Giving Poison to the Asp: Girls’ Education in Greece and Rome

It is now taken for granted in this country that girls and boys should receive the same kind of educational opportunities. Education in schools, and later in universities, is designed to broaden boys and girls’ minds, to equip them with skills they’ll need in later life, and to open doors to future intellectual development and employment. When we look back in history, even only a century or so, the situation couldn’t have been more different.

It was well into the twentieth-century before women were welcomed into universities to study alongside men. Until then any intellectual ambitions a girl might have would be limited to becoming a child’s governess or to teaching in a girl’s school, where the curriculum was carefully chosen to reflect interests thought appropriate to ‘young ladies’, such as art, poetry, etiquette and music. Furthermore, for many girls from a poorer background, there might be little or no schooling at all.

If we go back even further, to the classical world of the Greeks and Romans, we should not be surprised to find that girls’ education was even more limited.

While Greek and Roman poetry, drama, speeches and history-writing are admired worldwide, few realise that these achievements were nearly always the work of men. Greco-Roman education was designed for the middle to upper-classes, who had the money to ‘waste’ on such ‘luxuries’, and was almost entirely for boys. Boys and girls might study together at home, or in schools, at an early age, when they would practise basic skills in writing and arithmetic. We have examples of the wax or wooden tablets on which they wrote their exercises, not that different to the books used today to teach handwriting.

But education in Greece and Rome was also designed to shape girls and boys for the roles which society thought appropriate to them in later life. Wealthier boys were encouraged to pursue education beyond a basic level, so they could become military leaders, politicians, lawyers, or, if they were very wealthy, to spend their leisure hours, attended by slaves, composing poetry or drama, researching about science, writing history, or contemplating philosophy. The social role for girls and women was quite different. One of these writing practice exercises, which survives today, gives us a stark clue to the attitudes of the men of the fourth century B.C.:

“A man who teaches a woman to write should realise that he is giving poison to an asp.”

These two lines of poetry were copied out over and over again, and show us quite alarmingly how messages about how their society should be were being implanted in young children, even without them realising it. The male writer of these lines echoes a fear, expressed by many Greek and Roman male writers, that a woman is dangerous enough without any education, and that educating her makes her an even greater threat.

To avoid this threat Greek and Roman society limited the education of girls. They didn’t need to do so by law, because society simply expected boys to be educated and not girls. Girls could consider themselves lucky to receive basic lessons in writing and arithmetic, but even this was tailored to suit the overwhelming role for girls/women in Greco-Roman society, which was to become a wife and mother, in charge of running the household.

This role, which was considered the most appropriate for women, meant that any education they received was only to make them better housewives. As such, most of their education was in what we would call today Domestic Science, and was given informally by other, older women of the household, especially their mothers. They would learn to manage the household accounts; to delegate tasks to their household slaves (if they had any); to cook; to make, repair and clean clothes; and to look after their children, sometimes with the aid of a paid or a slave nanny.

Most city-states of the classical Greek world shared this role for girls’ education. Some, however, seem to have had more opportunity for girls to become educated, in certain ways. The few remains of the lyric poetry of the professional poetess Sappho, of the island of Lesbos (6th century B.C.), show us that there a woman, of probably upper-class background, could become familiar with the works of Homer, and develop a linguistic ability to be able to handle sophisticated Greek vocabulary and rhythms. Yet her poetry chiefly concerns ‘womanly’ topics, such as love and marriage. Even in Sparta, where girls were given physical education similar to that of boys, this was deliberately aimed to make them stronger to be able to bear strong children for the state. Very few were educated at all in literary skills.

Over many centuries of Greek and Roman society this was the norm for young women. The great empires rose and grew, but women’s role changed little. Perhaps the greatest change, however, was the growth of women’s financial power. In Athens in the fifth-fourth century B.C., a woman’s money was mostly under the control of her male relatives. She might do the household shopping, but was given little to spend on herself. However, in later centuries, women began to inherit and own more money in their own right, which gave them the opportunity to consider spending it as they wished, whether on more clothes and jewellery, on travelling, on funding public buildings, or on educating themselves.

As so much Greek and Roman literature was written by men, for men, about men, we have to look quite hard to find any mention of growth in women’s education. It was of little interest to them, or to their readers, to record what women may or may not have done, especially in the household, which was always considered the woman’s ‘domain’. But, when we look for such indications, we can find a few glimpses in some perhaps surprising contexts.

I’m going to give three examples here, which offer different reflections of roughly the same time period and society, the Roman upper-class world of the late first century A.D.

