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the ancient roman education

ancient roman education

This article on ancient roman education is a more complete rendition of ancient roman schools as it includes elements regarding what the ancient Romans thought of "education" as well as the sort of studies followed by men such as Cicero.

Numerous aspects related to ancient Roman education are dealt with in separate pages include ancient roman libraries, ancient roman schools, the roman alphabet and roman numerals.

Ancient Romans gave a great deal of importance to education but the approach to learning and teaching can be said to have been rather "old fashioned". A motto of the time said something along the lines of:

Qui parcit virgae, odit filium suum

"he who spares the whip hates his own son"

In spite of the common recognition of the values of a good education, schooling and education in ancient Rome was always a private affair which in the earliest days was performed by the child's parents. Men of great standing would be quite proud of having taught their own son to read and write, play music, to fight and swim. It was only towards the end of the Republic that Patrician families began to use teachers called "Literatores" or Γραμματιςαί, usually a slave of Greek extract. The cost of these private tutor-slaves was obviously extremely high.

We can find further example of the importance given to paternal education in Horace's fourth ode of book four "To the People of Rome " dealing with the promising genius of Drusus and his education under Augustus. Horace establishes how important lineage is in order to inherit one's strengths but goes on to say: "But it is no less certain, that Education improves this natural Bent, and that good Culture strengthens the Mind. When good Precepts are wanting, these natural Endowments are obscured and corrupted by Vices." ("Doctrina sed vim promovet insitam, Rectique cultus pectora roborant: Utcunque defecere mores, Dedecorant bene nata culpae").

It seems appropriate at this point to quote directly from Quintilian's "de Oratoribus". Here he compares the "new" manner of learning to the "old".

"As soon as the child was born , he was not given in charge to a hired nurse, to live with her in some pitiful hole that served for her lodgings; but was brought up in the lap and bosom of the mother, who reckoned it among her chief commendations, to keep the house, and to attend on the children. Some ancient matron was pitched on out of the neighbours, whose life and manners rendered her worthy of that office, to whose care the children of every family were committed; before whom it was reckoned the most heinous thing in the World, to speak an ill Word, or to do an ill Action. Nor had she an Eye only on the Instruction, and the Business that they were to follow, but with an equal Modesty and Gravity, she regulated their very Divertisements and Recreations. Thus Cornelia, Aurelia and Attica, Mothers of the Gracchi, Julius Caesar and Augustus, are reported to have undertaken the Office of Governesses, and to have employed themselves in the Education of Noblemen's Children. The Strictness and Severity of such an Institution had this very good Design, That the Mind being thus preserved in its primitive Innocence and Integrity, and not debauched by ill Custom or ill Example, might apply itself with the greatest Willingness to liberal Arts, and embrace them with all its Powers and Faculties. That, whether it was particularly inclined either to the Profession of Arms, or to the understanding of the Law, or to the Practice of Eloquence; it might make that its only Business, and greedily drink in the whole Knowledge of the favourite Study.

But now the young Infant is given in Charge to some poor Graecian Wench, and one or two of the Serving-men, perhaps, are joined in the Commission; generally the meanest and most ill-bred of the whole Pack, and such as are unfit for any serious Business. From the Stories and Tattle of such fine Companions, the soft and flexible Nature must take its first Impression and Bent. Over the whole Family there is not the least Care taken of what is said or done before the Child; while the very Parents, instead of inuring their dear little Ones to Virtue and Modesty, accustom them, on the quite contrary, to Licentiousness and Wantonness, the natural Result of which, is settled Impudence, and a Contempt of those very Parents, and every Body else."

The upper class Roman line of conservatism which looked to the "good old days" in schooling as with other facets of life is evident in the text. Interestingly, it fails to highlight that Rome as early as the 6th century had had both Greek and Etruscan influence - evidence of this being early assimilation of divinities such as the Dioscuroi and Esculapius and archaic altars at Lavinium, south of Rome which provide a direct link between the religious and cultural origins of Rome and the myths of aeneas as founding father, well before their popularisation under Augustus with Virgil's epic poem "the Aenid". A parallel insight lies in the early upper class Roman consideration for the Etruscan city of Caere (Cerveteri to the north of Rome) as the place to go to for an excellent education. eventually Caere was replaced by Athens as the centre for excellence in education, but in either case we can see how it was not unknown to go abroad in order to access the best education since the earliest ages of Rome.

