Children and Education

views updated

Children and Education



Male Heirs. Because the oikos (household) was transmitted from father to son, the birth of male children was critical to the survival of the family. Male children guaranteed that the family line would not die out and that the oikos would remain in the hands of blood relatives. The continued existence of the oikos was so important to men in Classical Athens that the worst curse an enemy could utter was a wish for its destruction. The death of an oikos, in terms of Athenian ideology and religious belief, was a disaster. The commonplace plea in the courts, “that an oikos should not be made empty,” indicates the emotional force such a loss evoked in the Athenian jurors. In fact, Athenian law required that children maintain their parents in old age, making offspring vital to the economic and social welfare of parents.

Ritual. The birth of children conferred respect and authority on Athenian women, both in the household and the polis. Women bore sons who would fight for the city, and after 451-450 b.c.e., they imparted citizen status to their offspring. Indeed, female characters in Greek comedy frequently use their standing as mothers to argue for the authority of their proposals. Husbands appeared to have changed their attitudes toward their wives once they had borne offspring, as a passage from a trial speech suggests:

Members of the jury, when I decided to marry and had brought a wife home, at first my attitude towards her was this: I did not wish to annoy her, but neither was she to have too much of her own way. I watched her as well as I could, and kept an eye on her as was proper. But later, after my child had been born, I came to trust her, and I handed all my possessions over to her, believing that this was the greatest possible proof of affection.

The birth of a child was an important event in the Greek household, marked by religious celebrations. On the fifth day after the birth, a ceremony called amphidro-mia heralded the child’s entry into the family. In this ritual the father held the baby while walking around his ancestral hearth, symbolically incorporating the baby into the family. When a male infant was born, he was shown to relatives at a big celebration held on the tenth day, when the father named him. Around this time the child

may have been introduced into his father’s hereditary political association, the phratry. This event involved a solemn oath by which the father swore that the child had been born to him from a citizen mother, his wife in marriage. If a child could not prove a legitimate lineage, he was considered a bastard. Such children could only inherit a minimal amount from their fathers’ estates; by 403 b.c.e., they were excluded from family religious observances and did not enjoy full citizen rights.

Growth. Babies spent their time in the women’s quarters until about age six. In upper-class homes, respected slaves supervised their upbringing; wet nurses breast-fed babies if the mothers were not able to. The nurse functioned as a sort of nanny, while the Paidagôgos (“Child Minder”) assisted in more formal instruction and later escorted male children to and from school. A child might retain a special affection for his nanny until late in life, as illustrated by Orestes’ relationship with his nurse Cilissa in the Libation Bearers of Aeschylus (458 b.c.e.). In

Sparta, however, boys left home around age six and entered the public educational system that prepared them for military service, while Athenian boys started elementary school at much the same age as they do today. Many kinds of toys were available to children: clappers and rattles for infants; dolls made of clay, wood, or bone, often with moveable limbs and their own miniature furniture and utensils; figurines of horses and chariots; and spinning tops. Greek vases show children rolling hoops or playing ball and even basic playground equipment, such as a swing and a seesaw. Bells served a double purpose of entertaining children and warding off the “evil eye.” Small children frequently wore charms or small figurines around their necks. These charms could serve as a form of identification in case they were kidnapped or abandoned. At puberty girls and boys dedicated these playthings to a deity as they prepared for their adult roles.

Elementary and Higher Education. Most ancient Greeks could not read or write until late in the Classical Period, although the extent of public literacy is not known for certain. For the Greeks, education encompassed not only formal schooling, but also upbringing and cultural training in the broadest sense. They regarded poets as their primary teachers, especially in the Archaic Period, but even as late as the end of the fifth century b.c.e., the comic poet Aristophanes repeatedly refers to the dramatist’s task as that of educating the citizens. He used the word didaskalos (teacher), a cognate of the English word didactic, interchangeably with the word poiêtês (poet). In the early period, education would have occurred at the male symposium where participants recited poetry and sang traditional songs. Religious festivals in which children recited poetry, like the Apatouria, a three-day event honoring new members of the phratry, would have also served an important educational function. In addition paiderastia (“love of boys”) may have involved an academic dimension, with the older man serving as a teacher and mentor of the boy. Civic festivals and rituals also inculcated values and beliefs in the young; the dramatic festival at Athens involved various patriotic displays intended to impart lessons of citizenship to spectators. In the Archaic Period, the aristocratic view of education prevailed—that excellence could not be learned, but could only be inherited. With rhetoric becoming increasingly important for advancing political careers in Classical Athens, the Athenians began to view knowledge and excellence as accessible to all through education.

