BMCR 2019.11.06

Cheiron’s Way: Youthful Education in Homer and Tragedy

, Cheiron's Way: Youthful Education in Homer and Tragedy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxiii, 313; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780190857882. $85.00.


Justina Gregory uses educational practices of Archaic and Classical Greece as a framework for approaching literary characters in the Homeric epics and Attic tragedy. She looks at education in terms of its role in socializing young people into their future roles as warriors and leaders. The core of Gregory’s approach consists in a “crisis of disillusionment” and “crisis of empathy”, where characters reflect on the contradictions in the role formed by their education, and progress to empathy with other characters, learning to navigate social expectations and obligations to others based on a shared humanity. The book is stimulating and approachable, since discussions take place primarily at the level of literary character and passages from the original works are presented in translation, so that those without Greek can readily follow the argument. Gregory uses the educational framework to identify tensions and insights in the epics and dramas, but she does so without becoming schematic and keeps the literary works at the center of the discussions.

Gregory begins by exploring education in Archaic and Classical Greece, identifying themes such as age roles, kinds of verbal instruction, peer-group influence, mentoring, nature versus teaching, and learning through suffering. Since the evidence is largely from the kinds of literary texts Gregory uses her framework to explore, there is some risk of circularity, which she mitigates by surveying the broader literature (Hesiod, Theognis, the pre-Socratics), demonstrating that these themes were widespread concerns and likely reflected contemporary practice. Treatment of individual themes can be uneven. For example, her note on the relationship of early Greek education to rites of passage quickly sidelines ritual or mythological approaches in favor of a literary one and defers further discussion to the chapter on the Philoctetes. A more substantial justification for this division would be welcome here, as it recurs throughout the book. The discussion of nature versus teaching, however, is sustained and nuanced, touching on the physis/nomos antithesis and the interests of aristocrats and sophists while avoiding reductive chronological or political dichotomies.

Next, Gregory examines the figure of Cheiron as encapsulating early Greek thought on education. Since Homer passes over the centaur, like many fantastic elements, Gregory focuses on Pindar’s presentation, supplemented from later authors and iconography. Gregory finds Cheiron’s dual status as centaur and model teacher—civilized yet biform, divine yet mortal, culture hero yet inhabitant of wild Pelion—problematic. She notes the interpretation of these contradictions as evidence of his liminal nature (which should reflect his protégés’ liminal status, figuring education as an initiation), but finds this dissatisfying in light of the tendency of the Greek poets to minimize his bestial aspects. The impulse to avoid assimilating Greek literature to schematic theories is understandable, but I would have welcomed a more sustained engagement, since Cheiron seems a natural fit for this approach. Gregory engages more substantially with Jeanmaire’s historicizing approach, that Cheiron’s cave on Mount Pelion was an initiatory location and that Cheiron recalls a prototypical master of initiation, a shaman along the lines of Orpheus and Melampus.1 Gregory shows that Jeanmaire overplays the evidence, that Cheiron is a complex figure whose link to initiation is only one facet, and that his prophecies are a literary device common to other Pindaric characters. Gregory addresses Jeanmaire’s approach as an important earlier treatment of her central figure and identifies its limitations, but she misses an opportunity to explore the relation between initiation and education more constructively. The chapter addresses other facets of Cheiron’s character: surrogate father, kourotrophos, and teacher of skills. Finally, the chapter surveys Cheiron’s students (Achilles, Jason, Asclepius, Actaeon, and Hippo), anticipating later developments: in Pindar, Cheiron’s pupils forget or ignore his lessons at their own cost, serving as a foils for the heroes in Homer and tragedy, who transgress their youthful instruction not out of error but on principle.