From the cultural point of view, the Roman "discovery" of Greek culture and literature through the conquest of southern Italy was not seen as a positive thing by everyone. After all, how could the fighter-peasants have any respect for a soft commander-art collector? Greek influence meant a love for "soft" culture and this came hand in hand with a strong growth in literacy. Literate peasants might learn to argue the point of a military command.

We can see therefore how the influence of Greek culture was viewed by some as a threat to true Roman culture and that this might be regarded as a particular threat through schooling: "But now the young Infant is given in Charge to some poor Graecian Wench…." It is undeniable however that the level of schooling and education improved enormously as the territorial extent and political power of Rome grew. Where man's freedom in Greece developed into art so man's freedom in Rome developed into Roman law and government and these two strains were brought together at school.

Greek culture, literacy, oratory and philosophy were unanimously seen as being in a class of their own. The disagreement lay in the benefit or threat that this might pose to the Roman people. Nonetheless slaves, particularly Greek slaves, came to be the preferred teachers for one's children through whom the child would learn to read and write and do basic arithmetic. Further refinement was according to the individual's inclinations which could be towards a career in the Roman Forum as a lawyer, bureaucrat or politician or in the army.

Education of Women in Ancient Rome

At this point it is worth making a brief mention about the education of women in ancient Rome. As with a number of societies the average level of education of women was not only affected by the level of education theoretically available but also by the position of women in Roman society. Woman's position in Roman society was generally viewed to be at home, particularly in the early period of Rome.

A good example of this is given by Quintilian's text above which suggests that during the Republic even noble women such as the Gracchi's or Caesar's mothers might go and teach the children of others. But with time this position varied and women achieved increasingly great liberties although (almost) never equal to those of men. We therefore find women making their power felt at the highest echelons and during the brief reign of Elagabalus (118-222) we even see a women-only counter-Senate. Not to mention women such as Agrippina wife of Claudius and mother of Nero or Mammea who had coinage printed with her own profile. Although these are isolated instances it is interesting to note that they all occurred after the Republican period. The education of women was clearly directly related to their position in society and the personal wealth of their families.

Primary Schooling and Learning to Write

Primary schooling would commence at around the age of six to the age of thirteen. Writing was done with a sharp stick called a stylus to etch into a waxed board. In this manner the writing could be rubbed out and written over. A clean wax board was called a "tabula rasa" and came to be referred to in common speech as meaning having freedom to do as one wished (in English we would say being given carte blanche). The main objectives at primary school were to learn how to read and write as well as basic arithmetic. Lessons were slow and monotonous and learning was generally by rote (learning "off by heart"). There were no official holidays as such. Lessons would start very early and go on throughout the day with a lunch break in the middle.

Alumni would start off by learning the twenty four letters of the alphabet. When they had come to learn to read it would be frequent for them to learn the famous laws of the twelve tablets (the first written laws of Rome collated by the Decemviri). In his book "de Legibus" Cicero tells us that when he was a boy he had to learn the famous Laws of the Twelve Tablets by heart, in the same manner as he had learnt poetry. Plutarch tells us in his biography of Cato that children would perform a play based on a case at law complete with pleadings, accusations and carrying off of the condemned party.

After learning to read students would learn to write by copying texts onto their waxed board. Mathematics was taught last using an abacus. Learning to count was like learning to read: the children would count together aloud. Teachers would make widespread use of corporal punishment to entice their students to learn and behave.

It wasn't long of course before liberti (freed slaves) opened private schools to cover primary school needs at a more affordable cost to the parents of the alumni. These schools were called ludus literarius and attendance was a matter of choice and in fact these primary schools were the only teaching which the plebeians might hope to access. This primary schooling tended to be held in make-shift places such as by the road, on a terrace, in a cellar or wherever else all the attendants could be seated. The furnishings were equally make-shift, not dissimilar to those we see nowadays in documentaries of schools in third world countries. The teachers themselves didn't enjoy a high reputation for their work and given the small income of their work they would often have second jobs.

Grammar school and Oratory - if you could afford it.

After primary school there was the grammar school. Grammar schools called "grammaticus" were also of a private nature and therefore were only available to children whose parents had sufficient economic means. These schools taught advanced Latin and Greek to children between the ages of 13 and 16.

