The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education 
by Martin Bloomer.
California, 281 pp., £34.95, April 2012, 978 0 520 25576 0
Show More
Show More

The ninth of the Crowns of the Martyrs by Prudentius, the great Christian poet of the fifth century, tells of his visit to the tomb in Rome of Cassian of Imola. Above the tomb hung a grisly portrait of a man surrounded by schoolchildren and perforated with scars. The tomb attendant explained that Cassian was an exacting schoolmaster whose demands on his students were not appreciated, for ‘a teacher always leaves a bitter taste in a young man and no discipline is sweet to the young.’ When Cassian was outed as a Christian, he was sentenced to death at the hands of his students, who were all too keen to turn on him the instruments with which he had tortured them: the styli they used to etch their letters into wax tablets. ‘Why do you groan?’ Prudentius imagines one of the boys saying. ‘It was you yourself who, as a teacher, gave us this weapon, who armed our hands. See, we are giving back to you as many marks as we received from you, standing and weeping. You cannot be angry at us for writing.’

Martin Bloomer offers this story as an example of the violence that was the Roman teacher’s prerogative to dispense – and which Roman schoolboys were trained to dole out in their turn. Bloomer’s Rome is an oppressive place, preoccupied with masculinity and power. Being educated was, on this account, rather like watching the gladiatorial games: it systematically desensitised one to the more or less latent cruelty inherent in a social order founded on precipitous hierarchies.

The Roman state had no interest in education as a means of moral or societal improvement. The Romans may have been, as Bloomer’s subtitle suggests, the originators of ‘liberal education’, but nothing here points to liberalism in the modern sense. Liberalis meant ‘free’ not as in ‘freethinking’, but as in ‘non-slave’. For the liberales of Rome, cultivation was an expression of the naturally superior qualities of the dominant class. Education differentiated haves from have-nots (and from many of the have-somes), and legitimised the vast and unquestioned power that the elite – usually the male elite – held.

There were elementary ‘schools’ – ludi – for the less well-off. Basic literacy, of the kind taught by Cassian of Imola, was more common and demographically dispersed in Rome than elsewhere in the Mediterranean. An enterprising teacher might hold classes in a house or the corner of a shop (there were no dedicated buildings). But the elite monopolised the higher levels of education. Once literacy had been acquired (often through private tutors), the children of the wealthy studied poetry, and ultimately, rhetoric. Persuasive eloquence was the goal.

Although Romans seem to have learned the value of literacy from the Etruscans during Italy’s murky prehistory, it was the annexation of Greek-speaking territories from the late third century BCE that shaped their educational practice. Romans learned from the Greeks that eloquence could be a marker of social distinction. It wasn’t just a matter of having a few literary quotations to hand. A bit of civilised banter could demonstrate class, as much as its absence demonstrated vulgarity, and Petronius’ scathing portrait of the freedman Trimalchio (the model for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby), who confused Cassandra with Medea and mangled the story of Ajax’s madness, tells us a lot about the sneering superiority the uneducated faced. Bloomer has in mind a more insidious connection between education and power. At every stage in the pedagogical process, he argues, young Romans were being taught to naturalise and savour their power; this was the main aim of Roman education.

Cassian’s charges would have copied out improving sentiments, such as the Distichs that were (according to a fiction collectively entertained) handed down from that fearsome traditionalist of the second century BCE, Cato the Elder. The Distichs are a series of austere imperatives in verse couplets: ‘Practise your art, whatever profession you choose/As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience.’ ‘Since in your student days you suffered the master’s blows, put up with a father’s rule even when in his wrath he moves beyond words.’ The Roman aristocracy’s overweening superego is distilled in these lines. As they reproduced the stern decrees, students absorbed the art of the grammatical and political imperative, the law of life that divides humans into those who command and those who obey. Children were taught the worth of disciplined labour so that as adults they could discipline others. As Bloomer ends his book, education was ‘a great ponos [‘effort’], labor, for those who had no need to work’.

In adolescence, the Roman boy focused on independent composition. Chreiae – philosophers’ witty ripostes to awkward situations – or animal fables might be dictated by a teacher, and the student was then expected to recast what he heard in his own words, sometimes changing either the emphasis or the grammar. This was an exercise in developing, within strict limits, a sense of self, what we would now call ‘subjectivity’. In engaging with the fables in particular, the student was learning about different points of view: although the ‘morals’ appended to them dictated the ideological message, the stories themselves told not just of violence and hierarchy, but of victimhood and peril. One fable tells of a wolf berating a sheep for a series of alleged misdemeanours, which are all refuted by the logically-minded sheep. In despair of finding a pretext for attacking the sheep, the wolf redirects the accusation at the sheep’s father, before ‘punishing’ him by eating him. This, the fable concludes, is how men oppress the innocent with fictitious charges. Violence is still a universal constant, but the student is now ready to appreciate that it does not always serve a higher good. The sheep abides by the rules the student himself has been taught, but the wolf still wins; the message is simply that the game is not played fair.

The culminating phase of the most privileged young Romans’ education centred on rhetorical declamation. In suasoriae they would imagine themselves as famous figures trying to persuade or exhort their contemporaries: Demosthenes inveighing against Philip of Macedon, perhaps, or Alexander chivvying his troops before the battle of the Granicus. In controversiae, they argued one side (and sometimes both) of a legal or quasi-legal case. A mother slips out by night to recover her son’s corpse from the battlefield, and is captured; under torture, she reveals to the enemy that reinforcements are on their way; these are captured and killed, but she escapes, and passes information to her own side that helps them win the war: is she guilty of divulging state secrets? Students were now ready to use the first-person singular, ready for subjectivity in the truest sense, which is both grammatical and social. Articulating views of their own, even if through role-play, they could at last lay claim to the full censorious authority of the state.

