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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Education in Ancient Greece

by Victor H. Allemandy
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 794-796


Education in recent years has occupied such a large amount of our attention and has made such rapid strides that it will probably prove interesting, and at the same time instructive, to ascertain what instruction a Greek boy received in ancient times.

The pioneers of education, long before the Christian era, were undoubtedly the Greeks. From the earliest times to the reign of Alexander, Greek education was divided into three groups: --

1. Grammar (including reading and writing).
2. Music
3. Gymnastics

Later on, additional subjects were added, bringing the total up to seven, excluding gymnastics. They consisted of grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. The first three were known as the Trivium, whilst the remainder were called the Quadrivium. These names were also used by the Romans for a long period. In Athens and in Greece generally, a Greek boy did not go to school until he was seven years of age, being under maternal care until he reached that age. Thus it will be seen that in those days a child received a certain amount of home education to prepare him for his studies at school, which idea seems in direct opposition to the educational ideas of the present time. Nowadays, mothers send their children to school as soon as they are three years old, not for the purpose of education, but in order to get rid of them for a few hours per diem. Of course there are exceptions; I am referring to the majority.

School began early in the morning, for the Greeks were early risers. Lessons ended, the boys came home to breakfast, returning again to school when breakfast was over. The afternoons and evenings were occupied either in play or in the gymnasium. The boys were escorted to and from schools by trusty slaves known as pedagogoi, i.e., "boy-leaders." These pedagogoi were generally educated slaves, to whom was entrusted the moral supervision of the boys when out of school. Both the Greeks and Romans considered six hours' study a day sufficient. A Greek schoolboy had many holidays, and during the hot season of the year, the time was wholly given to recreation. In Switzerland the same plan is adopted during hot weather, these holidays being know as "heat-holidays." The first thing taught was, naturally, the alphabet, and following this, reading and repetition. Greek boys learnt by heart whole poems such as the Iliad and Odyssey; even nowadays whole pages of Homer are committed to memory every week. Writing, composition and arithmetic followed. The science of calculation was carried to a very high pitch, for we gather from the writings of Plato how the minds of young Athenians were constantly employed in arithmetical computations. They were allowed to use their fingers, a system rightly discouraged in modern times. This system of employing the digits was carried to such an extent that numbers up to 10,000 could be calculated very rapidly, the joints and bends of each finger indicating certain values. To the ancient Greeks we owe the abacus, but instead of a ball frame, parallel grooves were made in sand placed on a flat surface, pebbles being put into those grooves. The mother tongue alone was taught so far as foreign languages were concerned.

No education was considered complete in Ancient Greek unless music formed a portion of the curriculum. Both the theory and practice of music were thoroughly taught. As only one voice or one instrument was heard at a time, the Greeks were unfamiliar with harmony and with instruments emitting more than one sound. Music, however, was not so restricted as it is at the present day. It was made to include any subject which tended to refine the moral and intellectual nature of man; and was thus regarded as having a great importance in inculcating morality. We find this view maintained in Aristotle and Plato. So highly was the musical taste cultivated that the difference between quarter-tones could be recognized.

The subjects above alluded to were taught until the fourteenth year was attained, at which age a specified course of athletics would be gone through. The Greeks of old have always been admired for their athletics, which was naturally regarded as a necessary branch of education. Mens sana in corpore sano [sound mind, sound body]. As well as the Greeks, the Romans regarded athletics as a finish to the mental training which had been acquired. At one period in Greek history, the training in athletics was carried to an extreme to the detriment of mental training, for Euripedes wrote very strongly against the training in gymnastics given in his time. Unfortunately, even at the present time, many men when at Oxford or Cambridge or at one of our Public Schools consider it a greater honour to win a cricket match or any other game than to pass an examination.

If the town possessed a school, the children were taught in it; if the town were too poor to maintain a school, teaching was given in the open air. I believe the method is in vogue even in the poorer districts of Greece to-day. The master always sat on a high seat. Busts of heroes, poets and writers, were placed around the room, and hanging from the walls were geometrical figures, writing boards, etc. As slates and writing books were unknown, tablets covered with wax were used. Lines were drawn upon them by means of a sharply-pointed instrument called a stylus. These lines could be smoothed out when not required by using the reverse end.

We have here given a brief summary of education in Ancient Greece. To those who wish to pursue the subject further, Davidson's Aristotle and the Ancient Education Ideals, in the Great Educators series, can be thoroughly recommended.


Proofread July 2011, LNL