What is Schooling For? Part 1: Ephebia

What is schooling for? Trickier question than it seems on the surface.

When the Greeks set up schools for their young men coming of age, they were addressing the need to train them so that they would be ready to fight if there were a war. The Greeks knew that a key part of being a good soldier is wanting to fight. A man can have all the training in arms and all the physical conditioning in the world, but it will mean little unless he also is willing to kill and risk death for his city-state. Therefore, a major part of the training received at an ephebia was in Greek culture, why it was something to be loved and a thing worth dying for. In this sense, Pericles’s famous funeral oration as related by Thucydides is the epitome and completion of the training of the ephebes – the young men – as it is meant to show that those who died did not do so in vain, and that the city would show its gratitude by caring for the families left behind.

Such schools, called ‘ephebia’ were part of a cultural whole – the ephebia, the army, the city – all were intertwined and supported each other. Pericles was performing an ancient duty when he gave his speech, something leaders of Athens had performed after battles for centuries. He was reinforcing what had been taught to generations of Athenians: that they should be proud to be Greeks, and proud of their sons who gave their lives in the service of their city.

Alexander, student of Aristotle, believed being Greek was a matter of culture, not of blood. Therefore, when he conquered, he both put worthy locals in charge and established ephebia that would accept as students not just the sons of the Greeks but the sons of the conquered as well. By these means, Alexander managed to build an empire without having to leave large garrisons in all conquered territories. More impressive still, he managed to instill a culture across vast areas from Macedonia to Egypt and east  to India that survived the collapse of his military empire.

Koine Greek became the language of commerce and eventually of everyday life in most of that empire. If you learned Greek, you could communicate with millions of people across thousands of square miles – the Greek world was a much larger world for all the conquered peoples. Jewish scholars in Alexandria had even translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek within a century of Alexander’s conquest. This, despite the Jews resistance to Greekification, as recounted in Maccabees.

Alexander created and spread a culture that spoke a common language, valued personal merit above mere blood, held beauty and truth to be loved and excellence to be striven for. The Apostles traveled this world, able to communicate with Jews and pagans alike, and able to quote the Septuagint to make their points.

The ephebia began as military schools, and seemed to have always retained some of that character in most places. Around age 17, young men (1) would attend a year or two of  intense training, including physical training. This included all the usual Greek competitive sports – wrestling, running, javelin, and so on.(2) Yet passing on a culture not as a specimen to be studied, but as a set of shared passions to be lived, was always an indispensable part of these schools, so much so that, over time, as the military aspects waned, the cultural schooling if anything increased.

Ephebia date back probably to at least 500 B.C., and continued on in various forms for a thousand years. They existed for centuries before anyone bothered to write down much about how Greeks educated their sons before sending them off to boot camp. One comment by Plato via the mouth of Socrates expresses one attitude: Anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. By Socrates’s time, it seems, people had set themselves up as teachers of children – and this seems to be some sort of departure from tradition.

Ephebia were often funded by a prominent citizen as an honor. A rich man could do nothing more patriotic than supporting the training of the youth. The headmaster was most often the gym teacher – physical training of future soldiers was a key aspect of this schooling. Even in later centuries, when the military aspect had shrunk, the headmaster retained his gym teacher title.

How Greeks taught their younger children reading and writing is less well understood, since, at least in the earlier days, no one thought it worth writing about. But that they could read and write seems to have been a given. A hint or datapoint may be found in  St. Jerome’s advise to Laeta on how best to teach her daughter to read. He was advising a literate mother on how to best pass that literacy on to her own child. There was no discussion of sending the child to school. Disintermediation, as it were.

Jerome lived very much toward the end, perhaps past the end, of the ancient Greek tradition of ephebia, although the spirit of that tradition does seem to have lived on into the Eastern Empire for a few centuries at least.

At least early on, the ancient Greeks devoted little ink to describing how one would get their younger children ready for future schooling in the ephebia. They expected a small body of experts to train their teenage sons in military discipline and patriotism in one or two years – and these expectations were met. Alexander spread this concept to his conquered territories, and extended it to include the sons of the worthier barbarians. Thus, Greek language and culture were spread all through the conquered territories, so much so that even Jews, highly and passionately protective of their own culture, learned to speak Greek and translated their Scriptures into it.

Eventually, the Greek-speaking culture extended from Rome to India and the Black Sea down to North Africa, even though the conquests that had started this change happened centuries earlier, and the empire they created had long since been conquered itself or dissolved or both. This spread of course depended on the military conquests, but was unlikely to spread and stick the way it did without a formal method of passing it on open to many of the conquered. And we should never forget the power and beauty of the Greek culture itself, which, excepting the Jews, seems to have impressed and attracted many of the conquered.

Ephebia were designed to create soldiers and pass on culture to ensure the city had a competent, patriotic military. Greek genius recognized that you could not separate the physical from the cultural training if you wanted young men who were willing to risk death to defend their city. Some level of literacy and probably numeracy was assumed in the young men attending these schools. At least, there is no evidence that the three Rs made up any of the curriculum.

References:

A History of Education in Antiquity by Henri Marrou. Source of most of the information.

Also, various biographies of Alexander the Great that are sitting on the shelves at home, 1 Maccabees, background on the Septuagint that I googled – obviously need to tighten up the scholarship around here.

  1. Similar schooling for young women was indeed present, just not always as widely or consistently as for young men. Women also needed to understand their culture to be good Greek daughters, wives and mothers. As far as I can figure, the position of women in Greek culture varied widely over time and space. Sometimes, women and girls were treated as property, but it seems more often that free women, at least, held positions of some honor and respect. It does seem true that it is hard to develop a very admirable culture in any broad sense that doesn’t honor women.
  2. As recounted in 1 Maccabees, Greek sports, done in the nude, were one thing that pushed the Jews over the edge: “14 They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. 15 They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things.”

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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