Gregory’s treatment of the Iliad is divided into two chapters. The former explores the epic showing that the primary goal of education is socialization in the heroic code, and identifies the methods of delivery: precept, maxim, and example. The argument is focused and persuasive: heroic talent is often described as god-given, but this is compatible with instruction and characters’ responsibility to use their skills appropriately. Father-figures lead instruction, given the heroic imperative that sons magnify and not tarnish their ancestral renown. Practical skills are important, especially speaking in assembly and martial skill, but the primary goal is acculturation into the heroic code. The code’s content is familiar, exemplified by Sarpedon’s exchange with Glaucus in Iliad 6. The champions normally accept the code, but also remind themselves or each other as a form of encouragement or persuasion. They thus replay their education, employing the methods of precept, maxim, and example, figuring one hero as a “father” to another. This reframing of the heroic code in the Iliad as educational content, and its deployment using the tropes of education convincingly models how the characters express their values to one another.

The next section presents the heart of Gregory’s approach. Achilles provides the model for the crisis of disillusionment, coming to question the code he has been socialized into, and the crisis of empathy, where fellow-feeling based on a common humanity becomes paramount. Gregory builds on this familiar approach: Agamemnon’s behavior compels Achilles not just to question whether the heroic code is applied appropriately, but whether the code (i.e., the exchange of life for imperishable glory) is an equitable deal at all. The lack of reciprocity ( charis, 9.316–7) between Achilles and Agamemnon points to a lack of correlation between life and glory in the code. This “crisis of disillusionment” gives way to a “crisis of empathy”. When Priam comes to supplicate him, Achilles no longer defers to the heroic code, which does not oblige him to pity an enemy, but makes his own way, with the result that he can identify emotionally with Priam on the bases of their common mortality and vulnerability. With this breakthrough, Achilles takes on the role of the teacher, using the strategies of precept, maxim, and example to convey his insight to the king.

Turning to the Odyssey, Gregory considers Odysseus’ formative experience of the boar hunt (in Book 19) before focusing on Telemachus. She sees this as emblematic of a safe, nourishing educational environment that accounts for Odysseus’ emotional maturity, his empathy with characters such as Penelope and Laertes, and control over impulses to reveal himself too soon. Gregory asks us to imagine an education compromised by Odysseus’ absence to account for Telemachus’ immaturity: he can play the role of host but not guest, relies overly on a sense of aidos and cannot judge when it is appropriate, and values the family’s kleos but is diffident about his worthiness. Through a succession of mentor figures (Mentes, Mentor, Nestor, Pisistratus, Menelaus), Telemachus’ heroic education is completed, though untested. By the end of the epic he appears on the verge of maturity, sometimes fulfilling the heroic role, sometimes falling short or overstepping. Gregory refines this familiar approach with the frame of education: Telemachus’ early tendency to rely on maxim rather than precept or example derives from his upbringing by Penelope, who tends to do the same. Further discussion of method might be welcomed here, especially why (or whether) we are justified in hypothesizing facts about Telemachus’ youth that lie outside the poem.

Chapters five and six examine Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes respectively. Gregory applies the Iliadic model to these plays: for the first half of his eponymous tragedy, Ajax inflexibly applies the heroic code learned from his father and expects to pass it on to Eurysaces. Sophocles enriches these educational relationships with the nomos/physis language familiar from contemporary discourse. Then, in the “deception speech”, Gregory suggests, Ajax questions this teachings’ universality; though he intends to deceive his comrades and Tecmessa to keep them from interfering with his suicide (and to soften its impact), his insights about the need to be flexible are genuine. Finally, Ajax’s ability to empathize with Tecmessa is limited; rather, Odysseus exemplifies the kind of empathy modelled in the Iliad. Again, for the Philoctetes, Gregory frames Neoptolemus’ experience according to the Iliadic model: he experiences crises of disillusionment with his ideal of honor and Odysseus’ pursuit of advantage, leading to a crisis of empathy, where he identifies with Philoctetes through their shared vulnerability. Like Ajax’s, Neoptolemus’ identification is limited and temporary. Gregory also considers the trope of biou hairesis, the “choice of life”, familiar from Hippias and Prodicus. Thus, Neoptolemus’ decision to help Philoctetes is figured as a choice about how to live his life as a whole; though foreshadowing of his ruthless behavior in the fall of Troy complicates his choice of pity over expediency here. These chapters show effectively how Sophocles updates Homeric education in terms of fifth-century concerns. The application of the Iliadic model is less fruitful; Ajax and Neoptolemus each have a complex relationship with Achilles, but it is less clear how this model develops our appreciation of those relationships.

