BMCR 1999.05.22

Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds

, Literate education in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv, 364 pages : 1 map ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521584661. $64.95.

This ambitious book endeavors to consider Greek and Roman education from a fresh perspective. It is based partly on literary sources — particularly Quintilian, Plutarch, Ps.-Plutarch, and occasionally Philo of Alexandria — and provides close and often insightful readings of them. The author also shows a good grasp of material from a variety of other ancient writers and takes into account a wide range of secondary sources, including some studies on contemporary education. The novelty of this work is that it tries to reconcile the literary evidence with the educational material in the papyri of Greco-Roman in an attempt to provide a more concrete and less idealized picture of ancient education. This effort, however, is often unsuccessful for several reasons, but particularly because of the extreme conclusions that Morgan draws from the incomplete data that she considers. The value of this study derives mostly from being “a necessary corrective to the triumphalist view of literate education which is all too easy to acquire from the sources.” On the other hand, the minimalist view of both the contents of instruction and the breadth of ancient education that this book conveys is unwarranted and more applicable to lower levels of instruction than higher ones.

M. bases her study on a catalogue of “schooltext papyri,” which is modeled on my Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (reviewed in this journal in 1999-04-15). By “schooltext papyri” M. means texts penned by students and teachers at the primary and secondary level that can be identified by looking at several characteristics, particularly handwriting. Some limitations are particularly noticeable. This catalogue includes only a handful of rhetorical exercises whose handwriting shows some deficiencies; it does not account for some extant texts on papyrus penned by professional scribes that show signs of having been used in education (e.g., P.Lond.Lit. 28 or P.Oxy. II 223) nor does it consider the evidence of a few commentaries on certain authors (e.g., Aristophanes — as Zuntz has shown, or Pindar) that appear to have originated in scholastic environments. Moreover, the “schooltext papyri” primarily consist of written passages that served as penmanship exercises, analyses of similes and descriptions, and so on, which indicate the parts of an author’s work that the students were studying at the moment. Assuming, as M. does, that students read “only” these passages is misguided; the few extant textbooks that appear to have been used in school in fact confirm that the breadth of the readings of some students was much wider. Another drawback is that M. rarely distinguishes among levels of instruction: she considers exercises that originated from primary education together with those from secondary education. The result is confusing for the reader, and the problem is complicated by some unjustified statements, for example that grammar, which together with literature was the province of the grammarian, was approached only after students had read large quantities of texts. But when did students read all these texts? Since the scope of primary education was limited and circumscribed, one has to assume — in order to justify M.’s view — that students read a lot of literature in the class of the grammarian and only afterward began to study grammar. Neither the literary sources nor the papyri, however, warrant such a conclusion. A detailed examination of this book’s content will help clarify its strengths and weaknesses.

The first chapter defines the object of study, namely the literate side of education, the chronological scope of the work — the Hellenistic and Roman period — and the sources employed. M. also justifies her decision to exclude numerate and philosophical education, and to consider only early rhetorical instruction. The reasons for the latter choice are puzzling, since M. claims here and elsewhere in the book that she takes into consideration all the rhetorical exercises that survive, and that no advanced exercises were found in Egypt. Actually, many kinds of progymnasmata — far beyond those that she examines — and a number of meletai (particularly of historical content) are preserved, but they are dispersed in various collections, and no corpus conveniently assembles all of them. In the rest of the chapter the author discusses education in classical Greece and shows that an integrated educational system ( enkyklios paideia) was the product of the period after Alexander the Great. She briefly considers the lack of evidence for a central control of education, for organizations of teachers, and for formal educational institutions. One of the book’s main themes begins to emerge: Attic Greek helped maintain a concept of “Greekness,” and Greek education gave non-Greeks means of assimilation.

Chapter 2 begins with a statistical analysis of school papyri, which is derived from the tables provided at the end of the book. The author remarks that grammatical school papyri date from the beginning of the Roman period. She then states that levels of literacy were higher in Roman times than in the Hellenistic period, and that grammar may have started as an extra for students to show their superiority in a competitive environment. This is a questionable statement as I will show below: more compelling reasons explain the appearance of grammar in the school exercises, such as the fact that grammar had finally acquired the status of an independent discipline even in scholarly works, and that it helped students categorize the language of literature. M.’s view that competition ruled ancient education inspires the model that she proposes as a replacement for the curricular model set forth by historians of education, i.e., a set of fixed exercises at all levels. On the basis of the school papyri, she suggests a model of “core” and “periphery” in education: while the “core” included the rudiments and little more than Homer and gnomic sayings, the “periphery” contained authors that appear rarely among the school papyri. In this area no general patterns of reading existed, students’ learning was “flexible and undefined,” and teachers chose texts to make their students more competitive. M. concedes that this picture is “unexpected,” but justifies it by saying that her model is appropriate for the aims of education in ancient society, i.e., controlled admission of non-Greeks or non-Romans into “Greek” society. In her opinion competition was endemic in the ancient world, but examinations testing specific contents of learning were practically non-existent: in a competitive system and in the absence of a curriculum both students and teachers had a high degree of freedom in what they learned and taught.

Two points, however, deserve consideration. One has to be cautious in denying the existence of examinations. The mention in inscription SIG 3 577 that primary teachers gave “tests, proofs” ( apodeixeis) to students and an analogous mention in Plutarch, Mor. 736D of such “proofs” in literature, geometry, rhetoric, and music held in a school may well allude to formal examinations. Libanius, moreover, in Ep. 254 and 1261 refers to a sort of entrance exam, called peira, that served to test a student’s preparation before he was admitted to his school. More importantly, while it is not easy to determine the outlines of firm reading patterns in higher education, this is largely due to the difficulty of distinguishing higher level school papyri from literary papyri in general. By the time students attained higher levels of education, their handwriting had reached some fluency, and they relied less on their own copies and used books penned by professionals much more frequently than at previous stages of instruction. A study of reading patterns in education requires careful consideration of the data furnished by all of the literary papyri found in Egypt. M. shows some awareness of that but fails to take this evidence into full account. She does not consider, for instance, the reasons why authors such as Callimachus or Pindar (who are very well represented among the literary papyri) are almost absent from the “schooltext papyri.” Callimachus must have been read extensively in schools and was probably part of those somewhat “curricular” reading lists used in higher education whose existence M. denies, but it is extremely hard to determine which papyri containing works by Callimachus were penned by advanced pupils. Education in antiquity was governed by tradition, and this is not only one of the reasons why it remained unchanged for so long, but also the main reason why knowledge of so many works of literature was handed down through the centuries. A student who intended to continue his education needed to have basic knowledge of other writers in addition to those in the “core”: a free-for-all system seems not only unlikely but also anachronistic.

Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the literature that students read: non-gnomic and gnomic. At the beginning of chapter 3, M. rightly claims that the reading lists advanced by ancient writers reflect much idealism. She then turns to the papyri, and particularly to word lists, which gave students fragments of cultural information out of context. Most school papyri contain relatively short passages. Her analysis of Homeric school excerpts reveals that they do not provide the narrative but mostly consist of lists or metaphors. “What did reading only these fragments mean?” she asks on p. 109, overlooking the fact that these were written exercises that can provide only partial clues about what was actually read in schools. Her answer is predictable: the fragments were only a repertoire of references and tags that enabled membership in certain cultural circles and gave a student a Greek identity. Her claim that literate education in Egypt (except for Alexandria) was quite different from literate education in Rome or Athens is right on some levels but not for the reasons she adduces. One can be quite sure that if school exercises had been found in Rome they would not differ fundamentally from these: a student usually would not set out to copy whole books of an author but mostly the parts on which he was working.