The ancients also produced educational theory, principally Quintilian’s monumental Training of the Orator, written partly in response to a request from the Emperor Domitian, and On the Education of Children, a Greek tract from around the same era sometimes attributed to Plutarch. In these there is nothing to match the optimistic faith in the power and creativity of the young mind found in modern theorists of education from Rousseau to Piaget and beyond. Quintilian writes of the need for play in education, but only to win boys’ complicity. The aim is to achieve subordination, not self-expression. Discussing Quintilian, Bloomer claims that

his use of the term ‘child’ is in fact rather like the use of the word ‘it’ in recipes. In narrating a recipe, we repeatedly say ‘it’ to refer to the developing object. So we could say add salt to it, then knead it for ten minutes, let it rise for an hour, press it down etc, until we finally have it. The ‘it’ is not the same throughout, but for reasons of economy, and because we tend to conflate the process with the end result, we use a single pronoun.

The point is that for Quintilian the child exists in order to become an adult. But the depersonalising ‘it’ and the analogy with cooking goes deeper. For Bloomer, Quintilian is not so much educating individuals as processing children, mechanistically turning them into adults capable of governance.

Was Roman education really so austerely authoritarian? Certainly, the ancient world was unsentimental about childhood. Children were imagined as deficient adults. Neither were Romans squeamish about class. No need to disguise strategies for maintaining hierarchy when that hierarchy was visibly reproduced in every aspect of daily life. Yet, for all that it captures Rome’s casually thuggish approach to social order, Bloomer’s approach seems too functional. In taking his cue from Quintilian and Plutarch, he replicates their prescriptiveness.

The position of education in Roman society was never straightforward. The associations with Greece were double-edged, suggesting not only the prestige of an older civilisation but also the luxury that hastened its decline. Bloomer is aware of the tension, but implies that it relaxed after the second century BCE. Few could match Cato the Elder for paranoid views on education: although well versed in Greek literature, he called Greeks ‘worthless and unruly’, prophesied that ‘when they give us their writings they will ruin us,’ and warned that all Greek doctors set out to kill Roman patients. But later Roman literature is also full of barbs about Greeks and their decadent preoccupation with learning. Petronius’ Satyrica, where the myth-mangling Trimalchio appears, is also a satire on pretentious and randy would-be teachers. Even the Emperor Hadrian, three hundred years after Cato, was reviled as Graeculus (‘little Greeky’) precisely because – so our source tells us – ‘he dedicated himself rather too eagerly to Greek learning.’ Romans never lost the suspicion that there was something un-Roman about education.

Bloomer also gives too little emphasis to the transformative power of instruction. While it may be true, sociologically speaking, that education has a broad tendency to consolidate hierarchies, it can also provide the means for social mobility. High-level literacy was not limited to wealthy males. One famous example is Cicero’s slave Tiro, who invented a system of shorthand, edited the great man’s works, and eventually won his freedom. Roman women too were often educated, a fact Bloomer frequently acknowledges but the implications of which he does not confront. It might be argued that since Roman education was not designed for slaves and women, they were simply statistical noise in terms of the general cultural pattern. But this raises fundamental questions about the practice of history as a discipline: should historians concern themselves only with social norms or do the anomalous cases tell us more?

What must it have been like for a girl or young woman to be educated at Rome? As with so many areas of women’s lives, the sources tend to stonewall us. But we can catch a glimpse in a small tract from the first century CE that purports to record the words of the Etruscan philosopher Musonius Rufus. Musonius was asked whether daughters should be educated alongside sons. His answer was that since the virtues of self-restraint and courage are common to both genders, both require education. The Greek word he chooses for ‘courage’ is andreia, which literally means ‘manliness’. Even as he argues for parity of treatment, he strains the words at his disposal. In another tract, Musonius is said to have argued that since ‘women have received from the gods the same ability to reason as men have,’ they too should study philosophy. But he then argues that women need their philosophy so they can apply themselves better to being housekeepers, wives and mothers. The sense that gender expectations were at risk must have arisen often when girls and women were being ceded intellectual resources that might allow them to outgrow their conventional roles.

Finally, I wonder about Bloomer’s reconstruction of the cognitive processes of the young when faced by fables or declamations. What really went on in their minds as they ventriloquised the words of someone in a state of desperation? Bloomer is clear:

Speaking on behalf of the prostitute who applied to be a priestess or the rape victim who hesitated between choosing the death of the rapist or marriage with him did not prepare the youth for a similar situation in adult life or necessarily inculcate an empathetic point of view. It did naturalise the speaking rights of the freeborn male elite.

This is all carefully phrased: in asserting that such role-playing did not ‘necessarily’ inspire empathy, Bloomer acknowledges that it may have done in some cases, while downplaying the significance of the possibility. It seems to me truer to the sources, and psychologically more plausible, to imagine that the drive towards the top-down worldview detected by Bloomer was coupled with a surprising willingness to identify with the dispossessed. The experience of education is surely nothing if not a psychic drama, an opening up of possibilities. Ancient education was weirder and more paradoxical than Bloomer allows, but he has produced a clever and sophisticated reading of a society that was dedicated to naturalising the brutality it perpetrated.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences