Education in Ancient Rome

Education in Ancient Rome

Education as we know it today has deep roots in the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire. In the span of a few centuries, Rome went from an informal system of education that passed knowledge from parents to infants to a specialized, tiered system of schools inspired by Greek educational practices. Roman educational practice made great and lasting contributions to the field of education as we know it. The rise of an agrarian city-state to a world power is recapitulated in the teaching and learning styles of its citizens.

Early Education in the Roman Empire

From Rome’s founding in approximately 750 B.C. to the middle of the third century B.C., there is little evidence of anything more than rudimentary education. A child’s primary educators were likely to be his or her own parents. Parents taught their children the skills necessary for living in the early republic, namely agricultural, domestic and military skills. Most important, however, were the moral and civil responsibilities that would be expected of citizens of the republic, for Rome as a whole was the inculcation of "vir bonus"Nanette R. Pascal, "The Legacy of Roman Education (in the Forum)," "The Classical Journal" 79, no. 4 (1984): 351-355.] ,. In its infancy, Roman education not only provided the basic skills necessary for survival, but also conveyed a sense of Roman values, lending cohesion to the populace.

The schools in Rome arose by the middle of the fourth century B.C. Michael Chiappetta, “Historiography and Roman Education,” "History of Education Journal" 4, no. 4 (1953): 149-156.] . These schools were called ‘’ludi’’ (singular: ‘’ludus’’), the name being derived from the Latin word for “play,” and like modern play schools were concerned with the basic socialization and rudimentary education of young Roman children. In the second half of the third century B.C., an ex-slave named Spurius Carvilius is credited with opening the first fee-paying "ludus"Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, "Oxford Classical Dictionary" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).] and thereby forging a teaching profession in ancient Rome. Nevertheless, organized education was relatively rare at this time, as we have very few primary sources or accounts of Roman educational process until the second century B.C. Michael Chiappetta, “Historiography and Roman Education,” "History of Education Journal" 4, no. 4 (1953): 149-156.] .

Later Roman Education

At the height of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire, the Roman educational system gradually found its final form. Formal schools were established, which served paying students (very little in the way of free public education as we know it can be found) Oxford Classical Dictionary, Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, Third Edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996] . Normally, both boys and girls were educated, though not necessarily togetherOxford Classical Dictionary, Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, Third Edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996] . Following various military conquests in the Greek East, Romans adapted a number of Greek educational precepts to their own fledgling system The Legacy of Roman Education (in the Forum), Nanette R. Pacal, The Classical Journal, Vol. 79, No. 4. (Apr. – May, 1984)] . Roman students were taught (especially at the elementary level) in similar fashion to Greek students, sometimes by Greek slaves who had a penchant for educationOxford Classical Dictionary, Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, Third Edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996] . But differences between the Greek and Roman systems emerge at the highest tiers of education. Roman students that wished to pursue the highest levels of education went to Greece to study philosophy, as the Roman system developed to teach speech, law and "gravitas".

In a system much like the one that predominates in the modern world, the Roman education system that developed arranged schools in tiers. The educator Quintilian recognized the importance of starting education as early as possible, noting that “memory … not only exists even in small children, but is specially retentive at that age” [Quintilian, "Quintilian on Education", translated by William M. Smail (New York: Teachers College Press, 1966).] . A Roman student would progress through schools just as a student today might go from elementary school to middle school, then to high school, and finally college. Progression depended more on ability than age Oxford Classical Dictionary, Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, Third Edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996] with great emphasis being placed upon a student’s "ingenium" or inborn “gift” for learning [Yun Lee Too, "Education in Greek and Roman antiquity" (Boston: Brill, 2001).] , and a more tacit emphasis on a student’s ability to afford high-level education.

We should recognize important contrasts to formal education as we know it today. In the modern world, a student generally pursues higher levels of education to gain the skills and certifications necessary to work in a more prestigious field. In contrast, only the Roman elite would expect a complete formal education. A tradesman or farmer would expect to pick up most of his vocational skills on the job. Higher education in Rome was more of a status symbol than a practical concern.

As Rome grew in size and in power following the Punic Wars, the importance of the family as the central unit within Roman society began to deteriorate [Robin Barrow, "Greek and Roman Education" (Macmillian Education: London, 1976).] . With this declined the old Roman system of education carried out by the paterfamilias. The new educational system began to center more on the one encountered by the Romans with the Hellenistic Greeks and prominent centers of learning such as Alexandria later on. It was becoming a literary educational system.

The situation of the Greeks was ideal for the foundation of literary education as they were the possessors of the great works of Homer, Hesiod and the Lyric poets of Archaic Greece. The absence of a literary method of education from Roman life is due to the fact that Rome was bereft of any national literature. The military arts were all that Rome could afford to spend time studying. When not waging war, the Romans devoted what time remained to agriculture. The concern of Rome was that of survival, whether through defense or dominion. It is not until the appearance of Ennius (239-169 B.C.), the father of Roman poetry, that any sort of national literature surfaces.

While the Romans adopted many aspects of Greek education, two areas in particular were viewed as trifle: music and athletics. Music to the Greeks was fundamental to their educational system and tied directly to the Greek "paideia". "Mousike" encompassed all those areas supervised by the Muses, comparable to today's liberal arts. The area that many Romans considered unimportant equates to our modern definition of music. To the Greeks, the ability to play an instrument was the mark of a civilized, educated man, and through an education in all areas of "mousike" it was thought that the soul could become more moderate and cultivated. The Romaens did not share this view but did, however, adopt one area of "mousike": Greek literature.

Athletics, to the Greeks, was the means to obtaining a healthy and beautiful body, which was an end in and of itself and further promoted their love of competition. The Romans, though, did not share this stance either, believing that athletics was only the means to maintaining good soldiers.

This illustrates one of the central differences between the two cultures and their take on education: that to the Greeks beauty or an activity could be an end in itself, and the practice of that activity was beneficial accordingly. The Romans, on the other hand, were more practically minded when it came to what they taught their children. To them, it would appear, an area of study was only good so far as it served a higher purpose or end determined outside of itself.

ee also

for a detailed description of the school system in


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