Alison John |

A few weeks ago, I volunteered at Professor Eleanor Dickey’s Ancient Schoolroom (at the University of Reading) where I had the rare opportunity to see my research come to life. I wanted to participate in the Schoolroom because I hugely admire Professor Dickey’s research and I thought it would be fun. I had no idea how beneficial it would be for my teaching skills and my own PhD.

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is unique in Britain (and the world), and is the closest thing to experiencing ancient education, barring actual time-travel. Since my PhD thesis is a cultural history of education in Late Roman Gaul, I jumped at the chance to take part!

Everything in and about the Schoolroom – from the clothing students and teachers wear, the appearance of the classroom, to the exercises and materials used – is as authentic as possible. Professor Dickey has thought of everything and has drawn on her extensive research on ancient school texts and education in order to create this incredible experience. Every aspect of the Schoolroom is based on primary evidence from the ancient world.

The rationale behind the Schoolroom to show modern schoolchildren (aged 10 – 14) how ancient education worked. The school was based on schools in the forth-century AD, as this is the time and place where we have the most evidence about ancient education. We set up a replica ancient Schoolroom, complete with poems painted on the schoolroom walls, a straw-strewn floor and fake windows with a view of the Nile.

Before entering the Schoolroom, students and teachers had to dress like Romans. This meant tunics, Roman shoes (amazingly comfy and available from the Roman Shop), and taking off anything modern, including glasses and watches. Like I said, everything had to be strictly authentic!

Once kitted out, students would enter the Schoolroom one at a time. This is important as unlike modern classrooms, in the Ancient world there was no set time for school to begin. Students would arrive whenever they wanted, as an ancient teacher did not teach a group of students all at once. Instead, each student would approach a teacher individually, and would be handed their task. The student would progress at his or her own pace, and come back to the teacher for corrections and guidance.

The activities that Professor Dickey designed for the students were brilliant! She adapted authentic ancient educational methods and activities for the modern student including  reading aloud, copying out and memorizing poems, beginner and advanced Latin, and Roman maths.

When the students arrived, they would be given a papyrus roll with a section from Dryden’s seventeenth-century translation of the Iliad. The teacher would explain to the student that the text was all in capital letters, with no spaces and no punctuation, because this is how ancient Romans wrote and read (yep, punctuation is a modern thing!). To make it as authentic as possible Dryden’s translation of the Iliad was chosen specifically, because for us the language is archaic students in the fourth-century AD would have read Homer’s Iliad in the original ancient Greek, a text that would have felt archaic to them, as it was composed in the 8th century BC. The students were expected to read the text and understand the meanings and nuances of the words, grammatical forms, dialect differences, etc. Just like ancient students, our modern schoolchildren sometimes struggled with words or phrases. The students would take the scroll away, work out what the text said, and practice reading it aloud until they could read it fluently and answer questions about the text. Reading aloud is key, as that is how ancient Romans (and Greeks) read. And it’s harder than it seems– especially when you are reading something in an unfamiliar language – in capital letters without spaces or punctuation!

The students were then asked to copy out the poems painted on the walls using ancient writing materials. Again, Professor Dickey chose texts by poets such as Shakespeare and Tennyson in order to imitate how ancient students would learn traditional canonical Greek and/or Latin texts in their own schoolrooms. The students copied out poems first on a wax tablet with a stylus, then on an ostracon (a sherd of pottery) with a reed pen and ink. They would then practice reading it aloud and recite it to the teacher. The teacher would then ask comprehension questions to make sure they understood the poem. We wanted students to learn how to handle and use ancient writing materials, as well as to understand why such materials were used in the ancient world.

Next we would do memorization exercises. The students found this quite challenging, but it was an integral part of ancient education. Again, students chose a poem from the wall, memorized as much of it as possible, before reciting it to a teacher and answering comprehension questions.

We also offered Latin classes for those who wanted them, and these were based on bilingual school texts from the ancient world. The text is essentially a line-by-line translation, organized into two columns. The first column was Latin, and the second column English (or, in the ancient world, Greek). The students had to try to work out what each Latin word meant by looking at the facing English translation. This is exactly how language learners in the ancient world learned a second language.

In addition to our lessons, one of the volunteers had researched and made a variety of different Roman recipes that the students could sample.


For my part, I designed and delivered two lessons, on Roman graffiti, and the Greek language. In the graffiti lesson we talked about what graffiti is, the different types of graffiti that remain from the Ancient world and why studying graffiti is an important way to learn about ancient Romans. The students were also able to produce their own graffiti using quill pens and ink.

In the Greek lesson we learned the alphabet. I divided the lesson into two parts. For the first half, I taught the alphabet the modern way, giving background information and explanations and tried to make meaningful connections to what they already know. We then talked about the history of the alphabet and the different mythical explanations the Ancient Greeks themselves had for the creation of their alphabet. Then in accordance with ancient educational methods we learned the alphabet the ancient way –students had a piece of papyrus with each letter and the name of the letter underneath . They would then copy them out individually saying aloud the name of the letter. We know that this is how students learned the alphabet in the ancient world because Quintilian tells us (Quint. Inst. 1.1.25-29)!

I absolutely loved every minute of volunteering at the Reading Ancient Schoolroom. It was so much fun to teach the students, and I really valued the opportunity Professor Dickey gave me to create and deliver my own lessons on Roman graffiti and Ancient Greek. The experience has also given me new insights into my PhD research. Being immersed in the Ancient Schoolroom has provided a new dimension to my research and has changed the way I read texts about ancient education or by ancient teachers.

By actually experiencing what a schoolroom would have been like, I am better able to understand how education worked, and what the teachers and students I write about experienced. And I’ve already put what I’ve learned into practice! I have always suspected that one of my subjects was not, as is widely presumed, a teacher, although never been able to explain why. While teaching in the ancient schoolroom it dawned on me that he couldn’t possibly have been a teacher, since the way that he is described in the primary material does not fit with how ancient schoolteachers conducted their lessons.

As you can see, all I have is praise for this venture. As a volunteer I had so much fun, got to develop my teaching skills, and it helped my PhD research. The students who came to the Schoolroom had an amazing time and it is incredibly inspirational to see how Professor Dickey has been able to share her research so effectively and make ancient education come alive in the modern world.

(All photos © Alex Wickenden)

Alison John is in the third year of her PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. She researches the cultural history education in Late Antique Gaul. For more information on the Ancient Schoolroom please click here