Discipline in Ancient Greece


Then—to state the conviction which I share—while spoiling of children makes their tempers fretful, peevish and easily upset by mere trifles, the contrary treatment, the severe and unqualified tyranny which makes its victims spiritless, servile and sullen, renders them unfit for the intercourse of domestic and civic life.
— Plato, Laws, Bk. 7, 791d

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For the children start with natural affections and disposition to obey.
— Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 10, 1180b

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Then until the age of three has been reached by boy or girl, scrupulous and unperfunctory obedience to the instructions just given will be of the first advantage to our infantile charges. At the stage reached by the age of three, and after the ages of four, five, and six, play will be necessary, and we must relax our coddling and inflict punishments—though not such as are degrading—as we were saying in the case of slaves that we should neither inflame the culprit by brutal punishments nor spoil a servant by leaving him uncorrected, so we must adopt the same course with the freeborn. And for their play, there are games which nature herself suggests at that age; children readily invent these for themselves when left in one another's company. All children of that specified age, that of three to six, should first be collected at the local sanctuary—all the children of each village thus assembled at the same place. Further, the nurses are to have an eye to the decorum or indecorum of their behavior; as for that of the nurses themselves and the whole group, it must be subjected, in each case, for the year to the control of one of the already-mentioned matrons to be assigned by the curators of the laws. These matrons are to be elected, one for each tribe, by the ladies charged with the supervision of marriages, and must be of the same age with them. It will be the official duty of the person so appointed to pay a daily visit to the sanctuary, and to chastise any offender— if a slave or alien of either sex, by the hand of some public menial, if a citizen who disputes the justice of correction, she shall bring him before the court of the urban commissioners, but where there is no dispute, she shall punish even a citizen on her own authority. When the age of six has been passed by either sex, there shall henceforth be a separation of the sexes—boys now being made to associate with boys, and girls with girls—and it shall be time for both to turn to their lessons, the boys being sent to instructors in riding, archery, the managements of the dart and sling—the girls may share in the instruction if they please—but, above, all, in the use of the spear and shield. To be sure, the prevalent notion about these matters rests on an all but universal misunderstanding.
— Plato, Laws, Bk. 7, 793d–794d

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For example, in children it is generally considered that orderliness and self control are due not to themselves but to those who have charge of them, and so they must be dealt with briefly.
— Aristotle, Rhetoric to Alexander, 1441a


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Now that we have our boys and girls born, the proper course will naturally be to deal with their nurture and education; this subject cannot possibly be passed over in silence, but our treatment will wear the guise rather of instruction and admonition than of legal enactment. The privacy of home life screens from the general observation many little incidents, too readily occasioned by a child's pains, pleasures and passions, which are not in keeping with a legislator's recommendations, and tend to bring a medley of incongruities into the characters of our citizens. Now this is an evil for the public as a whole, for while the frequency and triviality of such faults make it both improper and undignified to penalize them by law, they are a real danger to such law as we do impose, since the habit of transgressions is learned from repetition of these petty misdeeds. Hence, though we are at a loss to legislate on such points, silence about them is also impossible. But I must try to illuminate my meaning by the production of what I may call samples; at present my remarks must seem something of a riddle.
— Plato, Laws, Bk. 7, 788a–788c

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Boy: We've no more oil in the lamp.
Strepsiades: Why did you light such a sot of a lamp?
Come and be beaten.
Boy: Why should I be beaten?
Strepsiades: For cramming such a fat wick.
Then when this son of ours was born, my good wife and I
Wrangled over the name we'd call him. She wanted
Some knightly thing—Xanthippus, Charippus, Callipides.
I wanted a frugal name—Pheidonides, for his grandpa.
After long bickering we compromised on Pheidippides.
She took the boy and spoiled him: When you are big
You'll wear a cape like a Megacles and drive to town.
I'd say: You'll wear a poncho like your dad's,
And drive the goats from pasture. But to what I said
He paid no mind, and infected my fortune with horse fever.
Now after cogitating all night I have found one way,
A superb and stunning way, and if I persuade him to it
I shall be saved. But first I must wake him.
How can I wake him most soothingly? Pheidippides,
Pheidippides darling!
— Aristophanes, Clouds, p. 104

