The School of Senex Caecilius

Up to the age of six or seven, Roman boys and girls were taught by their mothers at home, where they learned to speak Latin with a good accent. This was an important thing to learn since some dialects in Italy would not have been understood at Rome. Children from wealthy families learned Greek too, often from a nurse or a tutor, because Greek literature was very important in Roman education. What do you suppose the expression "a Roman who has no Greek" might mean?

Even before they went to school, some children learned the alphabet by playing with letters cut out of ivory—just as children today do with their blocks. After age six or seven, children either went to a primary school (lūdus) or remained at home to be taught by a private tutor. In a wealthy family, a slave, often a Greek, would be appointed to take a child to and from school. The paedagōgus was expected to accompany the child out of doors on all occasions and to protect him or her from any physical or moral harm. At the primary school, the students were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by a litterātor.

The school was often held under an awning outside some shop, and it was separated from the noisy street only by a screen of tent cloth. The furnishings were scanty: a chair for the teacher, benches or chairs for the students, some wax tablets, and counting boards (abacī). Schoolmasters were often harsh, and the fear of being beaten was a common motivation for students, but coaxing teachers sometimes gave cookies to their students to encourage them to learn. The lessons were usually endless practice of the alphabet copied on wax tablets and boring repetitions of the multiplication tables chanted aloud. Lessons normally began at dawn and resumed after a midday break for lunch.

Around the age of eleven or twelve, boys went on to a secondary school (schola), but girls usually dropped out of education after primary school. The curriculum was not very broad, but geometry, music, and astronomy were taught as minor subjects. While the boys were learning composition, grammar, and literature from a grammaticus, the girls were learning sewing, dancing, singing, and lyre-playing at home.

At about age sixteen, boys from wealthy families moved on to a rhētor, who trained students in public speaking and arguing. Oratory was a good preparation for a career in politics or the law. Wealthy students would go to such university centers as Athens or Rhodes and listen to lectures by famous philosophers and professors of rhetoric. Although medical schools existed in Greece, there was no scientific education in Italy at all.

The school year traditionally began on March 24th. During the year, there would be a holiday every ninth day (nundinum), short breaks in the winter and spring, and a very long holiday in the summer.

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First Declension
Second Declension
Third Declension
Fourth Declension
Fifth Declension

First Conjugation (-āre)
Second Conjugation (-ēre)
Third Conjugation (-ere)
Fourth Conjugation (-īre)
Irregular Verbs


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Here are some links to additional information about the Roman educational system.

  • A translation from Petronius (Satyricon 58) about Roman education is provided at this site.
  • An entry in Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities discusses the role of the paedagogus in Roman education.
  • Another entry in Smith's dictionary deals with the Athenaeum, a school founded by the emperor Hadrian at Rome.
  • A short article about Roman education includes several graphics and a quotation from Quintillian about students.
  • A brief article gives additional information about Roman school time and play time.
  • Several quotations from Roman authors provide insight into education in Roma Antiqua.
  • An overview of the development of the Latin language is given at Orbis Latinus.
  • A short article gives a brief account of the artifacts and the history of Latin from the archaic period through the later empire.
  • A video performance of Cicero's speech in defense of Marcus Caelius illustrates the language and gestures of a notable orator.
  • A short article by J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson provides information about the teaching of mathematics in ancient Rome.

  • Some of the preceding information comes from Oxford Latin Course Part I, written by Maurice Balme and James Morwood and published in 1987 by Oxford University Press (New York).

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