Science Education in the Early Roman Empire

Science Education in the Early Roman Empire

by Richard Carrier


View All Available Formats & Editions
Want it by Monday, November 26 Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781634310901
Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Carrier, PhD, is a philosopher and historian of antiquity, specializing in contemporary philosophy of naturalism and Greco-Roman philosophy, science, and religion, including the origins of Christianity. He is the author of numerous books, including Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism and On the Historicity of Jesus. For more about Dr. Carrier and his work see

Read an Excerpt

Science Education in the Early Roman Empire

By Richard Carrier

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Richard Carrier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63431-091-8



In preparation for my forthcoming book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire it became necessary to fill a gap in the literature on ancient education. Past treatments of that subject have glossed over the question of science education specifically, at most providing a few cursory paragraphs of largely superficial analysis, sometimes even confessing it to be inadequate. Accordingly I had to provide a thorough analysis of the evidence on my own for my Columbia University dissertation, and the resulting chapter there is here expanded as an independent monograph. The present book provides a generalized survey of the entire ancient education system as it was in the early Roman Empire, wherein the significance of science in its curriculum is emphasized. And by "science" in this context I mean knowledge of the natural world, actively pursued by empirical means, with an ongoing concern for developing and employing valid methods of drawing conclusions from observations.

The thesis I shall explore in my next book on the subject of ancient science is whether ancient scientists (then known as "natural philosophers") were marginalized or perceived with indifference by the educated or empowered elite. Many historians have claimed they were, and then argue that this attitude explains the failure of the ancients to realize the great Scientific Revolution hailed in modern times. Both claims are dubious. Even more dubious is the claim that the seminal change responsible was the introduction of Christian values in the education system, paving the way for the ensuing revolution. Nevertheless, in pursuit of all three claims, an important indication of social attitudes toward the natural philosopher is that science and natural philosophy were not considered very important in early Roman education. Other achievements were regarded as far more valuable, particularly the ability to speak well in public and in court, and to write with an impressive literary style. As we shall see, these were almost the exclusive aims of all Roman education except at the highest levels of instruction, and even then only a select few pursued studies that involved a broader acquaintance with science and natural philosophy. This does not entail any actual hostility toward natural philosophers and their work, but it does imply a certain level of indifference toward them, since literary and verbal achievements were more valued.

These conclusions can be misleading, however. Any comparison with modern education, for example, is not entirely apt. Science has gradually become a required and more widely pursued subject of modern education at all levels, but in most respects this is a product of the Scientific Revolution and its subsequently observed benefits, which obviously had not transpired in the ancient world. In a sense the elevation of science in modern education reflects the same values that motivated the ancients: then as now, the education most widely embraced in a society emphasizes the learning that is most likely to produce a good living or maintain an elevated social status, since it is by mastering certain subjects that one can enter a good career or avoid derision as an unlearned 'hick'. In antiquity the subjects that could gain these ends were literature and eloquence, not science or mathematics, or even a merely practical literacy, unlike today. This does mean the ancient social system rewarded classical literacy and eloquence far more than science or mathematics, almost the exact reverse of the situation now, but this does not entail that science and mathematics had negative or no value, any more than erudition or eloquence have negative or no value today.

Any attempt to attribute the 'lack' of a scientific revolution in antiquity to an apparent absence of value for science in the prevalent educational system must find a more relevant comparison. And for that, historians of the Scientific Revolution need to know how widely scientific subjects were actually taught in primary and secondary education before the 17th century. Studies of medieval university curricula do not apply to that question, since few among the population of the time would ever have advanced so far, if they received any education at all. So if medieval primary and secondary education did not significantly differ in subject material from their ancient counterparts, or in the numbers thus educated, the question then becomes whether and to what extent late medieval higher education differed from ancient higher education in these respects. And it is not likely to come out well by comparison. The actual science content of medieval universities was very limited and circumscribed, consisting almost entirely of a limited survey of Aristotle (already scientifically obsolete even in the early Roman era) and (for medical students) Hippocrates and Galen, and the methods taught were predominantly not empirical. In any school there was typically only one mathematics professor (who was not even anengineer and rarely even a productive astronomer) for every dozen or so professors of medicine (none of whom taught any hands-on dissection, apothecary, or experimental methods). Improvements in these respects only began in the 16th century, and thus again were more a product than a cause of a then-ongoing Scientific Revolution. In fact, universities did not conduct or promote new research, and to the end of the 17th century no actual scientific discovery was ever made in a university. What we take for granted now in educational aims and standards is in fact largely a product of the mid-20th century, when the nuclear and space programs launched science and engineering as pervasive nationalist concerns. And though in America a slow and limited development toward increasing science content in primary and secondary schools had begun in the late 18th century, that's again well after the Scientific Revolution — and even then it was only in the later 19th century that any science content could be called typical in American schools. Indeed, even in England, often credited with driving the Scientific Revolution as we know it, as late as the dawn of WWII "the British government and educational systems treated applied mathematics and statistics as largely irrelevant to practical problems. Well-to-do boys in English boarding schools learned Greek and Latin but not science and engineering, which were associated with low-class trades," which description would just as well fit schools in the United States before the American Revolution. It's unlikely we'll find it to have been much different in the Middle Ages. Or after. A rising craze for mathematics in the 16th and 17th centuries is often noted, for example, but standing back and looking at European society as a whole, this appears only to have occurred in rarified circles, just as in antiquity. The only difference is that far more sources have survived from the later period, creating only an illusion of more interest and activity.

