Education Through The Ages

Education through the ages part 1: To the renaissance

The Renaissance Man

The term Renaissance man suggests a person, either a man or a woman, of many accomplishments. A Renaissance man is neither an expert nor a specialist. He or she knows more than just a little about "everything" instead of knowing "everything" about a small part of the entire spectrum of modern knowledge. The term is essentially ironic, for it is universally believed that no one really can be a Renaissance man in the true meaning of the term, since knowledge has become so complex that no human mind is capable of grasping all, or even a large part, of it.

Was there ever a Renaissance man, even during the Renaissance, in this sense of the term? The answer is no. The reason may seem surprising. Knowledge is no more complex today that it was in the fifteenth century. That is, it was just as complex then as it is now. It was no more possible for any human being to know everything about everything then that it is now.

This does not mean that everything we know was known by the men and women of Renaissance times. Obviously, we know many things they did not know. On the other hand, they knew many things we do not. They were much more knowledgeable about theology, for example, a science they took infinitely more seriously than do we. On the whole, they were better philosophers, for again they prized philosophy more highly than we do. Their knowledge of philosophy was, if not greater than ours, then very different. Those were very general fields in which they thought it desirable to specialize, and to them the greatest thinkers devoted their best efforts.

In one general field we are far ahead of Renaissance men. We know vastly more about the way nature works than they did. People of the Renaissance had only just begun to recognize this field of knowledge as both respectable and important. We have concentrated on it, almost to the exclusion of everything else, for nearly five centuries. It is no wonder that we are far ahead of them. It is also no surprise that we remain far behind them with respect to other disciplines they thought more important than natural science.

These remarks are not made in support of their sense of priorities. Like every modern person, I am inclined to believe that our bias toward natural science and away from divine science (if I may make the distinction so simply) is correct. On the whole, we live better today than Renaissance men and women lived, longer, more healthy, more comfortably, because of our emphasis on natural science.

The point is to correct a fundamental misunderstanding about what was meant by the idea of the "Renaissance man" in the Renaissance. As I have said, there never was a Renaissance man in the distorted sense we use today. But there were examples of such remarkable persons in another sense of the term, not only in the Renaissance, but also in classical antiquity and perhaps also in recent times. We shall even have to examine the question whether it is not possible for Renaissance men in the true sense to exist today.

As with so many ideas, this one can be traced back to Aristotle. It is addressed in the beginning of his treatise On the Parts of Animals, when he discourses on the method that he will employ in what follows. What he says is both simple and profound:

Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgment as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject. For it is possible for a man to have this competence in some one branch of knowledge without having it in all.

This famous passage, so full of meaning and usefulness for our own time as well as the Renaissance, may require some comment to be fully comprehensible. First, to the distinction between having "scientific knowledge" of a subject and "educational acquaintance" with it. "Scientific knowledge," here, is the knowledge possessed by a specialist in a given field, which entails knowing not just the general principles and conclusions of the field but also all the detailed findings included therein. As the ancient physician Hippocrates said, "Life is short and the Art long" (Ars longa vita brevis est). That is, no individual in the short span of a human life can hope to acquire "scientific knowledge" in the sense of knowing everything there is to be known in all fields or branches of knowledge. That was as true in Aristotle's day, as he clearly implies, as of course it is true today.

What does Aristotle mean by an "educational acquaintance" with a subject? It is what a man or woman possesses who has been educated in the method of the subject, not just its details and its particular findings and conclusions. Such a person is "critical" in that field. That is, he is able to tell the difference between sense and nonsense, as we might say using modern terms, about the field. A "professor" of the field is an expert, a specialist. But Aristotle recognizes that such a "professor" might be less genuine than he would like you to believe. A person with an "educated acquaintance" with the field would be able to tell if that were so.

"To be educated," says Aristotle, "is in fact to be able to do this." That is, a person can only claim to be educated if he is able to be "critical" in a wide range of scientific knowledge -- if he is able to distinguish between sense and nonsense even when he is not a specialist in any one area of knowlege. What an extraordinary claim! And how far it is from our current notion of what being educated means!

Finally, a man of "universal education" -- who is none other than our Renaissance man -- is one who is "critical" in all or nearly all branches of knowledge. Such a person does not have the "critical" ability in some special subject only. He has it in all, or nearly all.

