The Romans were to the Greeks what today’s young venture capitalists are to middle-aged professors of moral philosophy. They just didn’t think in the same way, or hold similar values. While the Greeks were exhausting themselves in costly wars the determined, no-nonsense farmers of Latinium progressively transformed themselves into merchants, and then into soldiers so that, by 146 B.C., the methodical armies of Rome defeated the Greeks militarily yet, once captured, “Greece took hold of her crude conqueror and brought sophistication to uneducated Latinium”.
The early Romans were not a particularly imaginative or quick-witted people. They were originally farmers, conservative people who honoured tradition and the stable values of reliability, responsibility and duty. “Husbandmen make the strongest men and the bravest soldiers”, wrote Cato1. Neither a questioning nor a philosophic people, theirs was a strictly paternalistic, authoritarian society which evolved over hundreds of years into a nation of highly practical, realistic and shrewd people.
Those early Roman farmers believed that the formation of a child’s character began at birth (if, at birth, the baby looked weak or feeble, they had no qualms about putting it out on a rock overnight to see if it was tough enough to survive ─ better dead than an encumbrance to its family). No slave or hired nurse cared for the newborn; “it’s what a mother was for; to watch over the children, and what could be more commendable?” asked the poet Tacitus2. From the age of seven it was the father who taught the boy to read, understand grammar and simple counting (no geometry for a Roman child!), and sufficient physical exercise to toughen him, such as boxing or swimming in the cold water of the river. The boy shadowed his father; he went to debates in the forum, acted as an acolyte at religious festivals, learned to haggle prices in the market, and in the evening he learnt from the company of other adults as he served at family banquets. Slightly pedestrian and rather dull to our minds maybe, but it was Roman education like this that turned a village of shepherds into the capital of the world3.
There was an inferiority complex amongst the Romans when faced with the richness of the Greek world. It was the Roman, Horace, who wrote of Greece taking hold of its crude conqueror (his people) but he went on to say defiantly4 “The signs of country background lived on for awhile”. It was the young Romans (as always) who were anxious for more than what had simply been good enough for their parents. It was Cato who pleaded with the Senate “to get rid of the Greeks… then they can go home and talk to their own children in their own school, leaving the Roman youth to obey our laws, and our teachers”. It all sounds very contemporary! “Now we hand our newborns over to a slave girl” wrote Tacitus two hundred years later, “so our children grow up listening to the fairy tales of such poor teachers as these… Parents don’t bother to bring up their children according to (custom) anymore ─ and as a result our children have no gravitas, no pietas”.
With her conquest of Greece Rome had to change herself. Greek, rather than Latin, became the language of the elite, and a cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture replaced that of the earlier down-to-earth farmers. Family ties were loosened as more fathers were away fighting or trading, and the setting of the good example was no longer seen as being that important. Schools, charging fees, were set up and staffed by Greek slaves to do what previously the family had provided5. The curriculum was based on the Greek model, but much watered down; the teaching of literature was systematic rather than inspired; music which had been such an essential part of the civilized life of Athens seemed almost indecent to practical, thrusting Romans, and athletics was reduced to preparing boys to be soldiers. Whereas the Greeks had enjoyed competition and were great amateur sportsman, the Romans were spectators, professional punters supporting their favourite charioteers and gladiators much as we might flock to football matches today.
Initially the Roman model of education served its purpose of supporting the ever expanding empire. It created the poetry of Virgil and Horace, the legal and philosophical writings of Cicero and of the historian Tacitus; it gave substance to Roman law, to military discipline, and the vast complex administration that controlled everything between the African desert and Hadrian’s Wall, and from the Straits of Gibraltar to the borders of Persia. It was a strictly functional educational system; it developed memory not analytical skills; it largely ignored maths, and totally ignored science6. To the young Augustine in 325, it was largely sterile and irrelevant7.
Despite its obvious inadequacies and much that was hard and unattractive, Roman education left an impression on great areas of the ancient world, and the grandeur of its concept can be admired. It created a pedagogical view of learning that meant there was no significant difference in the teaching of Latin and Greek literature between the Roman schools of the fourth century, the grammar schools of the Elizabethan times, and the public schools of the twentieth century7. But, most significantly of all, it meant that without first mastering one and then a second dead, foreign language, no student could enter the realm of higher scholarship. Such a view of education undermined the earlier Roman confidence in the virtues of the practical man. By the last years of the Republic the ideal of selfless service had been lost. The worship of the gods seemed only myths, and there was no longer enough for intelligent people to do. With no higher moral purpose men sought their own sensual delights8. Thesis 21: 24th August 2006