In his sixteen Latin verse Satires, Juvenal cruelly criticises numerous aspects of the Roman society of his day. His longest (Satire 6) takes as its target the women of Rome. The poem is a seemingly endless accumulation of scandalous examples of immoral behaviour, in the very highest levels of Roman society, which reaches a dramatic crescendo with a tirade against women who intrude into areas of society thought only appropriate for men. Money, says Juvenal, is the “nurse of promiscuity”. This has led, he says, to women discussing poetry at the dinner-table, comparing Homer and Vergil; beating male lawyers in argument; offering moral philosophy; even criticising others’ use of language and grammar! For Juvenal, adopting the traditional mask of the old-fashioned satirist, Rome’s problems are symbolised by the disgrace of over-educated women! Although this is a deliberately comic text, it shows us that at least some wealthy women were at that time using their wealth to educate themselves, which some men clearly thought threatening and even immoral.

Our second piece of evidence comes from a Greek thinker, Musonius Rufus, who taught Stoic philosophy in Rome, among others to the great Roman philosopher and politican, Seneca the Younger. A pupil recorded summaries of Musonius’ lectures, one of which discusses the question “whether sons and daughters should be given the same education”. Musonius argues that, as male and female animals display similar strengths, so girls and boys should be educated alike, both physically and morally. However, this is not a feminist “equality of the sexes”, for running through Musonius’ text are the ideas that this ideal only affects the wealthy, and that studying philosophy will help a woman to be more virtuous, and (wait for it!) a better housewife! Even here a girl’s education is socially-determined, designed to mould her to fit her appropriate social role.

Finally, we have the Greek philosopher, historian and biographer, Plutarch. He wrote on a surprisingly wide range of topics, and many works by him survive today, especially as he was very highly regarded by later European thinkers, who translated many of his works into many languages. In his historical biographies, Plutarch often praises educated women, even devoting considerable space to striking praise of the intellectual abilities of the educated queen Cleopatra VII in his famous Life of Mark Antony. In his own private life he also seems to have supported the education of women. His wife, Timoxena, is recorded as having written a work for women, although on a topic urging traditional modesty: On not wearing cosmetics.

Among his surviving Moral Essays is a short work, entitled Advice to Bride and Groom. This essay is a wedding-present to two young friends of his, both probably from a wealthy background, who apparently studied philosophy with him, where Plutarch summarises how to have the ideal marriage.

To the modern reader, the image the essay presents of the ideal wife is rather condescending, and more like the kind of wife that we see as the ideal in films and advertising from 1940s or 1950s Britain. When the couple are with other people, the wife should always let her husband take priority, fading into the background like the moon before the sun, and, when he is not around, she should stay at home, almost hidden. Husband and wife should avoid quarrelling, and share everything, including their possessions, relatives and friends. A wife should learn to cope with her mother-in-law, for her husband’s sake, even though the wife may feel that her husband’s mother is intruding.

In this domestic partnership the husband always seems to be considered more important than the wife. Towards the end of the work, Plutarch interestingly remarks that a husband should be a wife’s “guide, philosopher and teacher in all that is most beautiful and divine”. By allowing your wife to study such things, he continues, you will prevent her from “stupid and irrational pursuits”:

“A woman who is studying geometry will be ashamed to go dancing and one who is charmed by the words of Plato or Xenophon [Greek philosophers] is not going to pay any attention to magic incantations. For if they do not receive the seed of a good education and do not develop this education in company with their husbands, they will, left to themselves, conceive a lot of ridiculous ideas and unworthy aims and emotions.” (trans. M. Lefkowitz)

This remark shows us once more, that, while some male writers reflect a growth in girls’ and women’s education during the first century A.D., even the most ‘forward-thinking’ consider women, by their very nature, as more prone to distraction, and that their primary concern should be their husband, household and family.

These ancient concerns are still with us today, two millennia later. Control of girls’ education is a subtle means of limiting power and independence. If you restrict a woman’s ability to communicate, she is forever marginalised in society, and dependent upon the men in her life. Girls’ education has come on in leaps and bounds during the past century: women now compete openly with men. They can progress to the highest levels academically and intellectually. However, in some societies, girls are still advised not to become “too educated”, as men will not marry women who are more educated than they are. In this country, we see reports in the press every year that girls continue to out-perform boys in schools and universities. Yet, as you read those reports, ask yourself: do you sometimes catch a tinge of male anxiety, of this trend being seen as a threat? Maybe Juvenal lives, after all…?!