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The Ancient Child in School

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a child-centered account of the history of education in the Greek and Roman worlds. A sketch of the introduction and adaptation of training in literacy stresses the social purposes of this education. Ancient theory and ancient practice are described, both of which have important consequences for the life of the child and for the idea of the child and childhood. The physical requirements of schooling and the particular skills and attitudes attendant upon these are considered in an evaluation of the curriculum, particularly in the methods of learning to read, write, and speak.

Keywords: Classical education, learning, child, reading, writing, history of education, theory of education


The question of why a group chooses to send some of its children to an institution outside the home for instruction that is allegedly uniquely or best available there is complex. Why the ancient Greeks and Romans had schools can be examined first by considering the institutions that developed to assist in training children in what the various societies thought it was important to learn, formally, while young. This is not the same as an account of child learning. Apprentice learning or what a girl learned at home, for example, has left far scantier records than has schooling in the high literary culture. No doubt, in realized and unrealized ways, the child in a city-state learned much by observing and imitating. Where and how the child finds food and comfort, how he or she realizes to use some tools and to make them into toys, and how he or she decides whom to attend and whom to avoid, are subjects that the anthropologist may investigate through rigorous field work over decades.

The historian of education has necessarily more circumscribed goals. A typical consequence is that scholars have been preoccupied with recovering the ancient prescriptions and techniques for training the student in what was even then an archaic, formal, prestige language and its literary modes (so literacy has commanded more attention than numeracy, much less other academic or nonacademic fields of instruction). A further methodological difficulty: the education of children is invested, especially in the Greco-Roman tradition, with symbolic resonances. The state of education has often been taken as a litmus test for the state of civilization. There is then in the ancient sources recurrent lament about the slack habits of the coming generation and nostalgia for a presumed hardier, worthier past. In addition, talk and writing about education can serve as a scaffold for larger social and intellectual issues. Thus, Plato in the Republic and in the Laws offers a blueprint for the reform of society that is, at times, a series of propositions of an idealized education (see Patterson in this volume).

The present chapter attempts the more mundane task of describing what institutions and practices were established to effect the formal training of the child. Practice (p. 445) is here understood as more than curriculum, so the chapter considers what is asked, encouraged, discouraged, or compelled from the child and speculates a bit about the consequences of this for the child and the future adult. Rather narrowly and generally one might consider ancient education as the entrance of the young into liberal education. This education could be treated in traditional (and more than slightly idealized) terms as the coming into being of the emancipated, critical thinking of the philosophical man. More recently and sociologically, in an important corrective scholars have emphasized that liberal education, paideia, was the cultural capital of the Hellenistic citizen. To describe the specific qualities of this capital, its importance for the various societies, its variety over time and place despite the native participants’ belief in its constancy, cannot be the goal of this chapter, which will instead sketch the growth of the institution of the school and schooling and then treat this education from the child’s perspective as the encouragement of the student to speak of and understand his or her world in certain adult ways and as a training of children in deference, obedience, and the inclination to learn. At the same time the ancient child was learning to value highly certain textual kinds of knowledge and kinds of learning. All along he or she was practicing mature social roles.

The education of children in Greco-Roman antiquity was a topic of importance to the ancients themselves. The development of practices, institutions, and the theorization of these for the education of the citizen class attracted concern and comment from parents, teachers, philosophers, satirists, and statesmen. That much later heirs to the culture of Greece and Rome—medieval, renaissance, and modern—saw themselves as continuing the practice of ancient paideia and liberal education has meant that the study of educational ideas and methods is quite advanced and, to a degree, distorted. At several points the study of Greece and Rome has meant preeminently the study of extant, literary texts in school settings so as to achieve a cultural literacy that imitates the skills at speaking, reading, and writing that marked the ideal educated citizen of the ancient Mediterranean. From these two traditions—the ancient modes of reflection on child education and the later belief or hope that the scholar was learning at the knee of Plato or Cicero—recent historical work has sought to free itself. Education was not simply of the free classes; it cannot be reconstructed solely from the prescriptive statements of the philosophical and oratorical theorists. Far greater attention has to be placed on the process of schooling and the material record: learning to read and write and speak; the categorical and even ideological ideas associated with these practices; encouragement and punishment; particular skills and subjectivities.

The Introduction of Literacy

The complex issue of the introduction of the alphabets is not quite relevant here, because it is instead the dramatic spread of the use of the alphabet for literary and private (p. 446) purposes from 800 BCE on that indicates the spread of schooling.1 It may well be that schooling itself was introduced from the Near East since some of the first reading and writing exercises in Greek correspond to Near Eastern practices stretching as far back as we have written records. Gnomology (a collection of sayings attributed to a great sage and collected for the edification of his son) and fable in particular continued as fundamental school forms.

