Greek education

Quick Reference

1. Early Period

Greek ideas of education (paideia) encompassed upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense, not merely schooling. The poets were regarded as the educators of society, esp. in the Archaic period, but also well into the Classical, when Plato could attack Homer's status as educator of Greece. Other educators were the laws and festivals of the polis, and later the institutions of democracy and their procedures.

Before the 5th cent., there must have been training for any specialized skill; most of it was like an apprenticeship. There was a school of 120 boys at Chios by 494. Attic vase‐paintings show scenes of schooling. That schooling would be non‐technical (‘liberal’), and, would be primarily concerned with music (including poetry; see below, 3) and athletics. This type of education, or at least its higher levels, was transformed by the sophists and their successors into one involving the techniques of rhetoric, which came to form the most typical part of higher education.

2. Sparta

 Crete and Classical Sparta practised a totalitarian and militaristic form of education controlled by the state; See agoge.

3. Classical Athens

Elementary education

Explicit evidence for schools (see above) is much later than the introduction of the alphabet to Greece. Ostracism at Athens may presuppose widespread basic literacy by the time of Cleisthenes 2.

There were three main elements to elementary education, normally taught in different establishments. The paidotribēs dealt with athletics and general fitness, mainly in the palaestra. The kitharistēs taught music and the works of the lyric poets in the lyre school. The grammatistēs taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as literature, which consisted of learning by heart the work of poets, esp. Homer, who were regarded as giving moral training. Thus after learning the alphabet, pupils would progress to learning the poets. Athletics and music (including poetry and dance) were the fundamentals.

In a single day, the pupil might start with athletics, then proceed to the lyre school, and end with letters. But the system was private and fee‐paying, far from rigid, and parents might not want their children to participate in all three. Girls, as we see from vase‐painting, might be educated in all three elements, as well as dancing, though not normally in the same schools as boys or to the same extent. The teacher was normally a free man. Assistants might be slaves or free men. Boys were always accompanied to school by a paidagōgos, a slave who helped to bring up the child and maintain order at school. Discipline was strict: the symbol of the paidotribes' power to punish was the forked stick, of other teachers the cane. Pupils had to recite what they had learned, and the regular public competitions (See agones), whether literary, musical, or athletic, were an important arena for proving their skill.

The development of group schooling, in which the education previously reserved for the aristocracy spread to other citizens, may be related, at least in Athens, to the development of the democracy. The balance between the physical and intellectual sides was disputed by some thinkers, and the military uses of physical education may have given that side ascendancy (See epheboi). Xenophanes and Euripides scoffed at the athletic (and aristocratic) ideal, while Pindar, perhaps Aristophanes, and Xenophon supported it. Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle subordinated the physical side to the intellectual. Most Athenian schooling was undergone between the ages of c.7 and 14, and did not necessarily last all seven years. Between the ages of 14 and 18 upper‐class boys seem to have run more or less wild.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries