The Organization of Ancient Education: Part I

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on January 11, 2022

“I go to school. I enter and I say, ‘Good morning, teacher.’ He gives me a kiss and says hello to me. My slave gives me the tablets, the case; I take out the stylus and sit down at my place: I erase and copy according to the model. Afterwards, I show my writing to the teacher, who makes every kind of correction. He asks me to read and then I give [the text] to another pupil; I learn the colloquia and recite them. ‘Give me a dictation’, I ask. Another student dictates to me… When the teacher bids them, the little ones engage in letters and syllables, and another one of the older students pronounces them aloud for them. Others recite in order the words to the assistant teacher and write verses. Being in the first group, I take a dictation. Then, after sitting down, I study commentaries, glossaries, and the handbook of grammar.”

This is a selection from the Hermeneumata, a collection of simple readings, stories, and Greek and Latin glossaries that served as workbooks for students of grammar from antiquity through the Middle Ages, and continued to model the teaching of Latin and influence materials used in the language arts well into the modern period.[1] This selection would have been used to practice copying, taking dictation, and/or reading. It presents a tableau of the very school day that students using it would have experienced. It is an idealized vision of that school day—there is no mention of the endless repetition and boredom, the harsh discipline and corporal punishment, or the general unhappiness of students that were all too common. Nevertheless, it still gives us valuable insight into the methods and structure of early education in antiquity.

The specific methods of teaching writing and reading it presents will be discussed in a later post. In this post, I'd like to focus on what this passage tells us about the structure of the first and second stages of Hellenistic and Roman education: basic literacy and language arts or “grammar”, respectively. Students of all ages and levels of proficiency are together in the same place; they share materials such as tablets for copying; the primary teacher is aided by at least one assistant (which was often but not always the case); different students are working separately on distinct tasks, and older or more advanced students are assisting in the education of the younger and less advanced students.

This is perhaps not unlike the "one-room schoolhouse" model of education that existed in much of the United States prior to the 20th century. We do not see teaching to the entire class at once through lecture, nor do we see students separated into distinct classes based on age. The closest thing we find to the age-cohort model in ancient Greece was in the theoretical writings of Xenophon and Plato, and in the reports of classical Sparta that they produced or influenced.[2] All boys in the elite Spartan class would enter barracks and begin military training at the same early age, and these cohorts would remain together as military units and dining clubs even long after their "education" had ended. In Plato's Republic, the life and education of the guardian class is very similar in form, if less strictly physical in its content (see my series on Education in Plato’s Republic). What these real and theoretical systems have in common is that within them, education is entirely controlled and supervised by the state, and organized around the military and political needs of the state.

By contrast, throughout the rest of Greece and Rome, education was privately organized and maintained. Perhaps surprisingly, despite almost entirely private education, there was a tremendous amount of standardization and stability in the curriculum and teaching methods in the Hellenistic Greek and Roman worlds. However, private education did mean that students would enter school or private tutelage to earn specific skills or credentials that their families considered valuable. So, while private education didn't yield curriculum variety, it did mean education could be adaptable to individual needs. A student would remain studying a given skill for as long as it took them to become satisfactorily proficient in it or until they could no longer afford instruction. The conditions for their "advancement" would not be their age but their proficiency, desire, and tuition.

Despite being the overwhelmingly dominant organizational system in the industrialized world today, state-run, age-sorted, and one-size-fits-all approaches are historically anomalous. Even where curriculum and pedagogy are rigid, student-work structures tend to be much more fluid and dynamic, with a greater focus on the learning outcomes of the individual student, and this tends to coincide with education being private. In literate societies without centralized, state education, this individualized-progress model we see in antiquity is more or less the default.

1. This translation is taken from R. Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind, Princeton University Press, 1990, at p. 15. The discussion of this text and my understanding of Hellenistic education has been invaluably informed by this work.

2. By the 4th c. BCE, many city-states had adopted cadet troop programs for young men (~18 years old) to give them military training. Also, there is some evidence that Cretans also had a cohort model like the Spartans. For more on Spartan education, see my series on Spartan Education.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.