Education 1


Until the late fourth century B.C. the Athenian system of education was entirely private with fathers paying teachers to instruct their children (mostly boys) in various skills.1  In such a system it was obviously the wealthy who could provide their sons with the most extensive education (Pl. Prot. 326 c).

Aristotle notes that a child should be educated in four areas (Pol. 1338 a):

  1. reading and writing, "useful and serviceable" for business and household management,
  2. gymnastics, (literally, "nude exercise,") to promote health and strength ,
  3. music, useful as a leisure-time activity, but not a proper  profession for a free man,
  4. drawing - makes a student a better judge of art and more observant of the body's beauty.

Reading and Writing

Students were taught their letters by copying the writing of their teacher (didaskalos)2 on wax tablets with a stylus as in the image below (Pl. Prt. 326d):

As the students learned to read they were given selections from the poets (no doubt mainly from Homer) to read aloud.  In this way instruction in reading and writing was used to convey moral principles to young boys.  Plato  says that teachers (Prot. 325 e):

required their students to read and understand thoroughly the poems of [morally] good poets, in which there were many admonitions and detailed descriptions and praises and panegyrics of good men of the past, so that the boy in emulation may imitate and desire to be similar to them.

Concern for young students' moral welfare was also revealed in the care that was taken to protect young boys from the sexual advances of older boys and men.  First students were accompanied to and from school by a pedagogue (normally, but not always a slave) who acted as a bodyguard.  Here we see a pedagogue sitting behind a student who is reciting his lesson.

A law in Athens also sought to protect boys from men. (Aeschin. In Tim. 12):

The teachers must not open their schools before dawn and must close them before dark.  And it is not permitted that those beyond the age of the boys (paides) enter [the schools] while the boys  are within, except for the son or brother or son-in-law of the teacher.  If anyone enters in contradiction of this restriction, let him suffer the death penalty.  And the gymnasiarchs [supervisors of gymnasia] are absolutely forbidden to permit anyone who has reached manhood to participate [with the boys] in the HermaiaIf [a gymnasiarch] permits this and does not debar such a person from the gymnasium, let the gymnasiarch be liable to the law concerning the seduction of free-born boys.  The choręgos [citizen who paid for the training of boys in choral dances] must be older than 40 years of age.

Aeschines, a fourth century orator who quotes this law, explains that its maker was very suspicious of the solitude and darkness typical of schools before dawn and after sunset (undoubtedly because these conditions fostered sexual encounters).  Although they are not mentioned in the law, Aeschines says that this requirement also applied to athletic trainers (paidotribai), who were in charge of palaestras, probably because palaestras were also educational institutions (In Tim. 9).  The other restrictions are designed to keep men at the height of their sexual desire away from boys.


Music was a traditional part of the Greek curriculum.  In this vase painting, a teacher instructs his student in playing the lyre.3  Aristotle believed that music served three purposes (Pol. 1339 a):

  1. education (paideia)

  2. a pastime (paidia)

  3. as amusement (diagôgę)

The most important of these purposes was education, which Aristotle identifies as moral improvement (Pol. 1340 a).  Aristotle sees music as affecting the character (ęthos) and the soul (pyschę): is plainly necessary to learn and to become accustomed to nothing so much as correct judgment and delight in good characters and noble deeds. In rhythms and melodies there are, especially when compared with their true natures, close imitations of anger and gentleness and of courage and moderation and of all their opposites and of the other moral qualities and this is verified from experience: we experience change in our soul when we hear such things.

The connection between music and moral character had earlier been promulgated by Aristotle's teacher, Plato (Prt. 326 a)

... teachers of the kithara4 ...cultivate moderation [in their students] and aim to prevent the young from doing anything evil.  Moreover, whenever [the young] learn to play the kithara, [the teachers] teach them the poems of other morally good poets, setting them to the music of the kithara and compel rhythms and harmonies to dwell in the souls of the boys to make them more civilized, more orderly (euruthmoteroi: 'rhythmical' in a moral sense), and more harmonious (euarmostoteroi: also in a moral sense), so that they will be good in speech and action.

Aristotle (as did Plato) claims that the different scales used in Greek music have a different effect on the soul.  For example, melodies in the Mixolydian and Dorian modes have a more calming effect while the Phrygian makes the soul more agitated.  He adds that different rhythms have the same kind of effect on the soul.  His conclusion is (Pol. 1340 b):

Therefore it is evident that music is able to produce a certain effect on the character of the soul, and if it is able to do this, it is plain that the young must be introduced to and educated in [music].

Furthermore, Aristotle approves of the Greek practice of training students to play an instrument and to sing.  Mere music appreciation would not be sufficient.  Students must be actively trained in singing and the playing of a musical instrument, so that in later years they can become good judges of music (no doubt of both its artistic and moral merit).  Aristotle, however, does not  recommend that students perform professionally and competitively in their adult years because that activity is not proper to a free man and is "rather menial (thętikôteran)"5 (Pol. 1341 b). Students were prepared by their music teachers to participate in the Mouseia (literally, "activity having to do with the Muses," cf. "music"), which were probably musical competitions.  Below is a student carrying a kithara in his left hand being proclaimed by Nike (goddess of victory) as victor in the Mouseia.



1.  In the late fourth century B.C. the state became involved in education for the first time by requiring 18 year old boys known as "ephebes" (ephęboi) to take state-sponsored military training for two years.  Return to text.

2. It is interesting that while education was considered essential, the teacher (and normally owner of the school) was considered socially inferior (Dem. De cor. 265.1).  Return to text.

3.  The lyre that is seemingly suspended in air over the head of the student actually is supposed to be hanging on the wall of the school.  Students also learned to play the aulos, an oboe-like reed instrument, although Aristotle claims that training in the playing of the aulos fell into disfavor in Athens because it was less conducive to virtue (Pol. 1341 a).  Return to text.

4.  The kithara is a lyre-like instrument, but larger, with a box as a sounding board.  Return to text.

5. The Greek ideal was that a free man be independently wealthy.  For a citizen to work for a living would bring his condition closer to slavery because he depended on another for his living.  Return to text.

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