History of Education: Ancient Rome

We have seen previously how Greek Antiquity envisaged education (if you haven’t read the article, this is where it happens). We are going to see today if it is the same under ancient Rome.

The first Roman schools date from the 3rd century. Until then, the knowledge provided was quite rudimentary. It is thanks to the Hellenistic influence that the school is structured and democratized.

The ‘ludus’ school is mixed and private, unlike the Greek school. It is located under one of the porticoes of the forum, in the open air. Like our current system, classes are divided by age. From 7 to 11 years old, the child goes to the ‘ magister ludi ‘, who will continue the work of the nanny by teaching him the basics of calculation (helped by abacus), letters, syllables. For if the nurse was to shape and nurture the body, the magister ludi was to nurture the spirit of the child. Quintilian , in his Oratorical Institution writes:  I hope that, following the example of the nurses, the teachers will nourish these still tender spirits in a more gentle way and that they will let them be satisfied, so to speak, with the milk of a more pleasant teaching. ” 

Nevertheless, it will be necessary to wait until the 1st century AD for this ‘more pleasant teaching’ to be envisaged, and again, by a few minority voices. Indeed, like the Greek school, the Roman school does not hesitate to resort to corporal punishment. It was quite common to punish the hands or the back of the child with a ferula,  a true attribute of the master. Quintilian , when he writes in his Oratorical Institution, ‘ I do not exclude the known process intended to encourage children to study: the recourse to a set of ivory figurines, as well as to all that one can imagine to please this age who likes to handle, look at, name.’ therefore holds a discourse that could not be more innovative.

Then, from 11 to 15 years old, the child leaves the magister ludi for the grammaticus (the grammarian) . This change in level is not universal, since poor girls and boys then stop learning. The first because they must devote themselves to their future obligations as ‘matrons’ and the second because they are encouraged to help their parents. The child from a well-to-do family therefore learns the explanation of texts (in particular classical authors like Homer and Livy ), writing, some notions of geometry, astronomy, musical theory and calculation more advanced than what he then learned with the magister ludi.Nevertheless, on the whole, the emphasis is more on literary education than on scientific education.

The study of great authors allows the student to become bilingual Latin-Greek, knowledge of Latin being compulsory for anyone wishing to acquire Roman citizenship. Quintilianwrites about this secondary education: The first lesson to be given to those who have learned to read and write is grammar. (…) This teaching, which is divided into two parts, the knowledge of the correct language and the commentary of the poets, is basically more important than it seems. Because the way of writing depends closely on that of speaking, and the commentary supposes a perfectly corrected reading, and for all that judgment is necessary. (…) And if the professor has not given the future speaker a solid foundation, everything that is built on top of it will crumble. »

Rare are those who go to the third cycle of studies, with the rhetor (professor of rhetoric), often a teacher of Greek origin. This third phase of education, where not only rhetoric but also literature and philosophy is put into practice, has come under considerable criticism for its remoteness from reality. Tacitus , for example, in Dialogue des Orateurs, denounces the fact that by cutting itself off from its context of enunciation, rhetoric loses its substance, to finally become ceremonial speech: “But today our little young people are led to the trestles of these declaimers who are called rhetoricians. (…) The exercises themselves are for the most part harmful. Indeed, two sorts of subjects are dealt with by rhetoricians, suasories (a kind of pleadings) and controversies: suasories, considered easier and requiring less legal knowledge, are left to children; controversies are attributed to the ablest, but what controversies, my faith! and springs from a delirious imagination! The result is that we deal with subjects so far removed from reality with a declamatory style. » 

Last step, even more elitist, the pursuit of higher studies outside Rome. For example, Athens is famous for its schools of philosophy.

Moreover, what about the training of elites, provincial governors and senators in particular? In her article ‘Training and skills of provincial governors in the Roman Empire’, Agnès Bérenger-Badel explains that: “Delivering justice implies a priori knowledge of Roman law. However, the intellectual training received by the elites in Rome is centered on rhetoric, public speaking, but also law, which enjoys a privileged place. Thus, in his Dialogue of Speakers, Tacitus lists it among the three types of career to which young people can turn.

The importance of legal science in the training of senators is emphasized by many authors, including Cicero. However, law, unlike grammar and rhetoric, was not the object, under the High Empire, of a teaching organized or controlled by the State. The training remains dominated by the aristocratic tradition, that of the tirocinium fori (training of the forum). Thus, young people are trained by experienced lawyers,publice respondendi, a privilege conferred by the emperor which allows them to give consultations ex auctoritate principis. The persistence of this system of empirical training implies that a good knowledge of the law can only be achieved by a small elite who, through family relations, gain access to the entourage of great lawyers. ” 

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