Though a more focused analysis of the actual facts of medieval education must be left to another study, the other half of this comparison shall be provided here: what was the Roman educational system really like in these regards? We will then compare pagan and Christian educational ideals, to see if any stark differences remain, because any subsequent change in Christian values (such as during the Middle Ages) cannot be attributed to Christianity in any original sense. In fact such values may represent only a recovery of what had already been pagan values before Christianity monopolized Western culture.


Who Was Educated

There was no formal educational system in the ancient world, but there was an 'educational system' in the broader sociological sense. Within the Roman empire, a more or less standard set of curricula advancing through several levels of educational achievement was almost universally available to those who had the time and money for it. But as Hènri Marrou aptly put it, "in any society a high degree of culture is the privilege of the favored few, and in all ancient societies, which were highly aristocratic in form, these favored few were very few indeed." Obviously, then, the question of how much natural philosophy entered general education during the Roman period is superseded by the question of how much of the population received any education at all. Since most people received none, it follows that most people received little or no exposure to science and natural philosophy. Although Greco-Roman culture provided a notable exception to this assumption in the popularity of public declamation, which I'll discuss in a later chapter, the scientific content of this entertainment was not pervasive. Education mattered a great deal more. But even within the smaller subset of the population who acquired at least some education, most of them would not advance very far. Just like today, at every stage higher on the ladder of education one can expect to find fewer and fewer people. With all this inmind we need to ask two questions in this chapter: who received an education in the Roman period and how much science and natural philosophy would that education have conveyed to them? The latter question will receive a more detailed answer as we proceed through the following chapters.

First, the Roman population was divided into slave and free, and in most cases slaves would only receive the education their owners paid for, which admittedly did happen a lot, since literate and educated slaves were more valuable and always useful. But given that in all agricultural societies the demand for manual labor always far exceeded the demand for secretaries and other educated professionals, it is reasonable to assume that only a small proportion of slaves were educated, though possibly greater than the proportion of the free who were, especially among the landworking poor, since an educated slave was worth more, and there may have been more among the wealthy willing to finance the education of a slave than of a free person. Second, among the free there was a fading distinction between actual Roman citizens and noncitizen inhabitants of the Roman empire. That distinction was outright eliminated by Emperor Caracalla when he made citizenship universal in 212 A.D. But even before that there is no clear sense in which Roman citizens had any greater access to education than non-citizens. There were a variety of municipal educational charities (which I'll discuss in chapter eight), where having the local citizenship of a particular metropolis could improve a freeman's access to education, but that remained the case even if they weren't Roman citizens specifically. Roman citizenship alone had only the advantages of lower taxes — with one possible exception: the thousands of native Italians who benefitted from a special welfare program instituted by Emperor Trajan at the dawn of the second century A.D., and the beneficiaries of similar charities established in Italy and beyond by private benefactors and subsequent emperors. These did not provide for education specifically, but might have made education more accessible by supplementing the income of poor families, especially in Italy. But in the end, one's status as a slave or citizen did not matter with regard to educational opportunity as much as gender or wealth — whether one's own wealth or that of one's family, patron, or owner.