[...] Aristotle was certainly a Renaissance man. Nor should the title be withheld from several other Greek thinkers, among them Democritus and Plato, who was not only the premier philosopher of his time but also the premier mathematician.

[Leonardo da Vinci, Pico della Mirandola, Francis Bacon -- they all tried to know everything about everything, and of course all failed. But they dared to try...]

The Renaissance Man and the Idea of Liberal Education

The Aristotelian ideal of the educated person, "critical" in all or almost all branches of knowlege, survived for centuries as the aim of liberal education. Originally, the student would be taught seven arts or skills, consisting of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). The names are antique, but the seven "subjects" were comparable to a modern liberal curriculum of languages, philosophy, mathematics, history, and science. The arts or skills were "liberal" because they were liberating. That is, they freed their possessor from the ignorance that bound the uneducated.

The twentieth century has seen radical change in this traditional scheme of education. The failure of the Renaissance to produce successful "Renaissance men" did not go unnoticed. If such men as Leonardo, Pico, Bacon, and many others almost as famous could not succeed in their presumed dream of knowing all there was to know about everything, then lesser men should not presume to try. The alternative became self-evident: achieve expertise in one field while others attained expertise in theirs. Much easier to accomplish, this course led to a more comfortable academic community. Now an authority in one field need compete only with experts in his field.

The convenient device for accomplishing the change consisted of a divided and subdivided university, with separate departments, like armed feudalities, facing one another across a gulf of mutual ignorance. The remaining competition involved the use of university funds, which were soon distributed according to principles that had little to do with academic values or knowledge as such. The original belief that an educated person should be "critical" in more fields than his own no longer existed. Eventually, as C. P. Snow (1905-1980) pointed out, the university's separate worlds ceased to talk to one another. The "uni" in university also became meaningless as the institution, possessing more and more power as government funds were pumped into it for research, turned into a loose confederation of disconnected mini-states, instead of an organization devoted to the joint search for knowledge and truth.

Until World War II, undergraduate colleges, at least, hewed to the liberal ideal, without always doing so enthusiastically. After the war, the liberal curriculum was discarded almost everywhere, and the departmental organization of the educational establishment was installed at all levels below the university, even in many elementary schools.

All that remained, in the popular consciousness, was the sometimes admiring, sometimes ironic, and sometimes contemptuous phrase "Renaissance man," which was applied to almost anyone who manifested an ability to do more than one thing well. Even then, the phrase was never used in its original, Aristotelian sense. That ideal and the idea have been lost completely.

Excerpt from Charles Van Doren's book
A history of knowledge: Past, present, and future,
1991. New York: Ballantine Books.

Greek: 7 Liberal Arts

In classical antiquity, the "liberal arts" denoted the education worthy of a free person (Latin: liber, "free") [2] Contrary to popular belief, freeborn girls were as likely to receive formal education as boys, especially during the Roman Empire—unlike the lack-of-education, or purely manual/technical skills, proper to a slave.[3] The "liberal arts" or "liberal pursuits" (Latin liberalia studia) were already so called in formal education during the Roman Empire; for example, Seneca the Younger discusses liberal arts in education from a critical Stoic point of view in Moral Epistle 88.[4] The subjects that would become the standard "Liberal Arts" in Roman and Medieval times already comprised the basic curriculum in the enkuklios paideia or "education in a circle" of late Classical and Hellenistic Greece.

In the 5th century AD, Martianus Capella defined the seven Liberal Arts as: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. In the medieval Western university, the seven liberal arts were divided in two parts:[5]

  1. grammar
  2. logic
  3. rhetoric
  1. arithmetic
  2. astronomy, often called astrology; both modern senses were covered
  3. music
  4. geometry

The liberal arts started with the old Greeks and Roman philosophers (oLahav). They established the importance of a liberal arts foundation to an educated citizenry ("").

[edit] Basics

Mathematics, science, arts, and language are all parts of the liberal arts. In the middle ages, the liberal arts were synonymous with introductory courses in branches of the sciences, mathematics, and in the study of writing. Some subsections of the liberal arts are trivium-the verbal arts- logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and quadrivium-the numerical arts- mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Analyzing and interpreting information is also studied. Experience in Liberal Arts gives experience forming and expressing well rounded opinions.

