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A Roman teacher home-schooling, about 200 AD

Roman education outside of school: A Roman teacher home-schooling, about 200 AD

Poor kids had to work

Roman schools were for rich boys; 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.

More about Roman farming
History of schools
The Roman economy
All our Ancient Rome articles

Their parents needed them to work, to get enough to eat. Most Roman people did not learn to read or write or do math.

Roman education was for richer boys

Some rich boys, especially if they lived in cities, did go to school. Girls usually did not go to school. Rich kids sometimes had a slave who walked them to school and back and kept them safe.

Slavery in ancient Rome
Roman schools in storefronts
Some schools met in basilicas

What was the Roman school schedule?

The Roman school year started on March 24th, like the old Babylonian New Year. 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.

What did Roman kids eat for lunch?
The Babylonian New Year
Roman baths and exercise

But they didn’t all necessarily arrive or leave at the same time – some boys came later, or left earlier. In the winter, Roman boys often came to school before it was light out. Then they brought wax candles with them to light the schoolroom.

Where did wax come from?

Roman people hadn’t invented weekends yet, but there was no school on market-days (about every nine days), and there were a lot of religious holidays from school too. There was no long summer vacation, but overall they had about the same number of days of school as kids do today.

One-room schools

Roman schools were small, with only one room, and one teacher, like American one-room schools. The boys usually sat on stools or chairs. Most of the time only 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.

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.

Were teachers well paid in Roman schools?

No, like music teachers today, Roman teachers weren’t paid very well. A lot of teachers were freed slaves – freedmen – so they didn’t have a lot of status.

More about Roman freedmen

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 boys and their teacher at school (Trier)

Roman boys and their teacher at school (Trier)

Homeschooling in ancient Rome

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 an enslaved person to be their kids’ teacher.

What subjects did Roman kids learn in school?

A Roman wax tablet with a wooden frame and black wax

A wax tablet from ancient Rome

The teacher taught the boys how to read and write, and also how to count and calculate some numbers. Because Roman numbers were not useful for adding and multiplying, teachers taught the boys to use an abacus for their calculations. The boys memorized their times tables, too.

More about the abacus
The history of the alphabet
Roman numerals

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.

What is papyrus?
How to make your own wax tablet

A school beating ca. 50 AD (now at the MFA, Boston)

A school beating ca. 50 AD (now at the MFA, Boston)

The teacher wrote out the alphabet, or lines from the Aeneid, and then the kids copied out what the teacher had written.

More about Virgil’s Aeneid

The boys memorized a lot of poetry, and sometimes they learned to play a musical instrument. They did not learn science, or art.

Could Roman teachers hit the kids?

painting of a room with columns. A group of boys stand and watch. One boy is stripped naked and piggybacked on another boy's back, while a larger man raises a stick.

A teacher beating a boy at school. From the Villa of Julia Felix, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum

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. But a lot of Roman people thought kids wouldn’t learn anything unless you hit them.

When did Roman education end?

When boys were eleven or twelve, and had learned everything they could learn in this school, many of them stopped going to school. That was all the school most Roman people got. A few kids who were from well-off families, like the scholar  Augustine, went on to high school.

Looking for a second source to cite? Check out this excellent article from Weebly!

Did we answer your questions about Roman education? Let us know in the comments!

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

Bibliography and further reading about Roman school:


Roman high school
Schools in ancient Egypt
Schools in ancient Greece
More about Roman people
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