Education in Ancient Hellenistic Greece

One of the most important prerequisites of being an upstanding citizen in the Ancient Hellenistic Civilization was the ability to maintain a sound level of literacy. Therefore, education and instruction were of particular importance in Athens. While education was open to all citizens in Antiquity, only people with means were able to pursue higher education. Therefore, the duration of education in Antiquity was determined not by the state, but rather by the economic power of families. As a general rule, a child received instruction until the age of 15 or 16 on average. In fact, instruction often ended for many by the age of 12 or 13.

Children were reared by mothers or female servants, but more specifically by nannies, up until the age of six. Often entrusted with the faithful servants, in other words nannies (=paidagogos) or trustworthy slaves the families either bought or rented, children were educated at home until they came of school age. The oft-used term pedagogue we encounter today is derived from the ancient Hellenistic Greek word παιδαγωγός or paedagogus, as pronounced in Latin.

Parents or nannies/child minders would pay attention to every word or behavior of the child, cautioning the child on what was right or wrong, good or bad, instructing the child on what to do and what to refrain from. If the child in question would fail to follow instructions, s/he would be feruled, in other words hit by a cane, or would be punished in some other way. After the age of six, only male children were accompanied to school by the paidagogos. In fact, Alexander the Great, one of the greatest commanders and statesmen of history, had been tutored by a slave named Leonidas. As the paidagogos of Alexander the Great, Leonidas had taught the great leader to leave ample amounts of incense and myrrh to please the gods during votive offering ceremonies. Having retained this early instruction in his memory, when he conquered Arabia, a region replete with incense and myrrh, Alexander was reminded of his former paidagogos and sent him a ship full of incense.

In ancient Athens, the education of young girls was often conducted by a gynaikotis under the supervision of the mother. Receiving a relatively inferior education compared to men, women possessed, at least, a certain level of literacy, which was a considerably great advantage, for they were charged with the task of keeping household accounts and making lists when they grew older. The primary duties expected of women in the world of Antiquity included knitting, weaving, cooking, supervising household servants and the pantry, and, most importantly, child-rearing.

The first known “primary school” in Antiquity was founded on the island of Chios; during the Ionian uprising in 494 B.C. initiated before the Battle of Lade, the roof of the school collapsed, leading to the death of 119 children of the 120 under instruction there. The schools were often small, simple, and unadorned buildings, and could only accommodate the instruction of 10 to 12 children. The school buildings were extremely simple and frail; it is known that boxer Kleomedes, who rejected his defeat at the 496 BC Olympic Games, demolished one of the columns of the school in his native island of Astypalaia in a nervous rage and caused the collapse of the school building. 

As there were no desks at school, children received a larger part of their education either by standing or sitting in a chair across from their teachers. Education had three fundamental areas of learning: Reading-writing or grammata, during which poetry and prose was studied and memorized, musike, which offered instruction on music and dance, and gymanstike, or physical education.

Schools in Athens were not allowed to remain open before dusk and after dawn. They would also be closed throughout the Festival of Muses and other religious holidays. Instruction for a child in Athens began by learning the 24 letters in the Hellenic alphabet: before learning how to write, students were required to memorize first the names of the letters and then the entire alphabet from beginning to the end. In order for smaller children to learn faster, parents would provide them with letters carved out of wood or ivory, encouraging them to both play and learn the alphabet at the same time. Once the letters mere memorized, students would learn how to write them.

Writing was done on a tablet built of wood and covered with a layer of wax, using a pointed instrument known as stylus or stylo made of bronze, ivory, or more commonly, boxwood. The elongated, broader upper part of the pen was used for erasing misspellings. Apart from these writing tools, the relatively wealthier children wrote on papyrus, whereas the poor used pottery fragments and stone for writing.

The oft-used term pedagogue we encounter today is derived from the ancient Hellenistic Greek word παιδαγωγός or paedagogus, as pronounced in Latin.

“Wood” held an important place among the writing tools in Antiquity. To provide legibility, wood was often painted white with lime or plaster. Once painted, the wooden board was put to use in numerous ways including as bills, compasses, or writing boards at schools. 


