The ancient Romans adopted many aspects of their culture from that of the ancient Greeks, especially after all of Greece became part of the Roman Empire in 146 B.C. This was certainly the case with the educational practices and rhetoric* of the Romans. But, as in other practices that they adopted from the Greeks, the Romans altered Greek education to make it conform to the traditions and values that the Romans themselves held.

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

Education in Early Rome. The city of Rome began as a village of farmers on the east bank of the Tiber River. Like all peasant cultures, the earliest Roman people believed in the importance of the land. They valued cooperation, simplicity, self-reliance, discipline, and hard work. Early Roman education attempted to preserve those virtues. During the earlier years of the Roman Republic*, most people distrusted professional teachers, especially Greeks, and upper-class children were taught by their parents. The emphasis was on training children to become good citizens. For their first six or seven years, boys and girls were educated by their mothers, who taught them respect for the traditional values evident in Roman legends and history. Women also taught their children Latin and sometimes Greek.

A Roman girl was trained by her mother in domestic tasks until the age of 12 or 13, when she married and her education was considered complete. On the other hand, a boy was tutored by his father between the ages of 7 and 16. He was expected to follow his father everywhere and learn from his example. The boy helped with his father’s work, listened to debates in the forum* or in the Senate, and took part in religious ceremonies. His father taught him to read, to fight in armor, to box, to ride a horse, to swim, to endure hardship, and, above all, to know his own family’s traditions. Such training was for youths of the upper classes. Little is known about the education of lower-class children.

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings

During a ceremony at the age of 16, a young man replaced his child’s toga* with a pure white toga, signifying adulthood. He became an apprentice to a prominent older man, who trained him for public service. As he had with his father, the young man followed his patron* to the law courts and to public debates. The patron also trained the young man in the art of public speaking. A young man then served one year in the army, under the supervision of an experienced military man. Thus, early Roman education emphasized the wisdom and experience to be learned from elders and from Roman tradition.

* toga loose outer garment worn by Roman citizens

* patron special guardian, protector or supporter

Education in Later Rome. By the middle of the first century B.C., education based on family and tradition was no longer considered appropriate. Rome had become a leading political and military power. The Romans had defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars and had conquered much of the Mediterranean world. Children of the leading families in the conquered territories were often taken to Italy to be educated, returning afterwards to become local leaders. They often returned more Roman than provincial*. The education of Roman children changed as well. As the Roman Empire expanded, Roman fathers were often away from home in the army or in colonial administration, and upper-class mothers became more involved in social concerns and were less inclined to teach their children.

Many slaves arrived in Italy as prisoners of war, and many from Greekspeaking regions were better educated than the Romans. Through interactions with these Greeks, the Romans gradually became more influenced by Greek ideas and Greek education. Young Roman children often had a Greek tutor who taught simple reading and who served as a guardian as well. At the age of six or seven, a Roman child went to an elementary school to learn reading, writing, and simple math. Lessons were from dawn to mid-afternoon. Students had every eighth day off, and there were short breaks in winter and spring and a long break during the summer. Pupils sat on stools with wooden tablets on their knees, and they copied passages of literature onto papyrus* sheets. They then memorized and recited them. Discipline was strict, and students who did poorly were caned, although they also sometimes received little cakes for good work. Curiosity and interest in intellectual matters were rarely encouraged. Schools were usually private, organized by parents or a wealthy patron. Only in the late first century A.D. did the government begin to support education.

* provincial referring to a province, an overseas area controlled by Rome

* papyrus writing material made by pressing together thin strips of the inner stem of the papyrus plant

During the early years, the Greek-inspired curriculum* stressed Greek literature, since there was little Latin literature of significance. Because of this, most educated Romans knew both Latin and Greek. However, by the late first century B.C., much excellent Latin literature had been produced, and these works replaced Greek literature in the curriculum. As a result, bilingualism* gradually declined. Students studied the works of Vergil and Horace for poetry, Livy for history, Terence for drama, and Cicero for oratory*. However, they were not taught to appreciate the works of such authors as merely literature, but to view them as practical sources for strengthening their own language skills. Students read the texts aloud, memorized them, and analyzed their grammar. Fortunately, the boredom of grammar lessons was relieved by the discussion of myths, history, geography, and science that arose from these texts. Subjects popular in Greece, such as music and dancing, were considered unmanly in Rome, and athletics was valued only for soldiers.

Roman Rhetoric. The curriculum for Roman higher education, which began at the age of 16, omitted some topics that were considered important in Greek teaching. Philosophy*, for instance, was regarded as too removed from real life, and knowledge of Roman history and literature, it was believed, could be adequately acquired outside the classroom. The emphasis in Roman higher education was on the study of rhetoric, because rhetoric had practical benefits in the Roman Empire.

During the years of the Roman Republic, the Romans produced many skilled orators who were able to hold their own in the Senate and in the law courts, where juries were highly receptive to persuasive arguments. The great orators included Cato the Elder, noted for his blunt speech and his repeated admonition, “Carthage must be destroyed” during the Punic Wars; the brothers Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, who attempted radical reforms of the republic; and Cicero, who was as accomplished an essayist and philosopher as he was an orator. With the founding of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C., the political uses of rhetoric that had been so important during the republic became less attractive. The Senate lost its power and rarely challenged decisions made by the emperor. Many court cases were tried before an imperial* official or even the emperor himself. Oratory had no significant place in the political or legal system during the empire. Rhetoric was still the center of education, however, and it flourished anew in the art of the declamation.

Declamations were speeches on imaginary topics, often concerning history, law, or even mythical or literary characters. Declamations had always been used to train students for politics or the law, as well as to keep professional orators in practice. During the empire, declamations became a popular form of entertainment, attended by audiences that often included the emperor. The greatest teacher and theoretician of declamation and rhetoric during the empire was Quintilian, the teacher of Pliny the Younger, who lived in the late first and early second centuries A.D. In later periods, declamations became sensational and far-fetched, full of grotesque, even violent episodes. Still, there were orators of serious intent who wanted to follow the advice of Cicero and Quintilian, who both emphasized the importance of studying philosophy, history, and literature. These orators traveled regularly to study in Athens or Rhodes, where Greek traditions of rhetoric survived. (See also Antonius, Marcus; Classical Studies; Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Oratory.)

* curriculum program of studies

* bilingualism ability to speak and read two languages well

* oratory art of public speaking

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire


Not all Romans admired Greek learning. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder ridiculed the school of the Greek educator Isocrates, saying that its students grew old before they finished their training and would only be able to plead their law cases in the underworld. In one instance, when a famous Greek philosopher arrived in Rome to argue before the law courts, Cato had him banished from the city—not because he had anything against the man personally, but just because he despised all philosophers.

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