Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 18.2190 (c. AD 100)
To Theon, my lord and father, greetings.
You have rescued us from the greatest despondency by showing us that what happened in the theatre is of no concern to you, but I hoped by hurrying in sailing down that I would find fine opportunities -but what have I achieved for my enthusiasm? Even now I am looking for a teacher [philologus] and I have discovered that Chairon the teacher [kathegetes] and Didymus, son of Aristocles, with whom I have hoped that I might make progress, are no longer in the city, but only junk [katharmata] through whom most have taken the direct road to ruin. Previously I wrote to you, just as I wrote to Philoxenus and company, to deal with the matter, and I was introduced by them to someone who looked suitable. But you immediately rejected him, although he had begged for Theon's pardon, on the grounds that you know him personally and he is totally lacking in ability. When I passed on your judgement to Philoxenus, he thought the same, saying that he pitied the city only for this lack of rhetors, but Didymus had sailed down [to Alexandria], apparently a friend of his who ran a school and would look after the others -and in particular he persuaded the pupils of Apollonius, son of Herodas, to transfer to him. They have up to now been seeking such a teacher of a higher education after the teacher they had enrolled with had died. But I, having prayed not to even look at Didymus from a distance if I found teachers worth mentioning, am depressed by this very fact: that he who used to teach in the country is setting himself up in competition with the others here.

So, knowing this -that, apart from paying more fees in vain, I have gained nothing from my teacher but have achieved something by myself., please write back as soon as possible saying what you think. I have Didymus, as Philoxenos will also say, always available to me and offering whatever he help he can. Furthermore, by auditing the public performances, including of Poseidonius, if the gods are willing I will quickly make good progress.
But it is my despondency about those things that forces me to disregard my physical appearance, as it is not necessary for those who are not engaged in work to care about these things, especially when they don't have anyone to bring in some money. For once upon a time after a few days the helpful Heracles -woe of woes -would bring in some obols, but now along with his being put into restraints by Isidorus, he has run away and gone off, so it appears, to you. Be well aware that he isn't averse to plotting against you if he has the opportunity. For he is not ashamed especially to spread tales of events in the theatre and the city with alacrity and to babble out lies that no prosecutor would declare -and he has done this although he hasn't suffered anything such as he deserved, but had been let roam and was acting like a free person in all matters.
But all the same you can hire him out to a builder if you don't send him back, as I hear that a young man can make 2 drachmas a day. Or assign him some other task, where he can earn more money, so that the wages collected by him can be sent to us from time to time. For you know that Diogas is studying literature as well. In the time it takes you to send the young fellow, we will look for a bigger place in a private house: in order to be Dionysius' neighbours, we have been living in a very small place.
We received the basket that had all that you wrote about safe in it: all the jars with the half-cadus, in which we found not 18, but 22 choes. And I sent a half cadus with a letter to all you wrote about. I got the six measures of whole lentils and a Coan jar full of vinegar, and 126 pieces of salted meat, plus those in the jar, and 30 pieces of cooked meat. For another version of this letter click here: Off to the city for school Version 2
Farewell. [30 November]
Trans: T. Parkin and A. Pomeroy, Roman Social History: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2007).

Analysis :

This analysis refers to the time period of the Late Roman Republic, which is when the letter to Theon was written.

Who received schooling?

If the family could afford it, going to school was a part of everyday life in Rome. Before Greek influence in Rome, young Romans would learn from their parents; however, as Greek ways of learning dominated, children began going to established institutions of learning (Hopkins 1993). Unlike today in the United States, the Romans never had a law declaring that children must go to school.

  • “It has never been the Roman Practice to have some definite system of education fixed by law for the children of freeman, nor even to have one officially recognized; it had never been our practice to have a uniform system at all” [Cicero, Respublica IV 3.3].

Thus, only those who could afford schooling would be sent (Barrow 1976). Private schooling was even more expensive than regular group schooling. Normally, only rich families could afford this option. While Cicero had his nephew Quintus privately tutored, Quintilian, a famous Roman rhetorician from Hispania (ca. 35 – ca. 100), wrote in his Training in Oratory that children should be educated in school rather than at home to expose them more to different people and places (Joyal 2009). Aristotle debates this topic of home vs. school in some of his writings.

What were the levels of the schooling?

