cb_leraarScholam eamus: the school and education in the Roman Netherlands
By Frank Broeke, classics teacher and member of Vereniging Pax Romana.
Amstelveen, September 2011

In the Rome society of the first century AD it must have been a common fact: in the various forums of the city, sacrifices were brought, politicial life happened, traders touted their wares, but one could also hear children recite verses of famous Roman poets like Virgil. While little or nothing is known about Roman education in our region, such an event on the forum of the town near the fortress of Levefanum, modern Wijk bij Duurstede, situated in a northern outpost of the Roman Empire, would not have been much different.

The word “school” immediately makes us think of a building designed for teaching and education, where (in the case of a high school, the writer bases this paragraph on his own experience) pupils must be present as a result of compulsory education and where several teachers teach their own profession after they have attended a so-called. vocational education. This is all done under the watchful eye of a Rector (which in fact is exactly what a rector should do, Rector means ‘director’), his vice-principals and a government controlled school inspection, which checks the quality of the education provided on an independent basis.

Attending courses in Roman times was a privilege, certainly not a legal obligation. Teachers lectured several subjects and did so from the knowledge they had acquired during their own school years. An overarching school organization was absent and there was no independent inspection by the government. It should be noted that it does not mean that education was an opportunistic action at that time, where anyone with a little relevant knowledge could call himself a teacher and successfully pick up this profession. Teachers in Roman times were definitely assessed, but through their own “customers”, the paying parents of the students. These parents themselves had enjoyed enough education and acquired a position good enough in society that they had the skills and relevant knowledge to know what a good teacher should be.

Only fair to very wealthy Romans could afford to send their children (both boys and girls) from about the age of seven to a teacher. The children were escorted in the morning by their paedagogus , a Greek word that literally means “child supervisor”. This paedagogus was a slave who not only had the task to guid the children to school, but also examine the lessons of that day. The paedagogus left the kids behind at the magister . A magister was usually a Greek 1 , who had focused on the teaching of basic skills: reading Latin and Greek 2 , writing and arithmetic. If the opportunity arose, the master was able to teach a basic history and mythology as well. If done so, the magister asked a fee from the parents. A big difference with modern education is that the magister retained order with a stick or straw: the poet Horace describes his magister Orbilius as plagosus , ‘likes to strike’3.

After the teachings of the magister, most of the boys were supposed to get a job as a manual labourer, farmer or soldier. If desired, and financially able, a father could decide to give his sons a continuation. This happened when they were about twelve years old. This training was provided by a grammaticus . The grammaticus was a Greek who deepend the knowledge that the boys had gained at the magister and also taught literature (in the form of recitation and memorization of entire passages from works by famous Greek and Roman poets), history, geography (to a certain extent: the Romans had no accurate maps and only knew of distant peoples by vague rumors ), astronomy and mythology. The latter four disciplines were intended as a reference to the read poets. For this the grammaticus also asked a reimbursement from the parents. Girls took no part in this training. They were taught the functions of a Roman housewife at home, such as cooking, spinning, weaving and childcare, to prepare them for their upcoming wedding: girls married averaging around their fifteenth year.

After three years, around the age of fifteen, the boys had finished their lessons from the grammaticus. They were now ready to take part in the Roman society and appealed in the higher segment of that society, as an entrepreneur or official. A small part of the boys, the sons of very wealthy parents, got a further education under the care of a rhetor . A rhetor was, again, usually a Greek 4 who taught the boys in eloquence, the rhetoric . The importance of this skill lies in the role that the boys were supposed to be playing in Roman society; they were destined to occupy high positions, such as senator or lawyer. The Greeks and Romans believed that eloquence was the most effective way to reach the audience. This is reflected in the training of the boys: they were taught to think both arguments in favor and against a point of view, stylistic devices to deploy effectively and making gestures and inflections to back up their words with. The rhetor treated Greek and Roman literature in such a profound way that the boys could use this for their own eloquence, and philosophy was used to learn logical reasoning. If there was no rhetorician of sufficient stature in function around, the boys were sent on a study tour of a few months to one or two years. The preferred destination was Rome, but also Athens was chosen, the cradle of civilization 5 , or the Greek island of Rhodes, where there were several schools for rhetoric.

There are no archaeological remains of any educational activities recovered in the Netherlands. However, the fact that there are many locally written inscriptions, indicates that there was at least a basic training by a magister available. The site where the military fort Fectio once stood, near the present day Vechten, and Tolsum (Friesland) writing tablets are found which were written on by soldiers and even slaves.

1 The Romans cherished a deep respect for the intellectual achievements of the Greeks, in example for their literature. They therefore choose Greek teachers to tutor their children.
2 In the Roman Empire, Latin was mainly spoken in the west and Greek in the east. Greek rose, due to the fact that the language was seen as more of an intellectual civilization than the Roman, to the same function as lingua franca as English today and was even chic seen: it pointed out a good education. According to his biographer Suetonius (Vita Divi Iuli 82), Caesars famous last words ‘Et tu, fili’, ‘you too, my son’, were spoken in Greek: ‘Kai su, teknon’.
3 Horace, Epist. II.1.70-71.
4 There are also Roman rhetoricians, oratores , known: one of the best known is M. Fabius Quintilian (ca. 40-100), who has written a handbook on oratory, De Institutione Oratoria .
5 See 1 en 2.