BMCR 2010.01.17

Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World

, , , Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. London/New York: Routledge, 2009. xx, 292. ISBN 9780415338073 $35.95 (pb).

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Table of Contents

[For a response to this review by Mark Joyal, please see BMCR 2010.02.26 ]

This sourcebook, aimed primarily at students but also scholars, contains almost three hundred documents translated into English, along with several illustrations, and purports to provide a “large, diverse, and representative sample of the primary evidence for ancient Greek and Roman education” (coverleaf). The book begins with an introductory essay on the kinds of sources used in compiling the collection; literary sources from Homer to late antiquity, documentary sources such as papyri and inscriptions, and artistic and architectural sources. Ten chapters proceed in chronological order from early Greece to the end of Antiquity. Each chapter begins with a very brief essay on the main features of education in the period covered by the chapter, and each translated document is prefaced by a brief introduction explaining the nature, content, and context of the document. Suggestions for further reading cross-reference a bibliography. A general index and an index of passages complete the volume.

The sourcebook is a useful (if short) compilation on an important topic. But with only eight illustrations, the book provides a misleading and inadequate view of the material and physical evidence for education in the ancient world.1 The short introductory essay describing the kinds of sources used in the sourcebook is too general to be of interest to scholars and too vague to be of use to students. For example, the authors mention that “some of these [literary] works are very famous, while others are known and read by only a few people” (xv), but fail to take the opportunity to discuss the relevance of the genre of a source (literature, biography, legal document, etc.) to the problem of interpretation of the source as historical evidence.

While the sourcebook aims to provide a representative sample of sources for education in the ancient world, the authors do not seem to have a conceptual framework for what they mean by “education.” Methodologically, the sourcebook is similar to Paul Monroe’s Source book of the History of Education for the Greek and Roman Period (MacMillan, 1901) and does not reflect twenty-first century approaches to education and social history that go far beyond normative literary texts to include social practices. For as Yun Lee Too writes, “we can no longer take it for granted that we know what ancient education was in each and every one of its manifestations, and if the history of ancient education is a narrative of representations concerning activities and discourses we denote by the word education/ paideia, this becomes the basis for the production of a new history.”2

Specifically, the sourcebook neglects education in the wider sense of the word. Although the first two documents concern the teaching of tradesmen (Homeric demioergoi) and Solon’s law requiring that a father teach his son a trade, the focus of the book quickly moves towards literacy and what might be called higher liberal education (with an emphasis on teachers, curricula, and methods). Thus, three of the ten chapters are devoted to formal education (primarily literary) at Athens in the late fifth and fourth centuries. An entire chapter is devoted to “the liberal arts and rhetoric at Rome” (but many of the documents concern the art of rhetoric rather than training in rhetoric). And while the authors suggest that there is no evidence for formal education before the fifth century except for trades, the Iliad and Odyssey do provide indirect evidence of higher education, such as mousike (Achilles practising his lyre when the Achaean embassy pays him a visit in Book Nine of the Iliad).

The emphasis on classroom learning and theories about education in ancient writers ranging from Plato to Quintilian leads to the neglect of evidence for other kinds of education. In a brief mention of the Linear B tablets of Mycenaean Greece, the authors write that “there is little evidence that in this period literacy extended beyond its use in the Mycenaean palaces” (1) and seem to be equating literacy with education. While there may be no evidence for how the Mycenaean scribes learned their scripts, we do know from numerous tablets that young children of both genders were included with female craft workers while older boys were included with male labourers, which is plausible enough evidence for an early form of apprenticeship. Regrettably, children, toys, and play are neglected throughout the sourcebook as aspects of education through socialization (although few today would dispute the notion that all games and toys teach something).3

There can be no doubt that most education in the ancient world took place in the home, yet the role of parents and parenting is neglected. The authors include numerous examples of “educational pederasty” (e.g., document 3.2) but not, for example, the fifth-century Attic red-figure hydria depicting a father taking his shy son to a prostitute for the first time.4 Quintilian Inst. Orat. 1.1.6-7 is cited in document 8.11 for his acknowledgment of the influence of “supportive parents,” but Cato (document 7.3) and Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi (document 7.4), were more than supportive parents, they took a direct hands-on approach to educating their own children.5

The education of girls is covered, but only to the extent that girls participated in what was almost exclusively a male preserve, the formal schoolroom (document 6.8), or male activities such as Spartan girls doing athletics (document 2.3), privileging male activities as the norm. Aspasia is included as an example of an educated woman (document 3.7), but this gives the false impression that other educated women at Athens were either prostitutes or metics. But the widow of Diodotus and her knowledge of household accounts is sufficient evidence that “ordinary” Athenian girls received training in numeracy, perhaps outside of a formal classroom setting.6 A useful addition, covering both gender and medical education in one sweep, would have been the legendary story of Agnodice, the Athenian girl who is said to have disguised herself as a boy in order to study medicine.7

In briefly mentioning the controversy over female literacy and the depiction of females reading scrolls on painted fifth-century pottery, the authors write that “adult Athenian males are not similarly depicted with scrolls” (53). Yet their illustration from the Douris cup (47) of a school scene will surely confuse a student who will wonder how to tell if the man depicted reading from a scroll is an Athenian male or not and begs the bigger questions, which are how literate were Athenian males in the fifth century B.C. and what exactly do we mean by literacy?8 We are conditioned, in part as a result of the legacy of Greek and Roman civilization, to think that literacy must be the sine qua non of an educated person. But an argument can be made that until the fourth century B.C., education and literacy did not overlap in such a seamless way.9 The civilizations of Greece and Rome, whatever their literary achievements, were always first and foremost oral cultures. While the unlettered sausage seller of Aristophanes’ Knights was not formally educated (document 3.17), he and many others like him formed the audience for Athenian tragedies and comedies and the forensic speeches of the Attic orators. The fact that many if not most members of the audience could not have read a written copy of what they were hearing does not mean they were not educated.

The authors pay no attention to education as an aspect of the social organization of space and time — where and when learning took place for example — in terms of the physical places and temporal occasions for learning. The Academy and the Lyceum are named in several of the documents (characterized as “schools” rather than advanced institutes) as are several gymnasia in the Hellenistic world. But less obvious kinds of educational spaces are completely overlooked. Pompeii was, as Ray Lawrence and others have demonstrated, a kind of “textbook” that was there to be read by children, teaching them far more about society and their place in it than any school teacher could or would be expected to do.10 The role of children in religious festivals, as singers in choirs, for example, or as assistants to priests, gets overlooked as examples of socialization, training, and demonstration of learning.11

The materials of education such as textbooks are also neglected. A passage from Quintilian ( Inst. Orat., 1.8.4-12) is included for a prescription about what a student should read, but Quintilian ends this passage by making it clear that this is a reading list for life and not necessarily for the classroom or the young student. Also, while the authors observe that Quintilian’s “reading list contains no prose-writers, only poets” (197) elsewhere Quintilian explicitly states that a young student should begin with Livy rather than Sallust ( Inst. Orat., 2.5.19). And while not all students had access to the best authors or to the highest levels of oratorical training, education of some kind must have gone on at other levels of society. Yet the authors ignore coins, for example, as examples of the most commonly distributed literary (in the sense of being lettered) texts in the ancient world. A school exercise based on lines of Menander (document 8.6) is included (but the brief explanatory note does not explain who Menander is or that his plays were considered suitable as school texts because of their gnomic wit), and important and well-known school texts, such as Aratus’ Phaenomena,12 are not mentioned. The authors write that Vergil “has by now also achieved the status of a ‘classic'” (197) but they omit the visual evidence of verses of Vergil having been written on the walls of Pompeii, probably by school children.13 A papyrus fragment of Homer’s Iliad is included on pages 132-133, but it is a stretch to suggest that this fragment, or the numerous papyrus fragments of Homer’s poems, are direct evidence of their use as textbooks rather than evidence of Alexandrine scholarship on the texts.14 And better evidence of the Iliad‘s use as a school text might have been the biographical evidence of Alexander carrying a copy of the Iliad with him on campaign, evidence perhaps of an interest that was first generated in his formal education.15

Not only does the book overemphasize the formal education that took place in school rooms, the emphasis on the role of teachers does not get taken to a logical next step, which would be to mention famous teachers and their students. Aristotle and Alexander come immediately to mind, as does Plato’s exasperated nick-name for Aristotle as the “Brain” of the Academy,16 or Plato’s comment that Aristotle was a student who needed the bridle more than the spur (unlike his peer Xenocrates).17 In contrast to the paradeigmatic Hellenistic education of the Gracchi under the tutelage of their mother, there is the example of Marius, who, we are told by Plutarch, was hardly a model student, having never learnt about Greek literature and always avoiding the use of the Greek language, considering that it was “ridiculous to study a language whose teachers are our subjects.”18

The translations, all original and otherwise clearly expressed, include far too many italicized Greek and Latin terms for a student readership. The authors’ apparent premise that a term can be glossed early in the sourcebook and then not glossed again is probably unwise in a sourcebook where students are likely to be moving back and forth. Nor are the authors consistent in the use of Greek and Latin terms throughout the sourcebook. Ordinary words such as “half- cadus” and ” coion” on pages 227-228 are not glossed or explained (whereas ” medimnos” is defined in a footnote on page 139).

The authors assert that “…quick progress in locating the evidence can be made by consulting the general index at the back of the book” (xix), but unfortunately, the index, which is only four pages long, is the least satisfactory part of the sourcebook and not at all easy to use. The lack of a separate glossary of terms and an index of names is a major handicap in using the sourcebook.19 Several examples of gaps and inconsistencies in the index must suffice. The important debate over “nature versus nurture” is buried under a reference to physis. Some Greek terms such as chalinoi (tongue-twisters), are defined in the index, but many others are not. The Greekless student is not going to know to look up paidonomoi (page 137) under paidonomos in the index, and that the one is plural and the other singular. Many words used in the text, such as grammatodidaskalos, are not indexed at all.

The bibliography, which lists mostly works in English, includes many general works on Greek and Roman civilization, but omits many relevant, more specific works such as: Keith Bradley, “The Sentimental Education of the Roman Child: The Role of Pet-Keeping,” Latomus 57.3 (1998) 523-557; Laurentino García, Pupils, Teachers and Schools in Pompeii: Childhood, Youth and Culture in the Roman Era, Rome, 2005; J. Neils and John Oakley, eds., Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, New Haven, 2003; M. van Nieuwenhuizen, N. Brand, and J. M. Claassen, “Child Psychology in the Ancient World: Quintilian and Augustine on Kindergarten Education,” Akroterion 39.1 (1994) 12-26; and Frederick M. Wheelock, Quintilian as Educator, New York, 1974.

In conclusion, this sourcebook is a handy, if limited, compilation for readers seeking sources that focus primarily on literary, philosophical, and rhetorical education in the ancient world. Sourcebooks such as this are welcome and relevant in our present age in which we are experiencing radical changes in education and social practices caused by the internet and new communications technology. We are being forced to reconsider questions that were first taken up by ancient philosophers and educators, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, about the nature of knowledge, the value of a canon of literature, and what it means to be an educated person. Knowledge and expertise are being called into question in an age when knowledge is no longer something that one acquires through education but is becoming something that anyone can access through technology. While it is impossible for a book of this nature to be exhaustive and encyclopaedic, there is enough material to provide a coherent picture of at least one legacy of Greek and Roman education, the notion that a liberal education is a thing of value in and of itself.


1. A much slimmer survey of education in the ancient world (R. Barrow, Greek and Roman Education. London, 1976) has three times as many illustrations.

2. Y. L. Too, ed., Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, Leiden, 2001, 11.

3. J. Goldstein, ed., Toys, Play, and Child Development, New York, 1994.

4. J. Neils and John Oakley, eds., Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, New Haven, 2003, 99 (Cat. 62).

5. See also Christian Meier, Caesar, David McLintock, trans., New York, 1996, 59.

6. Lys., Against Diogeiton.

7. Hyg., Fabellae 274.

8. See W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Cambridge, 1989.

9. See also T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds, Cambridge, 1998, 4 and Mark Griffith, “Public and Private in Early Greek Education” in Too at 67.

10. Ray Lawrence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, New York, 1996.

11. Examples of such demonstration abound in other contexts; the graduating ephebes appearing in the theatre at the annual festival of Dionysus (cited but not discussed on page 57), or the “Trojan riders” at Rome (Suet., Caes., 39.2).

12. On its use as a literary and astronomical school text, see A.-M. Lewis, “The Popularity of the Phaenomena of Aratus,” Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, VI, 1992, 94-118.

13. García Laurentino, Pupils, Teachers and Schools in Pompeii: Childhood, Youth and Culture in the Roman Era, Rome, 2005, 37; and Alison Cooley and M. G. L. Cooley, Pompeii : A Sourcebook, Routledge, 2004, 220-221.

14. On distinguishing school texts from texts, see Too at 242. School texts form only a small percentage of surviving papyri (Morgan, at 40 and 55-56).

15. Plut., Alex., 7-8.

16. Vita Marciana, 7.

17. Diog. Laert., de clar. phil. vitis, IV.6.

18. Plut., Mar., 21-2.

19. A comparison with the more inclusive index from Monroe’s 1901 sourcebook is instructive. A quick scan shows entries for such important topics as Astronomy, Child Education, Dancing, Education, Geometry, Knowledge, Mathematics, Oratory, Religious Education, and Youth.