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education, Greek

1. Early period

Greek ideas of education (paideia), whether theoretical or practical, encompassed upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense, not merely schooling and formal education. The poets were regarded as the educators of their society, particularly in the Archaic period, but also well into the classical, when Plato (1) could attack Homer's status as educator of Greece (e.g. Resp. 606e, and generally, bks. 2, 3, 10; cf. Xen. Symp. 4. 6 for the conventional view). Much education would have taken place in an aristocratic milieu informally through institutions like the symposium (as in the poetry of Theognis (1)) or festivals (cf. the children reciting Solon's poetry at the Apaturia, Pl. Ti. 21b), backed up by the old assumption that the aristocracy possessed inherited, not instructed, excellence. Important educational functions were seen by some in the relationship of a boy and an older lover (see homosexuality); or in the very institutions of the city-state (polis), the city festivals and rituals (e.g. Aeschin. 3. 246; see Loraux (in bibliog. below)). Even in the 4th cent. bce, Plato (Laws), for instance, saw the laws as performing educational functions, Lycurgus (3) of Athens the democratic processes (see Humphreys); cf. democracy, athenian.

There is a tendency in modern work to overformalize Greek education. Before the 5th cent. bce, there must have been some sort of training for any specialized skills (cf. the scribal skills needed by the Mycenaeans), but most of this was probably on an ad hoc and quite individual basis (more like an apprenticeship, as was surely the case with oral epic bards). The evidence for early schooling (i.e. formal group teaching) is remarkably slight: the school laws attributed to Solon (594 bce) by Aeschines (1. 9 ff.) may be later and are in any case primarily about morality; the traditions about Chiron (see centaurs) and Phoenix (2) (cf. Il. 9. 443) as ideal educators, teaching their charges all the known skills may reflect some form of early aristocratic instruction. The earliest school mentioned is at Chios, in 494 bce (Hdt. 6. 27); we also hear of schools at Astypalaea (an Aegean island between Amorgos and Nisyros) in 496 bce (Paus. 6. 9. 6), at Troezen in 480 (Plut. Them. 10), at Mycalessus in Boeotia in 413 (Thuc. 7. 29), and less reliably, among allies of the Mytilenaeans in c.600 (Ael. VH 7. 15). Fifth-cent. Attic vase-paintings show scenes of schooling. But it is likely that at least before the mid-5th cent., education was elementary in our terms, probably confined to the aristocratic strata, and organized simply for individuals (the figure of the later paidagōgos may have retained something of an earlier individual tutor; cf. Xen. Mem. 2. 2. 6 on home education). That education would also be non-technical, and, as indicated by discussions of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ education in the 5th cent. (cf. Ar. Clouds), would be primarily concerned with music and gymnastics. This type of education, or at least its higher levels, was transformed by the sophists and their successors into one involving the techniques of prose rhetoric, which then came to form the most typical part of ancient education at the higher level.

2. Sparta

Certain Dorian states like Crete and Classical Sparta practised a totalitarian and militaristic form of education controlled by the state; see agōgē. By Classical times, Sparta had adapted its educational system entirely for the purposes of maintaining military strength. From the age of 7 the child was entirely under the control of the state, living in barracks away from parents. The aim of education was to produce efficient soldiers, and though their training included music and how to read and write, physical education received first priority (see Xen. Respublica Lacedaemoniorum; Plut. Lyc.). Girls, too, were also educated in the interests of the state, to be the future mothers of warriors (Xen. Respublica Lacedaemoniorum 1. 3–4): gymnastics and sport were emphasized, as well as music and dancing.

3. Classical Athens

Elementary education

It is unclear how early elementary schooling began in Athens (from which most evidence comes): explicit evidence for schools (see above) is much later than the introduction of the alphabet to Greece in the mid-8th cent. bce, and though it has been thought that the alphabet implies schools to teach it, instruction at this low level could have been carried out without formal institutions. However, ostracism at Athens may presuppose widespread basic literacy in the time of Cleisthenes (2), and schooling is definitely attested for early 5th-cent. Greece.