During the time period of this letter, there were three stages of education in the Greeco-Roman studies system. The first was the litterator (Barrow 1976). From the age of seven to eleven, boys and girls attended this primary school until they could both read and write. After children learned how to read and write in both Greek and Latin, they attended secondary, or grammar (grammatistes), school to study grammar and literature. Sometimes, children would learn to read and write at home, which would enable them to bypass the litterator stage and go straight to grammatistes. The Greeks invented formal grammar in the 3rd century BCE, and children in grammar school—whether in Rome or Greece—were taught this system (Hopkins 1993). Grammar school was generally male dominated. Also apart of secondary school, the last form of schooling is the rhetor, which is the likely level that Neilos is currently in. The rhetoric studied in this time of schooling around age fourteen or fifteen would fundamentally shape an adolescent’s mind. This particular schooling allowed students access to a variety of positions of power (Cribiore 2001).As a Roman schoolboy, Theon’s son, would practice rhetoric on highly dramatized cases, which is most likely a good reason for why this letter seems so dramatic.

  • According to Keith Hopkins, author Everyday Life for the Roman Schoolboy, “Some modern scholars criticize Roman elite education as derivative, imitative, intensely conservative, and ritualistic. School, they allege, was not relevant to the real world.”

Such unrealism in education would have no practicality in everyday life and would represent the process of gaining more knowledge simply to distinguish ones’ self from those who have less knowledge. The modern example of this would be a master of Jeopardy who has no other job or abilities but to show others how much he knows. Indeed, Romans had such displays in the form of declamations given by teachers, which were often public performances held for the general public.However, there are many examples of successful application of Greek schooling. For example, Eratosthenes accurately calculated the circumference of the earth in the early 3rd century BCE, and Ptolemy calculated the latitude and longitude of every Roman city while making astronomical calculations based on observation tables compiled before him for thousands of years. In the case of Theon’s son, who is looking for a teacher of good rhetoric and can afford to sail to Alexandria while being very picky about the issue, it is safe to assume that his education is more for the pomp and circumstance required of his social class (Hopkins 1993).

What about female education?

Musonius (c. AD 30—c. 100), a stoic philosopher and Roman knight, argued that men and women have equal capacities for virtue (aretè) and should have equal education opportunities as a result (Joyal 2009). Plato believed that women should aspire to learn more than just housework activities such as wool-work and weaving. He and Aristotle both agreed on the idea of quasi-universal, mandatory elementary education for all children. While schooling was never mandatory in Rome, both male and female children were sent to primary school to learn about to read, write, and (often) play the lyre if their families could afford to do so. As a result, women of the upper classes were more likely to receive schooling than women of lower classes. Anything past primary school was usually seen as unnecessary for a woman because unlike a man, a women’s social status was fairly uninfluenced by further schooling. For example, there is evidence to suggest that while female teachers existed, they were usually of relatively low social background or usually freedwomen. The motivation for such women to fill these positions most likely would have been the step towards independence that education offered them. Women who knew how to read, write, and use arithmetic could run their own businesses and rely less on male assistance in these areas. With that said, it was uncommon for most women to receive anything beyond a primary school education, if that (Cribiore 2001).

To read a further analysis on female literacy, see the link A son's letter to Mom, which includes an original source document in which a son writes a letter home to him mother in the mid-second century AD. At the beginning of his letter, the son writes "You, the man who reads this letter, whoever you are, expend a little effort and translate for the women the matters written down in this letter," suggesting that his mother is either illiterate or physically unable to read the letter. In the document analysis, there is further evidence to suggest that most women were unable to read or write, and that women of the higher classes were more likely (of any women at all) to be literate.

What was a school like?

A schoolroom, taberna and/or pergola, was little more than a simple room in the back of a shop located in the forum. Taberna and pergola both mean shopkeepers booth. Pupils sat on wooden stools while the teacher sat on a high – backed chair, or cathedra. Sometimes the room would contain busts of famous men (Barrow 1976).

Who is the son of Theon?

The son of Theon and author of this letter is named Neilos. In his letter, Neilos explains to his father that he sailed to Alexandria as quickly as possible to find Chairemon the kathegetes and Didymos the son of Aristokles in the hopes of furthering his education; however, Neilos found that these teachers had left the city shortly before his arrival. In his desperation Neilos recommended another teacher to his father who was rejected due to his inadequacy. At that point, Neilos claimed he was left with Didymos, who Neilos believed was only capable of teaching “country bumpkins” (Cribiore 2001).

Was there a shortage of good teachers?

