THE WORLD OF LEARNING

reading Fresco detail, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, 1st century CE

It is difficult to assess or generalize with confidence about women's education in ancient Rome. Experience varied with time period, location (urban, regional, provincial), and particularly class. Evidence is haphazard, tends to the anecdotal and extraordinary, and is often prescriptive if not critical, as public displays of learning were popular targets for women's censure. Accomplishments which won praise for a matrona were practical and shifted over time from weaving (Lucretia) to wise maternal counsel (Cornelia) to patronage and benevolence (notably the empresses). Since women could not enter politics or pursue professional careers, upper-class fathers had little incentive beyond affection to provide formal education for the females in their family. Although some attended primary schools (ludi), girls had little time for formal education since marriage could occur as early as puberty. Some may have shared their brothers' tutors, explored their father's library or been instructed by their mother in areas other than rituals, decorum, and domestic management. While care of the home and children were the focus of a woman's education during the early Republic, by the 1st century BCE, with the advent of abundant slaves, all but the poorest households had servants to carry out the tasks involved in maintaining the domus. Three justifications for educating females gained currency under the Empire: mothers were the first teachers of their children and therefore needed to be as educated as possible (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 1.6); education helped women acquire and attain matronal virtues; educated women were one of the few acceptable forms of family display. From that time, while their primary function remained the production of heirs, young matronae in noble families were provided with greater opportunities to continue their education — through private tutoring or encouragement by their learned older husbands (e.g., Calpurnia, wife of Pliny the Younger) or through the social and political activities in which their families were obligated to participate. Lower-class freeborn young women would have been trained at home in domestic skills and the family business or sent out to work or apprentice to a trade. See Hemelrijk (1999) and Snyder (1989) in the Bibliography; see also Images of Learning below.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Marcus Valerius Martialis, Epigrammata IX. 68: girls at school See the Latin reader The Worlds of Roman Women for the following texts:
Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia VIII.3.3: Hortensia C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Epistulae 4.19: Calpurnia's literary leanings
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Epistulae I.16.6: a literary wife M. Valerius Martialis, Epigrammata 3.69.5-8: poetry read in school
Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia VIII.3.2: Afrania P. Ovidius Naso, Tristia 3.7: Perilla
Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia VIII.3.1: Amesia C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Vita Divi Augusti 64.2-3: a daughter's training
Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore III.12.45: Laelia M. Fabius Quintilianus, Institutio Oratoria 1.1.4, 6: eloquent women
Sextus Propertius, Elegiae III.23: the lost love tablets M. Junius Juvenalis, Saturae 6.434-56: the intellectual woman
Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-5, 9: Julia, daughter of Augustus Sulpiciae Conquestio lines 7-11: a woman poet succeeds
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Carmina I.11: Leuconoe See the Iona Latin Reading Program for the following on-line Latin text:
C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Epistulae 3.3: Corellia Hispulla C. Plinius Secundus (minor), Epistulae 4.19: Calpurnia Hispulla
Gaius Valerius Catullus, Carmina 36: Lesbia See De Feminis Romanis at Diotima for the following on-line Latin text:
  M. Fabius Quintilianus, Institutio Oratoria 1.1.6: Women's Eloquence
  Vindolanda Letter of Claudia Severa

IMAGES of LEARNING

All images are courtesy of the VRoma Project's Image Archive.