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Creon: Yes, my son, that is how your mind should be, thinking that all things rank second to your father's judgement. This is why men pray that they may beget and keep in their houses obedient offspring, so that they may requite the enemy with evil and honour the friend as they honour the father. But as for the man who fathers children who give him no help, what can you say that he begets but trouble for himself, and much delight for his enemies?
— Sophocles, Antigone, 639–650


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Heracles: Then hear your task. You have come to that point
where you must show the sort of man you are that you
are called my son. Long ago my father revealed
to me that I should die by nothing that draws breath
but by someone dead, an inhabitant of Hell.
This was that beast, the centaur, who has in death killed me
alive, even as it had been divinely revealed.
Now I shall show you how more recent prophecies
agree with this exactly and give support to the old.
I went to the grove of the mountain-dwelling Selli who sleep
upon the ground and I copied down the words
from my father's oak that speaks with many tongues,
which told me that, at this present, living time,
release from all the toils imposed on me would be
complete. And I thought that then I would be happy.
But it only meant that I would die then.
For the dead there are no more toils. My son,
since all this is coming true so clearly, you must
be ready to stand by my side in the fight, and you must not
hesitate till I am forced to use sharp words.
On your own, agree to act with me; discover
yourself the finest rule—obedience to your father.
Hyllus: Father, I am alarmed to see where your words lead,
but I shall obey you in whatever you decide.
— Sophocles, Women of Trachis, 1157–1190


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Deianira: O my child, my son, even the low-born throw
lucky cast when they speak well. This woman is
slave, but what she says is worthy of the free.
Hyllus: What is it she said? Tell me, Mother, if you may.
Deianira: With your father abroad so long, it does not
look well that you have made no inquiry for him.
— Sophocles, Women of Trachis, 61–66


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Nurse: Then the miserable boy abandoned himself utterly
to sobs and mourning for his mother; he threw himself
upon her lips and there, pressing his side to hers,
he lay and groaned over and over that he
had struck her thoughtlessly with a cruel accusation,
weeping because at one moment he was doubly
orphaned for all his life, losing his father and her.
— Sophocles, Women of Trachis, 936–42


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Haemon: For me, father, nothing is more precious than your good fortune; for what distinction can be greater for children than a father who flourishes in high repute, or greater for a father than sons who do so?
— Sophocles, Antigone, 700-704


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Similarly a child begins by calling all men father, and all women mother, but later on distinguishes each of them.
— Aristotle, Physics, Bk. 1, 184b


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All inhabitants above the age of ten, I said, they will send out into the fields, and they will take over the children, remove them from the manners and habits of their parents, and bring them up in their own customs and laws which will be such as we have described. This is the speediest and easiest way in which such a city and constitution as we have portrayed could be established and prosper and bring most benefit to the people among whom it arises.
— Plato, Republic, Bk.7, 541a


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Antigone: I beseech you by whatever you hold dear, be it a child or a wife or a possession or a god!
— Sophocles, Antigone, 250–55

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Oedipus: Come near to your father, daughter, and allow me to hold the body that I never dared to hope would return!
Antigone: You ask for a thing that will be granted you; the favour that you ask is what we long for!
Oedipus: Where, where are you?
Antigone: We are coming near to you together!
Oedipus: My dearest offspring!
Antigone: To a parent every child is dear!
— Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1104–1108

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Tecmessa: And last, dear lord, show pity to your child.
Robbed of his infant nurture, reft of you,
To live his life out under the rule of guardians
Not kind nor kindred—what a wretchedness
You by your death will deal to him and me!
— Sophocles, Ajax, 510–514

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