Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life

Author: William Stearns Davis

Chapter IX.
The Schoolboys of Athens.

51. Athenians Generally Literate.—Education is not compulsory by law in Athens, but the father who fails to give his son at least a modicum of education falls under a public contempt, which involves no slight penalty. Practically all Athenians are at least literate. In Aristophanes’s famous comedy, "The Knights," a boorish "sausage-seller" is introduced, who, for the purposes of the play, must be one of the very scum of society, and he is made to cry, "Only consider now my education! I can but barely read, just in a kind of way."[*] Evidently if illiterates are not very rare in Athens, the fellow should have been made out utterly ignorant. "He can neither swim[+] nor say his letters," is a common phrase for describing an absolute idiot. When a boy has reached the age of seven, the time for feminine rule is over; henceforth his floggings, and they will be many, are to come from firm male hands.

[*]Aristophanes, "Knights", II. 188-189.

[+]Swimming was an exceedingly common accomplishment among the Greeks, naturally enough, so much of their life being spent upon or near the sea.

52. Character Building the Aim of Athenian Education.—The true education is of course begun long before the age of seven. CHARACTER NOT BOOK-LEARNING, IS THE MAIN OBJECT OF ATHENIAN EDUCATION, i.e. to make the boy self-contained, modest, alert, patriotic, a true friend, a dignified gentleman, able to appreciate and participate in all that is true, harmonius and beautiful in life. To that end his body must be trained, not apart from, but along with his mind. Plato makes his character Protagoras remark, "As soon as a child understands what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the pedagogue, and the father vie in their efforts to make him good, by showing him in all that he does that ’THIS is right,’ and ’THAT is wrong’; ’this is pretty,’ and ’that is ugly’; so that he may learn what to follow and what to shun. If he obeys willingly—why, excellent. If not, then try by threats and blows to correct him, as men straighten a warped and crooked sapling." Also after he is fairly in school "the teacher is enjoined to pay more attention to his morals and conduct than to his progress in reading and music."

53. The Schoolboy’s Pedagogue.—It is a great day for an Athenian boy when he is given a pedagogue. This slave (perhaps purchased especially for the purpose) is not his teacher, but he ought to be more than ordinarily honest, kindly, and well informed. His prime business is to accompany the young master everywhere out-of-doors, especially to the school and to the gymnasium; to carry his books and writing tablets; to give informal help upon his lessons; to keep him out of every kind of mischief; to teach him social good manners; to answer the thousand questions a healthy boy is sure to ask; and finally, in emergencies, if the schoolmaster or his father is not at hand, to administer a needful whipping. A really capable pedagogue can mean everything to a boy; but it is asking too much that a purchased slave should be an ideal companion.[*] Probably many pedagogues are responsible for their charges’ idleness or downright depravity. It is a dubious system at the best.

[*]No doubt frequently the pedagogue would be an old family servant of good morals, loyalty, and zeal. In that case the relation might be delightful.

The assigning of the pedagogue is simultaneous with the beginning of school days; and the Athenians are not open to the charge of letting their children waste their time during possible study hours. As early as Solon’s day (about 590 B.C.) a law had to be passed forbidding schools to open BEFORE daybreak, or to be kept open after dusk. This was in the interest not of good eyesight, but of good morals. Evidently schools had been keeping even longer than through the daylight. In any case, at gray dawn every yawning schoolboy is off, urged on by his pedagogue, and his tasks will continue with very little interruption through the entire day. It is therefore with reason that the Athenian lads rejoice in the very numerous religious holidays.

54. An Athenian School.—Leaving the worthy citizen’s home, where we have lingered long chatting on many of the topics the house and its denizens suggest, we will turn again to the streets to seek the school where one of the young sons of the family has been duly conducted (possibly, one may say, driven) by his pedagogue. We have not far to go. Athenian schools have to be numerous, because they are small. To teach children of the poorer classes it is enough to have a modest room and a few stools; an unrented shop will answer. But we will go to a more pretentious establishment. There is an anteroom by the entrance way where the pedagogues can sit and doze or exchange gossip while their respective charges are kept busy in the larger room within. The latter place, however, is not particularly commodious. On the bare wall hang book-rolls, lyres, drinking vessels, baskets for books, and perhaps some simple geometric instruments. The pupils sit on rude, low benches, each lad with his boxwood tablet covered with wax[*] upon his lap, and presumably busy, scratching letters with his stylus. The master sits on a high chair, surveying the scene. He cultivates a grim and awful aspect, for he is under no delusion that "his pupils love him." "He sits aloft," we are told, "like a juryman, with an expression of implacable wrath, before which the pupil must tremble and cringe."[+]

[*]This wax tablet was practically a slate. The letters written could be erased with the blunt upper end of the metallic stylus, and the whole surface of the tablet could be made smooth again by a judicious heating.