Privileged Few. Little is known about Greek education prior to the fifth century b.c.e. Since the Greek alphabet was not invented until the middle of the eighth century, it is assumed that literacy was not widespread until late in the fourth century. Poets and scribes probably learned their crafts from other practitioners. Individual tutors may have instructed aristocratic children in gymnastics and in music as a broad concept that involved not only instrumentation but also the learning of poems, normally memorized and sung to musical accompaniment. Greek mythology represents the hero Achilles as learning these skills under the tutelage of an imaginary creature, the wise centaur Chiron, who specialized in instructing heroes. Jason, who captured the Golden Fleece, was another one of his pupils. The education of the hero Heracles involves separate instruction in chariot driving, wrestling, archery, and music. Clumsy at lyre playing, the frustrated hero killed his music teacher, Linus, by hitting him over the head with his instrument! In any case, education during the Archaic Period was probably rudimentary, did not involve reading or writing, and was available only to the aristocratic class.

The Basics. In Classical Athens, young boys received at least an elementary education. Pottery shards called ostraka, bearing the names of individuals to be exiled from the city, attest to basic literacy among Athenian citizens. Elementary education consisted of three main parts: gymnastics and physical fitness, taught mainly in the palaistra, or wrestling school; music, consisting of lyre playing and lyric poetry; and grammar, including reading, writing, arithmetic, and the memorization of important poems, especially the works of Homer. Music included both poetry and dance, with a strong emphasis on performance; indeed, many boys would serve as chorus members in a Greek tragedy before they reached adulthood. Physical education prepared boys for war. Memorization played a large role in ancient education; at a young age, Greek boys could recite from memory vast amounts of poetry, including all of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (both written circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.).

Sophists. By the late fifth century b.c.e., a new form of education became available to Athenian boys as they neared adulthood. After a boy finished elementary school, he could further his studies by attending public lectures given by Sophists, receive individual instruction from them, or join one of their schools. The name Sophist comes from the Greek adjective sophos, meaning “wise.” The Sophists were a group of traveling teachers who taught wealthy youths how to speak persuasively in the Assembly and the law courts. All Sophists taught rhetoric, and many believed that all laws, customs, and religious beliefs were the product of social convention and therefore relative. The important thing, in their view, was to make the most persuasive argument, regardless of the moral position. Sophists were normally foreigners, neither Athenian leaders nor citizens, from minor Greek cities. Their public performances often took place both in the private residences of wealthy citizens and at festivals like those of Olympia. With the statesman Pericles as their patron, the Sophists rapidly made inroads into Athenian social and political life.


After a boy had completed his elementary education, he enrolled in the army, normally between the ages of eighteen and twenty. In fact, a period of military service for men was compulsory’ in all of the ancient Greek city-states and all Greek males would have fought in a battle in their lifetimes. In the fourth century, the period of military training was referred to as ephebeia, meaning “at puberty,” after which point one joined either the hoplites (a phalanx formation) or became a sailor in the navy. Youths spent their first year living in barracks near the Athenian harbor, the Piraeus, where they underwent extensive physical conditioning. In the second year, they began active service stationed on the frontiers of Attica. Because military service bridged the critical period between boyhood and adulthood, it resembled a rite of passage, or initiation ritual. Greek myth depicts initiation ritual as involving a boy’s separation from and his eventual reintegrafion into society. Sent no a quest, the boy ventures into the wilderness, endures a contest or struggle, normally with a wild animal, and then returns to his community. Upon his return, he marries and receives political power. The mythic herotes Theseus and Heracles exemplify this process: both confront a series of dangerous creatures that they must kill before they can return home, marry, and become king. Initiation rituals are found in many other cultures, including African, Australian, and Native American stories. Even contemporary religious practices such as confirmation in Catholicism and the bar mitzvah in Judaism represent rites of passage through which the young person becomes an adult member of his or her religious community.

Source: Michael Grant, A Social History of Greece and Rome (New York: Scribners, 1992)

Subversive Element. The teachings of the Sophists concentrated on political advancement through persuasive speech. By making such skills accessible to the wealthy but nonaristocratic families for a fee, the Sophists aroused the resentment of the upper classes who in the first part of the century had monopolized public discourse simply by virtue of birth. In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates condemns the Sophists for accepting pay on the grounds that the practice compromised the objective pursuit of truth, while his use of trade metaphors in connection with them, most notably in the Sophist, identifies them with the merchant and manufacturing classes. Their claim, that aretê (aristocratic virtue) could be taught, meant that anyone could advance to a high position in the world of politics. Because the Sophists allowed for a new kind of social mobility, the conservative elite considered them a dangerous source of political subversion.

The Spartan Way. In Sparta education mainly fostered the values necessary for maintaining military prowess. From the age of six or seven, Spartan boys answered to the authority of the state, living in communal quarters separate from their parents. Although their education involved music, reading, and writing, the emphasis was on military training and physical education. In contrast to classical Athens, Spartans allowed their girls to be educated. In order to make them capable of producing strong warriors, the girls received instruction in athletics, as well as in music and dancing.


Mark Golden, Children and Childhood in Classical Athens (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

About this article

Children and Education

Updated About content Print Article