Roman Schools - Ancient Rome
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Roman Schools

Roman school
A Roman teacher home-schooling, about 200 AD

November 2016 - Most Roman kids did not go to school. Like their parents, they worked in the fields hoeing and weeding and plowing as soon as they were old enough. Their parents needed them to work, to get enough to eat. They did not learn to read or write or do math.

Some rich boys, especially if they lived in cities, did go to school. Girls mostly did not go to school. Rich kids sometimes had a slave who walked them to school and back and kept them safe. Boys were in school from early in the morning until mid-morning, and then often exercised until lunch. They usually walked home for lunch and then came back for an afternoon session. But they didn't all necessarily arrive or leave at the same time - some boys came later, or left earlier.

Roman schools were small, with only one room, and one teacher, like American one-room schools. The same teacher taught boys of different ages, from about seven to eleven or twelve. (Boys younger than seven didn't go to school). The boys' parents paid the teacher, the way your parents pay for music lessons or karate lessons today. Like music teachers today, they weren't paid very well. Teachers were always complaining about being poor. A teacher with 30 students in his class might get about 180 denarii a year, which was maybe enough to live on but not enough to support a family.

roman school
Roman school in Trier in Germany, about 200 AD

The boys usually sat on stools or chairs, while the teacher had a chair with a back (though in this picture actually the boys do have backs on their chairs). Nobody had a desk.

Some kids (both boys and girls) were home-schooled instead. Either their mothers or fathers taught them, or sometimes they hired a teacher to come to their house, or (for very rich people) they might buy a slave to be their kids' teacher.

The teacher taught the boys how to read and write, and also how to count and calculate some numbers. Books hadn't been invented yet, and nobody in Europe knew how to make paper, so the boys read from papyrus scrolls. To practice their writing, they scratched with wooden sticks on wooden boards covered with wax, or sometimes they scratched with a metal stick on old broken pieces of pottery. The teacher wrote out the alphabet, or lines from the Aeneid, and then the kids copied out what the teacher had written. They also learned math. He (most teachers were men) taught them their times tables. The boys memorized a lot of poetry, and sometimes they learned to play a musical instrument. They did not learn science, or art, or physical education.

a carving shows a teacher beating a boy at school
A school beating ca. 50 AD (now at the MFA, Boston)

If a boy had not learned what he was supposed to learn, the teacher would often hit him with a stick. Many boys were very afraid of their teacher, and hated school because they were afraid of being hit with the stick.

When boys were eleven or twelve, and had learned everything they could learn in this school, many of them stopped going to school. A few, like the scholar Augustine, went on to high school.

Learn by doing: make a Roman writing tablet
Find out about Roman high school

Bibliography and further reading about Roman school:

Roman high school
More about Roman people
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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