There were three main elements to elementary education, normally taught in different establishments. The paidotribēs dealt with gymnastics, games, and general athletic fitness, mainly in the palaestra (e.g. Pl. Grg. 452b, Prt. 313a). The kitharistēs taught music and the works of the lyric poets, the lyre school inheriting the musical education of the Archaic period. The grammatistēs taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as literature, which consisted of learning by heart the work of poets, especially Homer, who were regarded as giving moral training (see Protagoras on the moral function of music and poetry, Prt. 326a). Thus after learning the alphabet (see Pl. Resp. 402a–b; Plt. 227e–278b, for the methods of learning to read), pupils would progress to learning the poets by heart (Prt. 325e). Gymnastics and music (including poetry), then, were the fundamentals. The ‘Old Education’ parodied in Aristophanes (1)'s Clouds (961–1023) gives most emphasis to physical education and music, saying nothing about letters, either because it was a minor element or too basic to mention. But the predominance of music—which included poetry and dance, and emphasized actual performance—and physical training in the basic Greek education is attested elsewhere (e.g. Pl. Resp. 376e); the conservative Plato sees lack of musical training (achoreutos) as synonymous with lack of education (apaideutos) (Leg. 654a–b).

In a single day, the pupil might start with gymnastics, 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 enjoying the same social status (and remuneration) as a doctor—though in fact often not so highly regarded (cf. Demosthenes (2) on Aeschines (1), De cor. 265). Assistants might be slaves or free men. Boys were always accompanied to school by a paidagōgos, a slave and highly trusted part of the family (cf. Themistocles', Hdt. 8. 75), who helped to bring up the child and at school must have been a helpful overseer. Discipline at school was strict: the symbol of the paidotribēs' power to punish was the forked stick, of other teachers the narthex (cane). Pupils regularly had to recite what they had learned, and the regular public competitions (all illustrated in vase-scenes), whether literary, musical, or athletic, were an important forum for proving their skill.

The development of group schooling, in which the education previously reserved for the aristocracy is spread to other citizens, may be related, at least in Athens, to the development of the democracy, but cannot have originated with it. The balance between the physical and intellectual aspects may not have been as harmonious as some modern observers have suggested; it was certainly disputed by Greek thinkers, and the military uses of physical education may have given that side ascendancy (cf. Prt. 326 b–c, on gymnastics as useful training for war; see also ephēboi). Xenophanes (c.500) (DK 21 B 2) and Euripides scoffed at the athletic (and aristocratic) ideal, while Pindar, perhaps Aristophanes, and Xenophon (1) (Cyn. 13) supported it. Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle (Pol. 8) subordinated the physical side to the intellectual.

Higher education

From the late 5th cent. it was possible to pursue further and more specialist education by joining one of the courses offered by the sophists, or listening to their lectures and disputations. Or there were the specialized schools of rhetoric or philosophy or of medicine (possible early ‘schools’ (e.g. of medicine, Hdt. 3. 129, 131), may have been more like loose semi-religious foundations). The most famous were Isocrates' school of rhetoric, founded about 390 bce, Plato's Academy with its scientific, mathematical, and philosophical curriculum founded soon after, and Aristotle's Lyceum (see aristotle, para. 5), founded in 335 bce. Some of these higher schools prescribed propaedeutic courses (e.g. geometry for Plato's Academy), which have been seen as the origin of ‘secondary education’.

The great educators and theorists

The sophists were itinerant teachers, who offered education for a fee on a variety of specialized and technical subjects. In general, they claimed to teach political virtue (aretē), and most laid great stress on skills useful for political life, especially rhetoric (e.g. Prt. 318e–319a). In that sense they rivalled the poets' claim as educators; they offered techniques useful in the Athenian democracy (and open to anyone who could pay), and in charging for their services, aroused much distrust. They were progressive and pragmatic in their views and methods, and belonged to the liberal, democratic tradition of Greek education. They were effectively the first to create a standard teaching system at an advanced level, and the first to include the basic sciences in their schema (note especially the polymath Hippias (2), Prt. 318e). But they were part of the mainstream of Greek cultural heritage, which they accepted, taught, and enhanced, and against which Socrates and Plato (1) reacted so violently. Their ideas initiated and propelled the ferment of discussion about education—including the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate—that continued so intensely in the 4th cent.

