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High School /College : Education : Overview, Questions, Bibliography

Topic: Education
Written by Amanda Herring, Dartmouth College, Class of 2002

According to both Plato and Aristotle, most Athenian boys were sent off to school at age seven. Before then, boys and girls were raised together within the home. At seven, the lives of the sexes separated, and boys began their formal education outside of the oikos. Plato tells us in Laws that at ten, boys should study literature for three years, then study music and the lyre for three more years (7.810A; Golden, 20). In Politics, Aristotle presents us with a slightly different account of a boy's schooling. He tells us that it should be divided into two halves: prior to hebe, or puberty, at age 14, and after (7.1336b36–1337a7; Golden, 21).

A boy from a wealthier family would be accompanied to school by a paidagogos, or family slave, who was in charge of overseeing his education and basic discipline (figure 1). The paidagogos also served as the boy's representative at school, making sure that he was treated well and that he received the education his father was paying for. Paidagogoi were highly trusted slaves who occupied a privileged place within the household. However, despite their positions as boys' representatives at school, paidagogoi did not necessarily have any special skills or education for their jobs. Sometimes they were slaves who were simply too old for more strenuous work (Golden, 148).

There was no public education system in Athens. Schools were run by private individuals, frequently out of their homes. While education was not compulsory, almost all Athenian citizen boys went to school. Only the poorest boys were unable to attend. Among the boys that did go to school, however, there were variations in their education that reflected economic status. Wealthier boys were able to attend better school for longer periods of time. Since schools were not public, their qualities and prices varied greatly, and so did the knowledge that boys took away with them.

The ability to read and write enabled Athenian citizens, who were all male, to participate in certain civic duties and events. It is therefore probable that all of these citizens, despite variations in the educations they received, were literate enough to write their own names and read inscriptions. Notable aspects of democracy that required basic literacy on the part of male citizens included ostracism and the notices posted on the Eponymous Heroes monument. Ostracism was a practice through which an individual could be banished from Athens for ten years. It was intended to preserve democracy and stop any one individual from gaining control of the city-state and turning it into a tyranny. Every year, the assembly held a vote on whether they wanted to hold an ostracism. If it was deemed necessary, a vote was held to decide which man to ostracize. Citizens were asked to write the name of the man whom they wished to see banished on a pottery sherd called an ostracon (figure 2). If at least 6,000 votes were cast, then the man with the majority of the votes was exiled. Since all citizens were eligible to vote in an ostracism, it follows that most at least knew their alphabet and were able to write a name.

The notices posted on the Eponymous Heroes monument also required literacy on the part of the citizen body. The citizens of Athens were divided into ten tribes and one's tribe dictated much of his civic identity. A citizen voted in his tribe, sat with his tribe in the legislative body, and fought with his tribe in times of war. Ten Athenian heroes, known as the Eponymous Heroes, were chosen, each representing a tribe. Statues of the Eponymous Heroes were set up on a base in the Agora. Underneath each statue notices were posted that imparted important information relevant to each tribe. These demanded at least basic literacy on the part of the Athenian citizens.

Despite the variations among schools, the curriculum of most was divided into the same three areas: reading and writing (grammata; figures 3 and 4), physical education (gymnastike; figure 5), and music and poetry that was sung to music (mousike; figures 6 and 7). Sometimes painting and drawing were taught as well. These lessons usually began half an hour after daybreak and ended half an hour before dusk.

During the grammata section of a boy's education, he learned to read and write through the study of literature. The students would write on wax-covered wood tablets with a stylus, a long, thin tool made of a hard material such as metal or ivory that they used to carve letters into the wax. Students also wrote on whitened wood tablets with ink. No desks were necessary, since the wood tablets were stiff enough that they could be held on students' laps (figure 3). Sometimes pieces of old pottery were used as well, such as a stamnos, a storage jug inscribed with a diction exercise (figure 4). Students also studied poetry, especially Homer. It was not unusual for boys to memorize the entire Iliad or Odyssey.

