Gateway to the Classics: Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago by Julia Darrow Cowles
Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago by  Julia Darrow Cowles

At School

"Now for school!" exclaimed Hiero, as he and Duris left the house early in the morning, their pedagogues, Philo and Theron, following them as usual.

"We go to the grammar school in the morning," Hiero explained, as they walked along, "and to the wrestling school in the afternoon, I am doing my best in wrestling and running, for I am looking forward to the Olympian games. I hope sometime to enter the contest for boys."

"That will be fine," exclaimed Duris, with sparkling eyes. "You ought to run well," he added, looking with admiration at Hiero's strong, graceful figure.

"Not better than many others," replied Hiero modestly. "But one would hardly hope to win in the first race he entered."

"It is well worth trying for, at any rate," responded Duris. Then, with a laugh, he said, "Look at the boy yonder, on stilts. He manages them pretty awkwardly. I think he is likely to have a fall."

"He surely will," said Hiero, laughingly, "and he is likely to be late at school."

"What is this?" asked Duris, as they came upon a group of boys standing about an old man who was seated at an angle of the road.

"Oh," said Duris, "it is a street school. The master is not very well fitted to teach, and he cannot afford to hire a room, but people who can pay little send their boys to him and he teaches them out of doors. I suppose they find it better than no school at all."

"I should think it would be difficult for the boys to keep their minds upon their lessons," said Duris.

"I should, too," responded Hiero, "but you see they have chosen a quiet street corner, where there is not likely to be much excitement."

"O-ho!" Hiero exclaimed, a moment later, pointing to the house they were passing. "My friend Cleon lives here, and I see by the wreath upon the door that he has a new brother."

"Ah," said Duris, "we have the same custom of hanging a wreath upon the door when a boy is born, in the Island. And do they wrap bands of wool about the door posts, in Athens, when a girl is born?"

"Yes," replied Hiero. "I suppose that is because the girls must spin and weave."

"Here come some of the younger boys of our school," said Hiero, dodging as he spoke, for the boys were running rapidly, and rolling hoops as they ran. The hoops had small bells set inside the circle and the bells chimed merrily as they were rolled.

The schoolroom which Hiero and Duris entered was plainly furnished. It had a seat for the master, and benches for the boys. Each pupil had a waxed tablet, upon which he wrote with a stylus. The sharp end of the stylus cut the letters in the wax; the flat end rubbed the wax smooth after the lesson was finished.

The master read to the pupils from the poems of Homer, and the boys wrote the lines on their tablets. Then they read the lines aloud, and afterward committed them to memory.


The master read to the pupils from the poems of Homer.

Homer was the greatest of the Greek poets. His best known poem was the Iliad, which told of the Trojan War. Though this poem was composed more than twenty-five hundred years ago, it is still one of the most wonderful poems ever written, and people to-day enjoy it just as much as the people of Greece did at the time that Hiero and Duris were going to school.

Some of the older pupils could repeat nearly the whole poem, for it aroused the enthusiasm of every Greek boy. It told of a great war between the Greeks and the Trojans, or people of Troy. This war lasted for nine years, and at last the Greeks were victorious.

The legends tell us that Homer, the poet who wrote the Iliad, was poor and blind. But he was a welcome guest wherever he went, for he sang his wonderful verses to the music of his lyre. Every host was glad to have such a singer entertain his guests.

One of the rulers of Athens, named Peisistratus, understood, better than any one else had done, the value of Homer's poems. He called together at Athens all persons who knew these poems, and he had them sing or recite them. Although this was long after Homer's death, his poems never had been written. They had been sung and recited year after year at festivals and gatherings of the people, and one person had learned them from another. Now Peisistratus had them written, in the form that had been given best, so that they should never after be forgotten or changed.

After that, many copies were made, each one written by hand on a parchment scroll.

So we may see why, in the schools such as Hiero and Duris attended, only the master had a copy of the poems, and the pupils had to write the lines as they were read to them, and afterward commit them to memory.

After the reading and writing the boys were given a lesson upon the lyre, for at the gatherings and entertainments at their homes the men of Greece often sang and played for their guests. The boys at school were taught the best music as a very important part of their education. This was done not only that they might entertain guests, but in order that they might become gentle and quiet in manner. Then, too, the boys were taught to sing so that they could join in the choruses in honor of the gods, and that they might learn the war songs of the soldier, for the Greek army sang whenever it went into battle.

The boys of the wealthier families in Athens did not expect to earn their living, or to take part in the business life of the city when they were grown, nor did their parents expect them to do so. Their time would be given to political and social affairs; to an enjoyment of art and music; and to the beauties and pleasures of life. If there should be war, many of them would go as officers or soldiers, but the everyday work and trade of the city was left to slaves, or to citizens of the poorer class, who were looked down upon because they must work for their daily living.

"Father," said Hiero, as the boys entered Hermippos' studio after school, "I had a pretty warm argument with Euphronius, at school, to-day. He taunted me by saying that you worked with your hands, as the potters and trades-people do, while Duris' father thought of marvellous plans for buildings, but had slaves to cut and lay the stones."

"And what reply did you make to him?" asked Hermippos with a smile, yet flushing a little.

Phorion, who was present, showed his interest also in Hiero's reply.

"I told him that you thought of such beautiful carvings and statues that you could find no one with skill enough to work them out for you."

"Very good!" exclaimed Phorion heartily. "I think this Euphronius you speak of could find little to say to that." And then he added more seriously: "Surely it is only the thoughtless and the ignorant who can confound the work of a sculptor with that of a potter, or a maker of sandals."

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