Schools and schooling in ancient rome

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Learning and Schools in Ancient Rome

I began this essay on Rome schools and ancient roman schooling thinking it might be boring. I came to see that the subject of ancient roman learning gives many insights into what may have prevented the ancient Romans and the ancient Roman empire from transforming into a "modern" industrialized nation.

It is worth beginning by saying that the level of literacy in ancient Rome was relatively high and great importance was placed on education. Quintillian, who wrote (and taught) during the 1st century AD wrote (Institutes of Oratory I. i. 1-3)

"those who are dull and unteachable are as abnormal as prodigious births and monstrosities and are but few in number" and then…

"But, it will be urged, there are differing degrees of intellectual ability….but that there are any who gain nothing from education, I absolutely deny"

People wishing to climb the social ladder through a successful career would come to Rome from the provinces and make great efforts to put their children through tuition. A famous example of this is the poet Horace who was born in a Roman colony in southern Italy, son of the owner of a small farm, who happened to be a freed slave (a "libertus"). His father made great efforts to afford his son the best education by moving to Rome and finding employment as a middleman. He was successful enough for his son to study first in Rome and later at Athens and his son was ever greatful to him for the efforts he had made on his behalf. (satires bk1, 6). We have yet more evidence of the importance of paternal efforts from a letter Pliny the younger wrote to his friend Tacitus (Letters book IV, no.13) Tacitus is speaking to a schoolboy….

…."Do you go to school?" I asked. "Certainly" he replied. "Where?" "At Milan". "Why not here?" "Because," rejoined his father, …..,"we have no teachers here".

Pliny goes on to suggest he would sponsor the parents a third of the fees by donations to the municipality and that: "I would even promise the whole if I were not afraid that such an endowment might one day be tampered with through political corruption, as I see happen in many places where teachers are hired by the municipality"

Schooling and tuition was by and large a matter for private individuals willing to pay tuition fees, or to a degree at the discretion of the local municipal council. There was no state aid nor was there any control over the teacher’s qualifications to teach. Self appointed teachers had to scrounge their living by attracting students and (meager) fees whilst children born into a poor family clearly had little probability of going to school at all, or at the very least had to make do with the cheapest alternative available.

On the whole, the primary school teacher’s situation was not florid: Juvenal gives a strong sense of the hardships lived by the common teacher when in his Satires he outlines the ways in which a man might become wealthy and contrasts it to the poor living and little credit awarded to men of letters and the arts (culture).

Market forces would decide the school’s and the teacher’s fortunes and not all teachers were the same: The primary school "magister" was quite often an ex "pedagodue" (a slave who’s job it was to accompany his master’s children to school and assist with their schooling) whilst the "rhetor" or "orator" teaching the older advanced students could find himself in direct contact with the city’s elite and could make considerable income.

The extreme example would be Quintilian already mentioned above who actually set up his own school of Rhetoric with, it is believed, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus as students. He then went on to become Consul under Emperor Vespasian.

The growth in Roman education moved in pace with its economy and geographic expansion, particularly contact with Greek culture, at first through the colonies in southern Italy and then when Greece itself was taken and later with the taking of Alexandria and Roman Egypt at the time of Cleopatra – all of these being great centres of learning at the time.

There was an equivalent drop in literacy as the empire lost its power, greatly contributing to the general downfall and malfunction of the state bureaucracy. Eventually, in parallel with the fall of the Roman empire, knowledge and learning became a domain of the Christian church of ancient Rome which took over the city’s governance.

Approach to learning in the ancient Roman Schools

The methodology of teaching and learning remained generally constant throughout ancient Roman history: little room for creativity and plenty of master to student imposition of rigid rules and rote learning.

Other than the basic notions which formed the basis of primary school teaching, Roman schooling had one or two possible objectives, easily associated with study of the "classics": A career in public life as a politician or lawyer. A personal love of learning could also be involved of course but (important point) the focus would be on perfecting one’s ability in the art of philosophy. Hence all the notions which might be learned of history, music, architecture, geography etc were as tools essential in being a capable public speaker (orator) or philosopher.

Roman oratorical tradition changed over time, greatly influenced by the shifting form of government from Republic to Empire and increasing totalitarianism : Cicero was in many ways a landmark of style and approach which included publically denouncing enemies of the state. We should remember that this daring style actually sat at the root of Cicero’s own death by assassination at the orders of Marc Anthony (decapitation with subsequent piercing of the tongue!) and during the reign of the emperors became too dangerous for the orator’s health, hence shifting the art of oratory predominantly to litigation and court pleading.

Ancient Roman schooling and learning was thus shaped by a few major influencing factors including (amongst others):

  1. Predominance of personal aspirations for public life through literature and oratory (whether a political or legal career).
  2. Conversely to the above statement, science and "menial" crafts were considered more appropriate for the lower classes or generally demeaning for a person of the elite (ie those who had access to advanced learning would hardly pay or look for a teacher in those subjects so no demand=no supply!) Hence technical or scientific disciplines were learned as an adjunct to being a good orator (ie as notions) or as part of philosophical pursuit or as a trade apprentice.

    An interesting example of this is Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. An excellent account of atomism (the idea that everything might be made up of atoms!) yet written in poetic verse and largely aimed at discrediting superstitious belief in the gods and afterlife, rather than considering it’s scientific implications to enable an improved control of nature.

  3. Increasing hold of centralized power (emperor) over censorship and restriction of personal initiative as a means of maintaining the status quo. There are many examples of state-controlled centres of learning, which as in ancient Alexandria or later Communist Russia were good in collecting learning but not so good in developing new discoveries.

Before going on to look more deeply at ancient Roman schooling it is worth making a deeper consideration: Learning and the spread of learning is a fundamental ingredient of a nation’s economic development. It is worth considering that whilst we have evidence of the Romans having many of the fundamental elements or knowledge for highly advanced technology, at a level which would only be seen in the 16-18th centuries, the roman economy never broke into the virtuous phase brought about by the industrial revolution in the 19th Century. The factors above should be taken into account when considering the Economy of Ancient Rome and Ancient Roman Invention & Technology.

Primary School in Ancient Rome

Primary School was known as "ludus litterarius" – although in reality the word "ludus" (meaning play or game) is probably quite the opposite of the boring, repetitive and pedantic approach to teaching. Furthermore books could be expensive and so classes would inevitably be focused around dictation, copying and memorizing. Ovid in his book Amores goes as far as saying that the children were often mistreated by masters who would "beat their tender hands".

Classes might be composed of 20-30 students. Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria bk1) tells us that most children, both boys and girls attended at least a primary school for approximately 4 years between the ages of 7 and 11-12, after which age most left schooling.

Juvenal in satire 7 makes it quite plain that teachers or "magister" were at the very bottom of people’s concerns when it came to paying and indeed it wouldn’t be unusual for them to have to share some of the income with the pedagogues who accompanied the children to their classes. This would explain the relatively poor make-shift conditions in which classes were often held.

Given the conditions in which this schooling was undertaken it is likely that the level achieved was relatively low, but nevertheless sufficient to give everyone who attended it the essential tools of life: Reading, writing and very basic arithmetic. Some history and literature and rote learning of the 12 tablets of law would complete the "curriculum".

Secondary School in Rome

This early stage would then be followed by a middle school for those students who could afford not to drop out. Most if not all girls would have left schooling by this stage which lasted from the age of 11 or 12 up to 16 years old.

The master in question was called a "grammaticus" who had a better set of skills than the magister. For example, the Grammaticus was fluent Greek and had an in depth knowledge of poetry and prose literature. They consequently had a better opportunity in life than the lowly primary school magister. Some of these teachers could even become quite rich.

Suetonius suggests there were even cases which earned as much as 400,000 sesterces per annum (VERY roughly a similar order of magnitude to 400,000 USD), whilst in his book about Vespasian (chapt 18.) he points to a regular salary paid by the emperor: "He was the first to establish a regular salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse."

Various emperors directly sponsored the entry of foreign teachers and even granted them citizenship, partly to stem the flow of students and money to foreign countries (Suetonius, Life of Caesar 42).

The approach to teaching was very similar to that in primary school except the variety of subjects taught and complexity would increase. The dictation-repeating-writing-memorising process was likely maintained but with the addition of discussion and interpretation requiring notions of mythological subjects, history, geography and general culture.

Literature was at the very foundation of learning, particularly focusing on the older classics such as Virgil and Cicero rather than more popular modern texts.

Higher Education in ancient Rome

By the time students reached the third and final stage of schooling from age 16 -20, the number of women was by this stage close to zero (although it is quite likely that women of the rich Patrician elite would have had access to their own private tuition at home).

A sense of the discrimination against women in higher education can be had from the recent film "Agorà" which tells the story of the philosopher/astronomer Hypatia in Alexandria, generally regarded as the first to have deduced that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits - certainly not appreciated by Christian conviction of the time.

Men on the other hand, particularly those who could afford it would frequently travel abroad. During the early parts of the empire, schools of rhetoric flourished across regions such as Africa, Gaul and Spain: Juvenal gives us insight of this in his satires bk7: "Better go to Gaul or Africa, that nursing mother of lawyers, if you would make a living by your tongue!" At places such as Athens and Crete young men could perfect their technique and oratorical skills in readiness to deliver their speeches in public places whether to rally their political followers or expose a legal case.

