Socrates teaching
For the most part, upper class youths were the only Greek children who received an education. Teachers, in most cases, were either educated slaves or tutors hired out for a fee. Most children began their studies at age seven. but there were no strict rules governing when a child's schooling began or how long it should last.

In the classroom a tablet and slate were used for writing and an abacus was used for calculating. Students wrote by hand onto papyrus scrolls with ink made of soot, resin, wine dregs and cuttlefish. Schools were sometimes set up in front of shops by street teachers who were paid a few coins by noblemen to teach their children.**

In the 7th and 6th century B.C. education was thought of as preparation for war and membership in the upper classes. Sports and athletic were taught to prepare boys for war and music and dance was learned by both boys and girls for acceptance among the elite. In the 5th century B.C. the Athenians developed schools that were not all that much different from those today. Younger students were taught reading, writing and arithmetic and older students studied philosophy, rhetoric and geometry. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A typical upper class education included instruction in poetry, music, oratory and gymnastics. The emphasis was more on the spoken word than the written word. At the gymnasiums, men taught boys about their duties to the community, proper behavior and how to carry oneself as a man.

The Lyceum was one of the great schools of philosophy in ancient Greece along with Plato's Academy and the school created by the Cynics after the death of Socrates in 339 B.C. See philosophy.

For the most part there were few established centers of learning, nothing like modern universities anyway. Teachers tended to teach wherever they could: in their own homes, those of wealthy patrons, city hall or rooms in public baths.

Book: A History of Education in Antiquity by M. Marrou.

World’s First University in Alexandria?

Alexandria Library Inscription
Before the library was built in Alexandria, Ptolemy I founded the Mouseion, a research institute which some regard as the world’s first university. It had lecture halls, laboratories and guest rooms for visiting scholars. Archimedes, Aruistarchus of Samos and Euclid all worked there. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, April 2007]

Excavations in downtown Alexandria in the 1990s and 2000s revealed lecture halls from the Mouseion. The area that has been reconstructed thus far shows a row of rectangular halls. Each has a a separate entrance into the street and horse-shoe-shaped stone bleachers. The neat rows of rooms lie in a portico between the Greek theater and the Roman baths. The facilities were built about A.D. 500.

Grzegorz Majcherek. A Polish archaeologist from Warsaw University who is working the site, told Smithsonian magazine, he believes the rooms and hall “were used for higher education---and the level of education was very high.” Texts in other archives show that professors were well paid with public funds and they were forbidden from teaching private lessons except on their days off. There is also evidence that both Christian and pagan scholars worked there.”

Perhaps similar institutions existed in Antioch, Constantinople, Beirut or Rome but no evidence of them has turned up. Majcherek believes Mouseion may have attracted many scholars from the Athens Academy, which closed in A.D. 529. There is some evidence that intellectual activity continued after the arrival of Islam in the 7th century but things later quieted down and likely shifted to Damascus or Baghdad.

Plato's Academy

Plato's Academy
In 387 B.C., after returning to Athens a second time, Plato founded the Academy, about a mile outside of Athens, in a garden near a gymnasium and grove sacred to the Hero Akedemus (also known as Hekademus), the source of the name Academy. At first Plato’s Academy was little more than a place where students gathered. Over time, Plato reputation as a lecturer grew and he received enough financial support from the aristocracy to have buildings constructed. A nobleman named Dionysuis II reportedly gave Plato the equivalent of half a million dollars.

The Academy has been called the first think tank and the first university but it had some unique features. There was no admission and no tuition fees. Plato got by on donations and presents from the rich parents of some of his students. The students reportedly dressed in elegant clothes in what were pleasant bucolic surroundings. They were encouraged to live ascetically and be celibate. Plato continued teaching at the Academy until his death at age 80.

The atmosphere of the Academy was quite different than the marketplace where Socrates held court and gymnasiums where they the Sophists lectured.. Students came from all over. They usually stayed for four years. Aristotle stayed for 20 years. The curriculum focused on mathematics and the pursuit of truth while its rival school in Athens, Isocrates, taught rhetoric and persuasion.

Plato's Academy provided a model for universities and social and scientific academies that developed later. His students, which included Demosthenes, Aristotle, Lycurgus and several women, studied mathematics, philosophy, law and music.