Lessons were taught in Greek in order to ensure the alumni would end up being bilingual. Being bilingual was highly regarded as we are reminded by Horace's ode to Maecenas which starts off by establishing his good breeding and learning: "Maecenas, you who are a perfect Master of both Languages….". The use this could be put to is made clearer by the historian Suetonius. In his book Famous Rhetoricians he tells us that Cicero's oratory was all in Greek until he reached the rank of Praetor and then almost exclusively in Latin until his death (he was murdered by Mark Anthony's henchmen). One assumes that all who had to sit out and listen to Cicero's speeches could understand what he was saying (unless they were asleep).

Texts such as Livius Andronicus' translation of Ulisses were a staple diet and provided a suitable foundation onto which the student could learn about Mythology, the Gods, Roman history and so on.

Oratory in Ancient Rome

After the grammar school the student would move on to learn the art of Oratory - to speak in public. This was between the ages of 16 and 18. Public speaking was essential if one aspired to any form of public career. The study of Oratory was subdivided into three principal disciplines: Translation, Declaiming and Reciting. It would be quite common for the aspiring Roman Orator to choose and study one of the great Orators of Greece which he might feel most closely fitted his personal talent and to translate and apply the work of that Orator in Latin. Cicero, Quintinlian and Pliny the Younger all regarded this as an indispensable practice in much the same way that the Old Masters of painting from the Renaissance onwards felt it indispensable to copy and learn from the great artists who had lived before them.

The level of schooling at the Grammar and Oratory was clearly far superior to that of the primary school and the elitist character of these organisations ensured a high public regard for them and for the professionals who taught in them. Two famous examples are Quintilian and Seneca - the latter was a philosopher who had been expelled by Caligula but was later recalled to be Nero's personal tutor. Seneca eventually co-ruled the empire through a brief period of prosperity.

Better locations were rendered available for these schools, for example Julius Caesar and Trajan destined various locations of their Forums to this purpose. Trajan included a prestigious public library divided into two sections of Latin and Greek either side of his famous column which itself is like a public history book (scroll). The most popular texts were those "classics" we still know today, including Homer, Virgil, Seneca, Horace, Ovid and so on.

The student of greater means could then go on to travel and perfect his arts rather like a modern student might go abroad to study a Masters or Doctorate at some foreign university considered particularly excellent in his discipline of choice. Cicero provides us with the most successful example. In his book Brutus Cicero gives us a relatively full account of his studies.


Cicero undertook a long course of study which wasn't fully complete and perfected until he was a full 31 years old. We also learn that as soon as he wore the "manly gown" (became of age - age 17) his father committed Cicero to legal studies under Scaevola. This was relatively common practice, rather like an apprenticeship, which would be similarly undertaken by those aiming at a military career given that Oratory would in any case be required.

After Cicero's admission to the Forum he regularly attended the public speeches of the best orators. He would also devote several hours to study and writing as well as constant studies in the art of Oratory. At the age of 19, during the height of the atrocities and civil wars between Marius and Sylla the courts were shut and so Cicero devoted himself to philosophy under the guidance of Philo - "Prince of the Academy of Athens". Philo had left Greece because of (the Mithridatic) war and had settled in Rome.

Cicero also undertook further studies in Oratory with a famous master of Rhetoric called Molo at Rhodes. Apparently he was displeased with his rather shrill voice and approach and hence saw to lowering and controlling his tone. Cicero also learned Logic from Diodotus the Stoic who he took into his own house. Diodotus taught Cicero a "concise and compact kind of Eloquence". By the age of about 26 or 27 Cicero was admitted to the bar and won his first case. He later decided to pursue his studies further with a voyage to Greece and on to his master in Rhetoric Molo at Rhodes. He studied under Demetrius the Syrian and then undertook a study trip around Asia with a number of Orators and Rhetoricians who offered him their company.

The End of Education in Ancient Rome

It would not go amiss to finish off by looking at the level of education as the empire gradually fell. The backdrop is clearly one of shrinking dominions, high taxes, increasing poverty, fewer and fewer available slaves (even for teaching!) and falling population. In Roman Art it is evident that there was a general downturn in craftsmanship although the tendency towards popular art also suggests a shift in concerns (of the consumers of art).

Likewise literature and literacy took a negative turn. There was a significant drop in literate population whilst the number of foreigners employed to run the state machinery steadily increased. This meant that it was increasingly difficult to run the state bureaucracy, further hampering the empire's functioning. As demand failed for literacy and high education so too did the level of education available. Eventually education and culture came to be confined within the walls of monasteries and the houses of the nobility. The very word "nobility" is strongly linked to the Latin word for knowledge: "nobilis" = renowned.

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"ancient roman education" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia, updated 4th August 2011 for www.mariamilani.com