[Editor’s Note: This is the 6th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
The Greeks inherited their written language from the Phoenicians, who inherited it from the Sumerians. But before the 5th century BCE, no clear evidence exists for a school system, and researchers believe that education was mostly provided through private tutors. As with many other societies, education was the purview of the wealthy, as only they could afford the luxury of spending time and money on non-tangible pursuits. There also isn’t much information about the types of people who were teachers at that time. What we do know is that they didn’t have much status in the society, leading some to believe they were mostly slaves.
Around the 5th century, formal schools were established in some Greek city-states. In Athens, anyone could open a school and establish a curriculum, and parents could choose a school offering subjects they wanted their children to learn for a monthly fee. Boys who received an education started at age seven and learned how to read and write and play musical instruments, as well as underwent physical training, including various sports and wrestling.
They learned to write using a pen called a stylus with which they inscribed letters on a waxed wooden tablet. Memorization, though, was key. Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon, in his work Symposium, includes a character who says his father made him memorize the complete versions of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, a grand total of 27,000 lines.
When boys of wealthy families turned 16, they were sent for “tertiary education,” a place where they learned rhetoric and philosophy. These subjects were required for anyone who wanted to make a name for himself in society. The nuances of rhetoric particularly were essential if they wanted to speak in political assemblies or the courts, or if they wanted to be noticed at informal drinking parties called symposia.
Non-noble boys often learned a trade by apprenticeship, much of the time with their fathers, though it could be with another tradesman. Girls rarely received formal education; the education they did receive was mostly in household skills, and perhaps dance.
The education system in the Greek city-state of Sparta was another matter. Much of the information we have has come through Plutarch’s writings, and they reveal a system designed to create warriors who embodied complete obedience, courage, and physical perfection. When they turned seven, boys were removed from their homes to live in school dormitories or military barracks. There they were taught sports, endurance, fighting, and little else. Discipline was harsh, to make the warriors strong.
When the boys turned 16 years, they entered a military police force called the krupteia and were made to live in a jungle in Messenia where they were expected to fend for themselves.
Because there was little or no emphasis on reading and writing, most of the Spartan population was illiterate. However, Sparta was the only city-state to routinely educate girls, and many girls probably learned to read by default.
The poetess Sappho is perhaps the only definitive proof we have of girls’ education in Greece. She lived from the 7th-6th century BCE and is believed to have been connected with a school for young women on the island of Lesbos. As she was proficient and prolific in her writing, it speaks to at least some amount of formal education.
In ancient Rome, schools arose by the middle of the 4th century BCE, and they focused on the basic socialization and rudimentary education of young Roman children, not reading and writing. As such, the literacy rate in the 3rd century BCE has been estimated at around 1-2%.
It wasn’t until the 2nd century BCE, though, that there was a proliferation of private schools in Rome, after which the Roman educational system gradually found its final form. Formal schools served paying students; there was little in the way of free public education as we know it. Boys and girls both received an education, though not necessarily together.
A student would progress through different schools, just as one today might go from elementary school to middle school to high school, then college. Progression depended more on a student’s ability than their age, with great emphasis being placed on their inborn “gift” for learning, as well as on their ability to afford high-level education. Only the Roman elite completed a formal education, making it a status symbol rather than a matter of practicality. A farmer or tradesman would pick up most of his vocational skills on the job through apprenticeships.
Because of the unequal educational system, literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world were seldom greater than 20%. The literate in classical Greek society didn’t exceed 5% of the population, while those in the Roman empire were perhaps about 10%, with fewer in the western provinces.
Next week: The Greek Philosophers
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 4: Ancient Egypt, click here.
 Garland, Robert PhD. (August 6, 2020). The Education System in Ancient Greece. Wondrium Daily. Retrieved from https://www.wondriumdaily.com/the-education-system-in-ancient-greece/.
 Harris W.V. Ancient Literacy, 1989, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., p. 158
 ibid, p. 328