Literate and numerate education, characteristic of the Eastern palace cultures stretching back to at least 3200 BCE and Sumer, developed to train a scribal class in service to a centralized monarchy.2 The trained scribe would indeed serve in administration and accountancy of the empire, and there survive both the mature fruits of this labor, all the brick tablets of record-keeping from Sumer to Mycenae and Pylos in the Greek peninsula and for the Sumerian, Egyptian, Semitic, and Hittite cultures some of the curricular materials. These are more interesting than the ostensible purpose—civil service—would have one imagine. Certainly, they were used to teach reading and writing, but they are presented as the wisdom that a father is imparting to his son. So the first reading material is a form of sapiential literature that treats the young reader as if he were the son of a sage. In addition, the young learner is imagined by the text as a young learner. He has now, through this progressively acquired medium, a distinct identity not simply as a reader and writer but as one winning his way to wisdom (and to a position in the bureaucracy). I say winning because social advancement is imagined as possible through the attainment of these school virtues while others of his coevals, without these techniques and insight, fall away. The text is then behavioral and subjective as much as technical. How to learn, how to show respect for one’s elders, even how to advance in the perilous task of negotiating court culture are all part of the counsel given by and to be internalized from the text. This sort of wisdom literature is perhaps best known through the Book of Proverbs, whose distant origin lies in Egyptian models.3

The Mycenean Greeks (ca. 1500–1200 BCE) might well have had similar teaching curricula. With the destruction of those Mycenean citadels, the depopulation of Greece, and the loss (or at least severe decline) of literacy in the thirteenth century BCE, schools too must have disappeared—for schooling after all was a part of the palace apparatus. In the dark ages, the world in which the epic oral poems were handed down with their distant, imperfect, and idealizing memories of the Mycenean Greeks (e.g., of the palace kings Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor), there were no schools, or at least the old reasons for schooling had disappeared. To detect schooling in this warrior culture that succeeded the palace cultures we have only the memories of Homer (seventh or possibly eighth century BCE) and the classical Greeks, especially Plato who is so concerned with education and its moral effect upon the city and the individual (see Patterson in this volume). Homer of course has no memory of writing. He imagines that young men (p. 447) accompany a hero—so when Odysseus goes to return Briseis to Achilles he is accompanied by a group of young men, and at Iliad 1.463 young men, kouroi, sing the paean to Apollo. Attending Odysseus they would of course witness good counsel and good fighting and to sing in the liturgy to Apollo no doubt took training. These details and reports that the Spartans maintained old-fashioned ways—among them having musical education—are the clues to the education of the eighth and seventh centuries, the period of the rise of the polis. (See Kennell in this volume on musical education in Sparta.)

For this period it is important to stress that an “alphabet” is not simply introduced or imported, especially to those who were not literate before (or even to those Greeks who might have been using a syllabic system). Equipment and techniques and a person adept with these need to be imported. The evidence we do have for the rapid spread of literacy for private and literary purposes attests to the spread of teaching expertise. There are mythic stories that locate the introduction of culture in the in-between space of legendary time: Cadmus the wandering man-serpent founder of Thebes invented the alphabet; Achilles the warrior between men and the gods was taught by the sage Chiron, the centaur midway man and beast (Homer, Iliad 11.832); and Heracles, again between man and god, was a poor student of music and killed his teacher (Apollodorus, Library 2.4.9). Aside from such stories of mythic founders, which are important for the continuing high estimation of education, at a more concrete level the Greeks imagined that they always had had schools; that is, their memories of their living in city-states presume that the polis always had a school.

The genesis of Western schooling is a feature of the development of the city-state: Greeks emerging in the late ninth century from the so-called dark ages after the collapse of a Mycenean palace culture ca. 1200 BCE, through contact with the more advanced and affluent cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, developed a series of social institutions that for convenience we call the city-state. Thus schooling is one of several collective activities of the citizen class: common decision-making, the collective fighting array of hoplite warfare, and a communal religious and festival life. Indeed, there seems to have been a schooling for these three essential features of the polity. Free young men received some training, it seems close to an apprenticeship, from an older man in skill in giving counsel, skill at arms, and the crucial liturgical skills: singing and dancing. Plato writing about 380 BCE remembered that the older education consisted solely of gymnastics and music (Rep. 376e). I wish to posit a reason for the change in education between the older style of the early city-states and the period in which Plato lived (more broadly the classical period from around 600 BCE to the 300s BCE).

The Introduction of Schooling

The reintroduction of literacy is not simply a reflex of expanding trade contacts but also an instance of the importation of Eastern technologies that the aristocratic class of the archaic city-state used increasingly for social distinction. Artistic techniques, luxury (p. 448) goods, the symposium—that upper-class male drinking party with song and games— even new ways of conceiving identity through the display allowed by such goods or by new temple design, with a more monumental architecture, for instance, were part of this so-called Orientalizing Revolution.4 The Homeric poems themselves are a more monumental version of the earlier oral poetry and may well reflect the aid of writing in composition. For the traditional education responding to this developing culture of social distinction within the city-state and of cultural and social relations among the elites of different city-states, literacy affected two areas in particular: song with music and song without. Education helped detach these traditional modes from their original performance contexts and move them to new contexts, new uses, and a wider, nonperformance bound audience. We have on vases scenes of musical education (see Dillon in this volume). Later Plato, like many Greeks, believed that particular kinds of music aroused particular emotions. Music, then, was educational in the strongest sense since it affected the soul and the behavior of the student (for Plato music provides the readiest, most powerful access to the soul; see Rep. 3.401d). Song with music became the greatest achievement of late archaic literature—lyric poetry. Song without music was preeminently the Homeric poems. Literate education helped train the boy and the girl in these two important cultural modes.

