Roman education varied massively depending on whether you were rich or poor, male or female, and in which era of Roman civilisation a child was born.
Wealthy families could afford the best tutors for their children allowing them to continue their learning even into their early twenties – with lengthy study abroad periods in Greece. The less fortunate in Roman society would depend on parents educating their children or a simple education in primary schools where students would learn to read, write and do basic arithmetic.
Did the Romans devise their own original educational system? No. Of course not, they stole it from their Greek neighbours in classic Roman fashion… After the conquest of the Greek peninsula in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans imported teaching methodology as well as a load of Greek slaves to teach…
However, unlike Greece, Rome never created a formal schooling infrastructure. It failed to provide the necessary resources (i.e. teacher training, building schoolhouses), instead the industry of education was dependent on the enterprise of budding individuals to establish schools and teach the Roman masses.
Moral education was the central element of Roman schooling. Both parents and the state were concerned more with the character of the child as they were with their intellectual prowess and knowledge of culture. So what morals were expected to be instilled into the Roman child? Cato outlines the importance of frugality and that a lazy man is one that will learn to do ill. Pliny outlines the importance of children learning “good conduct first, then eloquence, for eloquence without good conduct is ill-acquired”.
What was on the Roman curriculum? A massive amount of time was focused on both the Latin and Greek languages, grammar and public speaking. Subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and liberal arts also featured. Memorising and reciting filled a lot of a student’s time and this method was used at every level of education.
Students would be grouped based on ability rather than age. Often it would be ability that would dictate when a child would progress to the next stage of their education. While there didn’t seem to be any formal testing competitions would create rivalries and motivate children in their studies.
To be a student in ancient Rome was no easy existence – children would arrive at the schoolhouse before the crack of dawn and any misbehaviour or even mistakes in their work would be met with abuse, threats, and violence.
Roman schools would teach both Latin and Greek. Quintilian (a Roman teacher of the 1st century CE) wrote that fluency of Greek and knowledge of Greek writers was vital to fully appreciate the Latin writers. This allowed students could appreciate the works of Homer and Virgil alike. Studying multiple languages also stretched the Roman child’s brain and allowed for comparison between the Greek and Roman poets. To be skilled in both languages was an accolade desired by all educated Roman men.
Like much else in the Roman Empire, this focus had a lasting impact on education throughout millennia – with grammar and rhetoric seeping into medieval and even Elizabethan curriculums.
Students would start their primary education at around the age of seven and were taught by a litterator. Teaching even at the primary level was very methodical – it was slow, steady and required a lot of patience! Students would learn the alphabet >> syllables >> words >> small passages. Literators would speak a passage and the students would repeat and memorise. Latin was annoying language to read as the bloody Romans failed to put spaces between words when writing – justimaginehowannoyingthatcouldbeforayoungRomanofseven.
The passages children would have learned would have been full of good moral lessons to forge a well-intentioned Roman citizen. Children would learn to count using fingers, pebbles and abacuses. Drawing, painting and modelling would have also occurred.
It was around the age of X that a student would graduate from his primary education into the grammar school – taught by a grammarian. Here he could expect to learn a lot about (wait for it) grammar and also the great poets.
Students would gain a deeper understanding of Latin and Greek – sentence structure, grammatical elements and characteristics. Next up were declension, conjugation and syntax. Special attention to pronunciation and spelling was paid.
Poetry was the greatest tool of the grammarian, for he would read aloud a passage, his students would memorise and fully understand it, before reciting it themselves. This not only improved the child’s memory and language skills but also furthered their moral education – as these poems were filled with moral lessons.
As students came to the end of their grammar school education it would be time to decide what they were going to do with their lives. For most this was simple (due to them being poor) they would stop with their education and either pick up their father’s trade or join the military.
Some young men chose a different path. Electing instead to pursue a career of professional speaking or rhetoric. These students would move up to the schools of rhetoric.
Among the rich and affluent of Roman society, the study of oratory became very popular toward the end of the Republic. It prepared young men with the skills required to become a lawyer or politician – through the study of great speeches students would learn to stir excitement in the crowds to bring them to their side.
The wealthiest of students may choose to pursue an education further. It was common for these students to complete their education by travelling to Athens in their late teens / early twenties to study philosophy and other advanced topics.