In his letter, Neilos portrays a number of students desperately seeking teachers in Alexandria. His complaints to his father makes it seems as if there are simply no good teachers in the one of Ancient Rome’s most intellectual cities. According to Raffaella Cribiore’s Gymnastics of the Mind, finding a reliable teacher of quality instruction was a burden on male students who wished to continue their rhetorical studies.
  • "The need to find suitable teachers compelled students who lived in Egypt to travel to metropoleis such as Oxyrhynchos, Hermopolis, Antinoe, or to the capital. But Alexandria naturally also attracted students from abroad, who sougth both grammatical and rhetorical instruction. Its prestige as educational center lasted well into late antiquity, and elite families sometimes sent more than one son there, each with different educational needs" (Cribiore 2001).
In his study of rhetoric, a youth would pursue theory in the first year, prose works in the second year, and begin preliminary exercises in the third year. In the fourth and fifth years, a student would reinforce his ability to compose meletai, or discourses. The number of students who actually completed this entire course though was significantly low. Finding a teacher to remain with and satisfy his student during this entire course of study was a difficult task, especially because teachers were only paid half of what they truly deserved according to Barrow’s Greek and Roman Education.That being said, readers of Neilos’ letter should take into account that Neilos is presenting not only his own point of view but also the reality he wished to portray to his father. Alexandria was not lacking in rhetorical instructors as much as Neilos claimed. The city after all was an intellectual hub with the library of Alexandria within walking distance. Libanius, a major historical figure who ran one of the most prestigious schools in the later Roman Empire, writes in his own letters that students were constantly in a state of discontent and shopped around from different teachers until they tour every school and end up back with the teacher they started with in the first place (Or. 43.8). Thus, it is possible that Neilos was simply discontent with most other teachers because the two teachers he had hoped to learn from were no longer an option.

Importance of Pedagogues
Isodorus is particularly important in this letter because he is the pedagogue, or personal body guard, tutor, and helper, of Neilos. Sending one's child far away to study with a pedagogue was one was for parents to ensure that their children would stay on track or have their needs satisfied. This was not always the case though. Some pedagogues could be tyrannical in behavior while under such direct control. Isodorus, however, is not that way. He helps Neilos and his brother through the revolting of their other slave, Heracles.

Care Packages

Similar to how college students today receive care packages from their families, Neilos received a care package from his father, which was a basket containing food, money, and a letter. Today we have UPS and FedEx, but back then there were no well-known package mailing systems. Theon most likely sent his care package to Neilos via emissary or trust worthy traveling acquaintances. Food from the country was usually cheaper than similar products in the city, so this was often a cheaper alternative. In addition, Neilos most likely would have sent his family prized goods only found in the city to his family.

Housing for far away Students

Many students like Neilos would live in the houses of kind hosts or small boarded rooms. Neilos himself didn’t have to rely on hosts from the sound of the letter since he is most likely from an upper class family. In fact, he mentions moving into a bigger place in his letter. For most students away from home though, roommates beyond one’s siblings and slaves were common. In a letter sent home from a student in the 2nd century A.D. (P. Oslo III. 153), a student complains about how his hosts eat more of his food than he does. Even back then, there were roommate problems (Cribiore 2001).

Neilos a college student with too much independence?

On other hand, Isodorus was not able to stop Neilos and his brother from getting into trouble at the theater as mentioned at the beginning of this letter when Neilos thanks his father for his reassurances that Neilos and his brother were not in trouble for some of the disreputable events they participated in at the theater. Looking at the document Tourist graffiti in Egypt (130 CE), we get the impression that Alexandria was a large city full of temptations for youth attending school there similar to the atmosphere of college towns today; therefore, it is easy to see how Neilos could have misused his new found freedom. According to the letter, Neilos’s slave, Heracles, increased his embarrassment by gossiping about what Neilos and his brother did at the theater since Heracles was also there. Despite the fact that both Neilos and his brother swore they treated Heracles favorably, Heracles ran away most presumably back to Theon. Neilos further supports the possibility of foul play by attempting to convince his father that Heracles is a liar.
Furthermore, Neilos's suggestion that he receive part of Heracles's wages once he is put back to work demonstrates that Neilos is well versed in worldly affairs and that he has a strong sense of entitlement.