[+]The quotation is from the late writer Libanius, but it is perfectly true for classic Athens.

Athenian schoolboys have at least their full share of idleness, as well as of animal spirits. There is soon a loud whisper from one corner. Instantly the ruling tyrant rises. "Antiphon! I have heard you. Come forward!" If Antiphon is wise, he will advance promptly and submit as cheerfully as possible to a sound caning; if folly possesses him, he will hesitate. At a nod from the master two older boys, who serve as monitors, will seize him with grim chuckles. He will then be fortunate if he escapes being tied to a post and flogged until his back is one mass of welts, and his very life seems in danger. It will be useless for him to complain to his parents. A good schoolmaster is supposed to flog frequently to earn his pay; if he is sparing with the rod or lash, he is probably lacking in energy. Boys will be boys, and there is only one remedy for juvenile shortcomings.

This diversion, of course, with its attendant howling, interrupts the course of the school, but presently matters again become normal. The scholars are so few that probably there is only one teacher, and instruction is decidedly "individual," although poetry and singing are very likely taught "in concert."

55. The School Curriculum.—As to the subjects studied, the Athenian curriculum is well fixed and limited: letters, music, and gymnastics. Every lad must have a certain amount of all of these. They gymnastics will be taught later in the day by a special teacher at a "wrestling school." The "music" may also be taught separately. The main effort with a young boy is surely to teach him to read and write. And here must be recalled the relative infrequency of complete books in classic Athens.[*] To read public placards, inscriptions of laws, occasional epistles, commercial documents, etc., is probably, for many Athenians, reading enough. The great poets he will learn by ear rather than by eye; and he may go through a long and respected life and never be compelled to read a really sizable volume from end to end. So the teaching of reading is along very simple lines. It is perhaps simultaneous with the learning of writing. The twenty-four letters are learned by sheer power of memory; then the master sets lines upon the tablets to be copied. As soon as possible the boy is put to learning and writing down passages from the great poets. Progress in mere literacy is very rapid. There is no waste of time on history, geography, or physical science; and between the concentration on a singly main subject and the impetus given by the master’s rod the Athenian schoolboy soon becomes adept with his letters. Possibly a little arithmetic is taught him, but only a little. In later life, if he does not become a trader or banker, he will not be ashamed to reckon simple sums upon his fingers or by means of pebbles; although if his father is ambitious to have him become a philosopher, he may have him taught something of geometry.

Once more we see the total absence of "vocational studies" in this Athenian education. The whole effort is to develop a fair, noble, free, and lofty character, not to earn a living. To set a boy to study with an eye to learning some profitable trade is counted illiberal to the last degree. It is for this reason that practical arithmetic is discouraged, yet a little knowledge of the art of outline drawing is allowed; for though no gentleman intends to train his son to be a great artist, the study will enable him to appreciate good sculpture and painting. Above all the schoolmaster, who, despite his brutal austerity, ought to be a clear-sighted and inspiring teacher, must lose no opportunity to instill moral lessons, and develop the best powers of his charges. Theoginis, the old poet of Megara, states the case well:—

To rear a child is easy; but to teach Morals and manners is beyond our reach. To make the foolish wise, the wicked good, That science never yet understood.

56. The Study of the Poets.—It is for the developing of the best moral and mental qualities in the lads that they are compelled to memorize long passages of the great poets of Hellas. Theoginis, with his pithy admonitions cast in semi-proverb form, the worldly wisdom of Hesiod, and of Phocylides are therefore duly flogged into every Attic schoolboy.[*] But the great text-book dwarfing all others, is Homer,—"the Bible of the Greeks," as later ages will call it. Even in the small school we visit, several of the pupils can repeat five or six long episodes from both the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and there is one older boy present (an extraordinary, but by no means an unprecedented case) who can repeat BOTH of the long epics word for word.[+] Clearly the absence of many books has then its compensations. The average Athenian lad has what seems to be a simply marvelous memory.

[*]Phocylides, whose gnomic poetry is now preserved to us only in scant fragments, was an Ionian, born about 560 B.C. His verses were in great acceptance in the schools.

[+]For such an attainment see Xenophon’s "Symposium," 3:5.

And what an admirable text-book and "second reader" the Homeric poems are! What characters to imitate: the high-minded, passionate, yet withal loyal and lovable Achilles who would rather fight gloriously before Troy (though death in the campaign is certain) than live a long life in ignoble ease at home at Phthia; or Oysseus, the "hero of many devices," who endures a thousand ills and surmounts them all; who lets not even the goddess Calypso seduce him from his love to his "sage Penelope"; who is ever ready with a clever tale, a plausible lie, and, when the need comes, a mighty deed of manly valor. The boys will all go home to-night with firm resolves to suffer all things rather than leave a comrade unavenged, as Achilles was tempted to do and nobly refused, and to fight bravely, four against forty, as Odysseus and his comrades did, when at the call of duty and honor they cleared the house of the dastard suitors. True, philosophers like Plato complain: "Homer gives to lads very undignified and unworthy ideas of the gods"; and men of a later age will assert: "Homer has altogether too little to say about the cardinal virtues of truthfulness and honesty."[*] But making all allowances the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are still the two grandest secular text-books the world will ever know. The lads are definitely the better for them.

[*]The virtue of unflinching HONESTY was undoubtedly the thing least cultivated by the Greek education. Successful prevarication, e.g. in the case of Odysseus, was put at altogether too high a premium. It is to be feared that the average Athenian schoolboy was only partially truthful. The tale of "George Washington and the cherry tree" would never have found favor in Athens. The great Virginian would have been blamed for failing to concoct a clever lie.

Three years, according to Plato, are needed to learn the rudiments of reading and writing before the boys are fairly launched upon this study of the poets. For several years more they will spend most of their mornings standing respectfully before their master, while he from his chair reads to them from the roll of one author or another,—the pupils repeating the lines, time and again, until they have learned them, while the master interrupts to explain every nice point in mythology, in real or alleged history, or a moot question in ethics.

57. The Greeks do not study Foreign Languages.—As the boys grow older the scope of their study naturally increases; but in one particular their curriculum will seem strangely limited. THE STUDY OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES HAS NO PLACE IN A GREEK COURSE OF STUDY. That any gentleman should learn say Persian, or Egyptian (unless he intended to devote himself to distant travel), seems far more unprofitable than, in a later age, the study of say Patagonian or Papuan will appear.[*] Down at the Peiræus there are a few shipmasters, perhaps, who can talk Egyptian, Phœnecian, or Babylonish. They need the knowledge for their trade, but even they will disclaim any cultural value for their accomplishment. The euphonious, expressive, marvelously delicate tongue of Hellas sums up for the Athenian almost all that is valuable in the world’s intellectual and literary life. What has the outer, the "Barbarian," world to give him?—Nothing, many will say, but some gold darics which will corrupt his statesmen, and some spices, carpets, and similar luxuries which good Hellenes can well do without. The Athenian lad will never need to crucify the flesh upon Latin, French, and German, or an equivalent for his own Greek. Therein perhaps he may be heavily the loser, save that his own mother tongue is so intricate and full of subtle possibilities that to learn to make the full use thereof is truly a matter for lifelong education.

[*]This fact did not prevent the Greeks from having a considerable respect for the traditions and lore of, e.g., the Egyptians, and from borrowing a good many non-Greek usages and inventions; but all this could take place without feeling the least necessity for studying foreign languages.

58. The Study of "Music."—But the Athenian has a substitute for this omission of foreign language study: MUSIC. This is something more comprehensive than "the art of combining tones in a manner to please the ear" [Webster]. It is practically the study of whatever will develop the noble powers of the emotions, as contrasted to the mere intellect.[*] Indeed everything which comes within the ample provinces of the nine Muses, even sober history, might be included in the term. However, for special purposes, the study of "Music" may be considered as centering around playing instruments and singing. The teacher very likely resides in a house apart from the master of the school of letters. Aristophanes gives this picture of the good old customs for the teaching of music. "The boys from the same section of the town have to march thinly clad and draw up in good order—though the snow be thick as meal—to the house of the harp master. There he will teach them [some famous tune] raising a mighty melody. If any one acts silly or turns any quavers, he gets a good hard thrashing for ’banishing the Muses!’"[+]

[*]Aristotle ["Politics," V. (or VIII.) 1] says that the literary education is to train the mind; while music, though of no practical use, "provides a noble and liberal employment of leisure."

[+]Aristophanes’s "The Clouds". The whole passage is cited in Davis’s "Readings in Ancient History," vol. I, pp. 252-255.

Learning to sing is probably the most important item, for every boy and man ought to be able to bear his part in the great chorals which are a notable element in most religious festivals; besides, a knowledge of singing is a great aid to appreciating lyric poetry, or the choruses in tragedy, and in learning to declaim. To learn to sing elaborate solo pieces is seldom necessary,—it is not quite genteel in grown-up persons, for it savors a little too much of the professional. So it is also with instrumental music. The Greeks lack the piano, the organ, the elaborate brass instruments of a later day. Their flutes and harps, although very sweet, might seem thin to a twentieth-century critic. But one can gain considerable volume by the great NUMBER of instruments, and nearly everybody in Athens can pick at the lyre after a fashion. The common type of harp is the lyre, and it has enough possibilities for the average boy. The more elaborate CITHERA is usually reserved for professionals.[*] An Athenian lad is expected to be able to accompany his song upon his own lyre and to play in concert with his fellows.

[*]For the details of these harp types of instruments see Dictionary of Antiquities.

The other instrument in common use is the FLUTE. At its simplest, this is a mere shepherd’s pipe. Anybody can make one with a knife and some rushes. Then come elaborations; two pipes are fitted together into one wooden mouthpiece. Now, we really have an instrument with possibilities. But it is not in such favor in the schools as the lyre. You cannot blow day after day upon the flute and not distort your cheeks permanently. Again the gentleman’s son will avoid "professionalism." There are amateur flute players moving in the best society, but the more fastidious frown upon the instrument, save for hired performers.

59. The Moral Character of Greek Music.—Whether it is singing, harp playing, or flute playing, a most careful watch is kept upon the CHARACTER of the music taught the lads. The master who lets his pupils learn many soft, dulcet, languishing airs will find his charges’ parents extremely angry, even to depriving him of their patronage. Very soft music, in "Lydian modes," is counted effeminate, fit only for the women’s quarters and likely to do boys no good. The riotous type also, of the "Ionic mode," is fit only for drinking songs and is even more under the ban.[*] What is especially in favor is the stern, strenuous Dorian mode. This will make boys hardy, manly, and brave. Very elaborate music with trills and quavers is in any case frowned upon. It simply delights the trained ear, and has no reaction upon the character; and of what value is a musical presentation unless it leaves the hearers and performer better, worthier men? Let the average Athenian possess the opportunity, and he will infallibly stamp with disapproval a great part of both the popular and the classical music of the later ages.[+]

[*]The "Phrygian mode" from which the "Ionic" was derived was still more demoralizing; it was counted "orgiastic," and proper only in certain excited religious rhapsodies.

[+]We have extremely few Greek melodies preserved to us and these few are not attractive to the modern ear. All that can fairly be said is that the Hellenes were obvious such æsthetic, harmoniously minded people that it is impossible their music should have failed in nobility, beauty, and true melody.

60. The Teaching of Gymnastics.—The visits to the reading school and to the harp master have consumed a large part of the day; but towards afternoon the pedagogues will conduct their charges to the third of the schoolboys’ tyrants: the gymnastic teacher. Nor do his parents count this the least important of the three. Must not their sons be as physically "beautiful" (to use the common phrase in Athens) as possible, and must they not some day, as good citizens, play their brave part in war? The palæstras (literally "wrestling grounds") are near the outskirts of the city, where land is cheap and a good-sized open space can be secured. Here the lads are given careful instruction under the constant eye of an expert in running, wrestling, boxing, jumping, discus hurling, and javelin casting. They are not expected to become professional athletes, but their parents will be vexed if they do not develop a healthy tan all over their naked bodies,[*] and if they do not learn at least moderate proficiency in the sports and a certain amount of familiarity with elementary military maneuvers. Of course boys of marked physical ability will be encouraged to think of training for the various great "games" which culminate at Olympia, although enlightened opinion is against the promoting of professional athletics; and certain extreme philosophers question the wisdom of any extensive physical culture at all, "for (say they) is not the human mind the real thing worth developing?"[+]

[*]To have a pale, untanned skin was "womanish" and unworthy of a free Athenian citizen.