Aristotle’s Lyceum

Aristotle teaching
Alexander the Great
Aristotle established the Lyceum in in Athens, He taught there from the age of 49 until his retirement at 62. The Lyceum was one of the great schools of philosophy in ancient Greece along with Plato's Academy and the school created by the Cynics after the death of Socrates in 339 B.C. The Lyceum was more than a school. It had an extensive library, gardens and a museum. The library was extensive. Some have called it the first well-organized library. After he died his heirs ordered the books and scrolls buried to keep them out of the hands of his rivals.

Aristotle liked to stroll around the garden while he was teaching. Some people called the Lyceum the Peripatetic School (the Walking Around School) because of Aristotle’s teaching methods. Morning classes were for serious students. Evening ones for anyone who wanted to come. Afterwards there were often symposium---festive meals---were conducted according to Aristotle’s rules.

In the classes, students didn’t just listen to lectures and engage in discussions they also studied the habits of insects and dissected animals. In response to students that complained about the smell and guts, Aristotle told them: “The consideration of the lower forms of life ought not to excite a childish repugnance. In all natural things there is something to move wonder.” Aristotle and his students were encouraged to take notes on everything and share them with each other.

Aristotle spent twelve years at the Lyceum. In 323 B.C., during a wave of anti-Macedonian feeling, that followed the death of Alexander the Great, Aristotle was accused of impiety and forced to flee Athens. He ended up in Chaleis on the island of Euboea, where he died the next year at the age of 63. He was rich when he died. He left most of his money to his family and freed some of his slaves.

Alexandria Library as an Intellectual Center

The Alexandria Library also contained a museum, or literally "a Place of Museum." Unlike a modern museum it was gathering places for scholars and intellectuals. According to one classics professor, "it had a dining hall in which they took their meals in common, private studies, laboratories, a cloisterlike promenade for thoughtful strolling, and so forth, all funded by generous endowment from the crown." Strabo wrote, "They formed a community who held property in common with priest appointed by the kings."

Among the great minds who worked there were the mathematicians Eratosthenes and Euclid, the physicists Archimedes, the poet Theocritus and, and the philosophers Zeno and Epicurus. Euclid completed his famous Elements at the library. Eratosthenes, who made his famous measurement of earth's circumference, worked as a librarian of the library. Others worked out the principal of the steam engine, dissected human bodies and worked out the brain was the center of the nervous system and intelligence.

Alexandria Library

The Alexandria Library was "the seedbed of the ancient Greek Renaissance.” Scholars there mapped the stars and planets, created geometry, came up with the idea of the "leap years," revived Plato and Aristotle, translated works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and collected Buddhist, Jewish and Zoroastrian texts. Greek Grammar by Dionysus Thrax was used as a guide to grammar and style until the 12th century.

One of the greatest achievements was the essential creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, when they translated the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. The scholars were brought together by Ptolemy I. According to a Jewish legend, he asked each of the Jewish scholars individually to translate the whole Hebrew Bible and miraculously the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

Health in Ancient Greece

20120222-Health Star_of_life.svg.png
Health Star of life
Research by anthropologist J. Lawrence Angel indicates Greco-Roman times men averaged around 5 foot 6 and women averaged around 5 foot 0. People who 5 foot 10 were considered exceptionally tall. In contrast, 30,000 years ago men averaged 5 feet 11 and women averaged 5 foot 6. In 1960, American men averaged 5 foot 9.

The life expectancy of a newborn Greek baby was 21 years. Half of all children died before the age of 15. If a female lived beyond that age she was expected to live to 38; a male to 41.

Recent excavation of burial sites in southern Italy dating between 580 and 250 B.C. show that ancient Greeks had a high infant mortality rate and almost four out five children likely suffered from life-threatening diseases.

Like the Egyptians, the Greeks believed that consciousness resided in the heart, a view that would prevailed through the Middle Ages.

Health Care in Ancient Greece

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Roman catheters
Greeks initially believed that illness and poor health were punishments delivered to them by an angry Apollo and the only way to get well again was to pray to Apollo. Health-restoring powers were also ascribed to other gods and goddesses. Apollo’s son Aesculapius, who reportedly learned how to keep people healthy from a centaur, was the God of Medicine. Greeks often prayed to him and his daughter Panacea (source of the word “panacea”) and his son Hygeia (source of the word “hygiene”).

Priests in Aesculapius temples of health are said to have ushered patients into special rooms and ordered them to sleep. When they awoke a treatment was based on their dreams. Cures that were successful were recorded as miracles.

Medicine was developed in conjunction with the strenuous training of athletes. The Ptolemaic Greeks created a great center of medical scholarship and treatment in Alexandria.

