Greco-Roman Schooling

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The Greco-Roman school exerted a profound influence on ancient culture as it evolved between the 5th century b.c. and the 3d century a.d. It first appeared in ancient Athens, developed with the early sophists, and then, thanks to Plato and especially to Isocrates, assumed a form that it kept through the whole Hellenistic period. The Romans had only to adapt an already perfected institution to their own use. As they expanded, they introduced it into all sections of the empire.

Organization. The school of the magister ludi or litterator (elementary school) accepted a child at seven and taught him to read according to the analytical method (letters, syllables, words). First he read short moral texts, fables, or the disticha catonis. At the same time, he learned to write by copying words on wax tablets. Then he was taught basic arithmetic, in particular how to calculate on his fingers (digital computation). The techniques of instruction at this stage were rather basic and the rod was not spared (Augustine, Conf. 1.9.1415).

When about 12 years old the child went to the school of the grammaticus (grammarian), who taught him the mechanics of language and introduced him to the classical authors: Homer and Hesiod in the East; Vergil, Terence, Sallust, and Cicero in the West. For three years the student devoted much time to the poets. The Iliad or the Aeneid were studied verse by verse, both for form (verbal expression and scansion) and for content. As the people and events treated by the poets were identified, broad excursions were made into mythology, history, geography, and even the sciences. The student thus acquired a knowledge that made him "a bright young man." Then, in accord with the ideas of the Greek masters, he embarked on studies preparatory to rhetoric, designed to help him learn to write and speak well.

He began his "higher studies" in the school of the rhetor, Greek σοφιστής, where his goal was to master the art of oratory. Quintilian in his Institutio oratoria offers a complete picture of the stages of this study upon which the student was engaged between the ages of 16 and 20. The rhetor taught the various steps involved in the composition of a discourse: how to find topical material or common places (topoi ) and construct a speech (dispositio ) from the exordium to the peroration; and how to deliver it in words (elocutio ) with gestures (actio ). A study of ancient orators (Isocrates, Cicero) and historians taught him to use exempla (fictitious legal cases, commentaries on historical subjects) with which to enrich the exercises assigned by the rhetor. Studies in dialectic prepared the student to overcome the objections of future adversaries. He left the rhetor's class a well-versed lecturer or, as the case might be, a formidable lawyer.

Studies. To understand the school of antiquity at the moment during the 3d century when Christians began to take an interest in it, one must distinguish developments in the West from those in the East. Studies in Roman schools were essentially literary and oratorical, diverging from the Greek tradition, which placed a high value on the liberal arts, the three literary disciplines (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the four sciences (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). These seven branches of learning were introductory to the supreme art, philosophy. Among the Romans, however, scientific and philosophical studies gradually disappeared as the knowledge of Greek came to be restricted to an elite. In the East, on the other hand, the philosophical tradition continued. There, the student learned logic, physics, and especially ethics that prepared him to attain the supreme good and happiness, the goal of all his studies. Under the Later Empire, however, the school was employed to produce officials for the constantly increasing governmental bureaus, and the state became more and more interested in the municipal schools, favoring them even in the farthest reaches of the empire. The more totalitarian the state became, the more it encroached in this area. After julian the apostate, only persons approved by the municipal council, or even the emperor, could teach. In the 5th century Theodosius II founded an imperial university in constantinople and gave it a monopoly in higher education.

Early in its development, Christianity was faced with a dilemma. Could the Church ignore this Greco-Roman school and develop its own religious schools, as the Jews had done with the Synagogue? Or would they try to enter into the school and Christianize it? Would they find another solution? The matter was important, for on the decision of the Church would depend the future of Mediterranean culture.

Christianity and the School

Two possible positions confronted each other from the beginning: to reject the school or to compromise. Opposition between Christian principles and those of the school of antiquity seemed absolute. Christianity as a religious way of life apparently had nothing in common with Hellenism. "Where is the 'wise man'? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputant of this world? Has not God turned to foolishness the 'wisdom' of this world?" Paul had asked (1 Cor 1.20).

Rejection. At first the wisdom of the Greeks was considered incompatible with the true wisdom of the Gospel, and the early Christians who were regarded with contempt as "barbarians" by learned pagans took great pride in that epithet (Tertullian, Test. anim. 1). The Christian seeking an education had no need to go to the school of the pagans. The third-century didascalia apostolorum represents the attitude of the early Christian communities: "Do not even touch the books of the gentiles. What have you to do with these alien words and laws, or these false prophets who so easily bestow error on inconstant men? What do you lack in the word of God that you should turn to pagan fables? If you wish to read history, you have the Book of Kings; if you need philosophy or poetry, you have the Prophets. If you desiresongs, you have the Psalms; if you wish to know the beginning of the history of the world you have Genesis. Abstain therefore absolutely from all these profane and diabolical works" [1.6, Latin fragment, ed. Connolly (Oxford 1920) 13]. This rigorist idea of Christian culture was originally adopted by the monks, for whom true philosophy was not to be learned in the school but in solitude, by meditating on sacred writings. What would the Christian student find at the pagan school but immorality in the legends of mythology, and idolatry in the cult of false gods? As John Chrysostom said, "Why send Christian youths to masters where, before the art of speaking, they will learn evil?" (Adv. opp. vitae monast. 3.95).

The Dialogue Begins. If Christianity had developed apart from the Hellenic world, all Christians would probably have taken the position of the rigorists. But the Gospel had been written or translated into Greek, and borrowed much of its vocabulary from Hellenism, beginning with the all-important concept of the logos (Jn 1). Thus Christianity simply could not escape the influence of the cultural atmosphere in which it developed. From the second century learned men who had been graduated from the school of antiquity had been turning to the new religion. In their writings they could not abandon their early training. In his Dialogue with Trypho justin martyr (d. c. 163) recalls how he arrived at the knowledge of the God of the Gospel by stages, following the development of pagan philosophy, and in his Apologies, he proves that Christianity provided answers for the questions posed by Greek thinkers. The Christian apologists (see apologists, greek), who created the first Christian philosophy, took over many ideas from ancient philosophies, especially from Stoicism.

Christian Schools. gnosticism showed that the encounter of Christianity with ancient philosophy was not without dangers, and many Christians felt that the philosophers were "the patriarchs of the heretics" (Test. anim. 3). In order to refute heretical teaching in Rome, Justin opened a school (a Didaskaleion) where he taught in a toga, "the dress of a philosopher" (Eusebius, Hist. 4.11.8). At the beginning of the third century, hippolytus, a Roman priest and possibly a disciple of Irenaeus, author of the Philosophumena (Refutation of all Heresies), was honored with a statue representing him as a philosopher (Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. F. Cabrol, H. Leclerq, and H. I. Marrou, 6.2:41960).

In this same period, St. Clement of Alexandria, a former philosopher and student of the Stoic pantaenus, gathered a group of disciples whom he advised to study the pagan disciplines with a view to entering more deeply in the mystery of the faith. For him education and culture were "the most beautiful and the most perfect goods that we possess in this life" (Paedag. 1.16.1). Like an earlier Alexandrian, philo judaeus, Clement found material in secular culture with which to improve his scriptural studies. He too sought "to dress as a philosopher" in order to demonstrate the proofs of the true wisdom to the pagan philosophers.

Again in Alexandria, in the middle of the third century, the former grammarian origen founded a school that became famous, and taught more than philosophy. Less favorable than Clement to the currents of ancient thought, he saw in classical studies a propaedeutic or preparation for understanding the Scriptures. The school he directed was a center of higher religious studies where students, Christian and non-Christian, after having studied the liberal arts and the philosophical systems, received exegetical and theological instruction. Eusebius of Caesarea describes Origen's school (Hist. 6.18.34): "Many well educated men came to him to test his competence. Thousands of heretics and a large number of the most distinguished philosophers studied under him and quite openly learned not only divine truths but even things concerning secular philosophy. The disciples whom he saw to be naturally gifted he directed also to the study of philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, and other fundamental studies. Then he conducted them further into the teachings of the sects found among the philosophers, explaining, commenting upon, and examining their writings one by one." When he left Alexandria and took his school to Caesarea in Palestine, Origen had among his disciples the future saint gregory thaumaturgus, for whom he explained the principle that to reach Christianity more surely the student must "take over from Greek philosophy the course of disciplines that can serve as an introduction to Christianity and those theories in geometry and astronomy that may be useful in the explanation of the Sacred Books." Then, employing a favorite image, he compares the Christians making use of the learning of the pagans to the Hebrews in Exodus who took with them the spoils of the Egyptians with which to adorn the Tabernacle (Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 11:8889). For the first time a Christian scholar had worked out the elements of Christian culture, and the lesson was not to be forgotten.

