In the early days of Rome children were taught by their parents or, if possible, an educated slave - whether a slave of his own or that of someone who permitted the children of friends and neighbours to come to his house at fixed hours and be taught elementary subject with his own children. For this a fee was paid to the parent or presents were given to the slave. It was not long before schools were established. These were not set up in special buildings; rather, they were frequently set up in an open room like a shop, or in a gallery attached to a public building, roofed against sun and rain but open toward the street. The only furnishings were rough backless benches.
Elementary and grammar schools were open to anyone. Fees were low, varying from three dollars a year for an elementary pupil to five or six times as much for a grammar-school student, varying according to the qualifications of the master and supplemented by little gifts from students. Attendance were not compulsory, and the schools had nothing to do with the government. No distinction was made between the upper class children and those of lower classes. Pupils were mostly boys. Teachers were usually freedman, so the position was not considered honourable. A boy of good family was attended by a paedagogus (Greek for child leader), a trustworthy slave (usually Greek) who escorted him to and from school, serving as protector, companion, adviser, and director. Sometimes other slaves accompanied a pupil.
Since the school day began before sunrise, pupils brought candles for the time before dawn (schools' ceilings were generally quite black from the smoke). Classes went until lunch and was resumed after the afternoon siesta. The school year began regularly on the 24th of March. There were many holidays, including the Saturnalia (Dec. 17 until several days later) and the Quinquatria (March 19th - 23rd). There was no school on great religious festivals or market days. Discipline in Roman schools was rough. Horace brought fame to his teacher Orbilius by referring to him as plagosus ('thrasher').
Elementary schools taught only reading (pronunciation was greatly stressed, with lessons involving pupils repeating back the greatly exaggerated words of their teachers), writing (pupils wrote capital letters - lower case did not yet exist - using wax tablets and a stylus, or pointed piece of wood, bone, or metal shaped like a pencil. Eventually they would move on to a reed pen and ink on papyrus.), and arithmetic (using, naturally, Roman numerals - and occasionally an abacus).
The chief subject studied in grammar schools was grammatica, including not only grammar but also literature and simple literary criticism. The teacher of a Roman grammar school was called grammaticus. Homer's epics were standard textbooks. Study was fragmentary and disconnected because there was no systematic study. Eventually Latin came to be studied in these schools as well as Greek. There was very little to study, until the third century B.C., when a Greek slave-teacher named Livius Andronicus translated the Odyssey into Latin. Enunciation was an important part of the teachings of these schools, because of the significance of oratory at Rome. Some schools also taught the elements of rhetoric, but technical instruction in that subject was not given until early in the first century B.C., when special schools of rhetoric were established. Music and geometry were also generally taught at grammar schools.
Schools of rhetoric were formed on Greek lines and conducted by Greek teachers. They were close to our colleges. Most students were young men, usually from wealthy families. The subjects studied included the study of prose authors and sometimes of philosophy, but the main work was the practice of composition.
Young men of noble and wealthy families, or those whose talents promised a brilliant future, often followed a stint at a school of rhetoric with travel and residence abroad. Favourite destinations were Greece, Rhodes, and Asia Minor. Athens offered the greatest attractions for serious study.
No provision was made for formal training in certain subjects essential to successful public life - jurisprudence, administration, diplomacy, military tactics. Apprenticing was the natural answer to this - Cicero studied law under Quintus Mucius Scaevola, the most eminent jurist of the time, and later he had his own apprentices. This arrangement was honourable for both student and instructor. Governors of provinces and generals in the field were attended by a voluntary staff of young men whom they took with them, at state expense, for personal or political reasons.
Most of those young man who managed to complete their education, including school, travel and further training. Horace is of course an exception. His father, though a poor freedman, sent him to study at Athens and was rewarded by Horace's literary success.