Education in the Roman Empire

Most Roman children received their education from their parents. The boys would be taught to throw spears, use a sword, box, swim and, if the family possessed one, to ride a horse. A great deal of emphasis was placed on physical training because of a boy's future role as defender of the Roman Empire.

If the father could read and write, the son would also be taught these skills. Reading and writing were often taught by using books on the history of Rome. Learning dates in history was difficult. Events were not recorded by numbered years but by the two consuls who were ruling at the time. As Rome changed consuls every year, this created serious problems for Roman schoolchildren.

Girls were trained by their mothers to cook, make clothes and to do other jobs that the Romans believed would make a girl into a "good wife".

In the second century BC schools began to emerge in Rome. They were very small and were usually only one room. As well as reading and writing, children were taught elementary arithmetic. The Roman numeral system made arithmetic difficult and most sums were done by moving beads on a counting frame called an abacus.

The Romans were strong believers in corporal punishment. One popular saying was: "A man who has not been flogged is not trained." The main form of punishment was being hit with a leather whip. Terence disagreed with this approach and argued: "The man who keeps to the path of duty through fear of punishment will be honest just as long as he thinks he'll be found out. If he think's he can get away with something undetected, then he'll be back to his tricks. But the man who is attached to you by affection is anxious to treat you as you treat him, whether you're there or not... A man who can't do this should admit that he cannot control children."

Many rich Romans preferred to employ private tutors to educate their children at home. It was usually cheaper to buy an educated Greek slave to teach children than to send them to school. As most of the books used were in Greek, Roman children were brought up to be bilingual.

Quintilian, an important Roman educationalist in the 1st century AD, believed that schools were better than private tutors. He argued that schools encouraged competition between children and in doing so improved standards.

Wealthy Romans gradually became convinced by these arguments and schools became more popular.

Quintilian also argued that children would do better at school if both the child's parents had also been educated. This encouraged some fathers to spend money on their daughter's education, but from the evidence that we have this was still fairly rare.

At the age of fourteen children of the rich went to a school where they were taught the skills of oratory (public speaking). This was to enable them to become successful politicians and lawyers when they became older.

The patricians worried about the power of teachers to shape the minds of young people and in 92 BC the Senate expelled all teachers from Rome for encouraging their pupils to be "too clever". The Senate was particularly concerned about the teaching of Greek Philosophy which they believed encouraged disobedience.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his autobiography called Confessions, the writer Augustine of Hippo included an account of his schooling in Carthage. (c. AD 428)

I could not see the use of things I was sent to school to learn... I disliked learning and hated to be forced... If I proved idle in learning, I was soundly beaten... But in spite of my terrors I still did wrong, by writing or reading or studying less than my set task... To this day I do not quite see why I so hated the Greek tongue that I was made to learn as a small boy... I hated Greek literature... I suppose that Virgil affects Greek boys when they are compelled to learn him as Homer affected me.

(2) (2) Persius, Satire III: 44 (c. AD 55)

I remember, as a boy I used to smear my eyes with oil in order to appear ill and avoid going to school, and thus I would be saved from reciting the noble speech of the dying Cato - a speech that would be much applauded by my idiot of a master.

(3) Quintilian, On the Training of an Orator (c. AD 96)

Study depends on the good will of the student, a quality that cannot be secured by compulsion... He must be engaged in competition and should be allowed to believe himself successful more often than not, while he should be encouraged to do his best by such rewards as may appeal to his tender years... I disapprove of flogging - although it is the regular custom - because it is... an insult, as you will realise if you imagine its infliction at a later age.

(4) Terence was a Roman slave from Carthage who later became a famous writer. In Terence's play Adelphi, Micio, a slave gives his opinion on how people's behaviour should be controlled. (c. 160 BC)

The man who keeps to the path of duty through fear of punishment will be honest just as long as he thinks he'll be found out. If he think's he can get away with something undetected, then he'll be back to his tricks. But the man who is attached to you by affection is anxious to treat you as you treat him, whether you're there or not... A man who can't do this should admit that he cannot control children.

(5) Martial, Epigrams (c. AD 90)

You cursed schoolmaster, what right have you to disturb us before the cock crows with your savage threats and beatings?

(6) Juvenal, Satire VII (c. AD 125)

What schoolmaster, even the most successful, commands a proper return for his labours?... What's more,parents demandquite impossible standards from any master... They'll waylay him on the way to the public baths, and expect him to answer their questions. Straight off the cuff - who was Anchises' nurse, what was the name of Anchemolus' stepmother, and where did she come from? How old was Acestes when he died?... He must, they insist, be a father to all his pupils, and stop them getting up to tricks... "See to it," you're told, "and when the school year's ended, you'll get as much as a jockey makes from a single race."

(7) Part of an essay written by a Roman schoolboy (c. AD 150)

Arriving at the entrance I climb the stairs without making a noise. I leave my cloak in the hall and quickly comb my hair. I go into the schoolroom and say "Good morning master". He kisses me and returns my greeting. The slave gives me my wax tablets, my writing things and ruler.

Questions

1. Select passages from the sources in this unit that explains the kind of work Roman children did at school.

2. In the second century BC Greece became part of the Roman Empire. How did the defeat of the Greeks influence the Roman education system?

3. How did the following respond to the idea of school children being beaten: Martial, Augustine, Quintilian and Terence? Explain why thest four men held these opinions.

4. By the first century AD a large number of Roman citizens sent their sons to school. Did this reflect a rapid or gradual change in attitudes towards education?