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Teach Your Children Well: Games, Education, and Legislation in Antiquity

Chris Dobbs

University of Missouri

Greek and Roman authors make a somewhat surprising connection between games and governance, often linking education to legislation. In this paper, I first outline the connection, then show how authors use it, subtly or obliquely, to advocate for a government led by those groomed since childhood. I unite two strands of scholarship to conclude that the Greek authors under examination use this theme to promote an ideal, whereas their Roman counterparts use it to justify class divisions. 

I begin with Plato’s Laws, the politics of which are themselves a kind of game (Jacobson 1999) that typifies play as a central element in Plato’s philosophy (Ardley 1967). The Athenian states that anyone who will be good at something must practice it from childhood, both playing and studying (παίζοντά τε καὶ σπουδάζοντα) every aspect of his eventual occupation, so future farmers must play at farming, future builders at building, and so on (Laws 643b-c). He states further that learning petty trades does not count as true education (παιδεία), which he identifies as training since childhood that makes one desire to be a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and how to be ruled by the law (Laws 643d-e). This definition reinforces the education-to-rulership theme of Plato’s Gorgias and Republic (Ober 1998) and Greek education generally (Beck 1964). He later clarifies that the way children play games determines how they will legislate as adults, with those who enjoyed the same games in the same ways respecting tradition, while those who always had new games and rules modifying laws simply for the sake of novelty (Laws 797a-b). The assertion that laws are a game played by old men (Laws 685a, 769a) operates within this framework.

We can trace the same theme of games and governance, with education as an intermediary, in authors far less explicit than Plato. Heraclitus (Diogenes Laertius 9.1.2-3) preferred playing knucklebones with children to governing with the Ephesians, who already had a wicked constitution in place, using wording that implies the latter are only playing at governance, as πολιτεύειν can also mean “to play the board game polis” (Kurke 1999). Cicero, meanwhile, asserts that daily laborers, when unable to work, fill their time with games or invent a new game, whereas those with great learning, when kept from politics, produce a new dialectical game and devote themselves to arts (artes) invented to turn boys’ minds toward virtue (de Oratore 3.58). Each group invents a new game, described with the same wording (novum…ludum), but Cicero treats them entirely differently: laborers merely pass time, but educated people pursue virtue; their very education marks their game as a useful tool, rather than a mere pastime, and proves their right to engage in politics (Dobbs 2016). This discrepancy exemplifies the manner in which Roman elites argued for an inherent superiority over the lower classes (Toner 1995). Plato and Heraclitus, then, use games and education to promote ideal governance, while Cicero uses them to state that the right people are already governing.

Session/Panel Title

Learning the Rules: Games and Education in the Ancient World

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