The physical education segment of a boy's education took place in a palaestra, an outdoor training area. Here, students exercised their bodies and were taught sports such as running, wrestling, boxing, jumping, and throwing the discus by an instructor known as the paidotribes (figure 5).

The third part of a student's education was musical. Boys were taught to play instruments, most commonly the lyre (figure 8), flute (figure 9), and kithara (figure 10). They were also taught to sing (figures 6 and 7).

It is probable that girls, in contrast to boys, did not attend school outside of the home. Many upperclass women were probably literate to some extent, but what education they did receive was probably obtained within their own homes.


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Questions for Further Study:

  • The educational systems of Athens and Sparta were very different. Sparta's education was state run and focused on physical fitness and military prowess. An Athenian's education did not have the same narrow focus and was not state-sponsored. How do these differences in education reflect the different ways in which Spartans and Athenians viewed childhood, and the larger differences in social structure between the cities?

  • Athenian boys were taught to read and write, play a musical instrument, and participate in athletic contests. They were not taught practical skills, such as shoemaking or accounting. What does this say about the goals of an Athenian education?

  • Athenian girls did not attend school like Athenian boys did. Although many of them did learn music, and how to read and write, this education took place in their homes. How then do we account for images of girls in educational settings, such as figure 11, a girl being led to school, and figure 12, girls being taught to dance? Do these images show that citizen girls, despite current theories, did, in fact, go to school? Or are they images of girls being taught at home? Or are these hetaerae, high-priced courtesans?

  • While we know that most Athenian citizen boys had at least some schooling, it is not as clear if non-citizens attended school. H. I. Marrou states that Athenian education was intended for all free men (39). Who does the term "free men" include? Does it include metics, who were foreigners living in Athens, and/or freed slaves? And what about slaves? Did they receive any schooling? How much education, if any, did these non-citizens receive?



Figure 1
Boy with Seated paidagogos

ca. 375–350 B.C.E.
Tanagra figurine, H. 12.4 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Richard A. van Avery Gift Fund, 1923, 23.259
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 47

This figurine shows a paidagogos, a trusted family slave who oversaw a boy's education, practicing reading with his charge. As many other sculptures and most literary sources generally describe paidagogoi as responsible merely for accompanying boys to school, this image is especially interesting because it shows a paidagogos filling a more academic role. This sculpture also resembles known portraits of Socrates, suggesting the depth of this paidagogos's wisdom. The physical closeness of the figures also underlines how emotionally close paidagogoi and students often were.


Figure 2
5th century B.C.E.
Athenian Agora Museum, Athens
(Not in exhibition)

Ostraka were pieces of broken pottery used in ostracism votes in Athens. Each citizen would write the name of the man he wished to see exiled on an ostracon. These ostraka were found in the Athenian Agora and carry the names of a number of prominent fifth-century politicians, including Themistokles and Kimon.


(Sides A and B)

Figure 3
Kylix with School Scenes
Attic red-figure, signed by Douris
ca. 490–480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 11.5 cm, W. 36.2 cm
Staatliche Museen, Antikensammlung, Berlin F2285
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 44

This kylix represents scenes of boys at school, engaged in both literary and musical activities. The location of the scenes is indicated by the musical instruments, lyres and a flute case, and book rolls, which are hung on the wall above the figures' heads. Also hung on the wall are a basket, kylikes, a sack, and a writing tablet.
On side A, we see three groups of figures. The group on the left shows a boy receiving a lyre lesson. Both the student, who is identifiable by his smaller size and beardless face, and the teacher are seated on stools and hold lyres on their laps. The next group shows a boy receiving a literary lesson. He stands in front of his seated teacher who holds up a book roll. The fifth figure on side A sits off to the right by himself. He is bearded, holds a staff, and is uninvolved in the action. This is the paidagogos. He watches the activity, yet does not participate. Such depictions of paidagogoi are common in school scenes. Side B also shows both musical and literary lessons. The group on the left shows one youth, or perhaps a teacher, playing the pipes while a smaller student stands in front of him and watches. The next group shows a young man writing on a tablet while a smaller boy stands in front of him.