To see other examples of parent and child relationships, please check out this page: A son's letter to Mom and Illegitimate heirs. In the document "A son's letter to mom," we see another son possibly away from home during his studies, but he also tries to apologize for things done (or possibly not done) while away at school that could have embaressed his family. In particular, this similiarity between the two letters demonstrates the importance of maintaining the family name. In the document "Illigitimate heirs," the writer of the will demonstrates how money does not need to travel through the blood line (similar to today in the United States). Children can be disinherited and never even have a chance at receiving schooling in such a case. Just as it is today, a child’s education is extremely dependent on his or her parents, especially since schooling was not required by Roman law during this time period (Joyal 2009). Another example would be if a child found himself in an abusive family, such as in the document Domestic Abuse. In this document, it is likely that the child was at a disadvantage among his schooled peers because the father cared little for anyone other than himself.

Lingering Questions:
(1) Why does Theon reject Neilos's option for a teacher? Was it common for parents to reject teachers?
(2) What does the "high priest" position mean in terms of Theon? What does he do exactly? How influential is he?
(3) How comparable is the secondary school life to a modern college student's life today?

May 19th Original Questions:
1. Where is Theon's son at this time?
2. Who is the son of Theon? Why is he primarily concerned with finding a teacher?
3. What is the schooling system of Rome like around this time? Differences between the classes?
4. What were the major events happening around this time? Especially those that could lead to a shortage of good teachers? Or why are Theon and his son so picky about teachers?
5. Who are the people he mentioned other than himself and his father? Brothers, teachers, gods? If gods, were they Roman gods and what were the gods of?
6. Why did Theon reject the teacher? Is that a common occurance?
7. Does the theatre refer to an actual theatre?
8. Why did Chairon the teacher [kathegetes] and Didymus, son of Aristocles, leave the city (Didymus to Alexandria specifically)? Does it have to do with the library of Alexandria? Who was Aristocles? Was he important? Who was Didymus? Was he important?
9. What is the son of Theon studying? Does this subject of study seem more accessible to the rich or poor?
10. Did one of Theon's slaves run away?

Works Cited:

Barrow, Robin. Inside the Ancient World: Greek and Roman Education. MacMillan London, 1976. Print.

Cribiore, Raffaella. Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, (Princeton, 2001).

Cribiore, Raffaella. The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Hopkins, Keith. "Everyday Life for the Roman Schoolboy." History Today 43.10 (1993): 25-30. Http:www.historytoday.com/. History Today Ltd. Web. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=cd0118a1-a3ed-43b3-bb08-3f0f7dd897e8%40sessionmgr113&vid=1&hid=111&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=30h&AN=9311027633.

Joyal, Mark, Iain McDougall, and John Yardley. Greek and Roman Education: a Sourcebook//. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

First of all, great job on the research and analysis - it's abundantly clear that you put a lot of time and effort into thoroughly documenting and interpreting a complex and often vague document. Of all the documents I read, yours left me with the clearest overall impression of what exactly was going on, and what the broader context would have been behind this document's production. I almost laughed (in a good way) as I began to understand the document via your excellent exegesis - Neilos' letter sounds a whole lot like a long text message home to mom and dad from a modern-day college student, letting them know he'd gotten the care package they sent and explaining away his failed exams as everyone else's fault (while neglecting to mention the detrimental effect of last weekend's party at Sigma Nu). Well done!

Just to clarify, are the questions you answer as bold-faced subheadings under the "Analysis" section your original research questions? I assumed that they were, but it might be nice for the reader/grader to know for sure.

Other than that, it looks like you mostly covered everything we'd ever need to know on this topic. Just from my perspective - although you certainly don't need to include this - I would have been interested to know a little more about how goods and letters would have gotten from Theon to Neilos and back again; in other words, a little more about how this document (and Neilos' care package) was actually transmitted. There are also a few very minor spelling and grammatical errors, but I'm sure you'll have those taken care of by the time of the final draft. Overall, terrific job!

Miles Unterreiner

Great insight into Roman education. I was wondering when reading this if there were other means of schooling/education that didn't require having a personal teacher. Did they have classroom-like settings as well?
-Eric Smith

There's barely anything I can suggest. I really like everything you did with your document. The only thing I wish you had spoken a bit more about is female education. You mention it briefly and I feel that it'd be better if you give us a little bit more info or just don't mention it at all. Also when you mentioned the women it felt a little awkward. Maybe adding a small paragraph elaborating on that topic will make it easier to read. Other than that... have nothing to say. Quality stuff... I'm kind of worried about my document now...
-Gaby Quintana