Thursday, May 26, 2016


Catherine Wolff, L'éducation dans le monde romain: du début de la République à la mort de Commode. Antiquité synthèses, 16. Paris: Édition Picard, 2015. Pp. 271. ISBN 9782708409934. €39.00.

Reviewed by Mark Joyal, University of Manitoba (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of contents listed at the end of the review.]

Research on all aspects of ancient Greek and Roman education has made great progress in recent decades. Hence, as the description on the back cover of Catherine Wolff's book explains unpretentiously, "il était temps d'offrir une synthèse de ces recherches et de présenter les principales avancées concernant l'éducation dans le monde romain." This modest statement, however, does not do justice to the profound scholarship that appears throughout the book, which is more than merely a "synthesis."

It says a great deal about the hold that Henri Marrou's Histoire de l'éducation dans l'Antiquité still exercises on the study of ancient education in France (to say nothing of the larger world of classical scholarship) that with her first words Wolff confronts that book's still-dominant position in the field. 1 She does so with a brief but respectful acknowledgement in her Introduction's first sentences by observing that it would be a life's work for one person to cover ancient Greek and Roman education in its entirety, as Marrou did, and that his influence has been so great that an homage, rather than constant reference in footnotes, must serve to indicate the author's indebtedness to him. To be sure, Marrou's influence is seen in the topics that Wolff emphasizes and the traditional structure of her work. Still, her more limited goal, which is expressed simply in the book's title and subtitle, is a prodigious one. The later chronological terminus (Commodus' death in 192) is justified (rather unsatisfactorily) in the Introduction: "C'est … le début de changements importants dans le domaine de l'éducation, changements qui se produisent progressivement au cours du IIIe siècle pour créer une situation différente au IVe" (7). Wolff proceeds quickly to identify much of the fundamental vocabulary, concepts and themes with which she will be most concerned throughout the book: pais, paideia, paideuo, pepaideumenos; didasko, manthano, educare, docere; humanitas; liberales artes etc. This discussion presages a deep engagement with ancient evidence that we find from beginning to end.

In "De quelques modèles" (13–20) — still preparatory to the rest of the book, and essentially an extension of its Introduction — Wolff highlights some of the most salient features in the educational experiences and attitudes towards education of four historical people: Cato the Elder, Cicero, Augustus and Lucian. Cato is presented because he is the earliest Roman about whose outlook on education we know a good deal, and he is representative of Roman tradition and its resistance to the growing influence of Greek culture. In Cicero we find a student whose education was directed ultimately towards rhetorical training and the production of Cato's ideal, the vir bonus dicendi peritus; it is also an education thoroughly imbued with Greek elements. Augustus can be best assessed by the education, above all the ability to read and write, that he gave to or secured for his relatives, including girls in the imperial household. Cicero in particular serves as a contrast with Cato, even though, as Wolff observes (19), Cato was far from unfamiliar with Greek culture. Lucian produces a very different impression, of course, in terms of time, place and ethnicity, and in a variety of ways he serves to broaden our understanding of the changing character of education in the Roman world.

Development, change and social influence are central themes in Wolff's narrative. The four paradigmatic figures cited above enable her more easily to advance these themes in the first chapter, "L'Évolution du système éducatif" (21–48). The first section, "Avant Caton," requires confrontation with difficult, indirect evidence for the earliest stages of Roman education (fifth to late third century), drawn especially from Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. What we can safely infer from this evidence suggests an education whose purpose was the preservation of a Roman élite, involving (in part) contact with its Etruscan neighbours. The influence of the Greeks becomes clearer and more certain after the Second Punic War ("Entre Caton et Ciceron"). Our key source here is Suetonius, and the decisive event for the introduction of grammatica into Rome was the visit by Crates of Mallos in 168. As a subject in the Hellenistic curriculum, grammatica was a precursor to rhetoric, and Wolff rightly points out that the senatorial decree of 161 B.C. against rhetores, and the censorial edict against Latin rhetores in 92, demonstrate the place that the formal study of rhetoric was assuming in upper-class Roman society in those years. For Romans who lived between the time of Cato and the life of Cicero, the challenge was to find a balance between these new elements and the traditional role of the family and of the mores maiorum (33).

