The Greeks - Ancient and medieval children’s texts - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams


The Greeks


The genres and some narrative themes from the children’s texts of Mesopotamia and Egypt also became a part of the Ancient Greek educational enterprise. To date I have discovered only two Greek writers who explicitly addressed works to children, Sappho of Lesbos (born c. 612 BC) and Theogenis of Megara (fl. 520 BC); these works were often erotic. Exactly what Sappho’s function as an educator of prepubescent girls was is a subject of debate, and her works did not become a standard part of the curriculum until late. Theogenis, however, became a standard school text and was used for children learning to read, in part because the Greek is simple and in part because those poems that are not erotic are primarily didactic. The collection of poems and gnomic maxims attributed to him consists of material by others as well as his own, but the core of his work belongs to the tradition of Mesopotamian and Egyptian wisdom literature.

We know a good deal about Greek educational theory and practice because education, and the texts connected with it, were subjects of prime importance to such Greek thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes, Xenephon, Aristotle and later Plutarch. This account is largely limited to Athens, about which we have the most information. There, education was initially limited to free male citizens of 100 per cent Athenian descent, and girls were taught only the rudiments at home until the Hellenistic period. There is evidence that in Ionia and Sparta the women of the upper classes, at least, had more educational opportunities and greater freedom (Pomeroy 1975: 56). In Athens, music (which included choral recitation and dance) and gymnastics were initially more important than reading, writing and arithmetic, but Solon in the early sixth century required everyone by law to teach his son letters. At the end of the battles with Persia (c. 450 BC), and the beginning of what Henri Marrou (1956) calls a ‘scribal’ culture, the emphasis shifted to what we think of as a more standard curriculum. But Greek culture was essentially oral and conservative, and recitation and memorisation remained major elements (see Small 1997: passim).

Boys did not go to school before the age of seven and spent their early childhoods playing games and listening to lullabies and stories: fables, myths, legends, and tales about talking animals, witches and wizards. Such stories were part of the many religious rites, particularly choral performances of the Homeric poems (in which children of both sexes participated), and became the material, particularly fables, out of which writing exercises were created later in the curriculum. Children were taken at a young age to puppet shows as well, and to the adult theatre where they sat with their mothers in the women’s section. Thus when students came to the myths and legends in written form in the poetry, above all of Homer, but also of Alcman, Callinus, Pindar, Solon, Theogenis and Tyrtaeus, they were already familiar with the plots and characters and had much of Homer and the lyric poetry memorised. Once students had learned the alphabet and words, familiar passages were read aloud by the teacher, written down on wax tablets by the student, who in the higher grades was sometimes asked to summarise or expand them in his own words, checked by the teacher, recited aloud by the class, and finally read aloud by the individual student. There was no silent reading.

Much has survived from the Hellenistic period, including school anthologies, that reaffirms the observations of Aristotle and others on classical educational practice. In particular we have a third-century BC nine-foot scroll that served as a teacher’s manual (see Marrou 1956: 151-3). At the age of fourteen, unless they were too poor, boys went on to study science (music, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry) and literature: Xenephon’s Anabasis and Cyropaidea (an appealing romance about the boyhood of Cyrus, King of Persia). Later the historians Herodotus and Thucydides were added. Of the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, only those plays have survived that were part of the educational canon; the same is true of Aristophanes and what fragments remain of the early lyric poets such as Sappho. At eighteen, boys were considered men and entered the army for two years’ compulsory military service. Few went on to study advanced literature, rhetoric, public speaking and philosophy. When we speak, then, of earlier Greek children’s literature, with the exception of those two poets who wrote poems dedicated to children, Sappho and Theogenis, and perhaps certain fables, we are speaking of literature first adapted for children before they were literate, and then later adopted for them for use in the schools.