Christians Attend the School

Such was the synthesis of Christianity and classicism that in the end Christians had no choice but to send their children to the Greco-Roman school. Not to attend this school was not only to cut oneself off from the general culture but to make it impossible to take part in any activity within the empire. Even Tertullian, who had severely criticized pagan classicism, saw that it was necessary to attend the school: "How would one do anything according to human prudence, or receive any mental formation without literature, the instrument of life?" (Idol. 10). The Christian youth had to receive instruction from the pagan masters, but care had to be exercised lest the poison harm him, as Jerome would point out in his observations on education in the 4th century in pueris necessitas (Epist. 21.13.9). It seems that Christian children had continued in the schools even during the persecutions, occasionally being subjected to anti-Christian propaganda, such as resulted from an edict of Maximian requiring teachers to make their students learn the Acts of Pilate, which were filled with blasphemies against Christ (Eusebius, Hist. 9.5.1).

Christian Professors. Tertullian had been a rigorist; discouraging Christians from teaching in the pagan school. He judged that the risks run by the Christian teacher would be too great: he would have to lecture in detail about the pagan gods and take part in their ceremonies and feasts (Idol. 10). But the Church did not follow the African apologist. Thus, the Apostolic Tradition (see apostolic constitutions), composed in the circle of hippolytus of rome, lists as professions that prevented catechumens from entering the Church: procurers, actors, and those who make idols; in regard to teachers, however, the text states (16): "If anyone teaches children the learning of this world he should give it up, but if he has no other means of livelihood he will be excused."

A number of Christians were teachers by profession. prudentius speaks of a Cassian of Imola martyred by his students who stabbed him with their pens. Origen had opened a school of grammar to support himself after his father died. In 264 Anatolius, future bishop of Laodicea, held a chair of philosophy at Alexandria. In 268 the priest Malchion directed a school of rhetoric in Antioch. The Africans Arnobius and Lactantius were rhetors. lactantius was even invited to teach rhetoric at Nicomedia under Diocletian. For the fourth century the evidence in texts and inscriptions is plentiful. In Rome the conversion of the rhetor marius victorinus caused a scandal in pagan circles. Prohaeresius in Athens and the grammarian apollinaris of laodicea were Christian teachers, as were St. Basil and his father in Caesarea of Cappadocia. It is easy to understand, then, the painful surprise of the Christians when Julian the Apostate, intent upon reviving the pagan cults, forbade Christian masters to teach in the public schools.

Julian's Persecution. In a law of June 17, 362, Julian ruled that professors should be nominated by the municipalities and appointed by the emperor, who thus could pass sentence on their morality. In an accompanying letter, Julian explained what he meant by morality: a perfect accord between what one preached and what one practiced. For Christian teachers were explaining Homer and Hesiod, in whose words they saw only a tissue of diabolical fabrications. They were thus hypocrites and unworthy to teach: "If they believe that these authors are mistaken with regard to beings of the greatest veneration, let them go to the churches of the Galileans and explain Matthew and Luke" (Epist. 42).