The final chapters examine Euripides’ Hippolytus and Iphigeneia in Aulis. The fifth-century debate whether virtue is teachable or innate features in the Hippolytus. Hippolytus takes an aristocratic stance, rejecting suggestions that he needs further lessons, and Euripides emphasizes his sophrosyne as inheritance from Hippolyte and training by Pittheus. Theseus similarly sees Hippolytus’ “vices” as inborn and irremediable, but Phaedra explains her accusations as an attempt to teach her stepson sophrosyne, representing a democratic view. Countering “initiatory” and “puritanical” approaches, Gregory relates the play to her model of disillusionment and empathy in a negative sense: Hippolytus does not become fully disillusioned with his code of purity or empathize with others, reflecting his failure to reach emotional maturity. This application is less compelling; verbal parallels that might activate recognition of an Iliadic intertext, or discussion of passages that point to those expectations would solidify the approach. With Iphigeneia in Aulis, Gregory examines women’s socialization, supplementing the heroic code that previous chapters thematize. Using the model of Nausicaa in the Odyssey, Gregory identifies themes of marriage, hospitality, and decorum. Next, she argues that Iphigeneia and Achilles each follow the pattern of disillusionment (with their respective codes) and empathy. This is again contrasted with prominent approaches; most importantly, Gregory argues that Iphigeneia’s change of mind should not be understood, as in Gibert’s approach,2 as parallel to those of Agamemnon and Menelaus, who change their minds out of weakness of will, but as her working through her educational crisis. Inclined to accept her father’s orders and maintain decorum, she becomes disillusioned with this passivity, engaging Achilles and Agamemnon to try to save herself. Her final decision to die, then, is born of empathy with the impossible situations of those two but becomes an active, heroic decision. Achilles’ trajectory mirrors that of Iphigeneia: his initial obsession with appearances parallels Iphigeneia’s with propriety and their interaction prompts a sense of empathy so that he is willing to defy Agamemnon; that the young Achilles’ dilemmas foreshadow his Iliadic path demonstrates Euripides’ economy in evoking these crises in his characters.

In conclusion, Gregory presents sensitive and insightful readings of the Homeric epics and tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. Achilles’ movement from adolescent self-centeredness to mature empathy is evergreen; Gregory’s frame of socialization into the heroic code deepens our understanding of how the theme pervades the epic. In the tragedies, particularly rewarding are the examinations of engagement with fifth-century debates on education. Other aspects seem less successful. The focus on Cheiron and childhood education in the introduction and first chapter fades quickly; the centaur largely disappears and the works seldom engage childhood education directly. As a result, Gregory demands much from the few explicit references and asks us to reconstruct the characters’ upbringing (e.g., p. 201). Gregory’s treatment of existing approaches sometimes appears brusque. For example, she points to the weaknesses of Vidal-Naquet’s initiatory reading of the Philoctetes,3 and then proceeds to her own approach. A rapprochement might be more productive: Sophocles would not reproduce initiation mechanically, but references to initiation could reinforce educational themes. Similar engagement with Gibert on the Iphigeneia (see above) would be welcome: perhaps the changes-of-mind theme contrasts Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ lack of principle with the young characters’ earnest search for values. Despite some missed opportunities, the work provides engaging readings of the literature and contributes to our sense of how the language of education helps communicate the heroes’ crises.


1. Jeanmaire, H. 1949. “Chiron.” Annuaire de l’Institut de philology et d’histoire orientales et slaves. 9: 255–65.

2. Gibert, J. 1995. Change of Mind in Greek Tragedy. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

3. Vidal-Naquet, P. 1988. “Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the ephebeia.” In Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, edited by J.-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, translated by J. Lloyd, 161–79. New York: Zone Books.