Rhetoric, or the art of using words effectively, was closely linked to education in ancient Greece. Even after the introduction of the written alphabet in the 700s B.C., the Greeks transmitted information primarily through public speech. During the 400s B.C., training in rhetoric increased rapidly, especially in Athens. This training developed into an organized body of teaching material and became the foundation of education in western Europe well into the Middle Ages.

Education in Early Greece. There was little formal schooling or group instruction in early Greece. Some young aristocrats* may have had tutors. In the Iliad, for example, the Greek warrior Achilles had two tutors, Phoenix and Chiron. Their instruction was very elementary and nontechnical. Older noblemen advised younger men on appropriate behavior in society. Young men not only had to learn how to be warriors but also how to speak well in public.

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

Formal education appeared in the 600s B.C., when Athenian children first received instruction in gymnastics and music. Even though the formal teaching of reading and writing did not begin until the early classical* period, increasing numbers of citizens in the larger Greek cities were literate*. Laws were publicly inscribed in stone for everyone to read. This marked an enormous change in the way cultural information was transmitted. Once writing replaced oral communication, people more easily reflected on and analyzed events that occurred around them. They kept records and began to create works of philosophy*, science, and history. Writing became an important method for conveying knowledge, and literary education developed during the 400s B.C., as did the formal study of rhetoric.

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* literate able to read and write

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

Education in Classical Athens. In Athens, elementary schooling was associated with the arrival of democracy. Although formal instruction had been reserved for the aristocracy in earlier periods, starting in the 400s B.C., the boys and girls of ordinary citizens also received an education. Greek instruction consisted of three parts, usually held in different schools. Gymnastics, games, and physical education were taught in an enclosed courtyard called a palaestra. Teachers at the lyre school emphasized music and dance, and they also taught the works of lyric* poets. The third school included reading, writing, and mathematics. Boys and girls were taught separately. Parents paid fees for instruction, and children were not required to attend all three courses. Teachers were free men, though they were often assisted by slaves. Teachers disciplined their students with canes to keep order, and pupils regularly proved their skills in public competitions. Slaves, entrusted by families to help bring up children, always accompanied boys to school.

During the second half of the 400s B.C., many young men between the ages of 13 and 17 attended courses taught by Sophists, who provided a higher level of education. The Sophists were teachers who traveled from city to city, and they were drawn to Athens during the time of the statesman Pericles, when the city was a center of culture and democracy. They were the first to call themselves professional educators in higher education, offering courses in rhetoric, philosophy, and science.

The Sophists raised important philosophical questions and greatly influenced secondary education and intellectual history. Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, and other Sophists called into question some of the basic beliefs in Greek society. For example, they saw a difference between what was naturally and truly just and what simply appeared to be just as a result of local customs and traditions. They also influenced the way in which people thought and argued. The Sophists examined the complexities of language, and they developed rules for public speaking. They not only brought a new level of rigor and logical organization to speech making, but they also experimented with ways of making prose* style artistic.

* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song

* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry

Plato Is shown, at the center of this mosaic, participating in discussions with his students. In his famous work, the Republic, on the political structure of the state, he discussed a system of education designed to produce the best possible citizens. His school, the Academy, marked a major departure from other Greek schools with its focus on discussion and knowledge for its own sake. The Academy is considered the first true institution of higher education.

Many Athenians criticized the Sophists for upsetting the foundation of their society and for interfering with the minds of young men. Such critics considered the Sophists impious* and irresponsible. One of their most severe critics was the philosopher Socrates, who distrusted the Sophists’ claims that they were able to teach everything. (The Sophist Protagoras claimed that even virtue could be taught.) In spite of their critics, however, the Sophists made a very significant contribution to the development of education and rhetoric.

Teachers and Rhetoric in the 300s B.C. in the 300s B.C., the principal education of Greek youth took place in schools with professional teachers. Rhetoric was the most important part of formal instruction. Some of these schools were led by great public speakers and philosophers, whose teachings formed a bridge between the classical tradition and the Hellenistic* world of the next three centuries.

Although Isocrates wrote many judicial and political speeches, his primary importance was as an educator. He opened a school in Athens, which he headed for 50 years. He shared with Socrates the belief that rhetoric was closely allied to the study and practice of civic virtue, and he attempted to produce civic leaders. His students wrote about political and moral subjects and were required to criticize Isocrates’ own work. His admiration for Greek literature, history, culture, and their connection to public speaking shaped education for centuries to come.

