Ancient History & Civilisation




Youths with a knowledge of Latin or Greek, who wanted to prepare themselves for the professions, could go to one of the principal centres of higher learning, staffed by groups of lecturers paid by the state or the municipality. These centres included Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Berytus (Beirut), Antioch and Carthage, and in the fourth century Constantinople, Augustodunum (Autun) and Augusta Trevirorum (Trier).

Attempts were made by emperors to encourage recruitment to these university institutions. Commodus, like Antoninus Pius before him, increased the exemptions and privileges of their teachers. Caracalla, though personally averse to learning and learned people, extended similar exemptions to students.1 Then Severus Alexander improved professorial salaries, and further measures on behalf of these staffs were taken by successive Illyrian rulers, themselves of extremely scrappy education, namely Diocletian and Constantius I Chlorus; the latter’s son Constantine continued with this policy, deliberately seeking to combat anti-intellectual trends.2

Yet this officially favoured instruction at advanced levels was reserved for men: women had to be content with secondary or private tuition. Higher education was also limited to members of the upper and upper-middle classes, and intended particularly for the sons of senators and knights. Dio Cassius cites Maecenas as expressing explicit approval of this restriction (p. 73). He was evidently of the same opinion himself – and throughout antiquity that is where matters rested.

The principal subject of these courses was rhetoric or classical literature. Public lecturers of the concert-orator type attained fame and wealth by oratorical fireworks based on flamboyant adaptations of the antique models. The poetry of the entire period, though abundant, is almost all depressingly derivative. With little change throughout the centuries, the old-fashioned, verbal, pedantic classical education continued to reign paramount, full of quotations and empty of new interpretations or ideas. The system went on producing cultivated gentlemen with a gift for verbal felicity but few constructive plans for combating contemporary emergencies or providing alternatives to fashionable, irrational solutions and salvations. For this system, valuing superficial expression above substance or originality, imported its pervasive barrenness into the court, the civil service and the administration of every province.

The position of grammar and rhetoric alike was strengthened, early in the period, by the publication of uniquely authoritative studies. The most influential of all grammarians and historians of grammar was Apollonius ‘the Crabbed’, an Alexandrian of the mid-second century AD who specialised in settling syntactic details according to considerations of principle.3 Then, in Marcus Aurelius’ Rome, Apollonius’ son Herodian was the author of immense, learned works on grammar and accentuation, which, like the works of his father, were minutely studied throughout the Byzantine epoch.

The position of rhetoric was similarly reinforced by the subject’s leading theoretician of the whole imperial age, Hermogenes ‘the Polisher’ of Tarsus in Cilicia (c. 175). His massive attempt to reduce the study of literary style to a fixed system was as influential as the writings of the grammarians; and this, too, perpetuated sterile scholastic standards for hundreds of years. Slightly later in date was another author, not now identifiable, who wrote a varied handbook of precepts relating to the ever-fashionable and job-winning occupation of oratory.4

Higher education, however, was also concerned with subjects other than rhetoric and grammar. One of these was philosophy. Marcus Aurelius’ preference of philosophy to rhetoric as being of more practical use caused great disappointment to his tutor Fronto. Marcus founded four Chairs of philosophy at Athens, and was an outstanding practitioner of the subject himself. Alexandria also possessed highly distinguished teachers of the subject, who contributed both to the new, learned expositions of Christianity and to the achievement of Plotinus.

Another flourishing topic of higher education, in an age which appreciated training for careers, was Roman Law, of which the leading centre, founded by AD 200 and probably earlier, was at Berytus (Beirut).5 From the days of the outstanding Severan jurists, and especially after Caracalla’s extension of Roman Law by his grant of universal citizenship, Berytus continued to prosper (pp. 80 ff). In pursuance of his attempt to Latinise the east and its laws, Diocletian endowed the school with scholarships, and, in spite of Syria’s distinction as a nucleus of Greek culture, instruction continued to be given in Latin until c. 400. Berytus was also unusual among university centres in that its courses were based on prescribed books – and followed a fixed duration, usually lasting four years, to which a fifth was sometimes added.

Mathematics were taught at Alexandria, and astronomy at Sidon. But the history of science during the period was uninspiring. The astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria (d. c. I70?), although not a figure of first-rate calibre, had attained new results in mathematical geography, and his encyclopaedic achievement was comprehensive and enormously Influential. Now there was no one to compare with him. Greek science had always disregarded attainable minor discoveries in favour of unattainable major ones, tending to see physics as philosophy and not mechanics; and now men no longer probed into the secrets of nature at all, but regarded it as the agent of wonders. ‘Greek rationalism spent itself like a fire which dies for want of fuel.’6 Understanding, aptitude and experiment alike showed little or no progress. Theories and hypotheses and concepts of the universe were still analysed from logical and mathematical viewpoints,7 but factual discoveries faded out. Severus Alexander is recorded to have taken notice of scientific education. But no significant result emerged from any such methods of encouragement, except in the field of architecture where practical assistance given to members of the profession by Diocletian and Constantine bore impressive fruits (pp. 108). The backwardness of industrial and particularly agricultural technology was disastrous to the empire (p. 61).

The centres of medical instruction were Alexandria, Syrian cities such as Apamea and Laodicea, and a number of important schools in Asia Minor.8 Galen (c. 130–99) was educated at one of these Asian centres, his home town Pergamum. Rising from the job of a doctor of gladiators, he enjoyed the successive favour of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius’ wife Julia Domna. He also wrote books covering every specialist field. What survives is not by any means his complete work, yet it fills twenty quarto volumes.

Galen is an assured biologist, emphasising anatomy and recognising the unity of the organism. The approach he urged was not only scientific but broad, conveying the firm principle that the best doctor is a good philosopher – the man who loves the truth, laboriously studies the ancients, and is not afraid to apply his own tests. A medical student, he says,

must become possessed with an ardent love for truth, like one inspired. Neither day nor night may he cease to urge and strain himself in order to learn thoroughly all that has been said by the most illustrious of the ancients. And when he has learnt this, then for a prolonged period he must test and prove it, observe what part is in agreement, and what in disagreement with obvious facts; thus he will choose this and turn away from that. To such a person my hope has been that my treatise would prove of the very greatest assistance. Still, such people may be expected to be quite few in number, while, as for the others, this book will be as superfluous to them as a tale told to an ass.9

The same somewhat impatient conceit is expressed in Galen’s sharp language about his Roman colleagues. His own capacity to respect, digest and assimilate tradition – a characteristic feature of late antiquity, seen also in the great jurists of the same epoch – were what made him so valuable for future generations, because it enabled him to transmit all the best work of past Greek medical schools. Yet there were also other qualities in Galen, equally appreciated by subsequent ages, which proved more dangerous to science. First, he believed that the purposes served by all parts of the body, which require them to be constructed as they are, could be discovered, and that he himself could discover them. He explored all these purposes and considered that it was impossible to imagine any better arrangement, citing Aristotle’s principle that nature makes nothing in vain.10 And Galen was a pioneer believer that the existence of the divine, creative deity can be argued from the existence and perfect beauty of what has been created. Convinced that the human body is the divinely fashioned instrument of the soul, he saw the praiseful worship of the divinity as the particular sphere of anatomical study, and believed that if this were pursued with the same earnestness as the famous religions it would exceed them in its comprehensive and effective revelations of the divine mystery and power. And so, although Galen was himself as critical of Christianity as of pagan philosophical schools, his doctrines, translated from the Arabic, became immensely popular in the medieval west. Schoolmen liked his apparently logical attitude, and Thomas Linacre was still propounding him in 1523; his conclusions determined medical thought for nearly a millennium and a half.

But that lay in the future. The immediate result of his attitude was to accelerate the decline of the scientific approach. During the centuries that now followed nobody else tried to repeat Galen’s exploration of the purposes served by the parts of the body. This was partly because no successor could improve on his massive labours, but chiefly because the problems of physiology seemed to need no further experimentation; he had already solved them, and had done so in accordance with a theory of the godhead (and its purpose) which could not be tampered with. And so his method ‘carried the implication of the worthlessness of research … the world was worth exploring only to verify the hypothesis. On his death, silence descends like a curtain; the classical period of the subject is over and the Dark Ages have begun.’11

The advent of Christianity, which made theology the subject of lively intellectual achievements, did not perform the same sevice for scientific enquiry. ‘For wherein’, as St Ambrose asked, ‘does this assist our salvation ?’

And yet the narrow and largely barren slopes of higher learning rested upon a broad base of school education. This instruction was provided in three stages. First, there was the elementary school, always private, the teacher living on the fees of his pupils. Upper and middle class children did not go to these schools, but were taught at home, and then went on (unlike their poorer contemporaries) to one of the instructors in grammar who existed in all towns of any size. Some of these pupils subsequently entered courses given by the teachers of rhetoric to be found in provincial capitals and other cities of comparable importance. These schoolmasters, and their colleagues who taught grammar, were either paid salaries or lived on fees as freelances. Their earnings were fixed by Diocletian at between four and five times those of elementary teachers; their training was expensive and they ranked among men of property.

Yet this secondary teaching, like most instruction at university level, was limited in subject-matter. Theoretically, there was a general training in grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, the seven liberal arts of medieval fame.12But in fact, mathematics were almost completely ousted, music also dropped out, and very little was taught except grammar and rhetoric. This was an exclusively linguistic and literary curriculum, based on a syllabus consisting of commentaries upon a restricted range of classical authors.