Socrates, on the other hand, distrusted the sophists' claim to be able to teach everything, or indeed even to know anything. Socrates sought not to impart a body of knowledge, but to progress, with his followers, in seeking it. In the educational sphere, he seems to have had a rather conservative reliance on innate gifts; his great influence lies in the famous ‘Socratic’ method of teaching (below), and in his equation of virtue with knowledge. Plato, however, gives us the most extensive theory of education, in the Republic and, in a less extreme form, the Laws, where he sets forth the ideal state of a totalitarian mould, influenced by Sparta, and a corresponding system of education in which everything, including most forms of literature and art, which does not serve the interests of the state, is rigidly excluded: his elementary education, for all citizens to the age of 17 or 18, was otherwise rather conservative. Plato's Timaeus provided the Middle Ages with the rationale for their quadrivium: though this in fact derived ultimately from Hippias' insistence (Prt. 318e) on the four sciences, namely arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In his early works he strongly opposed the teaching of rhetoric, but later allowed it to be taught in the Academy alongside the more important scientific, mathematical, and philosophical studies. His concept of an educational establishment with permanent buildings, specialist teachers, and an integrated curriculum, may be seen as a precursor of the secondary school (see Resp. 536–41 for the appropriate age-range for each stage in Plato's scheme), his founding of the Academy, an association of scholars, as the first university. It was, however, the Lyceum (see aristotle, para. 5), which became the greatest research institute of antiquity. In Isocrates' educational innovations, one sees the further development of the rhetorical side of late 5th-cent. culture, as opposed to the philosophical emphasized by Plato and left by Isocrates as marginal to the ultimate rhetorical focus. He owed much to the sophists in subject-matter and teaching methods; his educational aims were to train (a few) students in morality and political skill, hence rhetoric (e.g. Panath. 30–2; Antid. 231; C. Soph. 21), and ultimately to produce political leaders. Other subjects were subservient to the pursuit of rhetorical skill: among these was knowledge of the past, and he distinguished between useful, or cultural, and purely disciplinary subjects like eristic and mathematics (Antid. 261–9). His teaching methods also laid immense stress on the literary composition of prose, seeking to oust the dominant position of the poets in education. It was this primarily rhetorical basis of further education that became the dominant characteristic of ancient education.

Teaching methods

Private tuition, individual tuition, and teaching in small groups are all attested, even for gymnastics (Pl. Plt. 294d–e). Learning by heart, for the purposes of recitation, was standard. Even Pl. accepted the usefulness of games in elementary education (arithmetic), though he was generally hostile to any experimentation in scientific teaching. At a higher level, pedagogic techniques were most developed in rhetorical teaching. Students memorized commonplaces, stock situations, and stock phrases, along with sample passages like Gorgias (1)'s Funeral Oration (see epitaphios) as material for later improvisation (on which much store was set). Psychology, techniques of persuasion, and the art of arguing both sides of a case were also taught. In addition, the sophists, and in particular, Isocrates, supplemented this with further general knowledge (see rhetoric, greek).

The sophists developed both the dialectical method and the lecture, which might take the form of the display epideixis or the full technical lecture, which even Plato frequently used though he preferred dialectic. The dialectic method involves question and answer, in which the respondent makes a real contribution to discussion (as opposed to the Socratic technique). This method was developed by Isocrates into a seminar technique of group discussion and criticism. The Socratic method proceeds by reducing the pupil to a state of aporia (or puzzlement) and admission of complete ignorance (not to mention irritation), and then drawing out knowledge by a process of questioning, a process of intellectual ‘midwifery’ (Pl. Tht. 150c). It is well illustrated in the geometry lesson of Plato's Meno (see Meno 85d–86b for the Socratic explanation given there). Xenophon (1) advocated the ‘activity’ method in the Cyropaedia where pupils learn justice by practising it in real-life group situations.

4. Hellenistic education

For the Hellenistic period, there is a wealth of inscriptions (see epigraphy, greek) which illuminate the public side of education, and rich papyrological evidence for school activity (e.g. school exercises). The pattern of education established in Classical Athens was brought in the early years of the Hellenistic era to a definitive form which endured with only slight changes to the end of the ancient world. Greater attention was paid to the education of the ordinary citizen, as reflected in the many separate philosophical treatises on education by thinkers such as Aristippus (1), Theophrastus, Aristoxenus, Cleanthes, Zeno (2), Chrysippus, Clearchus (3), and Cleomenes. There is definitely an extension of elementary education, with generous foundations set up in some cities to fund teachers: at Teos (Syll.3 578 = Austin no. 139) all free boys were to receive education; Rhodes, funded by Eumenes (2) II (Polyb. 31. 31), probably came nearest to universal public education (for boys) in antiquity (cf. also at Delphi, Syll.3 672 ( = Austin no. 242), and Miletus, Syll.3 577 ( = Austin no. 138)). Girls also received more education than before (e.g. Teos, Pergamum), but cannot have been educated everywhere as fully as boys. But how far one can really claim universal education among Greek children in the period (as Marrou) is controversial (see Harris for a less optimistic view), and formal education was surely mostly confined to the cities. Greek paideia was now regarded as the essential badge of Greekness, and educational institutions—particularly the gymnasium—were thought necessary to maintain, or assert, Greek identity.