I will give two instances of new cultural contexts for these modes: the school of the great poet of Lesbos, Sappho; and the introduction of the Homeric poems to the greatest civic festival of Athens, the annual Panathenaic procession in honor of Athena. The poetry of Sappho, who wrote about 600 BCE, describes what she terms a thiasos, a religious community of younger girls and of herself. This is a distinctly educational community of aristocratic girls who forge a life and identity together, through music, song, dance, and what they might have termed the search for beauty against the customary values of the male world. Like school itself this community does not last; it is set between childhood and marriage.5 Second, the tyrant Peisistratus introduced the performance of the Homeric poems into the Panathenaic festival at Athens in the mid-sixth century. In addition to demonstrating the recontextualization, development, and manipulation of traditional material for political purposes, this event typifies the prominence that the Homeric poems will achieve, not through their original composition in Ionia and performance at religious festivals but through new contexts from the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The most discussed new context is the introduction of the poems to the Panathenaic festival by the Peisistratid tyrants of Athens,6 but the new venues of the poems include first the school itself, where the poems would be memorized, glossed, copied, and recited, and second, itself a consequence of schooling, the development of a reading public and of the idea of literature. (p. 449)

I have emphasized the introduction of schooling because it is important to state clearly the great adaptation of scribal education to the needs of the evolving citizen society of the polis. Second, crucial, long-lasting ideas about the ideology of education stem from this early period and its interpreters. The practice of the schools can be discovered only from the much richer historical record of the Hellenistic period through the late Roman period (the fourth century BCE to the sixth century CE). With the eclipse of the city-states and the rise of Alexander’s successor kingdoms and ultimately of Rome, school practice became more textual and more uniform. Indeed, in the far-flung and disparate world of the Hellenistic era, school education became the badge of Greek identity.7

I shall not here trace the historical development of this complex story. Instead, I shall focus on the commonalities of approach in the schools and try to describe what the consequences of this system of schooling were, especially for the experience of the child learner. But a final word on the early period and on educational idealization and nostalgia: the cultural memory of the origins of an institution can still be important even if the historian knows them to be wrong, that is to say, the Greeks’ attribution of a mythic origin to schooling reflects important ideological ideas about schooling. The Greeks remembered such figures as the centaur Chiron as the founder of education. They would also consistently remember and consider Homer to be the educator of the Greeks (e.g., Plato, Rep. 10.606). In part, this second feature is a factor of the schools themselves: the texts of Homer were taught in the schools (whereas in the centuries before the texts that antedate Homer and Sappho were part of an oral tradition of liturgy and religious/community festival). So the institution of the school helped to produce literature from religious forms. In so doing, “literature” does not lose all its original religious and social meaning, and by encoding memories of an earlier system of education and of values it becomes a conservative force, not in the sense that the old mores are necessarily maintained but that a connection of the learner to an authoritative past becomes an important medium for identity. To an extent, the Greeks are Greeks and not Athenians, Spartans, or Corinthians, aristocrats or commoners, because they think that Homer is their educator. Homer is Hellenic paideia, to use their term. What this means in detail I cannot explore here, except to say that it reveals the high valuation put on literate education and reveals a great shift, a movement of learning into the institution of the school. Here lies human culture, the gift of the centaur Chiron but decidedly an essential of what it means to be human.

Female as well as male, one hastens to add, for an important consequence of the modification of the Near Eastern scribal education to the needs of the citizens of the poleis was the education of girls. Scholars have lamented a lack of evidence for girls’ education. It is true that the sources (as we have seen with Quintilian) very often presume that the student is a (free) boy and that educational materials are written with (p. 450) boys as the leading character (so the elder Cato is said to have written educational materials for his son; the first reading text that adopts his name, the Distichs of Cato, imagines its addressee as a boy). This prejudice combined with the lack of interest in girls’ experience of education and the fact that girls did not pursue the same advanced education as did boys (in the rhetorical schools) does constitute a great lacuna (the literary record is far more interested in what the vast majority of its authors studied at the apex of their training). Customarily, this is offset by noting the expectation of literacy for women of the upper classes in two ways: (1) by mentioning famous learned woman (e.g., real women such as Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi who supervised their excellent education, or Sempronia, the mother of Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, who was expert in Greek and Latin literature but danced and sang “better than a respectable woman,” as Sallust says [Catiline 25.2], or the literary woman of the poets’ pages, the puella docta) and (2) by citing the few passages that attest to girls and boys attending school (e.g., Martial 8.3.16; Ovid Tristia 2.369–70). More positively and broadly, the range of evidence suggests the presence of girls’ education in the early poleis in what are clearly prominent venues with prominent families, a systematic equal education of boys and girls in the elementary schools of the Hellenistic period, and for the Roman world a diverse set of practices ranging from the presumption of education in literacy for free girls to demands that young women should study philosophy and to the many educated women recorded in the literary sources. For the early period there are also records of the education of Spartan girls, remembered as old-fashioned and peculiar.8 There are in addition promising new interpretations of the actual records left by educated women, a series of letters by girls and women examined by Roger Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore.9 There is considerable evidence for competitions and public displays of schoolgirls. These are of civic importance as annual festivals. Sappho prepared and led such competitions in singing and dancing.10 Such performances have left only traces, but the material record for the education of girls and women is eloquent. To take just two Roman examples: the epitaph of the eight-year-old Roman girl Magnilla records that she was “learned beyond her years.” A funerary relief, perhaps from the Augustan period, shows the schoolmaster Furius Philocalus flanked by a male and a female student.11 The letters and the commemorative monuments reflect a pride in female literacy, on the part of a variety of agents. This pride is presented not as a singularity—like a dog who walks on his hind legs—but as exemplary behavior. (p. 451)

