Schools in ancient Greece – Greek education

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A Greek school. The students in Greek schools stood before the teachers.

Greek schools: The students stand before the teachers.

Did ancient Greek kids go to school?

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.

(More about women in ancient Greece)

Slaves, whether boys or girls, also could not go to school, and many children in ancient Athens and Corinth and other Greek cities were enslaved. But some enslaved boys did learn to read and write at home, because their owners wanted them to grow up to help run the business, or write letters for them, or keep their family accounts.

(More about slavery in ancient Greece)

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 the family needed the boy’s work at home. Poor boys worked in the fields, planting and weeding, or they worked as apprentices in shops, learning how to cut hair or make shoes. Some boys herded sheep or cattle. There were no public schools.

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

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

A woman reads a scroll: red figure vase from Athens in the 400s BC

A woman reads a scroll

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

(More about Athenian democracy)

What were schools like in ancient Greece?

Boys started school when they were about 7 years old. Before that, people didn’t want to waste school on kids who were so likely to die of dysentery or malaria. Boys usually went to school until they were about 13.

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. In those days people thought only dignified grown-ups should have backs to their chairs. Kids and poor people sat on stools.

painting of a room with columns. A group of boys stand and watch. One boy is stripped naked and piggybacked on another boy's back, while a larger man raises a stick.

A South Italian teacher beating a boy at school. From the Villa of Julia Felix, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum

Boys learned to read from papyrus scrolls, or from cheaper texts written on pieces of wood or on broken pieces of pottery. They practiced writing the Greek alphabet, and then sentences, on pieces of pottery, or on wood, or by scratching their letters into a thin wax coating on a piece of wood.

(How to make your own wax tablet)

At school,  teacher often hit the boys with sticks if they didn’t learn fast enough. Many boys were terrified of going to school, because the teachers hit them so hard and so often.

In those days, teachers thought hitting kids made them work harder and learn faster. But really it just made the kids angry and frightened. (Today it’s against the law in most places for teachers or principals to  hit kids.)

Many boys had an enslaved man – their paidogogus, or boy-leader – who walked with them to school, waited while they were at school, and walked home with them after school. That was to make sure the boys were safe from assaults and harassment, and that they behaved themselves at school and on the way there and back.

An athletic coach holding a cane

An athletic coach holding a cane to hit the boys if they don’t throw the discus far enough.

Was there a summer vacation?

There was no long summer vacation in those days, and there were no weekends.

But there was no school on religious festival days, and probably that added up to about as many days as you have off. Their days off probably came three or four at a time, more often than your long holidays, but less often than weekends.

What did boys learn in Greek schools?

In school, boys learned to read and write. When you were learning to write, you didn’t use papyrus and ink – they were much too expensive for kids. The teacher wrote out the alphabet, or some sentences, on a piece of wood or a broken piece of pottery, or on a wax tablet, and you copied them over and over underneath his writing until you could do it well.

What is an abecedarium?

 A wax tablet with the alphabet carved into one side

A Greek abecedarium on a wax tablet from Marseilles, in southern France. The Greek alphabet is written backwards, from right to left.

They called the scrap that had the alphabet written out for you an abecedarium, which is one of my favorite words!

(Read more about the Greek alphabet)

Schoolboys had to memorize large amounts of Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey.

(Read more about Homer)

Probably they memorized these verses from slabs of wood that had just a few lines written on them, so they could learn those lines and then pass their tablet to another boy when they were done with it.

What were tests like in Greek schools?

When you had finished learning your lines for the day, you went up to where the teacher was sitting and recited them to him. If you got them right, he would praise you and give you another tablet with more lines to learn. If you got them wrong, he would beat you with his stick. Most boys were very nervous about reciting!

Boys also learned to play the lyre (the kithara) and the pipes (the aulos), and to sing. Often their fathers called them in to their dinner parties to play and sing for the guests.

(Read more about Greek music)

They learned some astronomy, and some geometry, too. Maybe they learned to use an abacus. And from a different teacher, after school, they had athletic coaching. Their coach carried a stick to beat them with, too!

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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By |2018-05-11T13:59:12+00:00July 11th, 2017|Greeks, People|19 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Schools in ancient Greece – Greek education. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 11, 2017. Web. October 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

19 Comments

  1. owen May 3, 2018 at 6:57 am - Reply

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    • Karen Carr May 1, 2018 at 1:36 pm

      You’re welcome, Corey! Thanks for stopping by.

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    • Karen Carr May 1, 2018 at 8:48 am

      Hi Alex! What exactly are you disagreeing with here? We’d be happy to fix any errors.

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  8. Lisette Rosas February 27, 2018 at 2:10 am - Reply

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    • Karen Carr February 27, 2018 at 8:22 am

      Very happy to hear it!

  9. asleigh February 26, 2018 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    is this true another site says boys start at the age of 6 not 7

    • Karen Carr February 26, 2018 at 11:21 pm

      There’s probably some variation in different places and times – ancient Greece was a lot of different city-states over hundreds of years, so I’m sure there were some changes in when boys started school.

  10. NUN YA February 21, 2018 at 6:45 am - Reply

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    • Karen Carr February 21, 2018 at 9:38 am

      Sorry to hear it! What were you trying to find out?

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