THE WORLD OF LEARNING
Villa of the Mysteries fresco, Pompeii, 1st C. 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 female relatives in
areas other than rituals, decorous behavior, and domestic management. While care of the
home and moral training of her sons and daughters were the focus of a woman's education during the early
Republic, by the first century BCE, with the advent of abundant slaves, all but
the poorest households had servants to carry out the tasks involved in
upkeep of 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
1.6); education helped women acquire and maintain
matronal virtues; possession of educated women was one of the few acceptable forms of family
display. While their primary function remained the production
of legitimate heirs, young matronae in noble families were afforded 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. For further information on this topic see Hemelrijk (1999), Snyder (1989), and Caldwell (2015) in
the Bibliography; see also Images of Learning below.
|| Additional Readings
|Marcus Valerius Martialis,
Epigrammata IX. 68: girls at school
||See the Latin reader
The Worlds of Roman Women for the following
Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia VIII.3.3:
||C. Plinius Caecilius
Secundus (minor), Epistulae 4.19: Calpurnia's literary leanings
|Gaius Plinius Caecilius
Secundus (minor), Epistulae I.16.6: a
||M. Valerius Martialis,
Epigrammata 3.69.5-8: poetry read in school
Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia
||P. Ovidius Naso,
Tristia 3.7: Perilla
Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia
||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
Elegiae III.23: the lost love
Juvenalis, Saturae 6.434-56: the intellectual woman
Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-5, 9:
Julia, daughter of Augustus
lines 7-11: a woman poet succeeds
|Quintus Horatius Flaccus,
Carmina I.11: Leuconoe
Iona Latin Reading
Program for the following on-line Latin
|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:
||Vindolanda Letter of
IMAGES of LEARNING
- So-Called Sappho fresco. The young woman holds in her hands 4 wax tablets bound into a book and pensively lifts a stylus to her mouth. She wears a hairnet of woven gold threads typical of the Neronian period. From Pompeii, Regio VI (insula occidentalis), c. 60 CE. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
- " Poet," a marble bust of an unidentified woman ( side view of her hair coiled in braids on top of her head), wearing on her tunic a symbol of the goddess Victory, holding a wreath in one hand and a palm in the other. 120-30 CE. Paris, Louvre Museum.
- Proculus and his Wife, a politically influential family, are posed in a wall painting as a learned couple in citizen dress, holding writing implements: a stylus, wax tablets, and a scroll. From Pompeii, House of Paquius Proculus (insula 7, no.1). 1st century CE. Pompeii. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
- Bust of a
young girl in the center panel of a marble sarcophagus
relief; she holds a scroll, with a seashell behind her; below a boy & girl
play with 2 lambs; left St. Peter blesses the waters, right Christ raises
Lazarus. 325-350 CE. Rome, Vatican Museum (Christian).
Woman, the deceased, pictured holding scrolls on a marble sarcophagus
relief in three panels. In the center, in a kind of aedicula, she stands
veiled, with a child at her knee seeking her attention. In the two side panels
she is unveiled, in conversation with the same bearded male who is seated on a
podium and holds scrolls in his lap (a teacher/philosopher? her husband?);
between and behind them stands a younger woman (fellow student? daughter?),
watching and also holding a scroll. Rome: Vatican Museum.
- Woman holding a scroll on a marble
relief, representing the learning and culture of a wife and husband. She
occupies the left panel, with two muses beside her and a tragic mask at her
feet; on the right the seated young man holds a scroll, with two muses beside
him, an epic mask and scrolls at his feet. Between them is a doorway to the
underworld decorated with Medusa heads and lion head knockers. Rome: Vatican
base in high relief depicts girls and boys holding masks, musical
instruments and scrolls, perhaps symbolizing Muses. On the left, a boy holds a
mask and another holds a cithara and plectrum (pick); in the center, the dead
youth sits on stool holding an open scroll, while a boy on his left writes on a
wax tablet with a stylus and a girl on his right holds a closed scroll with a
bundle of scrolls at her feet. Rome, Vatican Museum, Gallery of the
Reading: in this detail of a room fresco depicting the mysteries
associated with Dionysus, an older woman holding a rolled scroll looks down at
a child reading an open scroll. Roman, 1st century CE. Pompeii, House of the
- Women holding
scrolls (students/disciples?) in a sarcophagus relief, standing among
men around a seated male (teacher?) with a scroll open on his lap. Roman, late
imperial/Christian. Rome, Vatican Museum.
woman pointing to an open book (?bible) in a relief on a marble
sarcophagus; to her left are scenes from the Old Testament and the New to the
right. 4th century CE. Rome, Vatican Museum (Christian).
- Student and
Teacher: relief on a marble sarcophagus.
Found in Via Praenestina. 3rd Century CE. Rome, Tabularium.
of a Letter from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, to Sulpicia
Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerealis, Prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians
stationed at the Roman fort in Vindolanda, Britain (see the tablets
online), inviting her friend Lepidina to Severa's birthday party. This detail,
the conclusion of her letter, is added in her own hand, the earliest extant
example of writing in Latin by a woman: sperabo te
soror uale soror anima mea ita ualeam karissima et haue (“I will expect you, sister. Hail
and farewell, sister, my dearest soul, so may I prosper”). Roman, 97-103 CE.
London, British Museum.
- Tablets and Rolls: the fresco depicts two types of writing materials: a wooden tablet with 4 waxed surfaces (the central bosses kept the pages from touching when the tablet was closed) and a spatula for erasing; a double inkwell with a reed pen and a filled scroll (volumen). Pompeii, first century CE. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
All images are courtesy of the
VRoma Project's Image Archive.