Sunday, March 11, 2012


W. Martin Bloomer, The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 281. ISBN 9780520255760. $49.95.

Reviewed by Zara M. Torlone, Miami University (

Version at BMCR home site


W. Martin Bloomer's insightful text thoroughly and assiduously investigates extant authors on Roman education and constructs an interpretation of this vital institution that strengthens our understanding of both Roman educational practices and their rationale. Any analysis of education in Roman schools is limited by a scarcity of sources and an absence of the sort of quantifiable specificity that we have become accustomed to in examining schooling in modern societies. Bloomer's study crosses several disciplines and should satisfy not only the classicist, but also the educational historian and any reader seeking to understand how societies construe education to reflect, reinforce, and extend their norms of behavior.

The book attempts not to reconcile, but rather carefully to analyze the dual strands of cultural influence on Roman education, namely, the native Etruscan and the alien Hellenistic. Bloomer writes: "…it has proved tempting to imagine the adaptation of education at Rome as a polarized struggle between a nativist camp of enthusiasts for an old- fashioned Roman education and a Hellenophilic salon of the new arrivals and their devotees" (24). He asserts furthermore: "Education at Rome is construed to be bilingual, and bicultural, but with the civis Romanus firmly positioned as patron." He then concludes: "The Romans were thereby historical, real heirs and practitioners of the great paideia of the Hellenistic and classical Greek past" (25). The great Greek minds headed various philosophical schools, and their intellectual jousting animated the stoa, but the Roman patron had a different kind of responsibility as the head of his domus. His sons were to maintain an empire that is not an abstract fancy. The role of schooling in Roman society was therefore essential to the health of the state.

Bloomer convincingly argues that the environment, and consequently the nature, of Roman schools was dynamic: "a lively contentious community of schools, teachers, and patrons " (51). In discussing the training of Cicero: "no single institution, no single alliance, served to prepare him or perhaps satisfy him, but the more general conclusion for Roman education is that for Roman elite opportunities and experts abounded" (43). For those countless generations who almost instinctively collate Cato with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author asserts that the old Roman is not as self- reliant as the clich├ęd treatment of his treatises would have us believe. And there is no heresy when Aemilius Paulus outsources the education of his sons to the Greeks. The author cites the comedies of Plautus and Terence as evidence for Roman educational practices and for the use of education as metaphor for the sometimes difficult social transition from traditional Roman rearing to novel Greek practices. This perspective is not particularly new in itself, but Bloomer's analysis of what this actually may have meant for Romans themselves is a cogent one.

There are several instances throughout Bloomer's work where his argument deepens, rather than reshapes, our understanding of Roman schooling. His discussion of Plutarch, De Liberis Educandis, and the role of the father as the audience of these educational manuals, clarifies the complex relationship between parent and child in the process of "growing sons." How can a Roman aristocrat rely on the foreign or even the feminine to inculcate his heirs properly? The educational writers of the Roman world use argument and artifice to harmonize social and natural orders for fathers and sons. Roman politics could not have been practiced so vigorously and power sustained for so long a period otherwise. (Perhaps this reality may have served as a more meaningful source of feedback gauging the effectiveness of Roman teachers than end-of-term teacher evaluation surveys now available.)

Another instance of the author's satisfying rendering of the intent of the ancients can be found in his helpful comparison of Quintilian's use of the word "puer" with the way the pronoun "it" is used in a recipe. Bloomer often provides these thoughtful treatments of the texts to aid the reader in an appreciation of the ancient perspective, without relying on unreliable modernist literary approaches. Yet he also outlines a rough path that subsequent generations of educational theorists would later tread and extend; for example,in his discussion of aspects of Quintilian's instruction that suggest a reasonable appreciation of the importance of the teacher's awareness of the various developmental stages of the pupil and what constitutes "age-appropriate" learning. "Maturation is thus not an inevitable, natural process, nor quite a socially prescribed rite of passage. Maturation is the teacher-led formation of speech, and through speech, of character" (107). (One small suggestion: for "The Child an Open Book," Bloomer's exegesis of Quintilian, the reader may prefer to have the entire text of Q. on hand to appreciate more fully the context of the author's nuanced analysis.)

In the most lively of the book's chapters, "The School of Impudence," Bloomer convincingly argues that the "impudent" school of Plotius Gallus is as important in the development of Roman education as that of Ennius for epic and Cato for history. The rhetor is censured for the radical approach of providing his students a Latin-based curriculum. Yet in his discussion of influential Roman educational "theorists" (e.g., Quintilian – "the grandest theoretical account of schooling in the Western tradition," according to Pseudo-Plutarch), Bloomer shows appropriate restraint. There simply is no John Dewey or Paolo Freire in the Roman world providing the kind of meta-cognitive treatise that would allow the modernist to retro-fit an understanding of Roman schools. But Bloomer does reinvigorate our appreciation of Quintilian by arguing that the child is to be treated as a learning agent, alternately constructed and hewn through practice and criticism.

Throughout his work Bloomer's writing reinforces his thesis with a kind of Roman sensibility that readers will find satisfying. In his discussion of Cicero's treatment of L. Licinius Crassus in De Oratore, he states: "These characters succeed within the text and as memorable confabulations because they do not simply 'ventriloquize' Greek ideas but rather craft artfully drawn syntheses of Roman exemplarity and Greek science" (47). Bloomer also makes the slightly ironic but significant point that "schooled children" become in a sense a traditional luxury among Roman nobility. There is a practical benefit within the ruling elite to acquiring and displaying even an ornamental mantle of being educated. This training is a patrimony that a responsible Roman father takes very seriously. Bloomer's examination carefully maintains balance within the whirl of the helix: schooling for the Romans is foreign yet native, parent-driven but teacher-directed, developing the person of the child and also serving the public interest.

"The Grammar and the Unity of Curriculum" offers a definition of a "textbook" within the Roman schooling community that distinguishes it from our modern systemazied, standardized understanding today of instructional materials. Once the reader accepts these valid distinctions, the author's analysis of the "grammar-rhetoric continuum" moves forward convincingly. Here Bloomer gives a compelling account of the flexible and abundantly rich use of fable in Roman schooling. (Interestingly enough, the novice levels of the annual National Latin Exam today employ adapted Greco-Roman fables for their reading passages, but to assess comprehension skills rather than to develop a moral sensibility.)

"The Moral Sentence" traces this path from sententiae), through fable, and ultimately declamation that transformed the student, the latter exercise acting as a "thread of moralizing composition." The formative distichs of Cato (later revived in colonial American schools to inculcate in pupils a sense of civic virtue) serve in Roman schools as the instructional seed that ultimately flowers into the stylized rhetoric of Cicero for the mature Roman student, so we find in a pedagogical context that the child is father to the man. The verse form of the distichs and their almost "singsong formula" are for the young student the sort of training a novice musician receives by playing scales, or variations on a (moral) theme. The complex harmonics and virtuoso stylistics are postponed in this period of formal training. The Roman student is educated to be skillful in discourse and also to be healthy in self. These goals are concomitant. The author explains how Roman schools provide not only generations of rhetors, but also form a "subjectivity of the educated" (169).

Bloomer concludes his analysis in "Rhetorical Habitus," a discussion of the role of declamation, often demonstrated by the arguing of controversiae. He reminds us of the strong social purposes associated with the pedagogical practice of declamation, serving more than political ends but training in the expression of civic virtue. "A great deal of the success of this education cannot be explained in a strictly functionalist manner" (178). Perhaps our own hyper-driven utilitarian views about the goals of education are a greater obstacle to our understanding of the complex nature of Roman schools than the scarcity of sources.

With its copious notes and extensive bibliography, this text is useful for any student of classical pedagogy as well as those interested in the evolution of education through the ages. Bloomer has composed a compelling, insightful work that clearly moves our understanding of this vital aspect of Roman culture into greater lucidity. When one considers that compulsory education in England did not occur until 1876, it becomes clear that the choices (and non-choices) with regard to schooling made by each civilization reveal important societal attitudes to the purpose and nature of education. The author explains that Quintilian urges the need for schooling to occur beyond the confines of home, asserting that to be trained properly the student requires an audience. To acquire a better understanding of the nature of Roman schools, Bloomer's text deserves a wide audience as well.

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