Development of Roman education from the traditional home-based learning to Greek-style schools. Education of girls. Higher education: rhetoric and philosophy.


Home tutor

A boy (centre) recites his lesson to a home tutor: from a second-century AD sarcophagus relief of M. Cornelius Statius. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

At the beginning of the republic, education was left entirely to the parents, and consisted of a mixture of martial and practical arts. Boys were expected to emulate their fathers, and girls their mothers. From about 250 BC, largely as a result of the influx of educated Greek slaves, tutors were employed in richer homes or were set up as teachers of informal schools.

Late for school

A boy apologises to his teacher for being late: copy of a second-century AD relief. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Towards the end of the republic, a two-tier educational system evolved, leading to higher education in oratory and philosophy. At about the age of 7, children of the privileged classes were sent to a primary school (often presided over by a single teacher), where from dawn to the middle of the afternoon, with a break for lunch at home, they learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Girls as well as boys could benefit from this basic schooling, which seems often to have been in premises designed as shops, with an open front on the street. Pupils sat on wooden benches and wrote out their exercises on tablets which they rested on their knees.

Roman shop

Reconstruction of the front of a Roman shop. (From J. Henry Middleton, The Remains of Ancient Rome 1892: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Formal education for girls ceased at the age of 12, but boys who showed academic promise were sent on, if their parents could afford the fees, to “grammar” schools, where they stayed until they assumed the toga virilis, pursuing a curriculum which emphasized Greek as well as Latin literature.

Flogging scene

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) refers to verses “dictated to me by flogger Orbilius” (Epistles, I, 70 - 1), but in spite of references to corporal punishment in literature and art, it does not seem that it was any more frequent or severe than in many schools in Britain well into the twentieth century.
The scene here, on a first-century gilt bronze mirror, draws on Dionysiac symbolism. A maenad and a cupid support the boy down over a table, underneath which is an open tablet and stylus. Silenus, attendant on Bacchus, does the flogging, while another cupid keeps the score on a slate. In a niche above is Minerva, patroness of learning. (VRoma: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Barbara McManus)

By the end of the first century AD, it had become accepted that rhetoric should be taught in special schools at a higher level, though a pupil might be expected to have had an introduction to the subject before embarking on higher education. Rhetoric (or oratory) as a subject as well as an art originated in Sicily in the fifth century BC, and was developed in Athens and in Asia Minor, before becoming an accepted study in Rome.


First-century BC bronze statue of Roman orator. (VRoma: Archaeological Museum, Florence: Barbara McManus)

While the schools taught traditional religious observances and supplemented the training children received at home in conduct and morality, older boys, as they grew up, were exposed to the influence of the various branches of Greek philosophy, in which the upper classes at least came to find a more acceptable guide to life than the religion of the state.

Scholar in his study

A scholar reads a scroll beside an open cabinet containing a further supply. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Leading citizens employed resident philosophers. When Cicero was about 18, he attended lectures in Rome given by Phaedrus the Epicurean; shortly afterwards he listened to Philo of Larissa, head of the Academic school of philosophy, to whose doctrines he remained generally faithful for the rest of his life. When he was 18, Horace studied philosophy in Athens, where in addition to the Academics and the Epicureans he would have come under the influence of the Stoics and the Peripatetics.


Oratory (Rhetoric)

There were basically three branches of oratory: the display of one’s art, often in the form of a panegyric or invective; the persuasion of an audience to a point of view; and the defence or prosecution of a defendant in a court of law. Each of these involved five separate skills: selection of content, arrangement, language, memory, delivery.


Quintilian (c.AD 35 - 95), wrote an influential work on the education necessary for an orator (Institutio Oratoria). Read some famous quotations from it here.

Believe it or not:

Julius Caesar’s home tutor when he was a boy was Marcus Antonius Gnipho, from Cisalpine Gaul. Gnipho’s parents had exposed him at birth, a practice which was legal under the republic and for some time afterwards. He was rescued, brought up as a slave, but freed by his owner and sent to have Greek education in Alexandria. Latterly he gave instruction in his own home, to men of distinction, including Cicero, as well as to the young, becoming so eminent that he left it to his pupils to decide how valuable his teaching had been to them. In this way, it is said, he earned far more than he would otherwise have done.

Not all teachers were floggers. Marcus Verrius Flaccus stimulated his pupils’ efforts by competition, offering essay prizes, usually in the form of books of antiquarian interest. He was so successful that Augustus employed him to teach his grandsons