The Physical School and Its Demands

We can imagine, following the guide of the Roman theorist Quintilian, that the Roman boy or girl of the first century CE came to grammar school about the age of seven, already knowing the alphabet.12 Reading, writing, and arithmetic were learned here. The child would learn to write and then read Greek; Latin followed. After basic literacy (including memorization and recitation) the child learned grammar, mythology, and literary criticism all together while reading a poetic text and listening to the teacher’s exposition. A set of exercises from aphorism to fable and description, themselves increasingly complex narrative building blocks, led to the finished speech.13 At the final stage of declamation, the advanced boy learned a system of composition and delivery of mock deliberative and legal speeches.14 Quintilian imagines that the child’s mind, like his body, is soft and susceptible to influence, good and bad. The title of his great work, the Institutio Oratoria, reveals method and purpose—the child is to be shaped or even constructed into an orator.

Quintilian provides in detail an ideal education, beginning with first schooling and following the child to his maturation in the rhetorical schools. By his time the ancient world abounded in writings on rhetoric, and Cicero had left an authoritative collection of treatises on the subject. Uniquely, however, Quintilian offers an account of early education. Indeed, his focus on shaping curriculum to the stages of a child’s capacities has left us a document as important for its account of the psychology or process of learning as for the details of the Roman curriculum. The child—he consistently calls the student a boy although girls received the same grammatical training—grows to manhood not through the inevitable forces of biology but by the careful attention of teacher and father to the graduated curriculum. Epic poetry, for instance, which is read early on, strengthens the boy’s animus, his mind but also his emotional center (the word also means courage or fighting spirit). Quintilian stresses that education makes one a vir bonus dicendi peritus, a good man skilled at speaking (he reuses a famous phrase of the archetypically Roman Roman, the old censor Cato); education is thus not a morally neutral skill at speaking. The goodness and the virility are also expressed by the abstract noun that defines that man, virtus, virtue. It is correct to say that Quintilian is interested in ethical formation, but more precisely he wants to develop the speaking capacity (and the thinking process that finds and structures this) that discovers the right course of action and persuades the self and others to adopt it. This is what a good man like Cato (p. 452) possesses. Just as a sentence must have the right word for the particular content and audience, the teacher must bring the right exercises and texts at the moment appropriate to the child’s learning stage. Content, expression, and persona are intimately, even transparently, interconnected. Certainly, grammar was important because Quintilian was teaching an elite Latin to an elite class so that the class would remain discrete and would continue to produce the communicatively well-trained governors of the empire. But along with this instruction came the conviction that the product of this instruction, this well-grammared speaker, was the authentic Roman. Thus, role-playing was essential, especially in the final stages of the curriculum at the declamatory schools, where the boys, but not the girls, imagined they were an adviser to a great man at a pivotal point in history (in the exercise known as the suasoria) and then played the lawyer in a case, often extreme, which pitted important Roman social and familial agents against each other (fathers and sons, good stepmothers and ungrateful fathers) in a situation that pushed basic familial, social, and legal categories of loyalty and responsibility to their logical limits (the controversia).

But what place was the child coming to? In the ancient world “school” is hard to define, especially in its physical makeup. To list a few well-known references to the physical place of school, presented chronologically: the collapse of the roofs of two schools on Aegean islands in the fifth century BCE with ensuing loss of life is reported by Herodotus (6.27.2) and Pausanias (6.9.6–7); the first teachers to offer instruction in Latin—Ennius and Livius Andronicus—are said to have taught at home and outside their homes;15 Quintilian closed his famous school at Rome after he became instructor to sons of the imperial family; Augustine taught school when he came to Rome (Confessions 5.12). Clearly, the scale of a school could vary from the building on the island of Chios whose collapse killed 120 boys to the house of a freedman at Rome (or of his patron?). The best evidence of an architectural place of schooling, which includes dedicated rooms with benches, teacher’s seat, and painted lessons on the walls, comes from a recent excavation in Egypt.16 But the school could take a variety of forms. I exclude here the gymnasium, that typically Hellenistic civic structure where physical exercise occurred and where at times and in certain places ephebes trained (originally, a two-year military apprenticeship for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old Athenians, the institution of the ephebate spread broadly in Hellenistic cities; see the chapter by Casey in this volume). The gymnasia are relevant here for their records of prizewinners at competitions, not simply those of the ephebes but also of younger boys and girls, although sites of performance need to be distinguished from sites of instruction.17 The wrestling schools frequently mentioned by Plato certainly offered formal instruction, and there is extant a manual of instruction for the wrestling master.18 In addition, they are remembered as sites of (p. 453) socialization and seduction for boys and men.19 The education here afforded is slightly beyond the stage of our focus, but such physical education offered supervised, play versions of combative, agonistic male roles introduced by the study of literature. Again the boys play at being Achilles or Leonidas, observed in their toil by older men. The element of display is important and related to early school performance as a competition and instruction characterized by the strong (and at times physically coercive) relationship between older teacher and young ward.

