In the year 77 Gnaeus Julius Agricola under Vespasian was made consul and governor of Britannia, among a series of military campaigns into north and west Britain he also pushed for various civil and cultural reforms.

Among these reforms he provided an education to the sons of chieftains as recorded by his son-in-law Tacitus in De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae:

He moreover offered the sons of the chiefs a liberal education, and lauded the native genius of the Britons at the expense of the industry of the Gauls, in order that they who so lately loathed the sound of Latin might be fired with ambition to make eloquent speeches in it.

We may even know one of the educators that Agricola brought over, a Demetrius of Tarsus who appears in Plutarch's De Defectu Oraculorum:

Yet a short time before the Pythian games, which were held when Callistratus was in office in our own day, it happened that two revered men coming from opposite ends of the inhabited earth met together at Delphi, Demetrius the grammarian journeying homeward from Britain to Tarsus ...

And is thought to be the author of to inscriptions from York, one to Oceanus, and another to "the gods of the legate’s residence".

My question is what would we expect this "liberal education" to contain? Obviously it included studying Latin, speech making, possibly Greek, and if we accept Demetrius of Tarsus was involved likely grammaticus, but what concepts, philosophy, or texts would they have been exposed to, if any?

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Among the best primary sources for this are Institutio Oratoria by Quintilian (c.35 to c.100 BC) and Dialogus de oratoribus, usually attributed to Tacitus (c.56 to c.100). Both of these are cited extensively by Stanley Bonner in Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny. It should be noted, though, that the liberal education referred to by Tacitus in his Agricola was by this time seen by both Quintilian and Tacitus as being less widely taught than in the time of Cicero.


In addition to Latin, Greek, grammaticus (including literature / poetry), mental and moral philosophy and rhetoric and oratory, a liberal education would have included (though perhaps not all of them) history, law, arithmetic, geometry, musical theory and astronomy (the last four usually came together). Other subjects may well have been included, depending on the circumstances of the pupil / student and the preferences of the parents. Quintilian, in Book 1, gives grammaticus a simple, initial definition but then goes on to cover much more, showing how intertwined many of the subjects are:

This profession may be most briefly considered under two heads, the art of speaking correctly and the interpretation of the poets; but there is more beneath the surface than meets the eye. (3) For the art of writing is combined with that of speaking, and correct reading precedes interpretation, while in each of these cases criticism has its work to perform....(4) Nor is it sufficient to have read the poets only; every kind of writer must be carefully studied, not merely for the subject matter, but for the vocabulary; for words often acquire authority from their use by a particular author. Nor can such training be regarded as complete if it stop short of music, for the teacher of literature has to speak of metre and rhythm: nor again if he be ignorant of astronomy, can he understand the poets; for they, to mention no further points, frequently give their indications of time by reference to the rising and setting of the stars. Ignorance of philosophy is an equal drawback, since there are numerous passages in almost every poem based on the most intricate questions of natural philosophy....(5) No small powers of eloquence also are required to enable the teacher to speak appropriately and fluently on the various points which have just been mentioned. For this reason those who criticise the art of teaching literature as trivial and lacking in substance put themselves out of court.

By the mid to late 1st century AD, there was a heavy emphasis on declamation in rhetoric. Bonner explains declamation:

Originally, this term referred simply to the voice training process, but before the end of the Republic, it was extended to mean the rhetorical practice-speech itself. Then, in Latin, any kind of rhetorical speech on a stock theme came to be termed a 'declamation', whether it was delivered in loud tones or not, and the speakers were called 'declaimers'.

Tacitus was particularly scathing on the decline of eloquence and substance in speech (he blamed none other than Seneca for starting this trend), at the same time describing what he saw as a good 'liberal education':

No man was ever yet a complete orator, and, I affirm, never can be, unless, like the soldier marching to the field of battle, he enters the forum armed at all points with the sciences and the liberal arts. Is that the case in these our modern times? The style which we hear every day, abounds with colloquial barbarisms, and vulgar phraseology: no knowledge of the laws is heard; our municipal policy is wholly neglected, and even the decrees of the senate are treated with contempt and derision. Moral philosophy is discarded, and the maxims of ancient wisdom are unworthy of their notice. In this manner, eloquence is dethroned; she is banished from her rightful dominions, and obliged to dwell in the cold regions of antithesis, forced conceit, and pointed sentences. The consequence is, that she, who was once the sovereign mistress of the sciences, and led them as handmaids in her train, is now deprived of her attendants, reduced, impoverished, and, stripped of her usual honours (I might say of her genius), compelled to exercise a mere plebeian art.


Quintilian, who published Institutio Oratoria in 95 AD after 25 years as a teacher, lists numerous authors in Book 10 used in teaching: Cicero, Demosthenes, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Livy, Theophrastus, Homer, Hesiod and Virgil were obviously among them, but he mentions many more, and also writes of those he doesn't mention by name:

I am well aware of the existence of the poets whom I pass over in silence, and am far from condemning them, since I have already said that some profit may be derived from every author.

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    I am shocked, shocked, to see such resemblance between a Classical classical education and a Renaissance classical education. The trivium and quadrium - grammar, logic, rhetoric; then arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy - seem to have been around forever. I wonder why? Oct 7, 2019 at 17:08

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