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Editor: John T. Kirby
Date: 2001
World Eras
From: World Eras(Vol. 3: Roman Republic and Empire, 264 B.C.E.- 476 C.E.. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Excerpt; Topic overview; Culture overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1120L

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Teachers and Subjects.. In the early years both boys and girls were educated at home. Both learned how to read and write and perform basic mathematical functions under the guidance of a litterator, the equivalent to the present-day elementary schoolteacher. The litterator was either an educated slave who belonged to the family or a freedman who would find an area, often an outdoor and somewhat noisy space, where for a fee he would teach the children sent to him. In the third century B.C.E. is the first recorded instance of a litterator, the freedman Spurius Carvilius, setting up a school and charging a fee. Each morning a paedagogus, a slave whose job was to care for the children, would lead them from home to the school. Study with the litterator lasted five to six years. Next, if the family could not afford more education, the boy began working in a family business or was sent out as an apprentice to a skilled craftsman or tradesman. One contract for such an apprenticeship showed that the craftsman, in this case a weaver, was responsible for the boy’s upkeep during his year of service and that in return the boy worked for him while he learned his craft. The contract stipulates that the weaver is supposed to teach the boy all aspects of his trade within that year’s time:

Pausiris, son of Ammonius, and Apollonius, a weaver, son of Apollonius, have reached the following agreement: Pausiris has given as an apprentice to Apollonius his son Dioskus, who is still under age, so that he may learn the weaver’s trade, all of it, as he himself knows it, for a period of one year from the present day. And Dioskus shall work for Apollonius and do everything he is told to. Apollonius has received for the boy, who will be clothed and fed by the weaver for the whole period of the agreement, 14 drachmas to cover the costs of clothing, and Pausiris will give him 5 silver drachmas a month to cover the costs of food. And Pausiris, the father, is not allowed to take the boy away from his master within that period of time. If the boy does not do all his work, he must pay his master one silver drachma for each day on which he is negligent and lazy, or he may offer to remain an equal number of days longer. The penalty for taking the boy away before the end of the period agreed upon is 100 drachmas and an equal sum payable to the Treasury office. If the master weaver should fail to instruct the boy, he must pay the same penalty.

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Further Education. In those families that could afford to provide their sons further education or chose to continue the education of their daughters, children progressed to the instruction of the grammaticus, who continued the work of the litterator but raised it to a new level. Quintilian defined the work of the grammaticus as to teach “the art of speaking correctly and the interpretation of poetry.” This study was not so narrow as it might appear: for the Romans, speaking and writing were intertwined, so a student needed to practice his writing and to read widely in prose and poetry in order to develop his vocabulary. A knowledge of music helped a speaker to develop a rhythm, and the study of history gave the speaker examples of past actions to support his arguments. To interpret poetry required a background in mythology, religion, art, astronomy, philosophy, and history.

Study of Rhetoric. Only the wealthiest or the most politically oriented of the families could send their sons on to study with a rhetor, whose purpose was to train public speakers. In the early Republic, young men learned this skill by a sort of apprenticeship: they would attach themselves to a well-respected political figure from whom they could learn by observation in the Senate and in the law courts. Cicero’s own education, in the late Republic, combined the formal training with the apprenticeship.

Decline of Oratory. In the Empire, as the political influence of individuals became determined more by imperial favor than by personal talent, the nature of rhetorical training changed, emphasizing style over content. Both Quintilian and Tacitus bemoaned the deterioration of rhetorical education: Tacitus, because boys were assigned speeches on outlandish topics; Quintilian, because rhetoric had become a means of display rather than a vehicle for conveying important truths.

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The biographer Suetonius wrote about lives of teachers in his work On Famous Men. Although most of the work is lost, one part that survives offers some information about a grammaticus:

Lucius Orbilius Pupillus was born in Beneventum. He was left an orphan when both his parents were killed on the same day by a treacherous plot of their enemies. First he obtained a job as a menial servant for the town magistrates. Then he joined the army, was decorated, and eventually was promoted to the cavalry. When he had completed his years of service, he returned to his studies and thus filled an ambition he had had since boyhood.

For a long time he lived as a teacher in his hometown, but then in his fiftieth year (the year of Cicero’s consulship), he moved to Rome and taught there. However, he earned more fame than money. In one of his books, written when he was an old man, he complains that he is “a pauper, living in an attic.” He also published a book called My Trials and Tribulations in which he complains about the insults and injuries done to him by negligent or ambitious parents.

He had a fiery temper which he unleashed not only on his rival teachers, whom he castigated on every occasion, but also on his students. Horace called him “the teacher who loved the whip,” and Domitius Marsus wrote that many of his students suffered floggings and whippings. Even men of rank and position did not escape his scathing sarcasm.

He lived to be almost 100 years old. … In the Capitol at Beneventum, in the area to the left, there is a marble statue of him on display. He is seated, and holds in his hands two books. He left a son who was also named Orbilius and who was also a schoolteacher.