Leaving home, the Roman child likewise found his or her school in a variety of places. (Homeschooling was clearly an option, of which Quintilian disapproved. Cicero, for instance, took the education of his son and nephew into his own hands, but the boys clearly had tutors before and after this and had been to school; Cicero had met his friend Atticus at school).20 If well-off, the student was accompanied by a pedagogue to a fairly grand place; the grandest we know of is the atrium of a villa on the Palatine hill in Rome where Verrius Flaccus taught the grandsons of the emperor Augustus. In the Athenaeum at Rome, built by Hadrian, there was a school for liberal studies (Aurelius Victor, Caes. 14.2–3). Slaves for the emperor’s bureaucracy were trained in special quarters in the imperial palace, the paedagogium (see Sigismund-Nielsen in this volume). There is evidence for far more modest schooling: the child might go to a rented shop or a balcony room. A lost wall painting from Pompeii includes depiction of a school amid a bustling street scene in the heart of the city. Graffiti at Pompeii reveal the children exhibiting and mocking their school learning.21 Such modest places perhaps did not outlive their teacher, and without specialized architecture are all but invisible, even to the archeologist.

In the Roman world school was often a small business with relative ease of access (since there was no “credentialization” for teachers and since facilities were flexible and materials modest), a need for networking, and some difficulty in getting paid. Without state support and depending on fees, the schoolmaster often educated at home. His requirements were slim. In the rhetorical school of Quintilian it is clear that at times the student body listened to the performance of individual students (the master teacher disapproved of the practice of students’ show of enthusiasm at each rhythmic close of their fellows’ declamation: Quint. Inst. Orat. 2.2.12), but the grammar school had no need to imitate the adult scenario of orator and audience. What it required and what defined it was a relationship between master and pupils. Performance at the grammar school, to judge from the depictions on Greek vases, required that the child come to the teacher’s chair and recite or read to him or her.22 Practice at school required at a minimum a space for the student to sit, balancing his wax tablet on his lap, reading out loud, perhaps encouraged, prodded, or worse by his pedagogue, if he had one, to read, memorize, write. To judge both from the ancient evidence and from Qu’ranic schools (p. 454) today that similarly emphasize reading, writing, memorizing, and performing the text, school could be a noisy place. While this may seem to the modern silent reader to be disruptive, in fact it might develop both the vocal abilities and the intensity of focus that allowed the ancient orator to project his words in a large or even open place over the booing of his enemies and comings and goings of an audience far more fluid and probably more talkative than the modern opera audience.23 The grammar school was ultimately preparing powerful speakers but had no need to imitate the scope of their venues.

In addition, the place of the grammar school did not have the physical requirements of the modern school, which prizes a closed room with separate seating, a clear line of sight for the (most often single) supervising teacher, and acoustics sufficient that the teacher and any pupil can communicate. In antiquity, no desks were required. At a minimum the student needed writing materials: a fragment of a clay pot or roof tile or a piece of wood and a brush pen or a wax tablet and a stylus, pointed at one end to incise the letters, flattened at the other to erase. At a minimum the teacher sat on a chair, thus raised above the children sitting on the ground (in grander schools on benches) and with his head at about ear level for the child summoned to his chair to perform a lesson. He had to have some texts; however, they need not be complete (certain purple passages recur in the extant school exercises), and certainly not all needed to be written. Some he might have memorized, and some he might have written on papyrus rolls. On a grander level—that reflected in the education of prominent Greeks and Romans whom we know about from the literary sources and as described in the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian and the De liberis educandis attributed to Plutarch—the teacher would have had a working library from Homer to the orators and commentaries on these texts, as would the students’ parents at home.24 The grandest houses would have literate experts as well: the pedagogue, a professional secretary like Cicero’s freedman Tiro, even a resident philosopher, and a library or a portion of the house with books and statues of the Muses or frescoes of Menander or tragic or comic masks or scenes from tragedy and comedy.

But let us return from the literary and communicative society to which education aspired to the children in the schoolroom. School equipment might include wooden tablets with the letters incised for the beginner to trace, alphabet blocks, inkwells with inscribed alphabets, abaci. There is some evidence for a map in a late Roman school.25 Again, however, the real equipment of the ancient school has been somewhat overlooked. For a boy or girl might bring to school as his or her own possession the slave pedagogue and the capsarius, the slave who carried the capsa, a cylindrical box that held papyrus rolls. Negotiating the papyrus roll was a challenge for the young, perhaps especially for boys with (p. 455) fine motor skills not so advanced as their sisters. Papyrus seems to have always been expensive, and the roll had to be unrolled with the left hand and taken up with the right hand. Quintilian recommends that the child manage the top of the roll with his chin while resting the bottom on his lap.26 The pedagogue or capsarius might have supervised this as well as provided other tutoring and discipline and guided the walk to and from school. One surmises that they were a help with learning to write. Writing did require a flat surface, brush, ink and water, and a sponge or rag to erase. The potential for accidents seems large (lamps were brought to school as well), as do the possibilities for mischief. Lucian recalls that he made little oxen and horses and human figures from the wax of his tablets (Dream 2). Fire, ink, oil, ostraca, wax, papyrus, brush, stick-like stylus, tablet, roll, clay lamp: all sound like a lot to carry and a recipe for invention. On the other side, so to speak, the teacher sitting in his high chair had the ferula or virga (the cane but not the whip—the flagellum—with which slaves were beaten).27 Herondas in a literary mime (something like a bit of prose satire) has a mother drag her truant son to the schoolmaster for a beating. Horace remembered his abusive teacher whose name, Orbilius, became a byword for strap-loving “teachers.” A funerary relief in Verona depicts a schoolmistress with her whip (Inv. A. O. 9.6622, first half of the first century CE).28 Whereas Plutarch and Quintilian inveighed against corporal punishment, it was standard practice for the school. A common writing exercise had the student write, “Work hard lest you be beaten.”29

We do not have to imagine that education always worked smoothly and progressively. Then as now not everyone reached the end desired by parent or teacher and so fully and ideally described by the theorists and advocates. There were clearly educated free men and women who did not write well and professionals, slaves, and freedmen who wrote expertly. A wooden tablet from Vindolanda, the Roman fort on the Stangate south of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, has a birthday invitation written competently enough, yet at the bottom the shaky signature seems to be the work of the lady inviting her friend. A slave has probably written the body of the letter for her.30 Likewise, there is much evidence for important men, Pliny the Elder and Cicero for instance, dictating to professionals (most famously, Pliny the Younger tells of his uncle dictating to his slave the details of Vesuvius as it erupts: Epist. 6.16). No doubt these masters could write well and swiftly, but a staff helped with the volume of their work. Still, it is important to remember that education did not mean autonomous literate skills or, rather, that in the ancient (p. 456) world the literate and numerate skills that education inculcated were supported by slave and servant labor during and after the educational process. Indeed, the disposition to treat another human being as an instrument of one’s reading and writing was a skill learned at the finest schools. And helpers were needed for the various equipment and the processes of reading, writing, preparing, rehearsing.

An idealized account of the student’s day is found in the late antique bilingual exercises (hermeneumata), which depict the child’s life as a series of encounters, from waking and ordering his slave to attend him to going to school, even meeting a child enemy on the street.31 Such exercises were vocabulary exercises and so list more things than the average student might need or encounter, but their most remarkable pedagogic feature is that they encourage the student to imagine himself at the center of an educational world doing distinctive work that will repay him later. The world seems made for him and waiting for him. This integrated vision was underscored by the educationalist’s sense that the curriculum was an integrated, progressive whole. Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 7.10.8–9) says that the teacher is to demonstrate the reasons for the sequence of exercises. Another piece of the curriculum, the preliminary exercises known as the progymnasmata, offers characteristic encouragement. Aphthonius in discussing the chreia (Progymnasmata 5), the sayings tale, explains the words of Isocrates, that the root of education is bitter, the fruit sweet, with a rationale characteristic of the ancient school: suffer as a boy, profit as a man. He offers this justification of education inset, as the exegesis of an exercise, into the very toil of education: “But by childhood experience of [punishment from teacher, pedagogue, and father], grown to manhood the student wins the crown of virtue.” On the other hand, if a student out of cowardice flees his master, runs away from his father, and eludes his pedagogue, he loses all hope of eloquence; eloquence and rationality are lost with the assumption of fear.

The end to which all the boy’s, teacher’s, pedagogue’s, and family’s effort aims is the production of a confident, resourceful speaker. Pseudo-Plutarch in the De liberis educandis describes the bad influences to be avoided in this training.32 More positively, the massive work of Quintilian details the series of exercises and studies that will bring the child to maturity, whereas the more slender collection of sample exercises, the progymnasmata, give some of the flavor of the graduated curriculum and the constant encouragement offered to offset the drudgery of schoolwork.

A Typical Exercise

Having come to such a place and with such equipment and with school fees paid, what did the student do? He or she had begun with the names of the letters, now moved on to recognize and reproduce their shapes, to write the simplest possible combinations (p. 457) of these (the nonsense syllables, e.g., ba, be, bi, bo, bu; bab; beb, bib), to study written sentences whose meaning or at least some of whose vocabulary was beyond him. Quintilian is quite clear that the young student lacks the judgment to understand why he does what is set him. The child is marked by a powerful memory, an imitative faculty, but not the ability to discriminate what should be imitated.33 Thus, encouragements and games are necessary. The first three exercises of the progymnasmata—maxim, chreia, fable—have a clear relationship. First the student learned a general truth pithily expressed; then, with the chreia (the sayings tale), he attributed such a pungent sentence to a sage as his response to a challenge. With fable, narrative became more complex. Now two or three speakers must be given lines, and a maxim would often be used to summarize the point. Certainly, the student practices with the formal building blocks of narrative, but he and she also learn “wisdom”—the traditional fare of the gnomai (maxims) and chreiae and fables where fortune is ever slippery and (verbal) craft seems the only possible redress. The world and its agents (in fable a predatory place of hunger with fox, lion, or some other duplicitous and violent stand-in or, in a typical chreia, the foolish or ostensibly powerful man who challenges Diogenes or Socrates) are out to trick the student. Often, these tricksters mistake the value of education: so Aristippus responds to the man who wanted to hire a cheap, ignorant pedagogue, “then you will have two slaves.”34 The Distichs of Cato, a collection of sayings dating from the first or second century CE, are full of protreptic to education: “Fortify your mind with precepts; do not stop learning: for the unlettered life is a likeness of death” (3.1).35 In addition, this school literature prepares the way, in dribs and drabs, for literature. The one-liners are often excerpted from poetry or in the case of the Distichs of Cato modeled on lines of Horace, Vergil, and Ovid. Verse form, kinds of argument, and rhetorical figures are being learned as well.

We should also take seriously the ancient claim that education and specific exercises made the student moral.36 I do not mean that words and genres work in the psychagogic ways imagined by the ancient philosophers and rhetoricians, that, like certain music, certain modes of speech moved the soul to specific ends and that all the child needed to do was to imitate the verbal forms and his mores would thereby be shaped. Rather, school exercises were a moralizing mode—a way to model values and behavior and to provide the terms, agents, and plots to interpret actions, words, and motives as moral or immoral. In this way, even if the student broke his wax tablets or made little animals of the wax or dreamed of murdering his teacher (a poem of Prudentius commemorates such an event),37 educational discourse emerges as the authoritative medium (p. 458) for fashioning the self and for evaluating the self and that self’s relations with family, friends, enemies, dependents, and superiors.


The difficulty of the ancient school may repel most readers. While education was certainly onerous, inefficient to modern eyes, and at times violent, there is a certain honesty about the time and resources required. Education is not easy, quick, or “natural.” Yet following Aristotle, the ancients believed that the human being naturally wants to know and to be educated; theorists from Plato to Quintilian believed that the best man was the educated man and that education could make a man good. The modern is considerably more skeptical. While there are some enthusiasts for a “classical” education, to treat the modern child as the ancient would require that one teach children to read by setting them a piece of Shakespeare, Milton, or even Chaucer, an impossibility after the research of Basil Bernstein and the reformers his work animated.38 But consider what such an inefficient pedagogy with its restricted code effects (in addition to replication of dominant social protocols): at the outset of studies it would discourage vernacular paraphrase or summarization and demand instead a faithful, verbatim copying. The child begins by imitating, whether through writing or reciting or speaking, as if he were the undistorting medium for the text. Indeed, he is but a copy of the text, as much a support of reading as the papyrus or the wax that held the letters.

The child’s particular capabilities, as Quintilian described them (1.3), were a quickness to retain and a quickness to parrot what was set. Such an interpretation of what is childlike reflects the importance of memory and of oral delivery in ancient literate culture but is itself an idealized simplification of the child as learner. The good student (on the ancient estimation) at this stage seems almost invisible; that is, his performance is identical to his master’s script. He leaves no mark upon the text to be reproduced. But this understanding of the child as a sort of transparent, almost mechanical textual presentation has implications for the future. Starting a child on Homer (or with the Bible or Qu’ran) begins the familiarization of difficult texts. The centrality of large, archaic, and complex literary works in different curricula marks the texts as cultural icons but also as difficult yet daily texts, which require revisiting and reworking and whose reading is never complete. It is decidedly not the case that throughout their various histories such complex works were given the very young for lack of other materials. The process of gaining basic literacy rehearses the future, lifelong textual practices of the student. Thus, ease of access or accommodation of linguistic complexity are (p. 459) unnecessary, however striking or even upsetting this is to the modern pedagogue, concerned as we are with having students understand a text, exercise, technique at the moment of contact. The child may have begun writing or sounding out portions of Homer or other literary texts and in preparing these for memorization and reading, the school child punctuated, glossed, erased, and corrected. The multiple physical encounter with the text is instructive: he and she are learning the physical routines of reading and writing.

The fable has neither the linguistic difficulty nor the fixity of the epic text. Its plasticity (and subliterary status) made it an ideal medium for the child’s reading, copying, commenting, paraphrasing, composing, abridging, expanding, and reciting. Here and with the collections of proverbs (the gnomology) the curriculum responded more clearly to what were understood to be the needs of children. Those needs were in several senses understood as an imitative rehearsal of adult skills and tasks. Thus, ancient education helped to shape the child as that hybrid creature, playing in stylized routines and segregated venues at adult roles. All the while the child was being told that he or she was but playing—compared with the maturity of power and position that would come with the real adult world—but decidedly working with the intellect when compared either with the lazy scholar or to the slave bent on manual and menial duties.


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                                                                                            (1) For a review of the issues of the Greek alphabet and an account of its rapid use for literary purposes, see Teodorsson 2006.

                                                                                            (2) A convenient summary in Kramer 1963: 229–48.

                                                                                            (3) Lichtheim 1976: 146–63; Ray 1997.

                                                                                            (5) On the nature of the group led by Sappho see Bowra 1961: 187–8; Marrou: 1956: 34; Klinck 2008.

                                                                                            (6) The nature of this introduction, especially whether it involved the first writing down of the poems, remains a matter of controversy; see Janko 1992: 29–32 with bibliography.

                                                                                            (7) On the iconography of this important idea see Marrou 1964; the phenomenon as a cultural practice is analyzed in Whitmarsh 2001.

                                                                                            (8) See the discussion of Plato, Laws 804e in Ducat 2006: 103–31 and the general discussion with considerable attention to physical education at Ducat 2006: 223–47; also the chapters by Patterson, Kennell, and Dillon in this volume.

                                                                                            (10) Marrou 1956: 33–5. Sappho was not the only such teacher. For records of choruses (male, female, and mixed), see ibid. (p. 136).

                                                                                            (11) CIL 6.21846, CIL 10.3969, reproduced and discussed by Rawson 2003: 45–7, 160–1 (whose first chapter “Representations,” pp. 17–92, is extremely valuable).

                                                                                            (12) Marrou 1956: 142; Bonner 1977: 35, 41. There is ample evidence of the great families of the Roman Republic and later the emperors employing tutors at home: Bonner 1977: 23–34. The ancient testimonia describing the processes of learning to read and write are succinctly set out by Cribiore 1996: 139–44. See also Cavallo 1989 and Johnson 2000.

                                                                                            (13) On progymnasmata, see Patillon 1997; Webb 2001; Bloomer 2011: 123–9.

                                                                                            (14) On declamation, see Berti 2007; very briefly, Bloomer 2006.

                                                                                            (15) On these teachers at Rome: Kaster 1995.

                                                                                            (17) Places of recitation, Dalzell 1955; places of declamation, Bonner 1949: 39–40; possible performance site at Pompeii, Laurence 1996: 25–6.

                                                                                            (18) Marrou 1956: 124.

                                                                                            (19) Dover 1978: 54–7.

                                                                                            (20) See Treggiari forthcoming. On tutoring in the Roman world see Rawson 2003: 160–2.

                                                                                            (21) Gigante 1979: 23–34.

                                                                                            (22) Scenes of school can be seen on Greek vases: Beck 1975.

                                                                                            (23) See Bray 1986.

                                                                                            (24) Jerome, Adversus Rufinum 1.16, reminds his addressee of the commentaries he had read under his famous teacher Donatus.

                                                                                            (25) At Autun the rhetorician Eumenius about the year 300 described a map for a school: the Latin text and English translation in Nixon and Rodgers 1994: 171, 563.

                                                                                            (26) Birt 1907: 2–19 describes the process of reading a papyrus roll.

                                                                                            (27) A famous picture of Roman students and master in their chairs comes from a relief in Trier, reproduced by Bonner 1977 as the cover illustration and figure 9 (p. 56).

                                                                                            (28) This female educator was not alone: Rawson 2003: 165–7 discusses four women among known pedagogues. On female teachers, see Cribiore 2001: 78–83.

                                                                                            (29) On the issues of corporal punishment see Saller 1994: 133–53; Bloomer 2011: 53–80. See also Vuolanto in this volume for corporal discipline in late Roman schools.

                                                                                            (30) See Bowman 1998: 56–7; McDonnell 1996: 474–6; and especially important for methodology and conclusions on women writing, Cribiore 2001: 86–101; for the range of writers and uses of writing in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, see Bagnall 1995.

                                                                                            (31) On these exercises (referred to also by Vuolonto in this volume), see Dionisotti 1982; Bloomer 2011: 181–90.

                                                                                            (32) See Bloomer 2011: 58–65, 72–6.

                                                                                            (33) See, e.g., Quint. 1.3.1; Bloomer 2011: 93–8.

                                                                                            (34) Ps.-Plutarch, De liberis educandis 5A.

                                                                                            (35) The translation is mine from the standard edition of the Distichs (Boas 1952). On the chreia see Hock and O’Neill 1986.

                                                                                            (36) Patillon 1997: xix–xx discusses the ancient claims for the moral effect of fables on the young.

                                                                                            (37) Prudentius, Peristephanon 9 (a story of the schoolmaster-saint Cassian of Imola).

                                                                                            (38) Bernstein 1964; see also Bloomer 2011: 114–6 (with bibliography).