This article about ancient Roman schools is very much shortened version of the more extensive essay about Rome’s schools and learning.
The patron deity of Roman schools was the goddess Minerva also patron of the arts and wisdom. Ancient Roman schools weren’t quite the organised structure you would see today. In spite of the common recognition of the value of a good Roman 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 families began to use teachers called “Literatores” or ???????????, usually a slave of Greek extract. The cost of these private tutor-slaves was obviously extremely high.
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 Forum as a lawyer, bureaucrat or politician or in the army. This bias clearly had its positive and negative aspects: positive in terms of creating a strong society with active citizens but very little in terms of fostering ancient roman innovation and roman technology.
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 using the famous roman numerals. 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.
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 followed by Oratory
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.
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, history and so on.
After the grammar school the rich 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 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.
Read on about ancient Roman education.