Education was still mostly paid for by parents, but generous private benefactions in some cities provided for teachers' salaries (esp. Teos, Miletus, Delphi, Rhodes, above), and the cities seem to have taken more formal interest in education, organizing ephebic institutions (see ephēboi) and regulating private benefactions themselves. Most had one gymnasium, some more (see Delorme for evidence). This would be the focus for physical training, which became transformed into an educational centre with schooling for paides (12–17) and ephebes: some space was devoted to schooling and lectures, with teachers of literature, philosophy, music (though the evidence suggests that this was not universal: the law from Beroea ( 1978, 274 = Austin no. 137) implies the activity was overwhelmingly athletic). Thus it was a centre for Greek culture in the widest sense. The gymnasiarch (kosmētēs in Athens), a state official, was elected for a year to run the gymnasium, and to supervise all aspects of the education (public or private) of the epheboi or neoi (ex-ephebes, i.e. in their twenties). He might be expected to contribute financially, buying oil or providing extra oil for athletic activity (very widely attested), and paying for one or more teachers' salaries. The increasing financial burdens of the office led to its decay in imperial times to a mere liturgy with wealth the only qualification. The paidonomos had similar duties for elementary education. Girls also sometimes had special officials (e.g. Smyrna, Pergamum). These officials organized numerous public competitions and awards, sometimes paid for by the gymnasiarch: preserved lists of prizewinners mention (among others) those successful in reading, writing, painting, recitation, verse and song-writing, running, boxing. Class loads tended to be high, as the recorded complaints of teachers indicate, and the social standing of teachers rather low.

Other innovations of this period were the concentration of all educational activity into a single building; examinations; and the formal division of pupils into educational age groups, though these seem to vary from place to place: paides (boys), aged 12–17, ephēboi, aged 18–20 in Athens (younger elsewhere), and neoi, ex-ephebes, in their twenties. The ephebate, which began as a predominantly military training organized for young men by the state, and in Athens was reinvigorated in the 330s as a two-year training, spread over the Greek world with enormous vitality, and became a kind of cultural-athletic institution for the leisured classes. This came (in Athens from the late 2nd cent. bce) to include intellectual studies in its make-up, though as sport took first place, it is questionable how intellectual any of this education really was.

Elementary and secondary education

Elementary education was dominated by learning to read and write, and learning by heart, by what seem from the papyri to be unnecessarily tedious methods (sport, of course, was also important). At secondary level, adolescents progressed to an overwhelmingly literary curriculum that still involved learning by rote and recitation, and was dominated by the reading and exposition of texts under the care of the grammaticus. The canonization of classical literature progressed rapidly, and anthologies used for teaching crystallized certain authors and passages in the educational curriculum. Physical education and music continued; the ancient idea of the enkyklios paideia, or general education, was evolved to include the four main sciences, following Hippias, and looking forward to the Seven Liberal Arts of the Middle Ages (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music; see martianus minnaeus felix capella). But it is unclear how keenly the scientific subjects were really pursued, and literary studies seem to oust the others. The Classics, particularly Homer, were studied in minute detail and according to rigidly formal rules. The study of grammar (in the modern sense) was added later (1st cent. bce), also composition, and preliminary rhetorical material.

Higher education

After secondary level there were several options of varying levels. The ephēbeia did include further cultural studies (literature, rhetoric, philosophy) accompanied by lectures and libraries; similarly with the older neoi. But for really serious ‘higher education’ in the recognizably modern sense, there were the great centres of learning—Athens, Pergamum, and Rhodes for philosophy and rhetoric; Cos, Pergamum, or Ephesus for medicine; Alexandria (1) for the whole range of higher studies (see museum).

The teachers

Teachers were elected by the cities for a year at a time and supervised by the gymnasiarch and paidonomos. There were three grades of literary teacher: the grammatistēs (elementary level), grammaticus (secondary), and rhetor or sophist (higher). The paidonomos and ephebes might engage skilled itinerant teachers for short periods. Ordinary teachers received little more pay than a skilled workman, private ones less than those provided with a salary by the city: music teachers received most, then the literary teacher, then the paidotribēs. A good teacher would receive gifts, prizes, and sometimes tax-exemption (teachers were exempt from the salt tax in Ptolemaic Egypt).

See also literacy; orality.


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