Wednesday, 24 October 2012

School in Ancient Athens

It's bad form not to add to a blog regularly. I apologise to my followers, but life these days does not follow regular patterns. However, I have not been idle ...

This past few weeks, Connie and I have been arranging school and library visits to talk about The Boy with Two Heads

This has made me think about what I learned from my research about schools in 432 BC in Ancient Athens, where Themis, The Boy, lives at the beginning of my story.

 by Leo von Klenze, a German neoclassicist architect in the late 19th century
(Not all the buildings in this picture were finished at the time of my story.)

For instance, I learned that our word school comes from the Ancient Greek verb, scholazo. This meant to be at leisure, to have nothing to do! Come to think of it, in modern Greek it still means to be let out of school, to break up for the holidays. Perhaps in those days, you had to have time free from farming, hunting or fighting to be able to study. 

The word used for what we would nowadays call education (of boys more than girls in Ancient Athens) seems to have been paideia, which translates literally as the state of childhood. (This is as opposed to the state of being an infant (tropheia) during which time you were merely played with, protected and fed (in modern Greek trophi means food). There were those who never wanted to leave that stage, even then ...)

So the sons of Athenian citizens spent their paideia/childhood being taught the necessary skills for a 'good citizen and soldier'. These included reading and writing, mathematics, music, poetry (stories were usually told in verse, like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey), debating, weapons practice (for hunting as well as war), and hand-to-hand fighting. Of course they also had to become, and stay, as fit as possible, like modern commandos. 

The school rooms seem to have been near or attached to a gymnasium and the classes seem to have been small. Boys were accompanied to school by a male slave who helped them carry scrolls, tablets, instruments and weapons. This slave was usually either elderly and probably quite well educated himself, or a slightly younger boy.

Vase painting of a school-room, in about 480 BC. Notice that the boy slave is drawn a lot smaller than his young master. This was an accepted way of depicting slaves.  (J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California)

In The Boy with Two Heads, Themis goes to lessons with his boy-slave, known as Frog. Themis usually has lessons with a small group of boys, and they have a trainer for physical lessons at the gymnasium. But for music he has a private teacher because he wasn't very good at music before the story began ...

  Themis was shown into a small room to wait. Frog said, ‘Your mother wants you to have a short lesson today, so I’m to stay until you’re finished. I’ll be ready any time you’ve had enough.’ He winked and left for the slaves’ room ... 
  Themis followed Melissus into the music room. There was a large window in front of which two stools were set, and a stand for tablets. 
  ‘So, take your usual stool, Themis and let’s see what you remember,’ said Melissus, trying to sound enthusiastic.  
  Themis didn’t sit. ‘That is my problem, Mr Melissus. I don’t remember anything.’  
  ‘Oh come on.’ Melissus sat on his stool. His voice was tired and had a hard edge. ‘You always have excuses for not doing your practice. But I’ve never heard that one before.’  
  ‘Perhaps I am wasting your time altogether, sir, but I really do not remember anything from my life before my injury.’ Themis saw that Melissus was speechless, so he went on. ‘I’ve looked at the tablets that my mother says are from our lessons, but I do not understand them at all ...’

The music is the thicker, darker marks above the lines of words.
From papyrus P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510
Nor do I, but there are those who do

It's such a pity that no one thought to write down much about the girls of that time, or what was written down has got lost in the 2,400 years since then.

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