Hippocrates and the Hippocratic Oath

Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) was an ancient Greek physician. He was born on the island of Kas (Cos) and was known as a superb doctor. He is credited with distinguishing between superstition and medicine, debunking the myth-based causes of illness, and defining of ethical behavior on which the Hippocratic oath is based.

But Hippocrates was definitely a man of his time. He is considered the source of the humor, elemental condition and imbalance theory of medicine, which he explained his book Affections . He erroneously observed that tooth "pain derives from mucous insinuating itself under the roots of the teeth. Teeth are eroded and become decayed partly by mucous, and partly by food, when they are by nature weak and badly fixed in the mouth.”

In 412 B.C., Hippocrates described an outbreak a disease that was probably influenza in the city of Perinthus. It was the first recorded incident of the flu. The disease is believed to have originated with ducks, which were first domesticated around 2500 B.C.

Hippocratic Oath
The Hippocratic oath begins: "I swear by Apollo the physician...and I take witness to the all the gods, and the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgement the following oath: To consider dear to me as my parents him who taught this art; to live in common with him and if necessary to share my goods with him; to look up his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art if they so desire without fee or written promise."

Hippocratic oath then goes: "I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone...I will preserve the purity of my life and my art...In every home I will enter only for the good of my patients."

Kos (15 hours from Pireaus, 3½ hours from Rhodes, 2 hours to Bodrum Turkey) is said to be the hometown Hippocrates , who is said to have taught his pupils in a square that now lies in the shadow of the medieval fortress in the town of Kos. In the square is a huge plane tree supported by column that many will tell you was the same tree that Hippocrates lectured under. Don't believe them: plane trees live only 500 years and Hippocrates lectured over 2,300 years ago.

Among the ruins found in Kos are Aesculapium, containing Hippocrates's medical school and the 4th century infirmary of Antiquity. The ruins sit on the side of a hill and consist of three terraces connected by a staircase. At the bottom of the lower terrace is a spring that Hippocrates former patients drank from.


Galen (A.D. 130-200), a physician from Pergamum in Asia Minor, is considered the father of medicine. For 1,400 years, doctors in ancient Rome, Medieval Europe and the great Islamic empires based their treatment on literature written by Galen, who saw the inside of a body only a few times and the closest he had ever come to examining a cadaver (a practice considered taboo in Greek and Roman times) was looking at a skeleton picked clean by vultures on the side of a road. His anatomy texts were based primarily on the dissections of pigs and monkeys. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Galen began studying medicine at the age of fifteen and continued his studies until he was 28 with professors of medicine in Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria. His first job as a doctor was patching up maimed and wounded gladiators in Pergamum, and he probably learned more practical information from this job than he did doing anything else. Later he treated the rich in Rome and became the court physician of philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius.∞

Galen was one of the most prolific writers of antiquity. He produced five hundred treatises in Greek---on anatomy, physiology, rhetoric, grammar, drama and philosophy. More than a hundred of these works survive, including a treatise indexing his own writings.∞

Galen once conceded if "he had not called on the mighty in the morning and dined with them in the evening" he probably wouldn't have had much success. Despite his notoriety and wealth he despised material possessions and once said all he really needed in life was two garments, two slaves, and two sets of utensils.

Galen’s Theory of Medicine and Observations

Galen pig vivisection
Galen believed that air was transformed into pneuma by the lungs and bile was changed into blood in the liver. As the pneuma and blood moved through the body they evolved into higher forms. When the blood left the liver, for example, it carried "natural spirit." When the natural spirit entered the left ventricle of the heart it became "vital spirit," which in turn became "animal spirit" when it passed through the brain. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Each soul, according to Galen, possessed faculties corresponding to their "pneuma-producing power." The heart, liver and veins possessed a blood-making faculty, and the stomach had a digestive faculty. Like Hippocrates and Aristotle, Galen believed the driving force behind the entire body was innate heat , which distinguished the living from the dead. The source of most of the heat was the heart, thought to be the hottest organ in the body.∞

Among Galen's observations were that arteries carried blood, not air, and that blood didn't flow, it sloshed back and forth within the circulatory system. The Greeks and Romans believed that three "souls," or pneuma , governed the body: the rational in the brain ruled sensation and motion; the irascible in the heart controlled the passions; and concupiscible in the liver produced nutrition.