A student would first learn the alphabet from the grammatistes, who would either hold the young pupil’s hand to teach him the alphabet or inscribe the letters on an unwaxed wooden board together and the student would retrace the letters with a stylo until he learned all of them by heart. Similar to the present, students were taught to form syllables, eventually moving towards simple words, followed by more complicated ones. In order to simplify literacy instruction, scholars in 3rd century BC Alexandria invented the punctuation marks we use today.  The comma and the point, for example, are similar to their counterparts in English. The question mark is written as a semicolon: ; = ? A point placed slightly above the line is the equivalent of a colon or a semicolon in English: ˙ = : or  ;

In addition to the reading-writing classes they received from the grammatistes, students would also be instructed in math and arithmetic the Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians. Calculations were either made on a simple table of sand upon which pebble stones could easily be moved or with beads lined on strings. There was no separate numeric system in Hellenic Greek for math; letters were also used interchangeably as numbers.

In order to simplify literacy instruction, scholars in 3rd century BC Alexandria invented the punctuation marks we use today.

Children would read their lessons and books aloud, as it was customary to read audibly in Antiquity. However, this did not mean that the ancients were not allowed to read a book or any written material quietly, for historic data indicates that written documents were read with tightly shut lips. As the most famous one of the Latin Fathers of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, for example, notes that Saint Ambrosius (Ambrose) always read his books silently.

According to Aristotle humans are considered children until the age of 7, after which they must be spectators of the lessons they will come to learn. After the age of seven, education is divided into two stages: the first is music and academic instruction from 7 until puberty and the second is intellectual and moral education from puberty until age 21. As children were likely to become statesmen or rulers of a state in the future, their proper upbringing and education was one of the primary concerns of the public, for if the education of future law-making individuals were not properly handled from an early age onwards, both the quality of the constitution and, by extension, the state, would suffer considerably at every stage. Hence, “education must be one and the same for all.”   According to the philosopher, education had to be regulated by law, benefitting both morality and the people. Aristotle has thus established his own school, the Lyceum (Lykeion in Ancient Greek), a word that constitutes the origin of the word high school in many languages.


Although higher education in Athens was offered in return for payment, renowned philosopher Socrates never accepted money in exchange for his lessons. He believed he could maintain his freedom by refusing payment and regarded the ones he did as self-serving slaves for having to talk to the individuals that paid them. Alternatively, he justified this by saying the people who taught in exchange for money were required to render services, but that since he never asked for money in exchange for knowledge, he was not obliged to talk to or instruct the people he chose not to. His disciple Plato, on the other hand, argues that humans must receive education for the survival of the soul. Whether they are of Hellenic origin or barbarians, education and philosophy make people happy, shed light upon them, and render them both intelligent and skilled. Hence, Plato advocates that in order to raise a healthy and virtuous generation with souls cleansed of evil thoughts, education and instruction must be provided correctly and properly from infancy onwards. 

In all his works, Plato urges people to receive education, particularly in philosophy. According to the philosopher, once trained in philosophy and having internalized it, people shall never need the guidance of others; they will possess a good memory, abide by laws, and grow into happy individuals. According to Plato’s student Aristotle, the main objective education is to make the individual a virtuous and erudite element of the society or the state in which s/he lives. People can only attain happiness when they are educated in this manner. Therefore, lawmakers must handle the issue of education personally and should begin doing so with couples to be married.


The Hellenistic Alphabet

As the origin of the Latin alphabet we use today, the Ancient Hellenistic alphabet is comprised of twenty-four letters of seventeen consonants and seven vowels. The alphabet used by the modern Greeks today is the very same one. This alphabet was later emulated by Bulgarians and imported across the entire Slavic world. The Cyrillic alphabet currently used in Russia, the Ukraine, and other Slavic countries is derived from the Hellenistic alphabet.


Upper caseLower caseTransliteration into Roman alphabetName
Aaa (ă / ā)άλφα
Gg ( g )gγάμμα
Eee (ĕ)έψιλον
Zzz (as in English wisdom)ζήτα
Hhe (ē)ήτα
Q, Yq , yth (pronounced as in English thin.)θήτα
I, Ιi

i (ĭ / ī)


X, Ξ (J)jξι
Ooo (ŏ)όμικρον
Rr ( r )r„ρώ
S (%)s, w (!)sσίγμα
Uuy ( ˘ / ˉ ) ‰ύψιλον
F, Ff, φ (f)ph φι
Xxch (a guttural h, as in Scottish loch)χι
Y     Cc (y)psψι
W (W), Vvo (ō)‰ωμέγα