Figure 4
Kylix with Boy Writing
Attic red-figure, attributed to Eucharides Painter
ca. 480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 7.4 cm, D. 21.2 cm, W. 27.5 cm
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, MS 4842
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 48

This image shows a boy holding a wax-covered tablet on his lap while he writes on it with a stylus, a long, thin instrument made of a hard material, that he uses to carve letters into the wax. Most boys learned to write using these wax-covered tablets or sometimes pieces of old pottery. Papyrus, a plant used to make paper and book rolls, was expensive and rarely used for learning purposes.


Figure 5
Dictation Exercise
Campanian stamnos
Late 4th century B.C.E.
British Museum, London F 507
(Not in exhibition)

Dictation played a large role in a boy's literary education. On this stamnos, we see the remains of one exercise in which a student wrote down words as his teacher said them.

(Side A)

(Side B)

Figure 6
Palaestra Scenes
Attic red-figure calyx-krater
ca. 510 B.C.E.
Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 2180
(Not in exhibition)

This vase shows scenes of youths exercising and preparing to exercise in the palaestra, an open-air exercise area. Physical education was considered to be an important part of a boy's schooling. Strong, fit citizens made good soldiers who would be able to successfully defend the state.
The three larger figures in the scene on Side A are probably citizen youths. Their lack of beards shows that they are not yet full-grown. The two smaller figures are slaves. Slaves were depicted as smaller than their masters, without regard to their actual size, to represent their inferiority. Each of the youths is preparing to exercise. The young men on the left and right are assisted by slaves who are helping them to dress, while the youth in the middle is oiling himself.
On Side B, we again see two youths on each side who are getting dressed, helped by slaves. The nude youth in the center is receiving a discus lesson. He is getting ready to throw the discus while his teacher stands to the side, holding a stick and giving him instructions.

Figure 7
Kylix with Music Scenes, interior
Attic red-figure, signed by Douris
ca. 480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 11.9 cm, D. 31.2 cm, W. with handles 38.8 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 86.AE.290
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 45

This scene depicts a music lesson. A boy, holding a lyre, stands on the right side in front of an older man, who is probably his music teacher. The older age of this figure is established by his beard, which indicates maturity.


[cat. 45, side A]
Side A
[cat. 45, side B]
Side B

Figure 8
Kylix with Music Scenes, exterior
Attic red-figure, signed by Douris
ca. 480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 11.9 cm, D. 31.2 cm, W. with handles 38.8 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 86.AE.290
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 45

This kylix represents boys taking music lessons. The location of the scene is indicated by the lyres hung on the walls behind the figures. Also hung on the wall are string bags for knucklebones, arybolloi, and sponges used by athletes. None of the figures, however, is playing or even holding a musical instrument. Both sides are similar in composition. We see two students sitting on stools, while three bearded men stand around them, and a bearded man holding a staff stands to the right of the scene, detached from the action. He is a paidagogos watching out for his charge yet not taking part in the actual lesson. The two other bearded men on each side are interacting with one of the seated students. A man on each side gives a hare to a youth. A hare was a typical love gift from an older male to a younger male. Relationships between an older man and a youth were not considered unusual in Athenian society.


Figure 9
Detail of figure 3
Attic red-figure, signed by Douris
ca. 480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 11.5 cm, D. 28.4 cm, W. 36.2 cm
Staatliche Museen, Antikensammlung, Berlin, F2285
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece exhibition, cat. 44

The lyre is a stringed instrument with a hollow drum on the bottom. Most boys were taught to play the lyre and sing poetry along with the music. Depictions of boys being instructed in playing the lyre are common. Lyres are also frequently shown hanging on the wall in school scenes to indicate the location of the action.