In chapter 4, M. considers the diffusion of gnomic sayings and anthologies in the ancient world, showing that it was mostly a Greek phenomenon. She points to the prevalent gnomic character of ancient education by showing that more texts of this nature survive among the school papyri than fragments of other authors or other types of exercises. Her perceptive analysis of these texts reveals about thirteen major topics, including wealth, friendship, letters and education, the gods, and misogynistic sayings about women. The chapter ends with a brief excursus on the views of ancient authors concerning ethics and ethical interpretation of literature. The reader should be alerted, however, that an overwhelming quantity of school papyri containing gnomic sayings exists not only because other themes and authors were unimportant but also because this kind of material was used particularly — but not exclusively — in primary education, a level at which school papyri can be identified with relative certainty. Even though M.’s observations concerning the pervasive gnomic character of ancient education are correct, other kinds of literature were equally important.

Chapter 5 is concerned with grammar. M. starts by looking at the historical development of grammar at the hands of the Stoic philosophers and the Alexandrian critics, especially Dionysius Thrax. Grammatical school papyri are of two kinds: tables (particularly of declension and conjugation) and fragments of grammatical treatises copied by students. M. remarks that the tables that appear in the school papyri are absent from the works of the grammarians whom she considers, but she believes that they must have been part of lost treatises similar to that of Donatus in IV AD (a rather late example, since the tables are present in exercises of the first century). She categorically rules out the possibility that grammar served the practical linguistic needs of students, and that its aim was to help them read literature. She believes quite optimistically, in fact, that most of the authors read in school used a language still perfectly comprehensible, and that students read considerable amounts of literature before approaching grammar — a contention I rejected above. In my view, the tables might have originated in ancient classes as practice and percolated later to professional treatises. Moreover, one should take into account that the verbs used in these school tables — mostly contract verbs and no athematic ones, in accordance with Koine usage — indicate that grammar, which usually addressed the Attic language, occasionally catered to the practical needs of the student. In the last part of the chapter, M. shows that Quintilian presents a complex set of criteria of “right” language, and she justifies the necessity for knowing the right language on the basis of the Stoic grammatical tradition and of Dionysius Thrax: grammar gave students the power of right language and enabled them to understand that the validity of the literary texts “read before” also depended on their authoritative form.

Chapter 6 treats the study of rhetoric. While the Institutio is examined knowledgeably, the juxtaposition of Quintilian and his lofty view of oratory with the early rhetorical school exercises, most of which represent students’ first attempts at composition, is not much to the point: the meletai found in Egypt would certainly offer a much more stimulating basis for comparison. The author examines some of these compositions, most of which are centered on myth, epic, and fables. She concludes that these exercises taught students ways of speaking and writing that did not have much in common with high oratory, and that students did not learn the techniques of persuasion through them and were thus not equipped to conduct lawsuits or debate laws. The rest of the chapter is occupied with the aims of oratorical education according to Quintilian and the characterization of the “vir bonus, dicendi paratus.” The perfect orator is active not only in private but especially in public life, is concerned with the interests of the state, speaks the truth, and rules the people.

Finally, chapter 7 deals with ancient educational theory. It is based on the author’s original interpretation of the scanty descriptions in ancient writers of the contribution of education to the development of the mind of an individual. This part of the book is all the more valuable because such material has been little investigated. M. shows that two ingredients are necessary for a mind to develop: innate qualities and intellectual nurture. She investigates the five natural faculties that measure the capacity of a child to be educated: memory, speech, reason, ability to imitate, and tendency to virtue. She then explores in detail the rich collection of similes — mostly taken from nature — by which ancient writers describe the interaction of natural qualities with acquisitions from education. The final product of paideia, the educated man, is characterized as a bee (incidentally, M. overlooks the evidence from Isocrates, Ad Demonicum 52) — and as a man newly admitted into citizenship. Both images allude to the social context in which a pupil reaching the final stages of education is supposed to act. Thus literate education is shown to have political implications and to create the influential citizen who acts in public life and takes control — the man addressed by Quintilian and described in the previous chapter. A short conclusion, two appendixes, and twenty-four tables, most of which arrange school papyri according to various criteria, complete this book.