Learning to Read and Write in Ancient Rome

Alberto Regagliolo

Although multiple millennia have passed, education in the modern world still plays a similar role to what we find in Greco-Roman antiquity: there is a concerted effort – which is now felt more strongly than ever because of the pervasive presence of modern technology – to provide teaching that is more practical and appealing to the general public. We can consider the grammatical-translation method for learning languages, which was standard ​​up to the 1970s but was rapidly overturned for a much more communicative approach;  the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(Council of Europe, 2001) confirmed that linguistic evaluation should be based on different skills, which in practice meant less focus on grammar and more on communication.

Already in ancient times, the methodologies for teaching writing and reading were up for debate. Although being a professional educator did not require any qualifications and was usually not well paid, surviving literary evidence reveals that teaching was not a straightforward or simplistic business. Instead, the learning process required the implementation of valid methodologies and approaches, just as we expect today. Valid how, exactly? In terms of applicability and utility, as well as ease of learning. If a method attracts complaints about its dull and repetitive nature, that should lead to a realization that the method needs improving so that it can better achieve its purpose.

Roman relief of three pupils and a teacher, AD 180s, from Neumagen near Trier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany; photograph of cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia).

Learning to Write

There are two ways of writing that we have inherited from antiquity. The first is writing with an alphabet, while the second is the adoption of an ideographic system, in which graphemes (minimum unit of writing systems) and symbols represent ideas and concepts rather than sounds – a system used, for example, in Egyptian hieroglyphs or in Chinese characters. In both, however, there was (and is) the need to know how to draw signs or lines in such a way that the message written on a surface (papyrus, stone, wax tablets, bark, etc.) was understood by other people who used the same code. Learning the art of writing inevitably required and still requires practice, in order to hone one’s motor skills.

In Ancient Rome, children acquired the ability to read and write by gradual stages. First, they learned the alphabet, then moved on to syllables, from syllables to words, and then from words to short and simple sentences.[1] The alphabet was learned by using the names of the letters; it is important to note that only in recent decades has the focus moved from the memorization of the names of alphabetical letters to their actual sound (the phonic alphabet), that is, we have gone from “emme” to “m” (in Italian). Learning the letters of the alphabet remains, however, a generally widespread practice and finds support in the various songs in textbooks or on the Internet platforms, where the lyrics reflect the names of the letters and not their sound. Presenting the sound of letters instead responds to the very specific needs of a child learning to read. [2]

A reconstruction of Roman wax tablets with metal stylus.

Already in ancient times, children needed to be guided in order to write their first letters. The exercise of writing with an instrument with which you have not yet acquired sufficient skills – which requires practice, understanding of how to hold the instrument, and mastery of the specific movements to draw lines – was led step by step by the schoolmaster, as Seneca reports:

Boys study according to direction. Their fingers are held and guided by others so that they may follow the outlines of the letters; next, they are ordered to imitate a copy and base on that a style of penmanship. Similarly, the mind is helped if it is taught according to direction. (Seneca, Epistles 94.51)

In addition to the need for manual guidance, the particular form to follow was an important matter. This same system, of starting to trace letters, can be found in modern as well as Ancient Rome. In antiquity, there were exercises in which the student had to write the letter using a cut-out letterform, which would also refine the accuracy and speed of his writing. In fact, by passing the pen through the groove, it blocked the child from making any error. As Quintilian, writing in the late first century AD, explains:

As soon as the child has begun to know the shapes of the various letters, it will be no bad thing to have them cut as accurately as possible upon a board, so that the pen may be guided along the grooves. Thus mistakes such as occur with wax tablets will be rendered impossible; for the pen will be confined between the edges of the letters and will be prevented from going astray. (Quintilian, Institutio oratoria (Education of an Orator) 1.26)[3]

Pre-graphic exercises help the child learn to draw lines with various directions and starting points. The use and recognition of the shape uses both the sense of sight and that of touch. The method just outlined by Quintilian would be taken up centuries later by Montessori and his sandpaper letters.

The letter form is traced by hand in preparation for writing.

In Search of the Best Method

In Ancient Rome, the learning of the form took a back seat, something that Quintilian (ibid.) complained about: he argued that the typical course was unsatisfactory for learning how to write, since children were taught the order of the letters before first learning their form. This practice, he said, made students slow to recognize letters because they were paying little attention to the form.

Already at this time there was debate about the best methods to learn to write and about which senses and which exercises could be best deployed in the process. On the one hand, some methods involving physical punishment were used to ensure that Roman children learned and improved. Nevertheless, there were also some positive rewards.[4] In fact, from time to time the teachers gave sweets to their children which were in the shape of the letter they were learning.[5] Presenting a letter in an edible and delicious form, although it represented a reward, also linked the learning of it to yet another of the senses. Visual perception – the ability to recognize, remember, discriminate, and make sense of what one see – is of course essential for learning to write. As St Jerome testifies, Roman children also had letters made of ivory at their disposal; these they used to help them learn, calling each of them by their name.[6]

Saint Jerome in his study, Antonello da Messina, 1475 (National Gallery, London).

Multisensory teaching uses various strategies that activate all five senses, which can be effective by incorporating all ways of learning. An ancient example is described by Philostratus in Βίοι Σοφιστῶν (The Lives of Sophists), in which the son of Herodes Atticus, who had some learning difficulties, could not remember the alphabet. So, his father brought 24 slave boys to his home whose initials each corresponded to a letter of the alphabet. The example mentioned by Philostratus, although extreme and only replicable by those with the wealth and resources to bring the alphabet to life in the three-dimensional form of 24 humans, is indeed a different approach to facilitate elementary learning. 

The oral tradition for learning and reproducing songs finds distant origins in the Ancient Greek world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of poems were memorized and transmitted orally, accompanied by musical instruments, such as the poems of Sappho and Alcaeus, which could be sung to the lyre. Through the process of repetition, song aids memorization, especially for sounds that are phonologically similar.[7]

A Greek teacher and student: Attic red-figure vase, signed by Douris, c. 480 BC (found in Caere (Cerveteri), Italy, and now in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany).

Although Quintilian (Inst. 1.24–5) though it better for pupils to learn letter-forms rather their names and sequence in a parrot-like repetition, using music and songs will also help improve the sound and pronunciation of language.[8] St Augustine, for example, remembers the wretched songs he used to have to sing in arithmetic lessons: “One and one are two, two and two are four, this was then in truth a loathsome song for me.”[9] Cicero also confirms the use of poems to memorize the Twelve Tables, at least in his younger days:

“Do not do this anymore,” it says. “Do not polish the wood of the stake with an axe.” You know what follows, that as children we learned the Twelve Tables by heart as an obligatory poem, which no-one now learns. (Cicero, De Legibus 2.59)[10]

A reconstruction of the Twelve Tables (Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome, Italy).

A Revealing Example

To understand better how the teaching of writing was organized in ancient times, we have at our disposal a papyrus from the 3rd century BC. It is a sort of manual with which the student could practise reading and counting.[11] This document allows us to observe the gradual process of teaching.

Learning to read and write (word formation) was achieved through the syllabic method. The syllable is the minimum phonic unit and constitutes a single articulatory act that does not change according to the context. It is surprising how, once again, the Greek and Roman educational systems were so advanced in paedagogical and methodological terms, once we consider that the syllabic method was already in use more than 2,000 years ago and is still deployed, for example, when learning the Italian language.

For the syllabic system, syllables were presented in increasing order of complexity and illustrated in vertical form. They were initially created by consonant and vowel (CV) and then proceeded to the formation of CVC and then on to combinations of greater difficulty,[12] eventually forming real words.

Papyrus from the 3rd century BC exhibiting the syllabic system (Guéraud & Jouget (as n.11) XXXII).

In the example given by this papyrus, you can see the letter psi (ψ) associated with all the seven Greek vowels in alphabetical order. In the current teaching system in Italy, at any rate, the first-grade books all use the syllabic method.

To write in ancient times, the focus lay especially on capital letters (so-called lapidary letters, because of their prominence in stone inscriptions), and only later moved on to cursive. We find a telling remark in Petronius’ Satyricon (written in the 60s AD) in which Giton asserts that he does not know mathematics, literary criticism or other stupid things, but can at least read capital letters (lapidarias litteras scio, Sat. 58), thus highlighting that they were the first to be learned and were the easiest to handle. Even today, for simplicity’s sake, we teach capital letters first, then move on to lowercase block letters and finally to italics.

A fine example of Roman capitals: the Lyon Tablet, a bronze inscription of a speech by Emperor Claudius, c. AD 48 (Gallo-Roman Musem, Lyon, France).


Learning to write is a process that inevitably takes time, practice and perseverance, but it also needs some tools to facilitate that task. In Ancient Greece, as in Rome, a progressive procedure was identified that went from the acquisition of the alphabet to the creation of the syllable up to the creation and reading of the word and phrase. It also resorted to some tricks to facilitate the task, such as the use of songs to help memorization, and the use of metal letters or pre-graphic elements to accompany the child in the formation of the letter. Even the sequence of writing learned was not random but deliberately progressed from the easiest to the most complex path. What is somewhat astonishing is that, although a score and more centuries have passed, this method, albeit with some changes, is still regarded as valid for use in schools: it has a validity that transcends the passage of the time and the evolution of society.

Alberto Regagliolo is Assistant Professor in Grammar, Pragmatics and Didactics at Warsaw University of Cardinal Wyszynski, Poland, and a graphic designer.

Further Reading

An excellent introduction to Roman education is given by S.F. Bonner’s Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny (Methuen, London, 1977), although H.I. Marrou’s A History of Education in Antiquity (translated from the original French edition of 1948 by G. Lamb, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1956) remains indispensible. For a useful survey of the evidence, try Mark Joyal, Iain McDougall and John Yardley’s Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook (Routledge, London, 2008).


1 Manilius, Astronomicon 2.755–8: ut rudibus pueris monstratur littera primum / per faciem nomenque suum, tum ponitur usus / tum coniuncta suis formatur syllaba nodis, / hinc uerbi structura uenit per membra legendi (“just as a letter is shown first to young children by its form and name, and then its meaning is laid down, then by being connected with its partners a syllable is formed, from which the shape of a word comes through the constituent parts of reading.”).
2 A standard example can be seen here.
3 cum uero iam ductus sequi coeperit, non inutile erit eos tabellae quam optime insculpi, ut per illos uelut sulcos ducatur stilus. nam neque errabit quemadmodum in ceris (continebitur enim utrimque marginibus neque extra praescriptum egredi poterit).
4 See, for instance, Jerome, Epistles 107.4 (to Paula): syllabas iungat ad praemium, et, quibus illa aetas delectari potest, munusculis inuitetur (“Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in”).
5 Horace, Satires 1.1.25–6: ut pueris olim dant crustula blandi / doctores, elementa uelint ut discere prima (“as kind teachers at first give cakes to boys, so that they may be willing to learn their first rudiments”).
6 Jerome, ibid.: fiant ei litterae uel buxeae uel eburneae et suis nominibus appellentur. ludat in eis, ut et lusus eius eruditio sit, et non solum ordinem teneat litterarum, ut memoria nominum in canticum transeat, sed ipse inter se crebro ordo turbetur et mediis ultima, primis media misceantur, ut eas non sonu tantum sed et uisu nouerit (“Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something; and not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that the recollection their names be converted to song, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning so that she may know them not just by sound but also by sight”).
7 See especially W.A. Wickelgren, “Acoustic similarity and intrusion errors in short-term memory,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 70 (1965) 102–8.
8 See further M. Khairi Ikhsan, “Boosting students’ pronunciation through song dictation,” Curricula 2 (2017) 1–6.
9 iam uero unum et unum duo, duo et duo quattuor odiosa cantio mihi erat (Confessions 1.13).
10 Hoc plus,” inquit, “ne facito.” “Rogum ascea ne polito.” nostis quae sequuntur, discebamus enim pueri XII ut carmen necessarium, quas iam nemo discit.
11 Edited and published by O. Guéraud and P. Jouget, Un livre d’écolier du Ille siècle avant J.-C. (Publications de la société royale égyptienne de papyrologie. Textes et documents 2.) (Cairo, 1938) XIV.
12 H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (tr. from the French of 1948 by G. Lamb, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1982) 212.