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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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The Schoolboys of Athens













Page 7

The Study of the Poets


    It is for the developing of the best moral and mental qualities in the lads that they are compelled to memorize long passages of the great poets of Hellas. Theognis, with his pithy admonitions cast in semi-proverb form, the worldly wisdom of Hesiod, and of Phocylides are therefore duly flogged into every Attic schoolboy.[4] But the great text-book dwarfing all others, is Homer,—"the Bible of the Greeks," as later ages will call it. Even in the small school we visit, several of the pupils can repeat five or six long episodes from both the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and there is one older boy present (an extraordinary, but by no means an unprecedented case) who can repeat both of the long epics word for word.[5] Clearly the absence of many books has then its compensations. The average Athenian lad has what seems to be a simply marvelous memory.

    And what an admirable text-book and "second reader" the Homeric poems are! What characters to imitate: the high-minded, passionate, yet withal loyal and lovable Achilles who would rather fight gloriously before Troy (though death in the campaign is certain) than live a long life in ignoble ease at home at Phthia; or Odysseus, the "hero of many devices," who endures a thousand ills and surmounts them all; who lets not even the goddess Calypso seduce him from his love to his "sage Penelope"; who is ever ready with a clever tale, a plausible lie, and, when the need comes, a mighty deed of manly valor. The boys will all go home to-night with firm resolves to suffer all things rather than leave a comrade unavenged, as Achilles was tempted to do and nobly refused, and to fight bravely, four against forty, as Odysseus and his comrades did, when at the call of duty and honor they cleared the house of the dastard suitors. True, philosophers like Plato complain: "Homer gives to lads very undignified and unworthy ideas of the gods"; and men of a later age will assert: "Homer has altogether too little to say about the cardinal virtues of truthfulness and honesty."[6] But making all allowances the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are still the two grandest secular text-books the world will ever know. The lads are definitely the better for them.

    Three years, according to Plato, are needed to learn the rudiments of reading and writing before the boys are fairly launched upon this study of the poets. For several years more they will spend most of their mornings standing respectfully before their master, while he from his chair reads to them from the roll of one author or another,—the pupils repeating the lines, time and again, until they have learned them, while the master interrupts to explain every nice point in mythology, in real or alleged history, or a moot question in ethics.


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