The rest of this chapter deals with "L'époque impériale" (33–43, divided into "L'intervention de l'État" and "Le declin de l'art oratoire?") and "La question du bilinguisme." Wolff emphasizes that the senatorial decree and censorial edict (above) are only apparent counter-examples to the general principle that the republican state did not interfere in the realm of education, since those two events were entirely negative in purpose. It was from the end of the Republic that the involvement of the state becomes increasingly apparent, and from many sources Wolff collects into a relatively brief space most of the official privileges that teachers could enjoy and the positions (especially for teachers of rhetoric and philosophy) that cities, wealthy citizens and emperors created or funded. In the same period some Romans complained about the decline of rhetoric, but Wolff argues against exaggeration (42–43). The subject of bilingualism (Wolff restricts herself to knowledge of Greek) similarly evokes the themes of evolution and of accommodation of the new into a traditional framework, especially for the Roman élite.

The second chapter, "Les Matières enseignées" (49–102), begins with "Lettres, grammaire, rhétorique," which is prefaced by a consideration of the age at which Roman children began their formal education and the ages at which they moved from one stage to another. Wolff's discussion acknowledges what all current research has shown, that while some ancient theory prescribes tight adherence to a precise, age-based sequence of stages, and while the educational careers of some people reflect this theory pretty closely, in practice a high degree of variation is to be seen always and everywhere. Individual students would begin at different ages, proceed at different paces and through different sequences, learn in different places (more on this in chapter 5), and study different combinations of subjects. Nor were the subjects that their teachers taught as tightly circumscribed as has traditionally been supposed, or as these teachers' titles might suggest, an important fact that is made clear in the next two rather compressed discussions about the prima elementa and grammatical studies (53–61). In the following section, Wolff is especially interested in the role and social position of rhetoric (teaching methods are taken up later in the book). The chapter is completed by an examination of other taught subjects ("Les autres matières") — law, mathematics and astronomy, philosophy, medicine, architecture, and trades (a most welcome discussion) — as well as a section on physical training ("Le corps"). It is perhaps surprising that this final section takes no account of the problematic collegia iuvenum, both in Rome and elsewhere.2

The categories examined in the third chapter, "Les Personnes concernées" (103–142), are "Les parents," "Les professionnels" (viz. "Les premiers temps de l'enfant," "L'apprentissage des rudiments," "Le Grammaticus," "Le rhetor," "Considérations pratiques"), and "Les élèves" (viz. "Égalité des chances?," "Les princes," "Les femmes," "Les esclaves," "Les chrétiens"). There is some overlap with material in the previous chapter, but that is to be expected. All the parents who are discussed here belong to the upper class, including the sole female, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi (illustrative as an ideal, but untypical); the case of the humble schoolmaster Furius (not "Fusius") Philocalus is brought in to illustrate the moral qualities that parents considered important in their children's teachers. In discussing the range of instructors whom parents could employ for their children, Wolff has a formidable task, since the relevant vocabulary is large, bilingual, and often of uncertain reference. Here she puts to use a significant body of scholarship and many inscriptions, expends much effort on determining the meaning and application of teachers' titles, and offers insight into the social status and reputations of these teachers (often low). Education was a marker of social status especially for students, of course, as much recent work in the field has shown, and Wolff casts her eye to good effect over a rather mixed field. Only her treatment of Christian students, at one and a half pages, seems inadequate, but one can argue that the book's chronological limit constrains what needs to be said here.

The fourth chapter, "Les Méthodes utilisées" (143–195), is a richly detailed and documented tour through the materials and methods attested in our sources, including those used from the earliest contact between child and teacher to the training in eloquence that students of rhetoric were given.3 It is the latter topic (including the section on progymnasmata) that receives most attention and is the subject of the chapter's concluding paragraphs. This focus is not unexpected, given the importance of the subject in current scholarship, the wealth and range of extant information about it and the fact that it was the goal of élite education. It is, however, this chapter's section on "Le recours à la brutalité physique" (191–195) that I would single out for its compact summary of a topic that does not generally receive the attention that it deserves.

The final chapter, "Questions de lieux" (196–227), begins with a general discussion of the physical spaces where teaching and learning were carried out, with an emphasis on the circumstances in which they occurred inside or outside the home. In this chapter above all, considerations of geographical location come to the fore. The case of Egypt (200–207) holds special interest for us because of the immense amount of documentary evidence that it provides and the research that has recently focused on it. The picture that we are able to draw is wonderfully detailed and expansive, but in what respects is it typical? Wolff does not address this question directly, but her subsequent examinations of towns and cities elsewhere in the east (207–219) and the west (219–227) enable the reader some basis for judgement. This chapter is, in my view, the highlight of the book.

Concluding pages (229–232) briefly pull together the book's emphases: Roman education's focus on eloquence, the social purposes that the system served, its capacity for evolution, and its varied structure according to geographical place.

This book stands out both for its author's thorough and sophisticated consideration (often reconsideration) of the abundant ancient evidence and for her familiarity with an immense body of modern scholarship. By concentrating on élite education, it pays less attention to certain topics than some would wish, but the reader who is looking for an authoritative, critical presentation of the status quaestionis on the best attested streams of Roman education from its origins to its full maturity ca. A.D. 200 should turn to this book first.

Table of Contents

avant caton
entre caton et ciceron
l'époque impériale
L'intervention de l'État ; Le déclin de l'art oratoire ?
La question du bilinguisme

Lettres, grammaire, rhétorique
À quel âge ? ; Les prima elementa ; La grammaire ; La rhétorique
Les autres matières
Le droit ; Mathématique et astronomie ; La musique ; La philosophie ; La médecine ; L'architecture ; Apprendre un métier
le corps

les parents
les professionnels
Les premiers temps de l'enfant ; L'apprentissage des rudiments ; Le grammaticus ; Le rhetor ; Considérations pratiques
Les élèves
Égalité des chances ? ; Les princes ; Les femmes ; Les esclaves ; Les chrétiens

les manuels et les livres
L'apprentissage des elementa
la leçon du grammairien
les progymnasmata
apprendre l'éloquence
Méthodes et recommandations ; La déclamation ; Le tirocinium fori trois éléments indispensables
La mémoire ; L'imitation ; Le recours à la brutalité physique

les lieux de l'enseignement
l'orient : le cas de l'égypte
le reste de l'orient


1.   A position reflected especially in Jean-Marie Pailler and Pascal Payen, Que reste-t-il de l'éducation classique? Relire le Marrou, Histoire de l'éducation dans l'antiquité (Toulouse 2004). See also Yun Lee Too, ed., Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Leiden/Boston/Köln 2001), and my review in AHB 19 (2005) 88–92.
2.   The fundamental works on this subject by M. Jaczynowska (Les associations de la jeunesse romaine sous le Haut-Empire [Warsaw 1978]) and P. Ginestet (Les organisations de la jeunesse dans l'Occident Romain [Brussels 1991]) do not appear in Wolff's bibliography.
3.   A surprising omission from the opening section, "Les manuels et les livres" (143–156), is O. Guéraud et P. Jouguet, Un livre d'écolier du IIIe siècle avant J.-C. Publications de la Societé Royale Égyptienne de Papyrologie, Textes et Documents, II (Cairo 1938), which is justifiably the most famous teaching manual to survive from the ancient world (it appears in Wolff's bibliography).

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