In his book On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body Galen noted that men were more advanced than animals "not because he has hands or that he is the most intelligent...but because he is the most intelligent and has hands." Galen, Hippocrates and other believed in physiognomy, the practice of defining a person's character or illness though reading his or her face. ∞

Galen false presumptions endured for centuries. The views purported by Galen were so widely followed that when descriptions in his book did not match up with observations, it was believed that human body had changed since the book was written, not that Galen's work was flawed.

Galen coined the word gonorrhea (meaning "a flow of seed"). He also tied off an artery of a living animal in a famous experiment to prove that blood vessels contained blood not "spirit."

Treatment and Surgery in Ancient Greece

20120222-Health Bronze_forceps.jpg
Bronze forceps
Disease was presumed to be caused by an imbalance of the body's four humors: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. The words sanguine (from the Latin word for blood), phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic all originated as descriptions as of these imbalances. A person's 'temperament' was his unique balance of the four cardinal humors and our word 'temperature' come from an attempt to measure this balance.

A set of Greek medical instruments consisted of catheters, a rectal speculum, scoops, probes, hooks, forceps, traction hooks and bone chisels. Cauterizing (burning of part of a body to remove or close off a part of it) was a standard medical procedure in ancient times. Brain-swelling was sometimes relived with trephination, an ancient medical technique in which holes were cut into the brain to relieve pressure. It was procedure thought to be only performed on the elite.

Broken bones, surprisingly, were often not set, meaning that victims were disfigured for the rest of the lives. Other times bones were set with skill. "This was a remarkable surgical procedure," an archaeologist told National Geographic, displaying a thigh bone from an ancient Greek skeleton. "Someone used a lot of force to pull the lower part of the broken bone down, reset it, and keep it in place for weeks against the enormous pressures of contracting muscles."

Studies have shown that providing clean water and sanitation can bring about tremendous benefits. People live longer, stay healthier and become productive while health care costs go down. People have realized the importance of clean water for some time. A tomb from ancient Egypt dated to 1450 B.C. depicts an elaborate filtering system. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans devoted a lot of energy and resources to clean water.

Ancient Greek Medicines

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Votive relief Asklepios
Ancient Greek medicines consisted primarily of herbs and plants. Seeds of the autumn crocus were used by the ancient Greeks as a treatment for gout. Quill was used as a heart stimulant and fennel and senna were taken for heartburn. To get rid of worms doctors prescribed tansy and belladonna. In the first century A.D., Pedanius Dioscorides, the Galen of pharmacology, noted that juices from willow bark and leaves eased aches related to clots and fever. In the 19th century aspirin was synthesized from the same bark and trees. In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates also described the use of willow bark.

Dioscorides' medical manual, which consisted of descriptions and drawings of hundreds of plants and herbs, was followed by doctors for 1,600 years. He wrote the berry of the juniper was good for "the stomach, infirmities of the thorax, coughs, inflammations, poisons of venomous beasts." The common radish was "welcome to the mouth, but not good for the stomach, besides it causes belching." Mandrakes was recommended for anesthesia but it was advised not to prepare too much for "they make men speechless" for days at a time.

Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), a Greek naturalist and philosopher, was one of the first to write about the use of opium poppy juice. In his time the juice of the poppy was taken orally. Some Romans grew it in their gardens.

For snake bites the physician Nicander Addie recommended the victim to drink wine with a viper's head. Aristotle recommended eating the snake while Pliny suggested rubbing the wounds with snake intestines. For a spider bite Nicander prescribed a mixture of wine, sheep dung, rabbit curd and salt.

Disease in Ancient Greece

Funerary helmet
Epidemics of malaria swept through the ancient world when the water table was raised, creating swamps where mosquitos could breed. Greeks and Romans used mosquito netting.

Tuberculosis has long been called the silent killer and has been known since the birth of history. It ravaged ancient Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks described it with the word phthisis , which means for a living body to “shrivel with intense heat as if placed in a flame.” Later the Romans ascribed the term consumere “to eat up or devour” to it.

The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks are all believed to have suffered from malaria. Some Egyptian mummies show signs of it. Symptoms of the disease were described by Aristotle, Homer, Socrates and Hippocrates and in Nei Ching, the Chinese canon of medicine, which dates back to 2700 B.C. The decline of some Greek city states and the fall of Rome have been attributed to malaria. Alexander the Great likely died of malaria. It may have stopped the armies of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.