Source: Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 103.

Imperial Interest. Although education remained primarily a private matter for families, some emperors did

Teacher and students, from a late second century Teacher and students, from a late second century C.E. funerary monument (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, inv. 9921, Trier)

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take a public interest in promoting the value of education. Vespasian was the first to establish official professorships of rhetoric—one of Latin and one of Greek—and to appoint men to these positions and pay them from the imperial treasury. He chose Quintilian for the first chair of Latin rhetoric in the 70s C.E. Marcus Aurelius added to Vespasian’s contribution by establishing four professorships of philosophy and by creating a professorship of rhetoric at Athens, as well. During the military upheaval of the third century C.E., state-supported education in the more-populated cities of North Africa and in Rome and Athens survived, but the instability of the time interfered with education in many other areas of the empire. When Diocletian brought the empire some measure of peace, he and his successor Constantine also restored education to its place of importance. In his Edict on Prices, Diocletian even established a pay ratio for the litteratory grammaticus, and rhetor at 1:4:5. The state again began to provide funds for professorships of rhetoric and philosophy in many areas of the empire.

Schools. In the early Republic, most education took place in the home under the guidance of the family. This private aspect of education never changed for the Romans. There was never a fully organized, state-supported educational system. Some wealthy men helped provide funds for schools, but the best example, Pliny the Younger, still assumed that the school and the selection of teachers should be under local control. In a letter Pliny requests the historian Tacitus’s help in finding applicants for a teaching position in Comum, his home-town, where he has offered to pay one-third of the expenses for building a school so that the children do not have to continue going to a neighboring town for their education. Pliny specifically states that he offered only one-third of the cost because he believes the parents would stay more actively involved in caring for the school and overseeing the teacher if the financial burden rested primarily on them.

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One of the characters in Petronius’s Satyrica is Agamemnon, a teacher of rhetoric. In the passage below, he gives his view of the problems teachers face in meeting parents’ expectations and in holding the attention of their students:

It’s no wonder that teachers go astray with these exercises: they’re forced to rave, because everybody else has gone crazy. Unless they said what the darling pupils wanted to hear, they’d be “standing in empty classrooms” as Cicero says…the teacher of oratory is like a fisherman: if he didn’t put on his hook something he knew the little fishies would like, he’d wait on his jutting rock with no hope of profit.

So what are we going to do? We should be blaming the parents because they won’t let us offer a strict curriculum. They do the same thing with their children as with everything else, sacrifice them for some short-term advantage. In their rush for rewards, they shove raw pupils into the forum. They say that there’s nothing more important than eloquence, but they force it on their offspring before the mothers have finished giving birth. If they would let us gradually increase the difficulty of the work and cultivate the boys with demanding reading; if we could form young minds on the precepts of philosophy; if pens could root in the words, the Athenian way, for anything substandard, and dig it out; if the pupils could listen for a long time before imitating, if they could be convinced that nothing that children like is great literature; then the eloquence of the past would reemerge with its proper weight and grandeur.

Later in the Satyrica, Echion, a rag seller, talks about his son to Agamemnon and about the sort of education he wants his son to have and why:

That little squirt of mine’s growing up. He’ll be a student for you soon. He can already recite his times tables up to four. If he lives, you’ll have a little servant by your side. Any time he’s free, he’s got his head bent over his writing tablet. He’s bright, he’s good stuff…. He’s done with the Greeks now, and he’s coming at Latin literature, not doing so bad neither, even if his teacher thinks the world of himself and never sticks to the point. There’s another teacher, though, who doesn’t know much but takes some trouble, and he teaches more than he knows himself. He spends the holidays at the farm, and he’s happy with any tip you give him.

Now I’ve bought the boy a bunch of them law books, ’cause I want him to learn a little law to use in the family business. That kind of thing buys groceries. He’s already had more literature than’s good for him. If he doesn’t cooperate, I’ve decided to get him trained in a trade: barber or herald or at least advocate. Nothing but death can take your trade away. Every day, I yell at him, “Primigenius, believe me, whatever you learn, you’re learning it for yourself. You’ve heard of Philero the advocate? If he hadn’t learned a trade, he’d be hungry every day. He used to carry peddler’s goods around on his back. Now he’s squaring up against Norbanus.”

Source: Petronius Satyricon, translated by Sarah Ruden (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000).

Places to Teach. Many teachers, especially litteratores, had no permanent building in which to teach classes. Lessons were conducted in open spaces, under awnings, or in the sun, often near noisy shops or along busy streets. Grammatici, in part because they were paid more, often had a place—although it may have been a room in their own homes—to offer classes. Rhetores were the most fortunate, with more formal schools and facilities to Page 310  |  Top of Articleoffer their students the comfort they needed to concentrate on their studies.


Henry C. Boren, Roman Society: A Social, Economic, and Cultural History (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1977).

Judith P. Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3034800192