Recently, I have been enjoying an old book on ancient Greek education. In it, the author discusses the early education of Greek children in the ancient world. He explains that the education was based on the writings of the poets, and particularly of Homer. I believe homeschooling parents will find this helpful.
“The study of the epic poets, especially of the Iliad and Odyssey, was the earliest intellectual exercise of schoolboys, and, in the case of fairly educated parents, even anticipated the learning of letters. For the latter is never spoken of as part of a mother’s or of home education. Reading was not so universal or so necessary as it now is; and as it was in earlier days an accomplishment only gradually becoming an essential, its acquisition seems always to have been intrusted to a professional grammarian. Of course, careful parents must have inculcated early lessons from poetry before that age. We may assume that books of Homer were read or recited to growing boys, and that they were encouraged or required to learn them off by heart.
This is quite certain to all who estimate justly the enormous influence ascribed to Homer, and the principles assumed by the Greeks to have underlain his work. He was universally considered to be a moral teacher, whose characters were drawn with a moral intent, and for the purpose of example or avoidance. In Plato’s Ion we distinctly find something supernatural, some distinct inspiration by the muse, asserted of Homer; and this inspiration was even passed on, like some magnetic force, from bard to bard. These ancient poets were even supposed to have uttered words deeper and holier than they themselves knew, being driven by some divine estrus to compose what they could not have said in their natural state. Accordingly, the Iliad and Odyssey were supposed to contain all that was useful, not only for godliness, but for life. All the arts and sciences were to be derived (by interpretation) from these sacred texts.”
When we read of the place that Homer’s works held in ancient Greek education, it seems that we find the same idea St. Paul shared regarding the Sacred Scriptures, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The works of Homer were the Greeks’ “Bible”, and their education was comparable to that of the ancient Jews and Christians. The author continues,
“Hence, when it occurs to a modern reader that the main superiority of our education over the Greek is the early training in the Scriptures–a training that is decaying in earnestness every day—an old Greek would deny the fact, and say that they, too, had an inspired volume, written for their learning, in which all the moral virtues and all the necessaries of faith were contained. The charge of objectionable passages in the old epic would doubtless be retorted by a similar charge against the old Semitic books.
It is well-nigh impossible that in the higher families throughout Greece this moral training should not have begun at home; and there must have been many Greek mothers able and anxious to help, though history is silent about them, and does not even single out individual cases, like the Roman Cornelia, where mothers influenced the moral and intellectual training of their children. We find both Plato and Cicero laying stress upon the purity of speech preserved in the conversation of cultivated women, whose conservative life and tastes rejected slang and novelty, and thus preserved the language pure and undefiled.”
Thus, the poetry of Homer, joined with the moral example set by home-schooling mothers, made up the early education of children in ancient Greece.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about education in Ancient Greece.
If you’ like to see the old book I’m reading, see Old Greek Education by J.P. Mahaffy.
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy