Martial on the Decline of Liberal Education (5.58)

“Lupus, you ask long and anxiously to what teacher you should entrust your son. I advise you to avoid all teachers and professors: don’t let him have anything to do with the books of Cicero or Vergil. Let him leave Tutilius to his own reputation. If he writes verses, you will disown him as a poet. Does he want to learn a more… pecuniary skill? Make him learn to be a lute player or a flute player; if he seems a bit on the untalented side, just make him an auctioneer or a builder.”


Cui tradas, Lupe, filium magistro
quaeris sollicitus diu rogasque.
Omnes grammaticosque rhetorasque
deuites moneo: nihil sit illi
cum libris Ciceronis aut Maronis;              5
famae Tutilium suae relinquat;
si uersus facit, abdices poetam.
Artes discere uolt pecuniosas?
Fac discat citharoedus aut choraules;
si duri puer ingeni uidetur,              10
praeconem facias uel architectum.

3 thoughts on “Martial on the Decline of Liberal Education (5.58)

  1. The poem talks about issues that have a certain resonance with contemporary educational concerns. But he’s not talking about the “decline” of liberal education, but the rejection of the study of literary works in favor of something more “practical”. This has always been a concern, but the declining numbers of majors in many disciplines of both the humanities (e.g., Classics, history, English) and even the social sciences has been particularly noticeable since the financial problems of 2008. As students (and/or their parents) keep asking, “What job can I/Johnny get with that major?” Martial (or at least the persona he adopts in this poem) already knows the answer to that question, and is telling this parent to make sure Johnny goes into something he can get a job with!

    1. It is certainly true that Martial’s intent was not to write about the ‘decline’ of the liberal arts as we understand it, and I confess that I chose a somewhat provocative title by way of appropriating the poem to address a modern concern. I am inclined to read this poem as outright mockery of those who would educate their children in practical skills alone, but I wonder whether there is more to it than that. If you can take Juvenal’s ‘semper ego auditor tantum’ poem as evidence, perhaps too many people were applying themselves to the study (and production) of literary works with something less than the enlightening result which might be hoped for!

Leave a Reply