* impious lacking respect for the gods or tradition

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

Plato was a pupil of Socrates. Unlike other schools of the day, Plato’s Academy was organized as a community—with permanent buildings, specialist teachers, and an integrated curriculum*—that lasted long after his own lifetime. Students paid no fees. According to Plato’s theory of education, as set out in his writings the Republic and the Laws, everything in the ideal state served the interests of the state. In his ideal curriculum, students studied literature, music, and mathematics from ages 10 to 18, science from 20 to 30, and dialectic* from 30 to 35. The student then spent 15 years as an administrator for the state.

In fact, however, the curriculum of the Academy was more traditional. It included rhetoric, science, mathematics, and philosophy. The focus of Plato’s Academy was on knowledge for its own sake rather than on training to become a proper gentleman or a model citizen. There were no fixed curriculums and no degrees. Students met in small discussion groups, which were often led by the students themselves. The Academy marked the beginning of genuine higher education.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, entered the Academy at the age of 17 and continued as a member for 20 years. He later founded his own school, the Lyceum, which was the first genuine research institution. He gave up the discussion and dialectic that had been such an important part of the Academy, believing that empirical* research was more important. The Lyceum collected and classified information and published the results in an organized form. The preservation of documents, specimens, and books was a tremendous new achievement that was made possible, in part, through the patronage* of Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s work Rhetoric, a comprehensive survey of Greek rhetoric as an art, was used by all future writers on the subject.

The 300s B.C. were a high point not only for rhetorical theory and technique but also for great speeches. The art of public speaking included courtroom speeches and political orations. Demosthenes and Aeschines were among the many outstanding speakers of the day.

Education and Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period. With the conquest of Greece and the Persian Empire by Philip II and Alexander, the power of the old Greek cities declined. However, new opportunities arose in the new Greek cities of Egypt and the Near East. The ability to speak and write well in Greek was a mark of distinction, and during the early Hellenistic period, the Greek educational system was set firmly in place.

During this period, education occurred in one school, and students were organized into different age groups. The primary school was for children between the ages of 7 and 14. Although music and gymnastics still played an important role in education, the most important part of the curriculum was reading and writing. The primary school teacher, known as the grammatistes, was still paid by the parents. Students learned letters and words by repetition and memorization. Since Greek was a foreign language for most children during the Hellenistic period, learning to read and write Greek was a difficult process.

In secondary school, which began about the age of 14, students learned the classics of Greek literature that had been selected by the scholars at Alexandria. The epics of Homer and the tragedies of the playwright Euripides were the most important, but other writers of the classical period were taught as well. The students learned how to write in classical Greek style. Little is known about advanced education during the Hellenistic period, but students often concluded their education by delivering practice speeches. The institutions founded by the educators of the 300s B.C. continued, and the famous Library and Museum of Alexandria, as well as similar institutions in other Hellenistic cities, became centers of research and intellectual thought.

* curriculum program of studies

* dialectic method of learning that consists of discussion or debate to determine the truth or an opinion or theory

* empirical founded on experience or observation

* patronage guarding, protecting, or supporting a person or institution


Being an educator in ancient Greece was not without its dangers. The great philosopher Socrates was executed by his fellow Athenians for "corrupting the young." According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, Damon, who was tutor to the young Pericles, was banished from Athens for ten years. Although he claimed to be simply a teacher of the lyre, Damon was also believed to have taught Pericles about politics, which Athenian citizens considered dangerous meddling in the affairs of the city.

In the Hellenistic period, public speaking lost some of the political and ethical functions it had served in classical Greece. No longer designed to sway the opinions of large numbers of citizens, speeches became increasingly more ceremonial and literary. The content of a speech was no longer as important as the style in which it was written. During the Hellenistic period, the study of rhetoric consisted of students following a set of rigid rules, modeled on the great speakers and writers of the classical period. Although this did not stimulate creative new work, these rules helped preserve Greek thought and literature, and Greek was preserved into the Middle Ages in Europe. All educated persons in ancient Rome were expected to be fluent in Greek as well as in Latin. (See also Classical Studies; Education and Rhetoric, Roman.)

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