Knowledge of how to read and write was high among the male population of classical Athens, as references in Aristophanes indicate. In the last quarter of the fifth century B.C. there were no illiterates in the cast of Aristophanic comedy. Even a villager (Strepsiades in the Clouds) or a tripe-vendor (Agorakritos in the Knights) knew his letters. There are however authenticated cases of illiteracy, for example an Athenian who, not knowing how to write, in 482 B.C. asked Aristides to himself write his name on an ostracism ostrakon. Though certain women were literate, there are no indications for women's education.

Education was free and was left to private initiative. However, the laws of Athens laid down the hours at which private schools should work and the number and age of pupils; they also imposed state control of teachers. What is interesting is that the teacher was not judged on subjects connected with his cognitive level, but on subjects of conduct. The school holidays depended on the annual cycle of festival days: most were bunched in the month of Anthesterion (February).

School education by tradition comprised three teaching sectors: letters, gymnastics, and music. The children started school at the age of seven. There were some ten years of schooling in all. But since teaching was private, only the well-to-do were financially able to continue with it beyond the basic three- or four-year education. The body politic did of course provide for war orphans by funding their studies from the public purse.

A pupil from a well-to-do family could be chaperoned to school by his paidagogos, a male slave. The paidagogos would carry the boy's wax tablets, pen, books, and lyre or pipes. He would normally be sitting in the schoolroom all the while the boy was there. He also helped the pupil with his lessons.

| introduction | arts | literature | education | religion | Classical period

Note: Click on the icons for enlargements and explanations.
Underlined links lead to related texts; those not underlined ones are an explanatory glossary.