Figure 10
Boy Playing the Pipes
Detail of figure 3
Attic red-figure, signed by Douris
ca. 480 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 11.5 cm, D. 28.4 cm, W. 36.2 cm
Staatliche Museen, Antikensammlung, Berlin, F2285
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece exhibition, cat. 44

In this image, we see a boy playing the aulos, or double pipes. Images of boys playing the pipes are common in school scenes, or one of the three main instruments that a boy learned to play in school.


Figure 11
Boy with Kithara
Attic red-figure amphora, attributed to the Berlin Painter
ca. 490 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 41.50 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 56.171.38
(Not in exhibition)

The kithara was an elaborate form of lyre. Kitharas can be distinguished from lyres in vase paintings by their larger, more rectangular bottom sections, and their thicker sidepieces. Boys frequently learned how to play the kithara in school. Since it was more difficult to learn to play than the lyre, the kithara was usually taught later in a boy's education, after the other instruments had been mastered.
In this image, we see a boy holding a kithara and singing. He is taking part in a musical competition. The judge of the musical contest is depicted on the other side of the amphora.


Figure 12
Kylix with School Scene of Girls
Attic red-figure, attributed to the Painter of Bologna 417
ca. 460 B.C.E.
Earthenware, H. 15.1 cm, D. 36.5 cm, W. at handles 45.7
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1906, 06.1021.167
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 46

This kylix shows a girl being led to school by another girl, who takes her hand and pulls her to the right. There are similar images of boys being led to school by their paidagogi in such a way, but this image is the only one that depicts girls. Scholars have interpreted the image in a number of different ways. Some say that this is evidence that women did actually attend school outside of the home. Others believe that this may be an image of hetaerae. Still other scholars believe that this image was meant as a joke. This interpretation is based partly on the shape of the vase. The kylix was a drinking cup that was used in the symposia, parties for citizen males at which the only women present were hetaerae.


Figure 13
Young Girls Learning to Dance
Attic red-figure hydria, attributed to the Phiale Painter
ca. 450–420 B.C.E.
The British Museum, London, E 185
(Not in exhibition)

This hydria shows two young girls being taught to dance. The two girls are located in the center of the scene, with two older figures standing on either side of them. The relative youth of the girls is established by their smaller size. The two girls are mirror images of each other. They each point one foot toward the center, turn their head to the side, and place hands on hips, as if they were taking part in a carefully choreographed dance.
The two older figures are presumably dance teachers. The man on the left holds a stick to beat out the time, while the woman on the right gestures with her arm and gives direction to the girls.
A kithara hung on the wall above the heads of the two girls helps to establish the musical nature of the lesson.
One of the main questions raised by this vase, like the kylix showing a girl being led to school, is the identity of the girls. Are these citizen women or hetaerae? The girls are clothed, unlike other images of girls learning to dance that depict the girls naked. Could these be citizen girls who are learning the dance for a religious festival?


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Education Bibliography

Books and Articles

Beck, Frederick A. G. Album of Greek Education. Sydney: Cheiron Press, 1975.

Beck, Frederick A. G. Greek Education, 450–350 B.C. London: Methuen, 1964.

Clark, Gillian. Women in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, M. L. Higher Education in the Ancient World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

Connolly, Peter, and Hazel Dodge. The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 33–35.

Freeman, Kenneth J. Schools of Hellas: An Essay on the Practice and Theory of Ancient Greek Education from 600 to 300 B.C. Ed. M. J. Rendall. London: Macmillan., 1907.

Golden, Mark. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 18–21, 62–65, 72–74.

Immerwahr, H. R. "Book Rolls on Attic Vases." In Classical, Mediaeval, and Renaissance Studies in Honor of Berthold Louis Ullman. Vol. 1. Ed. Charles Henderson Jr.. Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1964, 17–48.

Marrou, H. I. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956.

Morgan, Teresa. Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.



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