BMCR 2003.05.15

Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt

, Gymnastics of the mind : Greek education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xiii, 270 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781400844418 $39.50.

I try to imagine being a young Greek of a moderately well-to-do family growing up in Egypt in the second century BC. What is my experience of “schooling”? Do I go to an actual school, a physical building or perhaps a space in the open air? How many other children are taught in the same room or space? Are they all attending to the same lesson or are several different lessons going on at the same time? Who is doing the teaching? What is being taught, using what materials and methods? How many different sorts of “schooling” do I expect to progress through, how educated will I be at the end, and to what purpose? What if I am a girl?

Before reading Gymnastics of the Mind I would have felt able to guess at only very hazy answers to these questions, and would have been uncertain of their foundations and their validity. Cribiore offers not only some concrete answers to the questions one asks when trying to imagine “what it was like” but also a clear exposition of the various kinds of evidence on which those answers are based.

The book is divided into two parts. The first concentrates broadly on the infrastructure of Greek education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt — schools and other locations in which “schooling” took place, and who attended them; the social standing and life frustrations of teachers; the extent to which women were among both those teaching and those being taught; and the participation of parents in the educational process. The second part is devoted to the actual content of a liberal education from basic literacy up to rhetorical training. This second part begins with a chapter on the “tools of the trade: teachers’ models, books, and writing materials”, which properly forms a bridge between the two parts of the book. The book ends with a brief conclusion, drawing together important strands and finishing with an assessment of the overall worth of the ancient educational system.

C. justifies her choice of so long a period, and one including the major political development of the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire, on the grounds that despite political, social, and cultural changes the period is characterised very largely by continuity as far as the practices and contents of education are concerned. Specifically Christian education is, however, excluded from consideration (p. 8, n. 18).

C.’s decision to focus on Egypt is determined by the large quantity of educational material surviving from Egypt: papyri, potsherds, tablets, and sometimes parchment preserve pupils’ exercises, teachers’ models, books and commentaries used in educational contexts, and private letters discussing educational matters. The existence of such materials makes possible a rather different sort of analysis from one depending almost entirely on literary sources: the sands of Egypt did not select for preservation what seemed especially worthy of preservation, nor did they especially favour examples of good educational practice. The result is a “warts-and-all” picture of ancient education that has certainly tempered for me any tendency to think that, educationally speaking, “those were the days”.

Despite the main focus on Egypt, C. is interested in Greek education throughout the Mediterranean world. Outside Egypt the main sources of evidence are the works of Plutarch writing in Greece, Libanius in Syria, and Quintilian in Rome. C. draws frequently on the works of these and other authors, arguing that rather than conflicting with the evidence from Egypt their testimony describes remarkably similar situations from a different perspective, one that focuses on prominent aspects rather than details, sometimes idealising or describing good practice rather than always describing actual life. She thus offers a reconstruction of a Greek educational practice characterised by remarkable spatial uniformity as well as temporal continuity, one in which the literary and documentary sources complement one another.

We learn that the content of an ancient liberal education was remarkably rigid, with levels corresponding rather well to the threefold distinction between elementary instruction in letters, grammatical education, and rhetorical training suggested by the literary sources. But C. argues for much more fluidity of actual practice in the channels through which these levels of instruction were imparted. Both the traditional view that a schoolchild went first to an elementary teacher, then to a grammarian, and then (if he continued his education) to the teacher of rhetoric, and the more recent view of a two-track system in which the less wealthy went first to an elementary teacher while those of greater means went straightaway to a grammarian who also imparted some basic literacy, fail to do justice to the number of different possibilities attested.

For example, a school that was primarily an elementary school sometimes provided some basic grammatical instruction; other schools provided both elementary and grammatical instruction in full. More rarely a school combined all three levels of instruction with a concentration of effort on either grammar or rhetoric. The distinction between an elementary teacher and a grammarian was as fluid as that between the corresponding schools headed by such teachers. Local circumstances and opportunity or lack of opportunity were the determining factors. Thus, it is especially in the smaller villages which did not support a grammarian that an elementary teacher might impart some basic grammatical instruction for pupils whose parents did not wish to send them away or to send them away too soon. It is also in the country that itinerant teachers are likely to have helped to compensate for the lack of permanent teachers of advanced education.

