The Education System in Ancient Greece

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Greece has given us brilliant thinkers and philosophers like Pluto, Socrates, and Sophocles. But how did they study? Who taught them? Ordinary people could not rise to such brilliance with the system of education prevalent at that time.

This picture depicts Sparta in ancient Greece.
Sparta was one society in ancient Greece that believed in educating its girls.
(Image: John Steeple Davis/Public domain)

There is no clear evidence of any schools in the ancient Greek world before the fifth century B.C. It is believed that prior to this, education in Greece was provided mainly through private tutors. And only a handful of Greeks could afford to educate their sons even during the fifth century. The natives of Athens started their education around the age of seven. There is not much information about what type of people were teachers at that time. However, it looks like they didn’t enjoy much status and in all probability most of them were slaves.

The syllabus included learning to read and write, physical training, and learning some musical instruments. For learning to write, students used a pen called a stylus with which they wrote on a wax tablet. Learning to memorize was a very important part of education in Greece. The Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon’s work called Symposium, has a character who says that his father made him learn the complete the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. Both of them contained a total of 27,000 lines. 

A Greek man playing the musical instrument called kithara.
Learning how to play musical instruments was an important part of boys’ education in ancient Greece. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The lyre or kithara was one of the most liked musical instruments. It looked similar to a guitar. It is highly improbable that students were taught mathematics or drawing. Education in Greece was very limited. That is if we go by our standards. But still, they managed to learn enough to get by. In fact, the Athenian education system gave us such brilliant individuals as Pluto, Socrates, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles who were really exceptional considering all the circumstances. Although it may be contended that their success might have been more because of the city in which they lived and less with the then education system.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Education of Boys in Ancient Greece

This picture depicts Plato's symposium.
Boys of rich families in ancient Greece used to attend informal drinking parties.
It was an important part of growing up. (Image: Anselm Feuerbach / Public domain)

When boys of rich families attained the age of 16, they were sent for what can be called tertiary education. They were mainly taught rhetoric and philosophy. Whosoever wanted to make a name for himself in the society, learning these subjects was necessary for him. It was essential to learn the nuances of rhetoric if they wanted to speak in political assemblies or courts or if they wanted to be noticed at informal drinking parties which were called symposia

One distasteful thing about growing up in Greece was that some Greeks accepted pederasty. The elite societies accepted the friendship between an older man and a young boy as perfectly fine, and some even appreciated it and more so if there was some teaching involved in it. Zeus himself was a pederast and this might have given more legitimacy to it. In fact, Zeus had abducted a young man named Ganymede as he wanted him to be his cupbearer on Mount Olympus. However, with time, the hostile attitude towards pederasty kept increasing. For example, in Athens, during the fifth century, pederasty was an offense for which the punishment was death.

Learn more about the complexity of Roman women’s roles in society.

Education of Girls in Ancient Greece

Girls were given the bare minimum education in Greece. Most of the girls were usually trained by their mothers on running the house and nothing beyond that. The thinking about educating girls at that time is aptly reflected in a line of a play by Menander which says, “He who teaches his wife to read and write does not do any good. Rather he is supplying poison to a snake.” What it meant was that it was better not to educate girls. Without education, they would cause less trouble.

Even people of Athens, who were supposed to be more knowledgeable than other Greek communities had the same thought process. Although some elite girls of Athens were kept in isolation at the sanctuary of —Artemis at Brauron—on the coast of Attica, where they performed religious rites, it can’t be said that they received education in the real sense of the word. Not much information is available regarding the education of girls in Greece, but it seems that some of them learned reading by default.

Perhaps the poetess Sappho was the only proof of girls’ education in Greece. She lived from the seventh century B.C. to sixth century B.C. She is considered to be connected with a school for young women on the island of Lesbos. Sappho was said to be attracted to some of her students but it can’t be said that she ever expressed it to them.

Learn more about growing up in ancient Greece.

Education System in Ancient Sparta

Sparta was one society that educated its girls. Much of the information about Sparta has come mainly through Plutarch. A Spartan boy would leave his parents at the age of six and go under a state education system whose prime objective was to instill discipline and obedience. This system of education in Greece had all the bad qualities of a Victorian boarding school. So it resulted in turning the boys into bullies. Then at the age of 12, they were sent to barrack-like places where they were trained to steal without being caught.

When the boys were 16 years of age, they entered a military police kind of force which was called krupteia and were made to live in a jungle in Messenia. They were expected to fend for themselves and at the same time frighten what was called the helot population. Sparta is believed to have been a very conservative and rigid society.

So, we can see how heavily education in Greece was biased toward boys. While the elite class could afford higher and better education, others had to make do with basic knowledge only.

Common Questions about Education in Greece

Q: Did the children in ancient Greece go to school?

In ancient Greece, only boys were allowed to be educated in schools. Girls were trained in housekeeping skills by their mothers. Very few people could afford to send their boys to schools.

Q: Why was rhetoric an important subject to learn in ancient Greece?

Rhetoric was an important part of Greek education system because boys needed the training to speak in political assemblies, courts, or informal drinking parties.

Q: What were children taught in ancient Greek schools?

School education in Greece during ancient times consisted mainly of learning to read and write poetry, sports, and learning to play musical instruments.

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