To know God and to make Him known.

How to Teach a Roman to Read

I love studying the ancients and comparing their world to ours. The Romans, specifically, were very similar to us. In Classical Conversations, we study with a classical, Christian method. Once in a while, I will google Classical Conversations reviews to see what people are saying about us. Some people say that we cannot have classical, Christian educational methods because something cannot be both classical and Christian. Yet Classical Conversations uses the same methods which the Romans utilized throughout the Augustan Age. Christian Romans would have used the same methods we use!

Roman schooling began at birth, just as our homeschooling does. Parents took it upon themselves to train their children especially in moral development. A quote from one of my favorite books, Harold Johnston’s Private Lives of the Romans, states: “Much of the training came from the constant association of the children with their parents, which was the characteristic feature of the home training of the Romans as compared with that of the other peoples of early days.” Until the age of seven, students stayed at home and learned language, math, and the elements of basic reading and writing from their mothers.

After age seven, male students could, for a nominal fee, go to a one-room schoolhouse (ludus litterarius) in a pergula (an open porch with a roof). Or, they could be taught at home by a private tutor. Students in both public and private settings were taught in the same way. The only subjects taught in their schools were reading, writing, and mathematics. For reading and elocution, the teacher would begin by teaching syllables slowly, repeating them again and again.  Then the instructor would teach words slowly. Finally, the instructor would teach clauses and sentences. Each step would be mastered before a new one was begun. For math, mental calculation was stressed above all else. For writing, the teacher held the student’s hand while he practiced writing on a wax tablet. (The Romans would have loved dry erase boards!) When a student learned how to form the letters well, the teacher then let the student write on the backs of scrap papyrus with a stylus (pen). For memory work, students would memorize large passages of the Roman Republic’s code of law called the Twelve Tables. They would also memorize wise sayings.

At approximately eleven years of age, students would go to the Ludus Grammaticus. At this school, students learned grammar and studied Greek literature. Their primary text was Homer (until the Romans received their own great literature from Virgil and Horace). From Homer they would learn geography, mythology, ethics, and language. Students would also focus on elocution, music, and geometry. For most boys, this was the extent of their formal education.

If a student wanted to be a lawyer or politician, at about age fifteen he would study with a tutor called a rhetor. The rhetor taught the student how to compose his own speeches. In addition, the student was given assignments called suasoria, during which he would take on the persona of a famous leader and discuss possible decisions and their outcomes. Suasoria sound like great assignments for our Challenge students!

After receiving tutoring from the rhetor, students from wealthy families would then have an opportunity to study in Greece, Rhodes, and Asia Minor. Cicero, for example, went to Greece and learned from a master orator. He even hired an actor to teach him how to gesticulate while speaking.

Finally, the student would secure a mentor who would teach him the skills of a specific trade.

The Classical Conversations model follows the classical Roman tradition nicely. Students learn the basics in Foundations and literature, grammar, and “why-things-are-the-way-they-are” in the dialectic stage. Finally, they study formal public speaking and composition in Challenges I-IV.


For more information about Roman education, read:

Johnston, Harold Whetstone. The Private Lives of the Romans.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

Leave a Comment