There was likewise no rigidity about the physical location of a school. Possibilities included parts of temples, the recesses of Pharaonic tombs, private houses, and, particularly in the case of elementary instruction, convenient spaces in the open air. Successful teachers of advanced education might be entitled to use public spaces; if not, they had to provide for themselves as best they could, by renting a private room or using their own houses.

The resourceful use of what was readily available emerges also from the chapter on teachers’ models, books, and writing materials, especially as far as the lower levels of education were concerned. Potsherds, which could be picked up anywhere, were common writing surfaces especially (but not only) at the elementary level; they were chosen by size and shape to be easily transportable and to fit the length and type of exercise to be written. Being readily available and free, they could be discarded after use without regret. Writing tablets were also used but could be re-used repeatedly and might belong to a teacher rather than to individual pupils (p. 157). Fresh papyrus was not normally used in the early stages but exercises might be written on spare pieces cut from already-used papyrus, or on the clean back or used front of a papyrus being recycled. An important conclusion that challenges some recent scholarship is that in Greco-Roman Egypt the cost of writing materials was not an impediment to the acquisition of literacy. The use of potsherds, which were free, the thrift applied to the use of other materials, and the fact that tablets might be the property of the teacher, meant that the need for materials to write on did not significantly drain the budget of a pupil’s parents at the early stages. By the time that there was a need for fresh papyrus in relatively large quantities, a pupil would have reached an advanced stage of education that, for reasons independent of the cost of writing materials, was reached only by upper-class pupils to whom the cost of papyrus was not an issue.

Apart from this flexibility and resourcefulness in the administering of Greek education, another aspect that C. emphasises is its instability both for pupils and for teachers. Mediocre teachers were easier to find than good ones, and the practice of changing from teacher to teacher in search of a better education, or to avoid paying high fees, seems to have been frequent. This practice, as well as various forms of evasion of payment, made financial circumstances particularly unstable for teachers, who might suddenly leave for another region in search of better fortunes. If a teacher moved away his (or sometimes her) pupils were left stranded and in need of a new teacher, and the instability on each side of the teacher-pupil relationship aggravated that on the other. The supreme power over the educational process was divided between parents, who bore the financial burden and wanted to know that their money was well spent, and teachers, who held the keys to knowledge. In the chapter on the involvement of parents, C. discusses the dense correspondence between Libanius and the parents of his students and wonders whether letters from teachers discharged some formal function analogous to that of modern report cards (p. 114). At any rate, it emerges that teachers were concerned to report on the good progress of their pupils and to reassure parents; but influential teachers could also put pressure on parents to offer more moral or financial support to their offspring.

In the latter part of the book, on the content of the three stages of education, C. describes and analyses a wealth of evidence for the syllabus and for the sorts of exercises undertaken in school. A number of important conclusions emerge. Despite the overall rigidity C. argues for in the content of education at each level, again some degree of flexibility surfaces about the way in which this content was imparted and about the order in which different elements were introduced. At the elementary level, C. confronts an apparent contradiction between the literary sources’ presentation of elementary teaching as progressing strictly from letters to syllables to whole words, and the evidence of some surviving school exercises that reveal sentences, maxims, and brief passages copied by students whose writing skills were lower than those of students who were writing out syllabaries and lists of words, and who were apparently incapable of understanding what they were copying. The conclusion is drawn that some students were set to copying sentences and passages immediately after learning the letters of the alphabet. On the other hand, there are also examples of syllabaries and word lists penned by pupils whose writing skills suggest the very initial phases of their training: some teachers apparently did follow the linear order described by the literary sources (p. 177). Through careful argumentation, C. rejects a recent conclusion that copying sentences and passages immediately after learning the letters of the alphabet was reserved for lower-class pupils and slaves, who were not going to progress further in their education and needed to acquire only rudimentary copying skills (p. 170). Rather, she argues that the practice was more widespread, though not universal. The fact that many pupils did not continue their education beyond the elementary level does, however, emerge as relevant, since the ability merely to sign one’s name or to copy formulae onto a legal document held particular importance in a society in which the majority of the lower-class population was completely illiterate but which was nevertheless a “fundamentally literate” society. The possession of even these minimal abilities could be displayed with pride and gave one a degree of control over one’s life. C. sees the literary sources as describing the same reality as is witnessed by the documentary sources, but again from a different angle and one that is more concerned with the most important steps in the educational process, here the “essential stages by which reading and writing properly were taught” (pp. 170-1). Minor details, such as the methods by which teachers reinforced good handwriting at the early stages, were not of interest.

