women, 4.

Primary sources (ancient Greek)[edit]

  • Aristotle. Wikisource link to Athenian Constitution. Wikisource. . See original text in Perseus program.
  • Lycurgus, Contra Leocratem.
  • Aristophanes (2002). Lysistrata and Other Plays. New York: Penguin Classics. 
  • Plutarch. The Training of Children, c. 110 CE. . See original text in [1].
  • 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 [2].

Secondary sources[edit]

  • 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, 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.