Athenian Daily Life Athenian Education: Boys

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Athenian Daily Life

Athenian Education: Boys

In ancient Athens, the purpose of education was to produce citizens trained in the arts, to prepare citizens for both peace and war.

Other than requiring two years of military training that began at age 18, the state left parents to educate their sons as they saw fit. The schools were private, but the tuition was low enough so that even the poorest citizens could afford to send their children for at least a few years. Until age 6 or 7, boys were taught at home by their mother or by a male slave. Boys attended elementary school from the time they were about age 6 or 7 until they were 13 or 14. Part of their training was gymnastics. The younger boys learned to move gracefully, do calisthenics, and play ball and other games. The older boys learned running, jumping, boxing, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. A speaker in Plato's Laches points out that gymnastics (athletic exercises, not the modern sport) represent that part of the Greek curriculum most proper for a free man, no doubt because of the perceived usefulness in warfare. The boys also learned to play the lyre and sing, to count, and to read and write. But it was literature that was at the heart of their schooling.

The national epic poems of the Greeks - Homer's Odyssey and Iliad - were a vital part of the life of the Athenian people. As soon as their pupils could write, the teachers dictated passages from Homer for them to take down, memorize, and later act out. Teachers and pupils also discussed the feats of the Greek heroes described by Homer.

The education of mind, body, and aesthetic sense was, according to Plato, so that the boys "may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm."

From age 6 to 14, they went to a neighborhood primary school or to a private school. Books were very expensive and rare, so subjects were read out-loud, and the boys had to memorize everything. To help them learn, they used writing tablets and rulers.

At 13 or 14, the formal education of the poorer boys probably ended and was followed by apprenticeship at a trade. The wealthier boys continued their education under the tutelage of philosopher-teachers.

Until about 390 BC there were no permanent schools and no formal courses for such higher education. Socrates, for example, wandered around Athens, stopping here or there to hold discussions with the people about all sorts of things pertaining to the conduct of man's life. But gradually, as groups of students attached themselves to one teacher or another, permanent schools were established. It was in such schools that Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle taught. The boys who attended these schools fell into more or less two groups. Those who wanted learning for its own sake studied with philosophers like Plato who taught such subjects as geometry, astronomy, harmonics (the mathematical theory of music), and arithmetic. Those who wanted training for public life studied with philosophers like Isocrates who taught primarily oratory and rhetoric. In democratic Athens such training was appropriate and necessary because power rested with the men who had the ability to persuade their fellow senators to act.

Domestic Life

As a rule women were kept secluded and out of way of male visitors whom the husband might be entertaining in the home. The Greeks believed that there were two different spheres of activity for men and women.  A speaker in Xenophon's The Duties of Domestic Life makes this clear:

It is more honorable for a woman to remain indoors rather than to be outside, but for the man it is more shameful to remain indoors than to take care of affairs outside the house.”
The household was under the management of the wife. The inner space of the house was her domain, while the husband lived his life, for the most part, out of doors in the Agora, the Assembly, the gymnasium, on the farm, and in time of war, at sea on warships or on the battlefield.  Because she was viewed as incapable of a rationally informed moral decision, a woman was not trusted to go outside of the house unaccompanied; the husband or a slave did the shopping. She spent most of her time inside the house performing or supervising such domestic chores as spinning and weaving. The only times that a woman could go outside the house without damaging her reputation would be at weddings, funerals, and certain religious festivals that were limited to females. A woman was always under the control of a man and could not live independently. As a child she was under the control of her father, who in her early teenage years made a marriage contract and agreed on a dowry with a young man, probably in his middle to late twenties. Depending on the inclination of the father, the girl would have little or no input on the choice of a husband. There was no dating, so the bride and groom would not know each other very well because unmarried girls were also kept from any contact with adult males outside the family. The object of marriage was not the emotional satisfaction of the married pair, but the procreation of children, especially a male heir. Once the wedding took place, the young bride was now under the control of her husband and remained so until his death or divorce. 

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Athenian Daily Life Questions

  1. What was the purpose of Greek Education?

  1. Why was it important for the Athenian Males to learn Gymnastics?

  1. What methods did the Athenians use in order to teach the Illiad and the Odyssey?

  1. At what age did the wealthier boys begin studying under philosophers?

  1. Why was it important for students who wanted to enter the public life to study Rhetoric?

  1. What were the main duties of a woman in Athenian society?

  1. What were Athenian women not allowed to do? Why?

  1. How does the role of Athenian women compare to the role of Spartan women in their society?

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