The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education

The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education

The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education

The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education


This fascinating cultural and intellectual history focuses on education as practiced by the imperial age Romans, looking at what they considered the value of education and its effect on children. W. Martin Bloomer details the processes, exercises, claims, and contexts of liberal education from the late first century BCE to the third century CE--the epoch of rhetorical education. He examines the adaptation of Greek institutions, methods, and texts by the Romans, and traces the Romans' own history of education. Bloomer argues that while Rome's enduring educational legacy includes the seven liberal arts and a canon of school texts, its practice of competitive displays of reading, writing, and reciting were intended to instill in the young social as well as intellectual ideas.


In the summer of 44 B.C., an aristocratic youth studying in Athens wrote his father’s agent assuring him, a bit too eagerly, that all was going well with his Greek philosophy teacher. The man no longer seemed so severe and now even dropped by unannounced for dinner. Could the agent send the young man a trained slave, preferably a Greek, to transcribe notes? Three months earlier the youth had been visited by a friend of his father on the way out from Rome to serve as a short-lived governor of Asia. Trebonius wrote back to the father to report that the sonwas living modestly and devoting himself to his studies. The father clearly was not so sure: he had managed to get his son to dismiss one professor of rhetoric, a bad sort according to a later historian, and was tightening the purse strings.

Three centuries later in a city of the northern Roman Empire, where Greek was still known, but where trousers and beer were more common than togas and wine, a first reading exercise imagines a boy writing an account of his daily routine. He calls for his clothes, breakfasts, and still in the cool of dawn walks to school with a slave retinue—pedagogue, book-bag porter, perhaps others. He returns home for lunch and greets his parents and the extended familia. He writes too of breaking away from his studies to go to the forum or the baths with his pals.

A century and a half later, across the Mediterranean in North Africa, a teenager fresh from school realizes his mother’s dreams by setting up as a teacher of rhetoric. School had been traumatic, or at least emotional. He was beaten but still failed to learn Greek. Yet Virgil moved him: he wept for Dido as Aeneas sailed away, leaving her to die by her own hand.

The three students are Cicero’s son Marcus, an anonymous youth in Marseilles, and the young Augustine. Each in a different setting pursued a liberal education . . .

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