Amo, Amas, Amat: Greco-Roman School Exercises

The first line of Euripides’ Bacchae reads:

ἥκω Διὸς παῖς τήνδε Θηβαίων χθόνα
I, the child of Zeus, have come to the land of the Thebans

Although it was written by the playwright at the end of the 5th c. BCE, while in Macedonia, the words of Euripides continued to echo in schoolrooms throughout the Mediterranean. (Kind of like how everyone in the U.S. seems to read The Great Gatsby in 9th grade.) In fact, a papyrus from 2nd c. BCE Tebtunis in Egypt indicates that the lines were used as a school exercise to practice writing Greek. The pupil copied out the line four times alone on the fragment that survives [Image Here]. Well into the period of Late Antiquity, certain ancient writers such as Euripides, Virgil and Homer were written over and over by students of Greek, Latin, and Coptic. But what can these exercises tell us about the daily life, pedagogical approaches, and objectives of education in antiquity?

A late antique ostracon (ca. 580 CE) from Epiphanius with the first lines of Homer’s Iliad copied four times (Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

All over the ancient Mediterranean, boys and girls received schooling in various disciplines. The writer Oribasius said that children should be sent to school around age 6 or 7, though there was no steadfast rule on this. Many went until about the age of 14, depending on social and economic abilities. Writing exercises and curricula tended to be rather uniform during the period of the Roman empire. These exercises often focused on grammar, syllabaries, lists of words, and formulaic literary passages (Capponi 2011: 48). We also have a good number of mathematics exercises, like the ostracon here from a Roman dump at Berenike, dated to around 50 CE.  It reads:

πθ πγ ξη  89 83 68
ξε πζ πη: 65 87 88.

Chart of Greek letters that represent numbers. Chart via the University of Michigan Papyrological Collection. See a fuller explanation HERE.

Students who got things wrong often received corporal punishment–a technique common in Greco-Roman antiquity and within the monasteries of the late antique world.

A math exercise connected to a jar inscription from the first century CE (O.Berenike 2.234, image via

Horace tells us that schoolchildren at that time paid around 8 asses each month (Sat. 1.6.75). His grammarian was a man from Beneventum named Lucius Orbilius Pupillus,who Horace nicknames plagosus (‘flogger’) (Ep.2.1.70-71). At Pompeii, a fresco from the Villa of Julia Felix shows a young schoolboy being corporally punished.

Fresco of the punishment of a schoolboy, from the Villa of Julia Felix, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. (Image via Wikispaces).

First, I should note that no one has done more to examine and analyze these school exercises than Rafaella Cribiore, whose study of them in Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996) asserted the significance of papyri, ostraca, and other materials that transmit such practicums. Second, it should be noted that it is often times hard to say with 100% certainty that these were, in fact, used in schools. Irregular spaces, repetition, spelling mistakes, non-sequitur letters and prose, and multiple hands often tip off epigraphers and papyrologists, but I have more than a few drafts of articles that fit this checklist. Third, the materials we have today survive in disproportionate numbers. Horace notes walking to school with wax tablets, but precious few of these wood and wax tablets survive today.

Example of a Roman wax tablet [think of a low-fi iPad]  (Image via Flickr, girlinblack)
It appears that another common school exercise in the Roman empire after the reign of Augustus was the poet Virgil. One of my favorite pieces of evidence for this comes from a tablet found at Vindolanda.  Along with other remnants of the poet at the fort, this tablet demonstrates the popularity of the poet throughout the Roman empire not long after his death, and also indicates that the Roman provinces were not as “backwoods” as we might at first think. When I tell people I started taking Latin in 9th grade, they are often shocked to hear that I went to a public high school in the Appalachian mountains of Roanoke, Virginia. Yes, my amici! We have Latin in the South, not just Nascar and moonshine.

Tablet (Inv. 85.137) from the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (9.473). (Image via the Vindolanda Tablets Online).

Although Homer and Virgil continued to be popular even among late antique monks (e.g., the Homer ostracon above, which was found in a trash heap at a monastery in Epiphanius), a number of writing exercises written by non-clerical early Christians indicate that scripture also played a part in the lives of those learning to write outside the Church. Psalms were a popular writing exercise, in addition to Matthew, John, and Acts–all of which we have writing exercises for. A probable writing exercise where a 6th century Christian student practiced the Lord’s prayer twice even survives today (P.Vindob. L 91).

A 6th c. writing exercise using the Lord’s Prayer (P.Vindob. L 91) [Image via the Austrian National Library]. 
An early 4th century papyrus transmitting a school exercise with lines from Romans is also quite telling about the lives of some of these new writers (P. Oxy. II.209). As Annemarie Luijendijk has pointed out, we have known about this papyrus for a long time, but it must now be considered within the social context of a guild member and flax merchant living in the Egyptian city of Oxyrynchus in the 4th c. CE.  Too often, we consider objects–papyri, inscriptions, sculpture–in a vacuum. As she notes, “The papyrus is an artifact that allows us to catch glimpses into the circles in which it was produced and the people who owned it” (2010: 577).

Although literary and documentary papyri are often separated and studied in two different spheres by scholars today, this is a modern partition, not an ancient one. This papyrus belonged to a documentary archive called the ‘archive of Leonides’, which is mostly constituted by flax leases (flax was used to make linen), and is proof that literature and bureaucracy do co-exist in the same epigraphic areas. Hell, I have my W-2 forms sitting right beside my Tacitus edition right now.

P. Oxy. II. 209 is an early 4th c. CE papyrus from Bahnasa that transmits Rom 1:1-7. (Image via Wikimedia, but the papyrus is at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Just as there is no firm partition between documentary and literary papyri, there is not a firm partition between classical literature and late antique writing. As papyri and ostraca indicate, early Christians enjoyed classical authors like Menander at the same time that they wrote out their scripture. Late antique teachers continued to teach in open air and ad hoc classrooms into the later empire, and monks began to practice writing in monasteries, first using scraps of ceramics and papyrus before moving to vellum and parchment. Monks learning cursive and other scripts had to practice just like we used to practice our cursive! Below we see a Coptic monk that used a pottery sherd to practice the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 6.36.43 AM.png
Ostracon from Deir el-Gizaz showing a Coptic monk practicing the alphabet to write in ‘Bible Majuscule’ style script. (P. L. Bat. 25.11. Image via the Papyrological Institute at Leiden University).

Even in the 1086 treatise on Latin syllables and accents, Ars lectoria, the French writer Aimeric grades the classical Latin authors according to gold, silver, and tin standards. Gold metals went to Terence, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Sallust, Lucan, Statius, Juvenal and Persius (Copeland 2016: 24). There were canonical grammar templates then, just as there are today. The survival of these writing exercises provides a window into the process of learning to read, write, and to learn in antiquity. Even if they were found in a trash heap (and many of them were), they are a modern treasure for those of us reconstructing the daily habits of those writing in antiquity.

6 thoughts on “Amo, Amas, Amat: Greco-Roman School Exercises

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  1. (i understand were only talking about bits and pieces here but…) is it your sense that were mostly talking about ‘beginning’ students who were practicing to write? I’m particularly interested in the differences in how we teach ‘simple’ tasks and complex tasks. I would consider writing a simple task in the sense that success looks like successful repetition – ‘i can write Achilles’ speech over and over again without getting beaten’. Whereas exploring not repeated concepts like ‘being a good Consul means…’ would be a more complex concept.

    1. It is very hard to tell what level they are at but it varies for all these examples. It can be difficult to say if, for instance, someone writing letters over and over is new at writing or just new to the type of cursive script. Lots of repetition in school exercises and mimicry, but philosophy and rhetoric classes did teach deeper learning and critical thinking.

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