Many scholars believe that syphilis was introduced to Europe from the New World after Columbus returned from America. There is evidence, however, that was already present in southern Italy in Greek times. One archaeologist showed National Geographic a skeleton full of little holes. "These lesion," the scientist said, "are indicative of the microorganism that causes syphilis---a spirochete called Trepenema . We see a lot of it. Forty-seven skeletons out of 272 show signs of trepeonemal infection."

Archaeologists can determine high fevers suffered during childhood on skeletons.

Greeks believed a sneeze was sign of imminent danger and an indication of the expulsion of a person' vital force and every effort was made to keep them from sneezing.

Tuberculosis has long been called the silent killer and has been known since the birth of history. It ravaged ancient Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks described it with the word phthisis , which means for a living body to “shrivel with intense heat as if placed in a flame.” Later the Romans ascribed the term consumere “to eat up or devour” to it.

The word “cholera” is derived from choler , the Greek word for yellow bile. Hippocrates described cholera as a post-childhood disease that could be treated by eating goat meat (most likely he was talking about a milder form of diarrhea).

Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

Funerary lekythos
The After the Peloponnese War began, in 430 B.C., Athens was devastated by a mysterious plague that ripped through the city-state's military, killed Pericles and affected the course of the Peloponnese war.

No one is sure exactly what disease the plague of Athens was. Some believe it was the Ebola virus, or perhaps the bubonic plague. It had same symptoms of typhus fever but otherwise was not like any known disease.

The best account of the plague was written by Thucydides. He wrote: "The disease began, it is said, in Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and suddenly fell upon the city of Athens...Athenians suffered...hardship owing to the crowding into the city of the people from the country districts...Bodies of dying men upon another, and half dead rolled about in the streets and , in their longing for water, near all the fountains. The temples too , in which they had quartered themselves, were full of corpses of those who died in them."

Symptoms of the Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

Thucydides wrote: "Suddenly while in good health, men were seized first with intense heat of the head, and redness in the mouth, both the throat and the tongue, immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural fetid breath."

"In the next stage , sneezing and hoarsnesss came on , an in a short time the disorder descended to the chest, attended by severe coughing. And when it settled in the stomach that was upset, and vomits of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, there also attended by great distress; and in most cases ineffectual retching followed by violent convulsions...Externally the body was very hot to the touch ; it was not pale but reddish, livid, and breaking out in small blisters and ulcers.”

"Internally it was consumed by such heat that the patients could not bear to have on them the lightest covering...and would have liked to throw themselves into cold water...When the patients died, as most of them did on the seventh to ninth day from internal heat, they still had some strength left."

Among the illnesses that have been suggested or proposed are dysentery, smallpox, measles, influenza, anthrax, typhus, bubonic plague and a host of other illnesses including an Ebola-like virus. Most of the diseases don't pass the test for one reason or another.

Ancient Greek Dentistry

The most common form of dental treatment in ancient times seems to have been tooth extraction. Aristotle obviously had not bothered to look first when he declared that men had more teeth than women.

On the subject of dentistry, Hippocrates wrote in Affections , "the bones, the teeth and the tendons have cold as an enemy and, warmth as a friend; because it is from these parts that comes the spasms...that cold induces, heat removes."

Many Greeks suffered from painful tooth decay. "There were no dentists to extract teeth," one archaeologist who examined ancient Greek skeletons told National Geographic, "People were walking around with raging toothaches. We've seen many teeth completely decayed or lost."

Hippocrates erroneously observed that tooth "pain derives from mucous insinuating itself under the roots of the teeth. Teeth are eroded and become decayed partly by mucous, and partly by food, when they are by nature weak and badly fixed in the mouth.”

Women of Amfiss by Alma-Tadema

Hysteria and Mental Illness in Ancient Greece

In the 4th century B.C., Hippocrates said that "madness" was caused by "moistness" in the brain

The word "hysteria" comes from Greek word for "uterus." The condition was regarded as a sort of "womb furie" that produced the symptoms such as confusion, laziness, depression, headaches, forgetfulness, stomach upsets, ticklishness, cramps, insomnia, weepiness, palpitations of the heart, and muscle spasms.

Hysteria and women had been linked together since 2000 B.C., when healers observed that woman did nor release fluids like men during sexual intercourse and reasoned that fluids accumulate in the uterus where they caused a variety of problems and irrational behavior. Plato believed than in serious cases their uterus could fill with so much fluid it would become death and strangle its owner. These views persisted into the Victorian era.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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