In the early Republic, there were no public schools, so boys were taught to read and write by their parents, or by educated slaves, called paedagogi, usually of Greek origin. The primary aim of education during this period was to train young men in agriculture, warfare, Roman traditions, and public affairs. Young boys learned much about civic life by accompanying their fathers to religious and political functions, including the Senate for the sons of nobles. The sons of nobles were apprenticed to a prominent political figure at the age of 16, and campaigned with the army from the age of 17 (this system was still in use among some noble families into the imperial era).

Educational practices were modified after the conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the 3rd century BCE and the resulting Greek influence, although it should be noted that Roman educational practices were still much different from Greek ones. If their parents could afford it, boys and some girls at the age of 7 were sent to a private school outside the home called a ludus, where a teacher (called a litterator or a magister ludi, and often of Greek origin) taught them basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and sometimes Greek, until the age of 11.

Beginning at age 12, students went to secondary schools, where the teacher (now called a grammaticus) taught them about Greek and Roman literature. At the age of 16, some students went on to rhetoric school (where the teacher, usually Greek, was called a rhetor). Education at this level prepared students for legal careers, and required that the students memorize the laws of Rome. At the top of the Roman education system were academies, the most famous being the one in Alexandria. Pupils went to school every day, except religious festivals and market days. There were also summer holidays.