The list of books read at the grammatical level is analysed in penetrating detail and some of the conclusions come as a surprise to the modern reader of the Classics: thus the Catalogue of Ships was a particularly favoured part of the Iliad, and a favourite for learning by heart. An important contention, and one that challenges some recent scholarship, is that literary works, or largish portions of literary works, were read in their entirety, not in the form of isolated passages. Another important conclusion on the syllabus concerns the texts used in the classroom at the rhetorical level. At this level prose authors became much more important than they had been at the grammatical level, but using a passage of Libanius C. argues more definitely than has been argued before that in the Greek East (though not in Rome) poetry continued to be directly perused in the classroom at the rhetorical level (pp. 226-8).

Two themes run through the discussion of the content of education: the revisiting, at each level, of material studied at earlier levels, and the fact that relative ease or difficulty did not always determine the order in which material was presented (esp. p. 205). Thus, despite all his difficulties Homer was read before authors who might seem more suited to pupils whose reading skills were still nascent. One reason was the power to confer “Greekness” on the pupil, a topic to which C. returns at various points, for example in observing that Greek education in Egypt was striking in its disregard for anything local (p. 180).

Throughout the book, but especially in the chapter on the participation of women and in those on the content of education, C. is interested in the ends to which formal education was put, emphasizing that at all stages of the educational process there were some students who would not go on to the next stage and others who would continue further. Even within each of the three levels, not all pupils continued for the same length of time. Varying degrees of education allowed male pupils access at varying levels to the power structures of society and at the same time served to maintain existing power hierarchies, since boys of higher social status could expect to continue to higher levels of formal education. C. shows that elementary and grammatical education (but never rhetorical training) was also available to women, and thus that the value of education could not consist solely in access to essentially male power structures. C.’s discussion of the range of uses to which female literacy was put, which makes impressive use of carefully-identified papyrus letters penned by women as a source of evidence for levels of female literacy and their uses, serves also (although this point is not made explicitly) to introduce further ways in which education might be valuable to those of either gender. For example, literacy afforded both men and women some protection from victimization of illiterates and made one an integral part of the “fundamentally literate” society; both men and women with very limited literacy may display it with pride, choosing to be described as “slow writers” or as “knowing letters” (pp. 76, 163-4).

The vividness with which C. presents her picture of Greek education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt is assisted by numerous photographs and also by parallels and contrasts with other cultures including familiar ones of the modern world. However, her concern with education in the modern world goes beyond the provision of vividness to an interest in continuity of human experience and in evaluating the worth of the educational system she describes in comparison with others such as those of the modern world. In addressing the question of the worth of ancient education (pp. 247-52), she is as careful as in the rest of the book to steer clear of easy generalisation and of easy idealisation or condemnation. Instead, she offers a measured assessment of both the shortcomings and the positive aspects of ancient education, making reference to modern writers on educational theory. It is pleasing (for the book has not left me totally giving up thinking that those were the days) to learn that some modern educational theorists in fact advocate a return to something more like the slow and painstaking verbal analysis of texts practiced in ancient education, ‘that students should learn to read texts closely as opposed to merely or mistakenly theorizing about them’ (p. 248). C. makes her own some of the metaphors used by ancient authors writing on education, such as the language of gymnastics that furnishes the title of the book (a quotation from Isocrates). Occasionally I found myself thinking the constant use of such metaphors a little clichéd, but on asking myself why I realised something I had not previously thought about: these metaphors are still with us. I noticed for the first time a sign outside a building I pass very regularly; it reads ‘Trapeze: Mental Gymnastics for Kids’.

As a classicist to whom ancient education is of interest but not a field in which I am an expert, I have learned a tremendous amount from this book, not only about ancient education but about the breadth and depth of insights that the study of papyri and other documentary material can afford. The book is eminently readable and attractively presented, with a certain lightheartedness and the occasional joke, such as the observation that a notebook of tablets held by a boy depicted on a vase curiously resembles a modern laptop computer (p. 28). Gymnastics of the Mind is eminently accessible not only to all varieties of classicists but also to non-classicists with an interest in educational practices. For specialists in ancient education, the largely unprecedented detail of C.’s description and analysis and the numerous new conclusions ought to provoke much discussion and debate.