This step created consternation in university circles, among both Christians and pagans. gregory of nazianzus, in his Invectives against Julian echoed the feelings of the Christians, while even pagans were disturbed to see the state interfering with the schools (Ammianus Marcellinus, 22.10.7; 25.4.20), for fear lest, in the service of a pagan revival, that institution might become a denominational school. Many Christian professors gave up their positions rather than abjure their faith. Others attempted to adorn the sacred writings of the Scriptures with a classical grace. The historian socrates gives an account of a father and son named Apollinaris: "Since they were both scholars, the father in grammar, the son in sophistic, they proved of great use to the Christians at this pass. The father composed a Christian grammar by rendering the books of Moses and everything of a historical character in the Old Testament in the meter called heroic, employing now the dactylic meter and now the tragic style to treat the subjects dramatically. The son, skilled in eloquence, presented the Gospels and the apostolic beliefs in dialogues, after the manner of Plato among the Greeks" (Hist. 3.16, Patrologia Graeca 57:417). Since these writings are lost, the results of this endeavor cannot be evaluated. But at least it shows that Christian professors were devoted to the classicism of antiquity. When the edict of Julian was rescinded on Jan. 11, 364, thanks to the succession of a new emperor, Christian masters resumed their activities in the schools of the state. It should be noted that the scholastic persecution of Julian did not cause the Christians to open denominational schools. The only scholastic centers where the Psalms were learned instead of the short classical texts used in the schools were on the outskirts of the empire, in upper Egypt (the school of Protogenes at Antinoe discussed by Theodoret of Cyr, Ecclesiastical History 4.18. 714) and in the "barbarian" lands ignorant of classical culture.

Christian Classical Culture

Even before the undertaking of the two Apollinarises, some learned Christians decided that the language of the Bible was too crude and attempted to provide their contemporaries with the sacred texts in classical form. The Spanish priest Juvencus c. 330 put the Gospels into verse so that the content of the divine message could be remembered better. The Roman Proba succeeded in translating biblical stories in hemistichs of Vergil. In Gaul, Cyprian offered a versified translation of the Heptateuch. His exploit was repeated by the rhetor Marius Victorinus in the 5th century and by avitus of vienne in the 6th. Christian poetry of the fourth and fifth centuries flowed effortlessly in the classical mold giving new life to a literary genre that had been dying out.

Christian Oratory. Sacred preachers also availed themselves of the devices of the traditional rhetoric when they presented their message. In the East a renaissance of pagan eloquence had a great influence in learned Christian circles. john chrysostom, student of Libanius the rhetor of Antioch, Basil of Caesarea and gregory of nazianzus, former students at the school of Athens, did not forget the lessons of their masters. Gregory of Nazianzus, apropos of the school law of Julian, cried: "I have given up riches, nobility, glory, power, but I hold fast to eloquence" (Or. 4.100, Patrologia Graeca 35:636). In the West in the sermons of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, appear the topoi (common places) dear to rhetors. To be sure, the Fathers of the Church as a rule avoided the bad features of rhetoric, but many preachers of the period sought to please rather than to instruct and courted applause in their own churches.

Christian Learning. The presence of Christian professors in the school of antiquity not only enabled them to present Christian thought in classical guise, but offered them the means to construct a basically Christian scholarship. Following principles proposed by Origen, they saw in the program offered in the school a propaedeutic for the scientific study of Holy Scripture. In his Admonitions to Young Men on the Profitable Use of Pagan Literature, Basil of Caesarea suggested that "as dyers begin by exposing an object to be dyed to certain preparations, if we wish our idea of the good to be indelible, we will demand of these external sciences a preliminary initiation whereby we can better understand the holy teachings of the mysteries." Clearly, one had to know how to choose what was good for the soul and reject what was harmful. jerome took the same position: "When books of worldly wisdom come into our hands, if we find something useful we take it over for our doctrine, but what is in excess or alludes to idols, love, or worldy matters we cut out" (Epist. 21.13.6). Jerome, caught between his classical education and his monastic vocation, did not want to be "more Ciceronian than Christian." While he cautioned his correspondents against the dangers of profane literature, he realized nevertheless that neither Christians nor clerics could be ignorant of secular branches of knowledge. He compared this learning to the comely captive that the Israelite could marry after shaving her head and paring her nails (Epist. 21.13.5, 70.2.5).

