Fig. 3. Plaster cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, of a late Roman relief sculpture from a tomb in or near Neumagen in Germany. Photograph by shakko. (Wikimedia Commons)

Please take a careful look at the Roman relief sculpture above. What do you think it represents? We would all, I think, agree that it shows some kind of school scene, with a teacher and three students. But can we be more exact than that? Specifically, what kind of school is here depicted? Is this a public school of some sort, a school to which any Roman boy might go? Is it a private school, to which only those boys whose parents could afford the teacher’s fee could go? Or is it a scene within a household, in which the boys of the family are instructed by a private tutor retained within the house? In general, how typical is it? Would all Roman schools have the kind of equipment we see here, and would they all have a male teacher and such a small number of students?

Henri-Irénée Marrou, who knew a great deal about such reliefs, took it as a scene of a real school (“une veritable scène d’école”), not a scene of private instruction within a household. In his view, we have a public school, and the lesson has just begun. The two seated boys, who hold open papyrus rolls, are engaged in their work, but the small boy on the right is arriving late for class, and the teacher, Marrou thought, is looking at him sternly.[1]

I have known this relief, in a superficial way, for decades, and when I first began to think about using it in this book, I was inclined to agree with Marrou. Or at least I hoped he was correct, because my plan was to set this relief before you, the reader, and compare it to the classes in Murphey Hall that I have described above. There are, after all, several similarities: both ancient and modern classes include a teacher, seated students, everyone working from or on written texts, and little or no other equipment. (The Roman relief, as you have no doubt noticed, lacks any indication of space. There are no walls, no windows, no doors.) The more closely I looked at the relief, however, and the more I learned about it, the less confident I felt that it depicts a “real school.” Let us consider it carefully, and you can decide if you agree. For ease of reference in our discussion, I number the figures 1, 2, 3, and 4, from left to right.

All four figures wear clothing that is typical not of Mediterranean regions (a toga, for example, or a simple tunic), but rather of the Gallic and Germanic provinces: an undergarment, of which we see only a small bit of the collar; a heavy mantle over that; and sturdy sandals with elaborate leatherwork. This is, then, a local scene, and the figures are not simply taken over from earlier Greco-Roman sculpture. Figures 1, 2, and 3 sit in chairs that have high backs and small round feet. The chairs are depicted as smooth, so we are probably to think of them as covered in leather or fabric, and they seem to have cushions or seats that are rounded at the top front edge, presumably for comfort under the knees. The chairs are large, they look comfortable, and we may probably infer that they were expensive. In literary sources, students in schools usually sit on simple benches without backs, quite different from the substantial chairs depicted here.[2]

Figure 2, the teacher, rests his feet on a low footstool. He is bearded and a more or less typical representation of a type familiar in ancient portraiture, the Greek philosopher.[3] His head, thus, is drawn from Greek and Roman predecessors, whereas his costume is regional, from the northern provinces. His left arm and right hand are broken off and lost. Perhaps he held a papyrus scroll in his left hand, like figures 1 and 3. Figure 1 holds a papyrus roll upright on his lap. The roll seems to have a cover that is opened partway. The boy’s head is inclined slightly forward, and his eyes are looking up, as if he is concentrating; perhaps he has not prepared well or is struggling to answer a question.[4] Perhaps he is simply listening to his teacher. The other seated boy, figure 3, holds a papyrus roll in his right hand and draws it out with his left. He is clearly reading or preparing to read. The position of the papyrus rolls–upright rather than opened across the lap–shows that both of the boys are working on their reading, not their writing. The rolls, oddly, are very large, extending from the boys’ laps to their faces, or about twenty inches. This is much larger than real rolls would be; those known from archaeology average some ten to twelve inches.[5]

At the right, a small boy enters and waves, as a child will do, his fingers spread wide. He carries not a papyrus roll, but a set of wax tablets, of the sort that students used in the early stages of their education to practice writing or, later, to write first drafts of compositions.[6] The teacher seems to be looking at this young child, although we cannot be sure, and he may rather be looking at figure 3.

There are just three students. Such small classes are known in Roman public schools, but more typically a school would have a dozen or two dozen students, and a class this small would be more characteristic of a tutor and his students in a grand house.[7]

How to interpret the relief, then? Von Massow pointed out that it comes from a large and expensive tomb. The message of the relief, he suggested, was straightforward: here lies a successful and wealthy man, one who could afford to retain a learned man to teach his children.[8] This interpretation is supported by several of the details we have noticed. Both the boys and their teacher are well clothed, and they sit in large and (it seems) cushioned chairs. The three boys are not individualized portraits, but they may well represent not a random collection of students in a school but rather three brothers, the children of the deceased. If this is correct, we may have a kind of narrative marked by gentle humor. The two older boys will soon finish their lesson, which has been a challenge for at least one of them, who is rolling his eyes. The youngest boy is coming to replace them and waves, as he enters, in a child’s cheerful way.

I cannot, then, present this to you as a class in a Roman public school. Rather, it gives us a scholar, hired by a wealthy family to teach the children of the family, and it shows us the scholar and children at work, perhaps in a private setting such as a room in the family’s residence. My original plan, to use this as a teaching tool to show the similarities between Roman schools and classes in Murphey Hall, will need to be abandoned. But that is often what happens as one prepares to teach. What appear to be good ideas or useful materials turn out, upon careful analysis, to be something quite different. I began studying the Neumagen relief because I hoped to use it as an illustration of an ancient school. Instead, it has become an illustration of the difficulties we encounter in dealing with evidence. So it is: we start out to teach one thing and end up teaching another.

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[1]  Marrou, Μουσικος Ανηρ. Étude sur les scènes de la vie intellectuelle figurant sur les monuments funéraires romains (Grenoble 1938; photographic reprint with additions,  Rome 1964), 42-43. He takes the boy on the right as “un retardataire” (tardy for class).

[2]  For backless benches as the norm in Roman classrooms, see Lisa Maurice, The Teacher in Ancient Rome: The Magister and His World (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, and Plymouth, UK, 2013), 35. The luxury of the chairs was remarked upon by von Massow, Textband,134.

[3]  Several examples of more or less generic “intellectuals” are in Paul Zanker, Die Maske des Sokrates: Das Bild des Intellektuellen in der antiken Kunst (Munich 1995), 197-99.

[4]  von Massow, Textband, 134, described this boy’s eyes in detail and suggested that he was concentrating hard.

[5]  Houston, Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity (Chapel Hill 2014), 5.

[6]  The use of tablets: Maurice, The Teacher in Ancient Rome, 38-39.

[7]  Numbers of students: Stanley F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny (Liverpool 1949), 131-33. Roman sculptors, even relatively unsophisticated ones, knew how to use a few figures to suggest a large crowd. See, for example, the scribes, speaker, and audience in a marble relief from Ostia: Houston, Inside Roman Libraries, 201, Fig. 12. The sculptor has depicted only eight actual figures, but the viewer has the impression of a good-sized crowd.

[8]  Von Massow, Textband, 134. He noted that the tomb included a number of reliefs the size of ours, apparently of various scenes in the life of the family. (There is also a scene of a woman having her hair done.) Collectively, they would convey a powerful message of wealth. No inscription survives from this tomb, so we do not know the identity of the deceased.