School

It was quite hard to find out about what Valentia’s life would have been like, because Roman books and poetry were mostly written by and about adult men. But Roman school texts for teaching children Greek used stories about a day in the life of a child: getting dressed, ordering his slaves around, and going to the bathhouse and school. This gave us lots of ideas for the scenes in chapters 25 and 26. We also used the works of the 4th century Gaulish teacher Ausonius, who describes reading Virgil.

In the sculpture below, the bearded teacher is seated in a basket chair with a footstool as Balbus does in the novel, and students on either side are reading from scrolls. A third student enters, carrying a wax tablet – ‘like a wooden laptop’.

A teacher with students, 2nd century north Gaul. Photo Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons

Romans wrote with no spaces between the words, so children had to work hard to learn to read. Before attending school, students learned to read and write from copying out or memorising moral sayings, like Balbus uses all through the novel. (For a full list of Balbus’ sayings and their sources, click here.) 

At school, students practiced reading aloud from poetry, often works that they had memorised. The lines Valentia and Ammonius read about the warrior maiden Camilla are real lines from Virgil’s poem The Aeneid, which was the main text used in Roman schools.

A page from a 4th century copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, written with no spaces between the words. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Children learned to read Greek because that was the language of great philosophers and the famous poet Homer.  They were also taught some maths, and chanted times tables. Nobody knows exactly where schools were, but some of them were probably in rooms above shops in the town centre, as described in the story. A class would have been made up of children of different ages, unlike a modern classroom. Some girls also went to school, although perhaps not as many as boys. At the age of about 15-16, boys progressed to a higher level of school to learn public speaking and debate. 

Students sat in a circle around the teacher, who was seated on a dais. There was also an assistant teacher. Schoolwork could be written with a stylus on a wooden board spread with beeswax, or with a pen and ink in notebooks with pages made of parchment (very fine leather), which was more difficult.

A reproduction stylus and wax tablet. Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons

Every 9th day (the traditional market day) was a holiday, like our weekend. Students also had holidays for festivals like Saturnalia. Roman writings mention decorating schools with holly and ivy garlands, and students giving gifts of food to teachers, which inspired Carotus’ mischief in chapter 30.

Slaves were often taught to read and write, in different schools or in the household, and many became accountants, teachers, architects and doctors. They could also be apprenticed to learn special skills. 

Quintilian, a writer on education, recommends that especially slaves who spend time with the master’s children should be educated.

Click here to read a blog by author Caroline Lawrence about Roman education and writing materials.

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