Tacitus and the decline of ancient Roman education

The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD) is well known for his sharp, even-handed criticism of his own society. In his histories, annals and other works, he makes no secret of his deep sense of decadence and decline that Roman society and culture, at the height of its Empire, had attained. Writing in the reign of Emperor Domitian, he looks back, in eloquent horror, on Nero’s horrific rule and on the lives of the first Roman emperors. His tone is not moralistic, but incisive, akin to what Horace, almost a century before him, had described as Italum acetum, meaning Italian mordacity, but literally Italian (non-balsamic) vinegar – a typically Roman feature.

In his Dialogue on Orators, Tacitus sets up a disputation between three men on the question whether oratory had declined since the Republic. Towards the end of the work, there is a discussion about the decadence of education, the source of all evils. Messalla, one of the disputants, contrasts the healthy ingredients of traditional, Roman (family) education with the more recent situation:

“I shall speak of Rome, and of those native and home-bred vices which take hold of us as soon as we are born, and multiply with every stage of life, when I have first said a few words on the strict discipline of our ancestors in the education and training of children. Every citizen’s son, the child of a chaste mother, was from the beginning reared, not in the chamber of a purchased nurse, but in that mother’s bosom and embrace, and it was her special glory to study her home and devote herself to her children. It was usual to select an elderly kinswoman of approved and esteemed character to have the entire charge of all the children of the household. In her presence it was the last offence to utter an unseemly word or to do a disgraceful act. With scrupulous piety and modesty she regulated not only the boy’s studies and occupations, but even his recreations and games. Thus it was, as tradition says, that the mothers of the Gracchi, of Cæsar, of Augustus, Cornelia, Aurelia, Atia, directed their children’s education and reared the greatest of sons. The strictness of the discipline tended to form in each case a pure and virtuous nature which no vices could warp, and which would at once with the whole heart seize on every noble lesson. Whatever its bias, whether to the soldier’s or the lawyer’s art, or to the study of eloquence, it would make that its sole aim, and imbibe it in its fullness.

But in our day we entrust the infant to a little Greek servant-girl who is attended by one or two, commonly the worst of all the slaves, creatures utterly unfit for any important work. Their stories and their prejudices from the very first fill the child’s tender and uninstructed mind. No one in the whole house cares what he says or does before his infant master. Even parents themselves familiarise their little ones, not with virtue and modesty, but with jesting and glib talk, which lead on by degrees to shamelessness and to contempt for themselves as well as for others. Really I think that the characteristic and peculiar vices of this city, a liking for actors and a passion for gladiators and horses, are all but conceived in the mother’s womb. When these occupy and possess the mind, how little room has it left for worthy attainments! Few indeed are to be found who talk of any other subjects in their homes, and whenever we enter a classroom, what else is the conversation of the youths. Even with the teachers, these are the more frequent topics of talk with their scholars. In fact, they draw pupils, not by strictness of discipline or by giving proof of ability, but by assiduous court and cunning tricks of flattery.” (Tacitus, The Dialogue on Orators, 28-29, trans. by William Jackson Brodribb)

Through Messalla, Tacitus paints a picture that we may perhaps recognize in our own time. It is remarkable how easily Massalla’s speech may be re-purposed. There are children entrusted to nannies, sometimes foreign nannies (as a Greek was to a Roman), as parents are too busy, or unwilling to look after their own children. Nannies bring their own values, which are often quite different from the parents’ values. Parenting becomes consubstantial with the larger society’s own aims and concerns. Deep moral values disappear from family education under outside pressure, leading to conflict between children and parents; urban entertainment, the showbiz, mass sport events are turned into family values, while children are exposed to them indirectly even before they are born. All these things take over and become the exclusive concern of the parents. Schools are merely alternative fora for engaging with the same topics. Teachers are no different: not only are they possessed by the same concerns, but also when they are confronted with students, there is no clash of values, no stimulating mutual-challenging, no moral competition. The former seek the latter’s approval, and when this reaches the institutional level, we have a good picture of the modern university.

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