It's worthwhile to analyze the ancient educational system from the perspective of women, as with a good understanding of their situation, the far more privileged situation of men comes into sharper relief. Though women were not formally or legally excluded from education at any level, resources and opportunities for education were distributed in favor of men. Given the prevailing prejudices, assumptions, and socio-economic realities of the time, families would sooner scrape pennies to send a son to school than a daughter, and this preference would become more acute the higher the educational level concerned. Conversely, the wealthier the family the less pressing such choices would be. But in any case, women were expected to concentrate on raising families, while men were more welcome in education at higher levels, or else had a far greater opportunity to materially benefit from it. The latter point is particularly noteworthy. As of the 1st century A.D., women could not advocate in court and were apparently not much appreciated as public orators or philosophers, hence they could not benefit from a rhetorical or philosophical education in the way a man could. For instance, when Quintilian has occasion to list examples of rhetorically educated women, all of them precede him by more than a century. The most recent was Hortensia, who delivered an oration during the triumvirate (43–32 B.C.) that was so impressive, Quintilian says, that it was still read in schools. There is also an inscription at Delphi that appears to honor a woman for her oratory in the 2nd century A.D. But these were certainly exceptional. We do not hear any examples of women making a career out of public speaking.

Female philosophers are likewise rarely heard of, though not unknown, being far more common than female orators. Though only writing at the end of the 3rd century, when the Roman social system was already in decline, the Christian educator Lactantius reports the fact that Epicureans, Platonists, and Stoics had long wished slaves and women to receive an education in philosophy, but had never succeeded in realizing this dream. This cannot be really be true. Lactantius falsely claims, for example, that only one woman was ever educated in philosophy in the whole of human history — and yet he names Themistoclea but not, for example, Hipparchia or Arete. At the same time he claims only one slave was ever taught philosophy in the whole of human history, which is certainly untrue — again, he names Phaedo but not, for example, Epictetus. Both remarks are therefore hopeless exaggerations. But even exaggerated, this at least entails that Lactantius personally did not know of many female philosophers — at least, they could not have been common or else his hyperbole would have appeared ridiculous. He also fallaciously conflates being a philosopher with merely being taught philosophy, so his remark obscures whether he knew of any female students of philosophy. There must have been many women who studied some philosophy without going on to teach it or write about it (as we'll certainly see in later chapters).

Though female orators and philosophers were rare, other occupations that required an education specifically in scientific subjects, such as medicine and engineering, seem not to have accepted many women in practice, even though again there was no formal prohibition. It is notably during the late Hellenistic and early Roman period, however, that we start to see evidence of female doctors — not merely educated midwives, which had long been known, but actual surgeons and physicians. The same evidence confirms this was not a common sight, but their existence entails that some women could receive considerable education in the sciences, even if only in exceptional cases. So it is not surprising to find Galen (in the late 2nd century A.D.) endorsing Plato's view that women are as intellectually capable as men in all the sciences as long as they have the same education, while even the ideal midwife described and recommended by Soranus appears hardly less skilled and educated than many scientific doctors of his time. Nevertheless, such enlightened attitudes toward women in antiquity resembled more those of the 19th century than the 20th. There is otherwise only one known example of a female astronomer (Hypatia) and only one known female expert in harmonic science (Ptolemaïs), and one other mathematics professor (Pandrosion) who would have had some understanding of mathematical sciences (since in antiquity one did not study mathematics apart from science, as such a distinction only arose much later). There is no evidence of female engineers, and there probably were none given the mechanical labor and inconvenient circumstances such a job would involve, and the associated social expectations, especially since engineers commonly worked in the army or on construction sites in positions of authority over men. Some women may have been able to avoid these barriers by carving out a narrower niche in mathematics (Pandrosion), astronomy (Hypatia), or harmonics (Ptolemaïs), since these required only working privately with instruments (and we know there were some female craftsmen in various trades). The fact that we know only one name from each science does not mean there were no others — to the contrary, odds dictate there must have been others, for us to have known of even these. But they were clearly rare. Similar problems and attitudes may have limited the number of women even in occupations that did not require as much training, such as secretary or librarian, or even schoolteacher, although real opportunities for women in some of these fields did exist.


Excerpted from Science Education in the Early Roman Empire by Richard Carrier. Copyright © 2016 Richard Carrier. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction 5

2 Who Was Educated 11

3 What They Were Taught 33

4 Lower Education 41

5 The Enkyklios Paideia 59

6 Higher Education 87

7 Advanced Education 97

8 State & Public Support for Education 121

9 Jewish and Christian Education 137

10 Conclusion 159

Bibliography 167

Index 203

About the Author 208

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews