Did children go to school in ancient Greece?

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Ancient Greek School

A Greek school. The students stand before the teachers.

Most Greek children never went to school at all. Girls, to begin with, always stayed with their mothers until they were married, either at home or working in the fields. Slaves, whether boys or girls, also could not go to school, and many children in ancient Athens and Corinth and other Greek cities were slaves. Any boy who was poor, even if he was free, also could not go to school: his family could not afford to pay the teacher, and besides they needed the boy's work at home. There were no public schools.

Greek school
A Greek student writes an essay on
a wax tablet (not a laptop!)

Still, people who could spare the money did try to send their boys to school, because without learning to read and write and generally becoming educated, boys could not hope to participate in politics when they grew up.

woman reading a scroll sitting in a chair
Some women could read and write too
man holds cane while a boy exercises
An athletic coach holding a cane

Greek schools were small. They had only one teacher and about ten or twenty boys. They met in a small rented storefront, or sometimes just under a tree outside. There were wooden benches, and a chair for the teacher, but no desks. Boys began going to school when they were about 7 years old, and went until they were about 13. In school, boys learned to read and write, and also memorized large amounts of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. They learned to play the lyre (the kithara) and the pipes (the aulos), and to sing. They learned some astronomy, and some geometry, too. The teacher often hit the boys with sticks if they didn't learn fast enough.

Learn by doing: making a Greek lyre
More about ancient schools

Bibliography and further reading about Greek schools:

Eyewitness: Ancient Greece , by Anne Pearson. Easy reading.

Ancient Greek Children (People in the Past Series-Greece), by Richard Tames (2002). Easy reading.

Children and Childhood in Classical Athens, by Mark Golden (1993).

Ancient Literacy, by William V. Harris (1991). Groundbreaking. Argues that there was much less literacy in the ancient world than people have assumed.

A History of Education in Antiquity, by Henri Marrou (1948). Nothing better has come along yet, so this is the old stand-by.

The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta, by Nigel M. Kennell (1995).

More about Roman schools
Ancient Greece
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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