Augustine had the same concern to take over from classical culture everything suitable for the building of a Christian body of knowledge. He had been a brilliant student in the schools of Africa and had taught at Thagaste, Carthage, and Rome. He got his passion for philosophical inquiry from the Hortensius of Cicero (Conf. 3.4). At the end of the 4th century, pursuing ideas already broached in his De Trinitate and De Ordine, he set forth in the De Doctrina Christiana his convictions on the use of profane literature. He presented this treatise, which has been called "the charter of Christian culture," as an initiation to the reading of the Scriptures. In Book 2 he demonstrates the use that the exegete must make of ancient languages, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and also the scienceshistory, botany, mathematics, astronomy, and musicin order not only to be able to understand Holy Scripture, and to recognize the figures of style there employed, but to explain all the literary and scientific allusions found there (animals, herbs, trees, plants, numbers, etc.). The only things to be rejected absolutely are the arts that serve the cult of demons, in particular astrology and the fables of the poets. Likewise, philosophy not only should initiate the mind into the handling of abstractions but should prepare it for the spiritual life. Rhetoric should be taught not "to plead both truth and falsehood" but to preach Christian truth with artistry. Augustine thought, as did Jerome, that Christians in using the liberal arts were only reclaiming the riches that divine Providence had given to mankind but which had been wrongly used by the pagans.

The Counter-Offensive

The Fathers of the Church in the 4th century gradually evolved a via media between the exigencies of Christian morality and the necessity for a worldly education. But hardly had they laid the bases for a Christian culture, when a violent attack was directed against Greco-Latin classicism and even against Christian classicism.

Hostile Monks. The development of monasticism dates from the 3d century, first in the East, then in the West. From the start, the abbots organized schools offering only religious instruction for the pupils admitted to the monasteries. The students learned to read and write, and their first reader was the Psalter. When Jerome devised a course of instruction for a young nun, he centered it on Holy Scripture and excluded literature and secular arts. Theoretically, the monastic school was for monks only, but SS. Basil and John Chrysostom thought that resident students should be accepted who after their studies would return to the world. They could obtain a purely religious education, which would protect them from the dangers of the world. But the further hope of influencing secular education was not fulfilled, and the monasteries remained primarily centers of asceticism for centuries.

During the barbarian invasions in the West many former monks were selected as bishops, and their ideas about Christian culture began to prevail. While the political crisis had grave repercussions on the ancient school system, it is not true to say that the barbarians caused the school of antiquity to disappear. In Milan, Ravenna, Rome, and Carthage the traditional instruction was still given in the 6th century; but the standards declined. The grammarian and the rhetor could impart to a few aristocrats a mundane culture in which form was considered to be of more importance than content. It was natural then for men coming from monastic circles to react against the vanity of the intellectual trifles with which learned men, even Christians, were amusing themselves. The monks, with only a superficial knowledge of classicism, regarded it as a block to the reception of the evangelical message. Classical studies seemed to them to be a danger to morals. Cassian deplored the fact that the monk who had studied the pagan poets would remember this poison all his life (Conl. 14.12) and felt that such studies were also a danger to faith, for philosophical speculation gave birth to heresies (Inc. Dom. 3.15.2).

The important work of claudianus mamertus and boethius, who put philosophy at the service of Christian truth, was not understood by many of their contemporaries. Classical studies, moreover, threatened to raise a wall in the Christian community between the learned and other Christians. Hence it was felt that to be understood by all, preacher and writer had to abandon the florid style (sermo scholasticus ) and adopt a plain and forthright one (sermo rusticus ), for salvation had been preached not by orators but by fishermen (Sulpicius Severus, Mart. 1.4). Cassian (Inst., pref.), salvian of marseilles (Gub. 3), pomerius of Arles (1.24), and peter chrysologus (Serm. 43) manifested a desire to break with the traditional rhetoric, which was more concerned with words than facts (verba, non res ). At a time when the Church was bringing its efforts to bear on the evangelization of the masses who were still pagan and when rural churches were multiplying, it seemed necessary to adopt a new way of speaking.

Prohibitions. Going back to the prohibitions of the 3d century in the Didascalia apostolorum, the Statuta ecclesiae antiqua, attributable perhaps to gennadius of marseilles [ed. C. Munier (Strasbourg 1960)], forbade bishops to read pagan books (ut episcopus gentilium libros non legat, can. 5). Some historians have held that this canon was not binding upon the whole Church and that it did not prevent learned bishops of the 5th century from occupying their leisure with literature. But at the end of this century and at the beginning of the next, cultured ecclesiastics such as sidonius apollinaris, avitus of vienne, and ennodius of Pavia had scruples about returning to books they had read previously. For Ennodius of Pavia, this prohibition applied to clerics as well: "Christ does not reject those who come to Him from liberal studies (disciplina saecularia ), but He will not suffer anyone who leaves His splendor for them" (Epist. 9.9, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Auctores antiquissimi 7:297). He wrote this apropos of a young cleric who wanted to pursue classical studies. Influenced by the example of the monks, clerics began to regard secular learning as unworthy of their religious vocation, and they no longer dared to participate in the interests of the world of students. To deal with the problem of providing future clerics with the minimum instruction necessary before they could proceed to religious learning, recourse was had to the monastic solution.

Thus were created the first parish schools in the West (Council of Vaison in 529) and the first episcopal schools (Council of Toledo in 527). These were boarding schools with a course similar to that of the monastic schools: the study of sacred texts beginning with the Psalter, chant, and exegesis for the more advanced. Moreover, to make it unnecessary for youths to waste time in the schools of rhetoric, cassiodorus and Pope Agapetus thought of founding in Rome a school of higher religious studies modeled after the 3d-century school of Alexandria and the school of theology that was open in nisibis under Persian rule. The wars that afflicted Italy made this "Christian University" impossible, but Cassiodorus took up his plan again for his monks at Vivarium. Unfortunately, after his death this project disappeared. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was marked by a predominance of Christian culture and a return to the rigorist principles of early Christianity. Not until the carolingian renaissance would the synthesis of classicism and Christianity again take place.

In the East. Things were different in the East, for the empire there was able to withstand the invasions, and the public schools were able to maintain the quality of instruction. The University of Constantinople, founded in 425, was the chief center of studies until the Turkish invasion in the middle of the 15th century. Relations between learned circles of clerics and laymen continued to be close. theodoret of cyr (d. 458) showed in his "Cure for the Pagan Diseases" that, on a basis in ancient philosophy, one could discover the truth of the Gospel. leontius of byzantium in the 6th century sought to adapt the philosophy of Aristotle to Christian dogma, while a revival of Neoplatonism served as a basis for the predominantly mystical elements in the theology of pseudo-dionysius.

Only in the 10th century is there certain evidence for a school of religious learning founded in connection with the cathedral of Constantinople. But the patriarchs who were professors in this school did more than give courses in exegesis. They taught the liberal arts and philosophy as a propaedeutic to the study of Sacred Scripture, resuming the curriculum that Origen had followed many centuries earlier.

Bibliography: m. roger, L'Enseignement des lettres classiques d'Ausone à Alcuin (Paris 1905). h. i. marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (Paris 1938); A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. g. lamb (New York 1956). c. n. cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York 1957). p. de labriolle, Histoire de la littérature latine chrétienne, ed. g. bardy (3d ed. Paris 1947). e. ivÁnka, Hellenisches und Christliches im frühbyzantinischen Geistesleben (Vienna 1948). p. courcelle, Les Lettres grecques en Occident de Macrobe à Cassiodore (new ed. Paris 1948). g. l. ellspermann, The Attitude of the Early Christian Latin Writers Toward Pagan Literature and Learning (Washington 1949). m. l. w. laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (Ithaca, N.Y. 1951). m. spanneut, Le Stoïcisme des Pères de l'Église (Paris 1957). h. hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics (Göteborg 1958). a. m. j. festugiÈre, Antioche païenne et chrétienne (Paris 1959). p. richÉ, Éducation et culture dana l'Occident barbare, VII e-VIII e siècles (Paris 1962).

[p. richÉ]