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