Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Growing up in Greece

  • Sons and daughters

    Many Greek parents wanted boy children. A son would look after his parents in old age. A daughter went away when she married, and had to take a wedding gift or dowry. This could be expensive, if a family had lots of daughters.

    A father could decide whether or not the family kept a new baby. Unwanted or weak babies were sometimes left to die outdoors. Anyone finding an abandoned baby could adopt it and take it home, perhaps to raise it as a slave. If a couple were rich, they might hire a poor neighbour or a slave to nurse a new baby.

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  • Going to school

    At 3, children were given small jugs - a sign that babyhood was over. Boys went to school at age 7. Girls were taught at home by their mothers. A few girls learned to read and write, but many did not. School-teachers needed payment, so poor boys did not get much education. A wealthy family sent a slave to walk to school with the boys. The slave stayed at school to keep an eye on them during lessons. Most Greeks schools had fewer than 20 boys, and classes were often held outdoors.

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  • What did Greek children learn?

    Girls learned housework, cooking and skills such as weaving at home. Boys at school learned reading, writing, arithmetic, music and poetry. They wrote on wooden tablets covered with soft wax, using a pointed stick called a stylus. They used an abacus, with beads strung on wires or wooden rods, to help with maths.

    Part of their lessons included learning stories and poems by heart.

    Boys did athletics, to keep fit and prepare them for war as soldiers. They ran, jumped, wrestled and practised throwing a spear and a discus. They trained on a sports ground called a gymnasium.

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  • Children's toys

    We know about some Greek toys from pictures on pottery vases and from artefacts found by archaeologists. Children played with small pottery figures, and dolls made of rags, wood, wax or clay - some dolls had moveable arms and legs. Other toys were rattles, hoops, hoops, yo-yos, and hobby horses (a "pretend horse" made from a stick).

    Children played with balls made from tied-up rags or a blown-up pig's bladder. The ankle-bones of sheep or goats made 'knucklebones' or five-stones. There are pictures of children with pets, such as dogs, geese and chickens.

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  • Marriage and work

    Most girls were only 13-16 years old when they married. Often their fathers chose husbands for them. A girl's husband was often older, in his 30s. The day before she married, a girl sacrificed her toys to the goddess Artemis, to show she was grown-up.

    Most boys had to work hard. They worked as farmers, sailors, fishermen and craftworkers - such as potters, builders, metalworkers and stone-carvers. Some clever boys went on studying. Teachers gave classes to older students. Aristotle, who became a great scientist and thinker, went to Athens when he was 17 to study at the Academy, run by a famous teacher named Plato.

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Fun Facts
  • Children played Blind Man's Buff, and adults played this game too.

  • A game of flicking nuts into a hole or circle may be the Ancient Greek version of marbles - or even tiddlywinks!

  • The Greeks had writing paper, made from Egyptian papyrus reeds, but used it only for important documents.

  • A picture on a Greek vase shows a child sitting on its potty, waving a rattle.

  • In Sparta, boys were told to steal food from farmers. If they were caught, they were beaten - for not running away fast enough!

  • Teachers told boys to avoid the stinkiest job: making leather. First soak animal skin in water mixed with urine or bird droppings. Scrape off the fat. Soak again in smelly water and tree-bark mixture, then rub with fish oil!

  • Girls in Sparta had more freedom than girls in other Greek states. Spartan girls did athletics, gymnastics, dancing, music and singing.

  • Pythagoras was a clever Greek who told us what we need to know about triangles in geometry.

  • Pythagoras believed that beans had souls, and told his students never to eat beans. Friends joked this was because beans gave Pythagoras indigestion!

  • When Greeks felt ill, they thought the gods were punishing them.

  • The sea-god Poseidon had some very nasty children. One was the one-eyed giant Cyclops, who ate people.

  • A 'paidagogos' was a slave whose job was to take boys to school and make sure they worked hard.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.