Ancient and modern

How the ancients approached the three Rs

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

German archaeologists have found ancient Egyptian tablets covered in repetitive writing exercises and ask — were they pupil punishments? But if classical examples are anything to go by, they sound more like normal education.

For elite Roman boys, education began with elementary reading, writing and numbers. From about the age of nine, they developed these skills further, especially in the study of poetry, and began Greek; and at 15, they were taught the arts of political and legal argument, drawing widely on mythical, historical and philosophical precedents, to prepare them for life at the top of Roman society. Rote learning, memorisation, repetition (and the whip) were the means of ‘driving into the memory the lessons to be learned’.


The educationist Quintilian (d. c. 100 ad) gives us a taste of the mechanical learning of linguistic minutiae — letters, syllables, words and parts of speech — that were the order of the day in elementary school: ‘It is easy to point out the difference between vowels and consonants, and to subdivide the latter into semivowels and mutes; but pupils must distinguish the sound difference between u and i [example given] and be aware that some vowels become consonants [example of i in iam]; vowels can be joined to make one long vowel, and some hold that even three vowels can form a single syllable; how conjugations and prefixes affect words [examples]; how Odysseus became Ulysseus and then Ulixes … and then boys must learn to decline nouns and conjugate verbs or they’ll never make progress.’

It is amusing to reflect that the Latin for ‘elementary school’ was ludus, ‘a game, play’, but perhaps ironical that our ‘school’ derives from Greek skholê ‘leisure’ (which only the elite enjoyed). An ancient certainly would have regarded our schools as pretty leisurely.

Linguistic note: Latin educatio derives from educo, educare, ‘I support, nurture the growth of (animals, plants or humans)’. Do not confuse with educo, educere ‘I lead out, extract’, even though the Romans did. Quintilian would have been appalled.

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