Athenian System


In their early years, Athenian children were taught at home, sometimes under the guidance of a master or pedagogue. They were taught basic morals, until they began elementary education at approximately seven years of age. Children were taught how to read and write, as well as how to count and draw.[7] Children were taught letters and then syllables, followed by words and sentences. Reading and writing were taught at the same time. Students would write using a stylus, with which they would etch onto a wax-covered board. When children were ready to begin reading whole works, they would often be given poetry to memorize and recite.[8] An elementary education was the only education available to most people, especially the poor.[9] Children belonging to the upper social classes would receive formal elementary education since their parents would be able to afford to hire a tutor or to send them to a public school.[10] Children coming from poor families, however, would only be offered informal education, and the extent of their exposure to the above subjects would be directly linked to the knowledge of their parents.[11] In addition to not having the money to pay for a formal education, members of the lower class most likely would have required their children’s services at home just to be able to afford food and other basic necessities.


Having a physically fit body was extremely important to the Greeks. Greek boys would begin physical education either during or just after beginning their elementary education. In the beginning they would learn from a private teacher known as a paidotribe. Eventually, the boys would begin training at the gymnasium.[12] Physical training was seen as necessary for improving one’s appearance, preparation for war, and good health at an old age.[13] Traditionally, attendance at the gymnasium completed the majority of post-elementary education in Athens. It was not until about 420 BC that secondary education became prominent, which led to controversy between traditional and modern views of education.[14] Those of the traditional view believed that raising “intellectuals” would destroy Athenian culture and leave Athens at a disadvantage in war.[15] On the other hand, those with a more modern view felt that while physical strength was important, it would diminish over time[16] and that education should be used to develop the whole man, including his intellectual mind.[17]


After turning fourteen years old, boys from wealthy families had the option of attending secondary school. A secondary school might have been a permanent one, or it could have been received from traveling teachers such as the Sophists or other philosophers including Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae.[18] Secondary education included subjects such as natural science (biology and chemistry), rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing effectively), geometry, sophistry, astronomy and meteorology.[19] The teaching of these subjects became highly valued within Athenian society, because the Athenians believed that intellectual education was a key component of a person’s identity, making up a significant part of a person’s reputation. Accomplishments in academics could help an individual gain the respect of his peers. With this respect, leaders such as Themistocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades were able to influence political and military endeavors pursued by Athens.[20]


Boys could continue their education after secondary school by obtaining ephebic training. They could petition to become an ephebe at the age of eighteen.[21] In the fifth century BCE, ephebic training began as a military education, followed by two years of military service. Later, however, more advanced academic schooling was included.[22]


As mentioned earlier, children of poor families were often unable to receive a formal education. These children, however, were not totally forgotten. Solon, an Athenian leader who lived during the 7th to mid 6th centuries BCE, did much to reform his polis, and encouraged poor fathers to provide their sons with a vocational education.[23] By teaching these children a trade, they could also be regarded as productive members of Athenian society.

Music and dance were also very important to Athens. Throughout the many stages of an individual’s education, he was encouraged to practice dancing, singing and the playing of instruments. Common instruments used in Athens included the harp, flute and lyre.[24] By advancing in dance, singing and the playing of instruments, an Athenian would help continue a tradition that was a key component of Athenian history.

[edit] Spartan System

The Spartan society desired that all male citizens become successful soldiers with the stamina and skills to defend their polis as members of a Spartan phalanx. Thus, only the healthiest male babies born to Spartan citizens were allowed to live. A council convened at the birth of each male child with the purpose of examining the baby for defects and signs of weakness.[25] After examination, the council would either rule that the baby was fit to live or would reject the baby sentencing him to a death by abandonment and exposure.[26]


Military dominance was of extreme importance to the Spartans of ancient Greece. In response, the Spartans structured their educational system as an extreme form of military boot camp, which they referred to as agoge.[27] The pursuit of intellectual knowledge was seen as trivial, and thus academic learning, such as reading and writing, was kept to a minimum. A Spartan boy’s life was devoted almost entirely to his school, and that school had but one purpose: to produce an almost indestructible Spartan phalanx. Formal education for a Spartan male began at about the age of seven when the state removed the boy from the custody of his parents and sent him to live in a barracks with many other boys his age.[28] For all intents and purposes, the barracks was his new home, and the other males living in the barracks his family. For the next five years, until about the age of twelve, the boys would eat, sleep and train within their barracks-unit and receive instruction from an adult male citizen who had completed all of his military training and experienced battle.[29] The instructor stressed discipline and exercise and saw to it that his students received little food and minimal clothing in an effort to force the boys to learn how to forage, steal and endure extreme hunger, all of which would be necessary skills in the course of a war.[30] Those boys who survived the first stage of training entered into a secondary stage in which punishments became harsher and physical training and participation in sports almost non-stop in order to build up strength and endurance.[31] During this stage, which lasted until the males were about eighteen years old, fighting within the unit was encouraged, mock battles were performed, acts of courage praised, and signs of cowardice and disobedience severely punished.[32] During the mock battles, the young men were formed into phalanxes to learn to maneuver as if they were one entity and not a group of individuals.[33] To be more efficient and effective during maneuvers, students were also trained in dancing and music, because this would enhance their ability to move gracefully as a unit.[34] Toward the end of this phase of the agoge, the trainees were expected to hunt down and kill a Helot, a Greek slave.[35] If caught, the student would be convicted and disciplined-not for committing murder, but for his inability to complete the murder without being discovered.


The students would graduate from the agoge at the age of eighteen and receive the title of ephebes.[36] Upon becoming an ephebe, the male would pledge strict and complete allegiance to Sparta and would join a private organization to continue training in which he would compete in gymnastics, hunting and performance with planned battles using real weapons.[37] After two years, at the age of twenty, this training was finished and the now grown men were officially regarded as Spartan soldiers.[27]

Education of Spartan Women

Spartan women, unlike their Athenian counterparts, received a formal education that was supervised and controlled by the state. [38] Much of the public schooling received by the Spartan women revolved around physical education. Until about the age of eighteen women were taught to run, wrestle, throw a discus, and also to throw javelins. [39] The skills of the young women were tested regularly in competitions such as the annual footrace at the Heraea of Elis, [40] In addition to physical education the young girls also were taught to sing, dance, and play instruments often by travelling poets such as Alcman or by the elderly women in the polis. [41] The Spartan educational system for females was very strict, because its purpose was to train future mothers of soldiers in order to maintain the strength of Sparta’s phalanxes, which were essential to Spartan defence and culture. [42]

[edit] Citations

Oriental and Neolithic





In Ancient Egypt the child's world was not as clearly separated from the adult's as it tends to be in modern Western society. As the years went by childish pastimes would give way to imitations of grown-up behavior.



Children would more and more frequently be found lending a hand with the less onerous tasks and gradually acquiring practical skills and knowledge from their elders.


By precept and example, parents would instill into them various educational principles, moral attitudes and views of life. Thus from a tender age they would receive their basic education in the bosom of the family. For girls, this was usually all the schooling they would get, but for boys it would be supplemented by proper training in whatever line they chose, or was chosen for them.


Education, of course, covers both the general upbringing of a child and its training for a particular vocation. The upbringing of boys was left largely in the hands of their fathers, that of girls was entrusted to their mothers. Parents familiarized their children with their ideas about the world, with their religious outlook, with their ethical principles, with correct behavior toward others and toward the super-natural beings in whom everyone believed. They taught them about folk rituals and so forth.


Educational principles are summarized in a number of ancient Egyptian treatises now commonly called the Books of Instruction. The advice given in them was designed to ensure personal success consonant with the needs of the state and the moral norms of the day.


Truth-telling and fair dealing were enjoined not on any absolute grounds, but as socially desirable and at the same time more advantageous to the individual than lying and injustice, whose consequences would rebound against their perpetrator. The Books of Instruction contain rules for the well-ordered life and elements of morality that include justice, wisdom, obedience, humanity and restraint.



They mostly took the form of verses addressed by a father to his son as he stepped into his shoes or started to help his aging parent. Similar admonitions were delivered by a king to his heir. Most of these books were compiled by senior officials: humbler scribes, like Ant, only played a part in later times.


Many copies were made of these Books of Instruction, since they also served as teaching texts in the schools for scribes. Seven complete and five partial texts have survived, while the existence of others is known from fragments. The one which appears to be the oldest is by the celebrated, vizier, architect and physician to the 3rd-dynasty pharaoh Djoser.


This text has not survived, but is mentioned in the Harper's Song in the tomb of King lnyotef. Another is the Instruction Compiled by the Noble and Royal Prince Hordjedef for His Son. The two authors of these very ancient books were held in such esteem as to be deified. Of other educational treatises perhaps 3 the most important is the Instruction of Ptahhotep, City Administrator and First Minister during the reign of His Majesty Djedkare Isesi, Ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt during the 5th dynasty. The following passages deal with the art of 'elegant and effective speech'.


You should only talk when you are sure you know your subject. He who would speak in council must he a word-smith. Speaking is harder than any other task and only does credit to the man with perfect mastery ...


Be prudent whenever you open your mouth. Your every utterance should be outstanding, so that the mighty men who listen to you will say: "How beautiful are the words that fly from his lips"


Nevertheless Ptahhotep rates fair dealing higher than learning: You may tell a wise man from the extent of his knowledge, a noble man by his good deeds.


In contrast to the hierarchic structure of Egyptian society in those days, this injunction to respect the opinions and knowledge of simple folk has quite a democratic ring:


Do not boast of your knowledge, but seek the advice of the untutored as much as the well-educated.


Wise words are rarer than precious stones and may come even from slave-girls grinding the corn.


Ptahhotep urges his readers to exercise justice and warns against intriguing for self-aggrandizement, bribery, extortion of debts from those unable to pay and insatiable accumulation of property. His manual abounds in concrete advice on how to behave in various situations - at banquets, in the exercise of high office, towards friends, wives, petitioners, paupers and so on.


The spiritual high-point in this genre is reached in the Instruction of Amenemope at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, some of which is closely comparable with passages in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. It includes, for example, this call for justice and forbearance toward the poor and widows:



Do not ove the boundary-stone in the field nor shift the surveyor's rope; do not covet a cubit of your neighbor's land nor tamper with the widow's land-bounds.


Covet not the poor farmer's property nor hunger after his bread; the peasant's morsel will surely gag in the throat and revolt the gullet.


If the poor man is found to owe you a great debt, divide it three ways; remit two parts and let the third stand. That, you will see, is the best way in this life; thereafter you will sleep sound and in the morning it will seem like good tidings; for it is better to be praised for neighborly love than to have riches in your storeroom; better to enjoy your bread with a good conscience than to have wealth weighed down by reproaches.


Never let a powerful man bribe you to oppress a weak one for his own benefit. There is a similar foretaste of Christian morality where Amenemope urges consideration toward the afflicted:


Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple's path; don't tease a man made ill by a god nor make outcry when he blunders.


In the surprisingly developed moral code revealed by these excerpts, virtue will be rewarded for reasons that can be summarized as follows: behave justly toward your god, your king, your superiors and your inferiors too; in return you will enjoy health, long life and respect.


When judging the dead, god will deal with you in accordance with your past conduct. Those you leave behind, too, will be glad to acknowledge your good deeds by reciting life-giving words and by bringing gifts to ensure you life eternal ... The supreme aim of the Egyptian moral system was to help maintain harmony and order in the world created by god and maintained by the king.


Alongside the inculcation of general rules of morality there was, of course, formal vocational training. Young men did not usually choose their own careers. Herodotus and Diodorus refer explicitly to hereditary callings in ancient Egypt.


This was not in fact a system of rigid inheritance but an endeavor, as one Middle Kingdom stele puts it, to pass on a father's function to his children. Several other sources confirm that this happened with the consent of the king or his plenipotentiaries. Thus we find throughout Egyptian history a tendency for even the highest offices to remain in the same families.


Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, for example, there was a virtually dynastic line of viziers, and in the Ramessid period the offices of the supreme priests of Amun were passed on from father to son. It was in any case common practice for an official to take on his son as an assistant. so that the succession became more or less automatic. This was also the implication of joint rule at the royal level. A son was commonly referred to as 'the staff of his father's old age', designed to assist him in the performance of his duties and finally to succeed him. Even if the Instructions of Ant declare that 'offices have no offspring.


From an early age they would be going out to the fields, boys and girls alike, to lend a hand in simple tasks like gathering and winnowing the corn, tending poultry and in time cattle, and so  forth. Fishermen, boatmen and others would also take their young folk along with them for practical experience.



Pictures of craftsmen at work, on the other hand, rarely show children present. There is one of a boy handing a leg of meat to a butcher; other examples show a lad helping an older man to smooth down a ceramic vessel, and a boy playing in a row of musicians. In the army youngsters were used as grooms and batmen.


Writings of the Roman Period contain some interesting data about the training of weavers and spinning-girls. A test was probably given at the end of the apprenticeship. At this time weavers usually sent their children to be taught by colleagues in the same trade. The master undertook, if he failed to get his pupil through the whole course, to return whatever payment the father had advanced for the apprenticeship.


Kingdom each scribe taught his successor - usually his son - individually. From the First Intermediate Period onwards there is evidence of whole classes run for trainees in this field. In the New Kingdom they existed in the capital city of Thebes (there was one in the Ramesseum, for example, and a second purportedly at Deir el-Medina) and in later times such institutions were run at other centers too. These were not of course true schools in the sense of independent bodies with full-time teachers. All major offices such as the royal chancelleries, military headquarters and the


The ancient Egyptians nevertheless held education in high regard and saw it as a privilege. A few talented individuals without formal schooling still managed to acquire sufficient knowledge to shine in their own field. And there were of course plenty who tried, as everywhere, to compensate for their lack of education by intriguing or currying favor in high places - sometimes as high as royalty.

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The Wedded State was to ancient Egyptian minds the ideal part of the divine order. Monogamy is documented even from predynastic times. A young man who had hitherto led a bachelor life and sometimes had a high time of it, but had now attained a certain social standing, would go to the house of his chosen's father to ask for her hand.


Above: Nofert and Rahotep, two courtiers whose  portrayal reflects the great importance  of their positions. Nofert was designated as one  known to the king'. Her Husband Prince  Rahotep was probably the sun of King Snofru. He held the titles of high priest of Re at Heliopolis, Director of Expeditions and  Chief of Construction. The colored diadem worn by Nofert over her wig represents a silver band with ornamental inlays. Her collar was made of semi-precious stone beads and  pendants. According to artistic convention the man's complexion is much darker  than his wife's. This is one of the masterpieces of Egyptian art. See also ill.80. Painted limestone. From the mastaba of Rahotep and Nofert, Medium. Early 4th dynasty. Cairo,  Egyptian Museum.


Entering into a marriage was described as 'making a wife' or 'taking a wife', but in accordance with the prevailing patriarchal system it seems that the girl's father had the main say. Nor were the views of her mother to be ignored, as an eager girl's words reveal in a love-song: 'Little does he know how I long to embrace him, and for him to send word to my mother.' If the girl had no father, an uncle would step in.


The ratio of love-matches to arranged marriages is not clear from the evidence. We have a biographical inscription of the Ptolemaic Period where a woman says: 'My father gave me in marriage' to so-and-so.


In the absence of any preexisting agreement it seems that the girl's consent to a marriage was unimportant until the 26th dynasty, when brides also began to have a say. It is then that we find marriage contracts using not only the formula 'I have made you into a wife', but also, putting the woman's side, 'You have made me into a wife.' Whether there was a period of engagement before marriage we cannot tell.


At what age did young people marry in those days? Age is not usually mentioned in the contracts. References to child-marriage or early maturity among Egyptian girls repeated in some popular accounts have no basis in fact. We have already seen that the average age of puberty was 12 to 13 among girls and around I4 for boys.


Take a wife while  you are still young, so  that she can bear you a son.


It would follow that attainment of sexual maturity was a precondition of marriage. One Ptolemaic document gives the lowest age for a bridegroom as 15, which agrees exactly with  this reasoning. At an even later time the Instruction of Ankhshoshenq advised boys precisely: 'Marry at 20, so that you can have a son while you are still young.



Probably, then, a man could marry as soon as he was physically mature and had reached a point in his chosen career that ensured his ability to provide for his wife and for the children they could expect. Ptahhotep, whom we have so often quoted, writes: 'If you have already made yourself a name, then start a family.


We know of cases on the other hand where very 'mature' men took wives many years younger. The scribe Qenherkhepeshef of Deir el-Medina, for example, married the 12-year-old girl Nanakht when he was 54. Again, having established the age of Queen Mutnodjmet when she died we can deduce that she was between 25 and 30 when the 5o-year-old General Horemheb chose to marry her. This was of course a classic marriage of convenience, enabling Horemheb to join the ruling family of the 18th dynasty and secure the throne.


It was a different matter for brides, who did not need to wait till they attained social status and could not afford to see their youthful attractions waning. The earliest known ages for brides are quoted by Pestman from Roman Period documents that speak of marriage at 8, 9 and 10. And the label of one late mummy states, in a demotic hand, that the body was of a married girl who had died at the age of 11. Others have argued that such cases were either exceptional or were scribes' errors. Erich Luddeckens, an outstanding student of Egyptian marriage contracts, found from analysis of Ptolemaic contracts that most of the brides were aged 12 or 13. Reconstruction of the biographies of the Amarna princesses has produced the same figure, and the Ptolemaic Period woman mentioned above as having been 'given in marriage' by her father was I 4 when this occurred.


It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that in contrast to men, some girls married as early as, or soon after, puberty, that is between I 2 and I 4. Pre-puberty marriages, however, were quite customary in the royal families, where for dynastic reasons they were often early unions of brother and sister. A well-known example is the marriage of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun. Since he died aged about 18 after a nine-year reign, he must have been nine when he married, although she may well have been older.


Marriages between kin were familiar among the common folk. Step-brothers and sisters married, as did uncles and nieces quite frequently, and cousins still more so. Marriages between cousins are indeed a regular occurrence in Egypt, and particularly in Nubia, to this day. Between very close blood-relations, however, it was wholly exceptional among ordinary people. Jaroslav Cerny investigated 490 marriages from the First Intermediate Period up to the 18th dynasty and found only two cases where the partners were brother and sister. After the time of Tuthmosis III it is hard to prove the occurrence of close-kin marriages since it was now becoming normal to call a wife or girlfriend 'sister'. One sibling marriage is attested by the stele of Ptah, the 22nd-dynasty high priest of Memphis. Here both parents had the same family lineage. But the father was a commander of Libyan mercenaries and may have been deliberately adopting the customs of the Egyptian court.


In the royal family it had been almost mandatory since time immemorial for marriages to be solemnized between the closest kin, the notional prototype evidently being the mythological sibling-spouses Osiris and Isis, who had come into this world to raise humans from savagery, teach them the elements of civilization and proclaim the wisdom and omnipotence of the gods. As the king saw himself as a god-incarnate he hoped to pass on his exclusive divine status to his successor. Accordingly he had no hesitation in taking as wife his sister or-step-sister (as did Seqenenre Tao II, Ahmose I, Amenophis I, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis IV, Ramesses II, Merenptah and Siptah), his daughter (Amenophis II, Akhenaten and Ramesses II who went so far as to marry three of his daughters) or even his aunt (Sethos II). Ptolemy II and his successors all married one of their sisters. These last were kings of Greek blood, but they took care to adhere strictly to old Egyptian practice in their marriage policy as in everything else. Interestingly enough, investigation of the many kin-marriages in the 18th, 19th and Ptolemaic dynasties by Marc Armand Ruffer has revealed no evidence of degeneration resulting from persistent inbreeding.


Examination of 161 marriages among commoners in the Ptolemaic Period, 24 per cent of which were between siblings, shows the power of example even in those days. It was evidently Hellenistic influence that weakened the barrier between exclusively royal practice and that of the people. During the reign of the Roman emperor Commodus it was reported that as many as two-thirds of marriages in the city of Arsinoe (formerly Crocodilopolis, capital of the Faiyum) were between very close kin.

Another feature of ancient Egyptian marriage custom is that the partners usually came from the same social stratum. There were however exceptions, such as Naunakhte in the 2oth dynasty who married first a scribe and then an artisan, or King Amenophis II who fell for the commoner Teye and made her his principal wife.


No obstacles seem to have been put in the way of marriage between people of different racial background. An Egyptian could marry a Syrian or Nubian girl, and an Egyptian woman could become a foreigner's wife. The kings themselves might take princesses from abroad as secondary wives. Ramesses II, for example, wed the Hittite princess Maathornefrerure and granted her the same title of 'Great King's Wife' as he did to his principal wife Nefertari. From the Late Period on, Egyptians were regularly intermarrying with Greek colonists in some of the Delta towns, just as in the Roman Period they did with Latins, especially in the Faiyum.


Marriage of a free man to a slave, by contrast, was regarded as mere concubinage and enjoyed no legal protection; any ensuing children remained slaves. To contract a proper marriage, a slave-woman had first to buy her freedom or to be adopted. A man was free to adopt any children he had by a slave.


This raises the question of how many wives an Egyptian was allowed to have. In theory there was no limit, but in practice it would have depended on the man's means. Most Egyptians were content to have only one wife. Marriage was an expensive matter for the man, and the whole contract system provided such far-reaching safeguards for the material rights of wives and children that most men could only afford one wife at a time.