[+]The details of the boys’ athletic games, being much of a kind with those followed by adults at the regular public gymnasia, are here omitted. See Chap. XVII.

Weary at length and ready for a hearty meal and sleep, the boys are conducted homeward by their pedagogues.

As they grow older the lads with ambitious parents will be given a more varied education. Some will be put under such teachers of the new rhetoric and oratory, now in vogue, as the famous socrates, and be taught to play the orator as an aid to inducing their fellow citizens to bestow political advancement. Certain will be allowed to become pupils of Plato, who has been teaching his philosophy out at the groves of the Academy, or to join some of his rivals in theoretical wisdom. Into these fields, however, we cannot follow them.

61. The Habits and Ambitions of Schoolboys.—It is a clear fact, that by the age say of thirteen, the Athenian education has had a marked effect upon the average schoolboy. Instead of being "the most ferocious of animals," as Plato, speaking of his untutored state describes him, he is now "the most amiable and divine of living beings." The well-trained lad goes now to school with his eyes cast upon the ground, his hands and arms wrapped in his chiton, making way dutifully for all his elders. If he is addressed by an older man, he stands modestly, looking downward and blushing in a manner worthy of a girl. He has been taught to avoid the Agora, and if he must pass it, never to linger. The world is full of evil and ugly things, but he is taught to hear and see as little of them as possible. When men talk of his healthy color, increasing beauty, and admire the graceful curves of his form at the wrestling school, he must not grow proud. He is being taught to learn relatively little from books, but a great deal from hearing the conversation of grave and well-informed men. As he grows older his father will take him to all kinds of public gatherings and teach him the working details of the "Democratic Government" of Athens. He becomes intensely proud of his city. It is at length his chief thought, almost his entire life. A very large part of the loyalty which an educated man of a later age will divide between his home, his church, his college, his town, and his nation, the Athenian lad will sum up in two words,—"my polis"; i.e. the city of Athens. His home is largely a place for eating and sleeping; his school is not a great institution, it is simply a kind of disagreeable though necessary learning shop; his church is the religion of his ancestors, and this religion is warp and woof of the government, as much a part thereof as the law courts or the fighting fleet; his town and his nation are alike the sovran city-state of Athens. Whether he feels keenly a wider loyalty to Hellas at large, as against the Great King of Persia, for instance, will depend upon circumstances. In a real crisis, as at Salamis,—yes. In ordinary circumstances when there is a hot feud with Sparta,—no.

62. The "Ephebi."—The Athenian education then is admirably adapted to make the average lad a useful and worthy citizen, and to make him modest, alert, robust, manly, and a just lover of the beautiful, both in conduct and in art. It does not, however, develop his individual bent very strongly; and it certainly gives him a mean view of the dignity of labor. He will either become a leisurely gentleman, whose only proper self-expression will come in warfare, politics, or philosophy; or—if he be poor—he will at least envy and try to imitate the leisure class.

By eighteen the young Athenian’s days of study will usually come to a close. At that age he will be given a simple festival by his father and be formally enrolled in his paternal deme.[*] His hair, which has hitherto grown down toward his shoulders, will be clipped short. He will allow his beard to grow. At the temple of Aglaurus he will (with the other youths of his age) take solemn oath of loyalty to Athens and her laws. For the next year he will serve as a military guard at the Peiræus, and receive a certain training in soldiering. The next year the state will present him with a new shield and spear, and he will have a taste of the rougher garrison duty at one of the frontier forts towards Bœtia or Megara.[+] Then he is mustered out. He is an ephebus no longer, but a full-fledged citizen, and all the vicissitudes of Athenian life are before him.

[*]One of the hundred or more petty townships or precincts into which Attica was divided.

[+]These two years which the ephebi of Athens had to serve under arms have been aptly likened to the military service now required of young men in European countries.


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Chicago: William Stearns Davis, "Chapter IX. The Schoolboys of Athens.," Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life in A Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1914), Original Sources, accessed June 25, 2024,

MLA: Davis, William Stearns. "Chapter IX. The Schoolboys of Athens." Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life, in A Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1914, Original Sources. 25 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Davis, WS, 'Chapter IX. The Schoolboys of Athens.' in Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life. cited in 1914, A Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life, Allyn and Bacon, Boston. Original Sources, retrieved 25 June 2024, from