However, during the hundred and fifty years between Marcus Aurelius and Constantine this education, such as it was, reached considerably larger numbers of people than ever before, in keeping with a general tendency towards egalitarianism (p. 82). Egyptian papyri show that, although illiteracy existed, school education, both for boys and for girls, was widespread. From the time of Severus Alexander town and village teachers are recorded as a class. We have papyrus text-books for schools, giving practical exercises in the forms of words.18 There are also bilingual manuals of early third century date, inaugurating the practical phrase-book of modern times. These works insist on student-teaching and the use of black-boards, and pay careful attention to the individual pupil’s ability, age, knowledge, temperament and interests.14 A little Latin work of moral admonitions in couplets, the Sayings of Cato, became a medieval text-book second only to Virgil in the fascination it inspired.15 Such were the teaching aids which supported this primary and secondary education throughout the empire. Moreover, in an indirect fashion and at a low level, the great-house economy of the age played some part in the diffusion of culture (p. 63).

Naturally, however, the progression of education was not evenly distributed. At the end of the third century, for example, Egypt was showing signs of educational weakening. But in Gaul, on the other hand, teaching centres multiplied – and were perhaps doubled by Constantius I Chlorus.16

Yet this wider diffusion of education still did not affect a large percentage of the population. For its media were Greek and Latin. These were the principal written languages of the Roman world, and the only ones capable of conveying this literary, classical training. But they were only spoken by a minority of the populations of the empire, which, being mainly agricultural, contained elements untouched by the culture of Greece or Rome. Such, for example, were the people who still spoke Celtic, Punic, Berber, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Illyrian (Albanian), Thracian or one of the many tongues of Asia Minor. Nevertheless, the total proportion of Greek and Latin speakers throughout the empire probably increased during the period, because of the expansion of schooling.

The growth of instruction in Greek and Latin also developed native and national patriotisms. That may seem paradoxical, since the spread of native literatures such as Syriac and Aramaic was likewise one of the principal causes of this kind of development. However, the spread of Greek and Latin had a similar effect since, as in modern times, introduction to the conqueror’s culture gave articulate expression to feelings directed against him. In the east, particularly, the spread of Greek produced all manner of hate-literatures against the Greek agents of Rome, as well as against the Romans themselves (p. 20). By a somewhat similar process the Romanisation of Gaul during the second and third centuries gave its people the civilisation and self-consciousness which inspired a marked revival of non-Roman cults, some of which, dating back to Celtic origins before Rome ever arrived, now spread beyond their homeland. In the time of Commodus, these deities even obtained official sanction, under Roman guise, in the shrines of the imperial armies.17

Between Latin and Greek the linguistic cleavage was now growing sharper. Men of high education like Marcus Aurelius could still be bilingual, and Severus Alexander was brought up as a ‘Greek and Roman’, but this became increasingly unusual. An age which needed bilingual text-books also required official concessions regarding the use of languages. When Caracalla conducted a trial at Antioch, its title and sentence were written down in Latin, but all the rest – including the emperor’s words – appeared in Greek.18 Moreover, although Latin remained the language of the law, Severus Alexander allowed Roman citizens to make Greek wills. Diocletian, a Balkan peasant who continued the levelling-down of Italy and established his capital at Nicomedia in the Greek east, was nevertheless determined to make Latin the exclusive governmental language (p. 80). He sent Roman grammarians and rhetoricians to the east, and even in Egypt Latin became the judicial tongue. But any progress in this direction was only temporary, and within another century (to the pecuniary advantage of translators and adapters) the linguistic barrier between east and west was already substantial. The opportunity, or visionary ideal, of creating cultural and religious unity had gone for ever, with immense consequences for the Mediterranean world.

Diocletian’s attempt had been a hopeless one, for the previous hundred and fifty years, in every field except the law, had revealed an extreme scarcity of Latin writings of any importance whatever, from the viewpoint either of substance or of style. Apart from one small poem, only Apuleius and Tertullian provide surviving exceptions; and they both came from the flourishing culture of Roman Africa (p. 119). Stylistically, the Greek work too is almost all of a low standard, and indeed there is an immense bulk of Greek writings that are worthless in every other respect as well. And yet the age also produced writers of immense significance, and, whether their race was Greek or eastern or (less often) Roman, nearly all but the jurists wrote in Greek. Even Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of Romano-Spanish family, chose that language for his private Meditations; and so did the Egyptian Plotinus for his philosophy. Juvenal complained that the river Orontes had flowed into the Tiber, but more momentous than this racial conglomeration was the almost total supremacy, on the highest cultural planes, of the lingua franca provided by Greece. The African St Augustine and his contemporaries would later rescue Latin for the Middle Ages, but between the second century and the fourth, except in the single field of law, it was men writing in Greek who create and express and define the climax of ancient Rome.

The greatest of them dwelt on peaks which even the outstanding thinkers of classical Greece had seldom if ever attained. Below them was a more widely disseminated literacy than there had ever been before. But this lay an enormously long way beneath their level, for higher education in its most typical aspects had failed, and its most rarefied manifestations, such as the philosophy of Plotinus, were far beyond the reach of this new public. Theirs was a middle-brow civilisation, and its characteristic form of literature was the romantic novel.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!