The teachers in further education were known as "rhetor" or "orator" and the focus was very much on learning the skills to compose and deliver public speeches; be they for a debate in the Senate or a defense in a law court.

The rhetor or orator would be supported by a variety of other experts who practiced the "artes liberals" such as lawyers, philosophers, doctors, mathematicians, historians etc. Subjects which were considered worthy of free-born citizens to practice and essential support material for anyone wanting to be a good public speaker.

However, we shouldn’t think that the sense of practicality had made too much of a gain over the pedantic approach to learning as an ends to itself: Seneca’s "moral epistles" to Lucilius (106):

"Wisdom is a plainer thing than that; nay, it is clearly better to use literature for the improvement of the mind, instead of wasting philosophy itself as we waste other efforts on superfluous things. Just as we suffer from excess in all things, so we suffer from excess in literature; thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture-room."

What the Romans studied and how

Primary school classes were assembled by the teacher. Teachers could quite often have a number of factors running against them and hence against their class:

These factors meant a teacher was likely to have one single class including a mix of pupils with different ages and different levels of learning. The class itself would often be situated in make-shift conditions such as a store room, spare room, a shop, a shack or even a garden where the public and general noise could easily disturb the classes. To this we can add the consequence that the students had no desks and worked sitting on chair (or floor) with their writing tablets resting on their lap.

Martial makes a few references (Epigrams 9 – 29 & 68) to the way in which the Roman class could be heard far and wide (as well as to the shouting and beating involved in classes):

"What right have you to disturb me, abominable schoolmaster, object abhorred alike by boys and girls? Before the crested cocks have broken silence, you begin to roar out your savage scoldings and blows. Not with louder noise does the metal resound on the struck anvil, when the workman is fitting a lawyer on his horse, nor is the noise so great in the large amphitheatre, when the conquering gladiator is applauded by his partisans. We, your neighbours, do not ask you to allow us to sleep for the whole night, for it is but a small matter to be occasionally awakened; but to be kept awake all night is a heavy affliction. Dismiss your scholars, brawler, and take as much for keeping quiet as you receive for making a noise."

All this would clearly be detrimental to the level which might be achieved in the class.

Learning was by rote and there are many examples of graffiti evidently written by students on their classroom walls alluding to the severity of the teachers ("magister ludi" or "primus magister") who frequently resorted to corporal punishment and repetitive rote-learning of popular texts such as Virgil’s Aenid to drill in grammar and theory of doubtful practical everyday use.

This relatively grey view of Rome’s primary schools is supported by quotes by various Latin authors such as Cicero and St.Augustin. Quintilian referred to the subject matter of the primary school as "trivialis scientia" which hardly requires translation.

Juvenal’s satire gives a sense of this:

"It is the teacher's fault, of course, that the Arcadian youth feels no flutter in his left breast when he dins his ‘dire Hannibal’ into my unfortunate head on every sixth day of the week, whatever be the question which he is pondering: whether he should make straight for the city from the field of Cannae, or whether, after the rain and thunder, he should lead around his cohorts, all dripping after the storm. Name any sum you please and you shall have it: what would I give that the lad's father might listen to him as often as I do!"

Studying in the middle school with the "Grammaticus" was more expensive and following up in higher education even more so: they often involved travel to major centres of learning of which Athens was the highest example, and hence required fees as well as living costs, as an investment which gave access to the "cursus honorum" of magisterial public positions.

Learning in the upper schools involved memory techniques, debates and "public" speeches which would be delivered either to oneself or the rest of the class. Quintilian gives us an interesting insight in some of the methods involved (book2):

"I remember a practice that was observed by my masters, not without advantage. Having divided the boys into classes, they assigned them their order in speaking in conformity to the abilities of each, and thus each stood in the higher place to declaim according as he appeared to excel in proficiency. Judgments were pronounced on the performances, and great was the strife among us for distinction, but to take the lead of the class was by far the greatest honor. Nor was sentence given on our merits only once; the 30th day brought the vanquished an opportunity of contending again. Thus, he who was most successful did not relax his efforts, while uneasiness incited the unsuccessful to retrieve his honor. I should be inclined to maintain, as far as I can form a judgment from what I conceive in my own mind, that this method furnished stronger incitements to the study of eloquence than the exhortations of preceptors, the watchfulness of paedagogi, or the wishes of parents."

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This page about Ancient Rome's schools was updated 27th March 2011 by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for