In the earliest times the education of young Romans was probably confined to instruction in dancing and music, though they became acquainted with the processes of agriculture by being called upon to practise them in company with their elders. It was not long before the elementary attainments of reading, writing, and counting were brought within their reach, even among the lower orders and the slaves, and we know that it was thought important to make the latter class proficient in many departments of scholarship.

The advance in the direction of real mental culture was, however, not great until after the contact with Greece. So long as the Romans remained a strong and self-centred people, deriving little but tribute from peoples beyond the Italian peninsula, and looking with disdain upon all outside that limit, there was not much to stimulate their mental progress; but when contrast with another civilization showed that there was much power to be gained by knowledge, it was naturally more eagerly sought. The slaves and other foreigners, to whom the instruction of the children was assigned, were familiar with the Greek language, and it had the great advantage over Latin of being the casket in which an illustrious literature was preserved. For this reason Roman progress in letters was founded upon that of Greece.

The Roman parent for a long time made the Twelve Tables the text-book from which his children were taught, thus giving them a smattering of reading, of writing, and of the laws of the land at once. Roman authorship and the study of grammar, however, were about coincident in their beginnings with the temporary cessation of war and the second closing of the temple of Janus. Cato the elder prepared manuals for the instruction of youth (or, perhaps, one manual in several parts), which gave his views on morals, oratory, medicine, war, and agriculture (a sort of encyclopædia), and a history entitled Origines, which recounted the traditions of the kings, told the story of the origin of the Italian towns, of the Punic wars, and of other events down to the time of his own death. [Footnote: See page 153. "Cato's encyclopædia... was little more than an embodiment of the old Roman household knowledge, and truly when compared with the Hellenic culture of the period, was scanty enough." - MOMMSEN, bk. IV., ch. 12.] This seems to have originated in the author's natural interest in the education of his son, a stimulating cause of much literature of the same kind since.

The Roman knowledge of medicine came first from the Etruscans, to whom they are said to have owed so much other culture, and subsequently from the Greeks. The first person to make a distinct profession of medicine at Rome, however, was not an Etruscan, but a Greek, named Archagathus, who settled there in the year 219, just before the second Punic war broke out. He was received with great respect, and a shop was bought for him at the public expense; but his practice, which was largely surgical, proved too severe to be popular. In earlier days the father had been the family physician, and Cato vigorously reviled the foreign doctors, and like the true conservative that he was, strove to bring back the good old times that his memory painted; but his efforts did not avail, and the professional practice of the healing art not only became one of the most lucrative in Rome, but remained for a long period almost a monopoly in the hands of foreigners. Science, among the latest branches of knowledge to be freed from the swaddling-clothes of empiricism, received, in its applied form, some attention, though mathematics and physics were not specially favored as subjects of investigation.

The progress of Roman culture is distinctly shown by a comparison of the curriculum of Cato with that of Marcus Terentius Varro, a long-time friend of Cicero, though ten years his senior. [Footnote: Varro is said to have written of his youth. "For me when a boy there sufficed a single rough coat and a single undergarment, shoes without stockings, a horse without a saddle. I had no daily warm bath, and but seldom a river bath." Still, he utters warnings against over-feeding and over-sleeping, as well as against cakes and high living, pointing to his own youthful training, and says that dogs were in his later years more judiciously cared for than children.] Varro obtained from Quintilian the title "the most learned of the Romans," and St. Augustine said that it was astonishing that he could write so much, and that one could scarcely believe that anybody could find time even to read all that he wrote. He was proscribed by the triumvirs at the same time that Cicero was, but was fortunate enough to escape and subsequently to be placed under the protection of Augustus. Cato thought that a proper man ought to study oratory, medicine, husbandry, war, and law, and was at liberty to look into Greek literature a little, that he might cull from the mass of chaff and rubbish, as he affected to deem it, some serviceable maxims of practical experience, but he might not study it thoroughly. Varro extended the limit of allowed and fitting studies to grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture.