Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


16. Ancient and medieval children’s texts


Gillian Adams




The traditional date for the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus is 753 BC, and for about 450 years it was little more than an agrarian city state squabbling with its more sophisticated neighbours the Etruscans and the Greek city states of southern Italy and Sicily. Education consisted of the rudiments and was carried on in the home; it included girls as well as boys until puberty. We know a good deal about education and children’s reading in the later periods because it was a matter of concern to such authors as Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Seneca, Statius and Quintilian, who provided witness in letters and published works to their own education and childhood reading, and who discussed educational theory and practice (see Bonner 1977 for a full account, with complete references to primary sources).

As the Romans expanded their political power, they came into contact with Hellenistic civilisation, through both the conquest and the plunder of the Greek city states in Italy (275 BC), then Carthage, and finally Greece (197 BC) and Syria (190 BC), when many Greek slaves became tutors in Roman families. The beginning of Roman culture is dated from the presentation of two plays translated into Latin by an emancipated slave from Greek-speaking Tarentum, Livius Andronicus, in 240 BC. His translation of the Odyssey into Latin, although rough, was a standard textbook in Roman schools even in Horace’s day. Andronicus, like many later authors, also served as a tutor in wealthy families, and increasingly from his time on, Roman children including girls learned a dual curriculum, the Greek/Hellenistic one described above, and one in Latin (see Pomeroy 1975: 170-6). Aside from household tutors, there may have been primary schools as early as the mid-fifth century, but the first record of a fee-paying school is late third-century BC (Bonner 1977: 34-5). Many of these schools were funded by municipalities or by private donations and seem to have been available to the middle and even lower classes, but the Romans never established a nation-wide system of public education, nor were even the basics compulsory. An important change occurred in writing materials, however; ostraca and wax tablets were still used for ephemera, but the codex began to replace papyrus.

For several centuries, the major beginning text in Latin was the earliest Roman legal code, The Twelve Tables (c. 450 BC), which children were forced to memorise and recite. Part of the Latin and Greek curriculum were collections of maxims, drawn from Greek and Latin sources and apparently put together especially for children; the best known is that of Publilius Syrus (Bonner 1977: 172-6). A third-century AD example of these maxims, the so-called Distichs of Cato, was to endure as a curricular staple throughout the medieval period and into the age of print; it is mentioned by Chaucer and one of the first books printed by Caxton (see Adams 1998b: 10). Another collection of anecdotes and vignettes primarily from Greek and Roman history and written under Tiberius (AD 14-37), Valerius Maximus’s, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, entered the Latin curriculum and became an educational staple in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A major part of the primary curriculum were books of prose fables illustrated in colour in both Greek and in Latin (Bonner 1977: 178). The fables that have survived are the early first-century AD Latin verse fables of Phaedrus, a freedman of Augustus (see Perry 1965: lxxiii), although there is no evidence that these fables were originally intended for children - they may have been political satires. They became, however, in a version known as the prose Romulus, an important part of the later Latin and medieval curriculum. On the other hand, a first-century AD collection of Aesopic fables in Greek verse, by Babrius, a Hellenised Italian living in Syria (see Perry 1965: xlvii-lxii), is dedicated in the first book to ‘my boy Branchus’ (Perry 1965: 3) and the second book is addressed to the son of King Alexander, a minor Cilician ruler (Perry 1965: 139). There survives a copy of thirteen of the fables written on wax tablets by a third-century schoolboy (Perry 1965: lxviii-lxix). Babrius’s fables survived in the East and re-entered the European fable tradition with the Byzantine scholars who came to Italy beginning in the twelfth century. The fables of Avianus (c. AD 400), primarily Latin expansions of Babrius, also became part of the medieval curriculum. Fables are among the most fluid of texts and in the later periods are found in vernacular versions throughout Europe and the Near East as well as in the classical languages.

The Latin curriculum was more flexible than the Greek, and by the time of the Emperor Augustus, Virgil, Horace and other contemporary poets and prose writers were introduced. Thus, besides the Roman historians, from the first century AD on, children studied the Aeneid, particularly the first six books, along with Homer; Horace, along with Pindar; Terence, along with Menander; Ovid’s Medea, along with that of Euripedes; and Cicero along with Demosthenes. Although these were adult works adopted (and sometimes adapted) for children, one does bear special mention, although addressed to an adult: Horace’s popular version of the town mouse and country mice fable in Satires 2.6 (also in Babrius, as fable 108).

Both Bonner and Jerome Carcopino (1940: 100-21) see a decline in family structure and education in the second century AD as the latter became more focused on sterile rhetorical exercises, with a concentration on public declamation, and neglected the study of literature. As time went on, the political and social situation in the Roman Empire deteriorated; the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in AD 476 by the Ostrogoth Theodoric, but incursions by the Germanic tribes had begun about seventy-five years earlier. A Christianised version of Hellenic civilisation continued in Constantinople, and texts for children there included important fable collections. Christianity had already gained official recognition in AD 313, and with its rise in the West a parallel system of Christian education carried on in monasteries and episcopal schools gradually supplanted the secular Roman system. The Greek texts, and many of the Latin ones, dropped out of the curriculum, some to disappear for ever, others to be preserved by the Byzantines and Arabs and reappear in the twelfth century and later (see Veyne 1987: 292-5). Nevertheless, much in the classical Latin curriculum remained unchanged for centuries.