Our Little Roman Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles


"Are you sure my tablet and stylus are in the box, Glaucon?" asked Marcus, as they reached the school.

"Yes," answered Glaucon, "and your reckoning stones, too," and he handed to Marcus the box which he had been carrying.

Tullius took his box from Aulus, and the three boys entered the open building which was their school.

This building, which was called a pergula, had only a roof resting upon pillars, with no side walls. The boys had no books, for this was nearly two thousand years ago, and a printed book had never been seen.

"I understand that Faustus, who lives next door, has complained of the noise of our school, and says that we waken him too early in the morning," said Tullius to Marcus.

"If he would keep earlier hours at night, he would not mind wakening early in the morning," replied Marcus with a laugh.

"But cock-crowing is  pretty early in the morning," exclaimed Lucius with a shake of his head, as he set down the lantern which he had carried and tried to make its sputtering wick burn more brightly.

"If we lived in a northern city," said the master, who had heard Lucius' remark, "we should not need to rise so early, for then we could play or work all through the day. But here in Rome, where it is so hot that every one must rest through the middle of the day, we should not have time to learn much if we did not get to school before daylight."

Marcus and Tullius, who were thirteen, took their places with the older boys. Lucius, who was only seven, sat with the beginners, for this was the age at which the boys of Rome entered school.

There were no desks in the room. The teacher, or master, sat in a chair upon a raised platform. Each of the boys had a bench, with a stool for his feet so that his knees could be used for a desk.

After all were in their places, the master left his chair and, going from one pupil to another, wrote a maxim at the top of each boy's tablet.

The tablet was not a block of paper, for no one had heard of paper in those days. It was very much like a slate, with a light wooden frame, but the part inside the frame was covered with smooth wax.

Writing was done by cutting letters in the wax surface with a stylus. The stylus was long and slender in shape, pointed at one end and flat at the other. The writing was done with the pointed end. When a mistake was made, or a lesson was to be erased, the wax was rubbed smooth with the flat end.

As they had no books, the boys studied both reading and writing from their tablets.

"Marcus, the son of Gaius, may read his maxim," called the master, when all the copies had been written.

Marcus arose and read, speaking distinctly and carefully.

"Very good," said the master. "Marcus will be able to speak before the Senate when he is a man."

Marcus flushed with pleasure, for no greater praise than this could be given him. He, like every Roman boy of good birth, hoped that some day he might occupy a seat in the Senate, and so he was careful to speak correctly and distinctly at all times.

After the reading lesson was finished, the pupils made many copies of the maxim upon their tablets. The form of the letters which these Roman boys used, so long ago, was the same as our English letters, but the language used was Latin.

Before the lessons in reading and writing were finished, the sun arose, and the sputtering lights of the lanterns were put out.

Then came recess, and the boys played games, and ate the breakfasts that they had brought with them.

After recess the pupils took their reckoning stones from their boxes, ready for the lesson in arithmetic. This was a hard study for a Roman boy, because of the Roman numbers which were used.

You will see some of the Roman numbers at the beginning of the chapters of this book, and you probably know that V means five, X means ten, L means fifty, and C means one hundred. In order to write the number one hundred and twenty-four, instead of writing 124, Marcus had to write CXXIV. Now, if you will try to subtract thirty-seven—wh0ch is XXXVII—from CXXIV, you will begin to see why Roman arithmetic was such a hard study.

The pupils began the study of arithmetic by using the reckoning stones. These were smooth stones which were counted up to the number given by the master. This number was then divided by separating the stones into groups; or it was added to by placing other stones with the number first given.

As the boys grew older, they learned to solve quite hard problems by mental arithmetic. They also had a curious way of using their fingers to help themselves when figuring.

"I am glad I do not have to study arithmetic with my fingers," said Lucius, on the way home from school. "I cannot understand that, at all. But it is great fun to count with the reckoning stones."