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Journal of Ancient History

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Pupil Punishment: corporal discipline in Roman education

Anna McGrail
Published Online: 2016-11-30 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jah-2015-0013


Though citizens of the Roman Empire were theoretically immune from corporal punishment, their children certainly were not. The bulla of citizenship worn around their necks did not save them from physical discipline in the classroom. Moreover, the punishments meted out to pupils were akin to both slave and criminal punishment, the very act of corporal punishment suggesting slave status. In a society in which honour played an important role, why would citizen parents allow their children to be treated in such a way? Even tools and methods used, such as the “rack and claws,” suggest this association between beatings and slavery (Aug. Conf. 1.9.15). Such ambiguity of status begs a deeper analysis of the place of children in the Roman world and the nature and purpose of violence against them. Through analysis of a variety of visual and literary evidence I argue that due to certain facets of virtus, the paterfamilias was more inclined to outsource the punishment of his children to those of the perceived correct social standing to carry it out, which I believe to have been teachers. This thesis is based on the evidence of slaves being used to whip other slaves and undertakers carrying out the torture and execution of criminals. Furthermore, I suggest that this apparently shameful treatment of the children of citizens could actually have been seen in the light of virtus: the attainment of manhood through pain, such as is found in the ambivalent status of gladiators and their martial “honour” (Cic. Tusc Disp. 2.17.41).

Keywords: Children; corporal punishment; virtus; education; teachers


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About the article

Published Online: 2016-11-30

Published in Print: 2016-12-01

Citation Information: Journal of Ancient History, Volume 4, Issue 2, Pages 240–264, ISSN (Online) 2324-8114, ISSN (Print) 2324-8106, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jah-2015-0013.

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