The challenges of ancient Roman literacy

Learning to read and write is hard. It is a long process children embark on from an early age. You may remember when you first saw letters in a book, but few actually recall the exact moment they realised they can read. Writing is even more complicated, involving a bundle of cognitive and mechanical processes which modern literacy classrooms are perfecting all the time.

When we look at how the ancient Romans taught their kids how to read and write, we can’t stop wondering how those pupils grew up to be literate adults. As in every ancient culture, most people couldn’t read or write. But those whose parents were fortunate enough to afford an education, however limited, for them faced an enormous challenge, that of a shoddy pedagogy. If you think Latin is difficult to learn nowadays, try to imagine learning to read when the magister, or teacher, taught the pupils the name and order of each letter long before he showed them their form – a strangely abstract approach to a purely visual business.

Teaching how to write didn’t fare better. The Roman magistri expected their discipuli to reproduce patterns and texts before the unfortunate novices had had a chance to practise individual letters or even learn how to hold a pen. It was as though the teachers thought that writing skills would emerge in the pupils simply by magic.

There is no evidence that the magistri recognised the faultiness of their method and did something to improve it. Contemporary echoes of condemnation of Roman teaching methods have come down to us, though. Quintilian is perhaps the most celebrated critic of it. Writing towards the end of the first century AD, this influential grammarian censured those magistri who approached literacy as though it were philosophy or rhetoric, that is no more than an intellectual challenge.

The only way out of this pedagogical nightmare was private education and luck. Private education because unlike the magister in a school, the private tutor, or paedagogus, enjoyed the benefit of time and could offer his undivided attention to the pupil until the latter learned to recognise the letters, read, learn to handle the pen and get ready for the next cycle of education, which was grammatica. The other thing was luck because there were indeed, if we believe the sources, tutors who individually tried to improve their methods. The Greek sophist Philostratus (c. 170 – 250 AD) recounts how a tutor brought in 24 slaves each carrying on their back a board containing one of the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet. A human flipchart, no less. Quintilian also suggests that some tutors gave their pupils ivory letters to play with, making the learning process more efficient and, presumably more fun.

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