Auctores Obscuri: Marcellinus the Count

Perhaps now, in this climate of intense partisanship, might be a suitable time to examine with our students how two individuals can observe the same event from very different perspectives.  The descriptions of the death of Clodius presented by Cicero and Asconius are a good illustration of this, and one with which most of us are probably familiar.  Today, however, I would like to recommend a similar passage from less commonly-read author — Marcellinus the Count.

Marcellinus, a contemporary of the emperor Justinian, was a veteran of the complex bureaucracy of the Eastern Empire, and composed his Chronicon in the first half of the 6th century AD.  This succinct chronicle covers major events occurring between 367 and 534 (with some later entries added by another, anonymous author).  Marcellinus will usually mention two or three events for each year, along with the names of the consuls, and each event usually receives a description of no more than a sentence or two, such as:

(445) Bleda, rex Hunnorum, Attilae fratris sui insidiis interimitur.

(467) Leo imperator Anthemium patricium Romam misit imperatoremque constituit.

(493) bella civilia adversus Anastasii regnum apud Constantinopolim gesta sunt.  statuae regis reginaeque funibus ligatae atque per urbem tractae.

(520) Vitalianus consul, septimo mense consulatus sui sedecim vulneribus confossus, in palatio cum Celeriano et Paulo satellitibus suis interemptus est.

Near the end of his original chronicle, for the year 532, Marcellinus provides one of his lengthier entries – a description of the Nika Riots.  With the spark being lit by the resentment of the chariot-factions, the Blues and the Greens, this uprising soon flares up into an attempt to topple Justinian’s regime, and is suppressed only through unrestrained violence.  As with the descriptions of Clodius’ demise given by Cicero and Asconius, we have slightly different representations of the Nika Riots provided by two authors – Marcellinus (the relevant passage can be found at the end of this document) and Procopius (his account can be read here).  If students were to read and compare both accounts, no doubt the most obvious contrast would be seen in how Hypatius and Pompeius, the nephews of the former emperor Anastasius who are selected by the rioters as Justinian’s replacements, are depicted.  In the work of Marcellinus, who seems to have enjoyed a successful career under the rule of a fellow Illyrian, they appear as arrogant and bloodthirsty usurpers; on the other hand, in Procopius, an author who would spew much venom against Justinian and Theodora in his Secret History, they are dragged into the rebellion against their will, with Hypatius’ wife tearfully attempting to save her husband.

Quid Agitur? (October 16th)

Please check the News page on this site to see what’s going on in the world of CANE in the upcoming months!

Classicists in Connecticut should note that they have two annual meetings coming up this month!  First, the Annual Meeting of the Classical Association of Connecticut (ClassCon) will be held on October 22nd at the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School.  Then, on October 24th, the Connecticut Council of Language Teachers will be holding their annual gathering in scenic Cromwell, CT.  Click the links above for more info!

L.A.R.P. in the Classroom

L.A.R.P. stands for “Live Action Role Playing.” It may sound odd, but chances are good that if you’ve ever run a classroom you have asked students to dress like, write like, act like, or argue in the mindset of a historical figure or fictional character. These active, imaginative modes of imitation speak to the essence of L.A.R.P. A few years ago I decided to implement some L.A.R.P. tactics in my middle school classroom.

I learned about extended classroom role playing projects at a teaching seminar in the summer of 2014; we discussed RTTP (Reacting to the Past) pedagogy embraced and developed at Barnard College in which students take on roles of historical figures and engage in debates about events as they are revealed by the “Gamemaster” (i.e., the professor). Students use primary and secondary sources in order to inform their discussions. In the seminar, we talked about potential benefits of this kind of activity. Some suggested that taking on a role in history would increase level of student interest and engagement with the important questions of history. Students might learn to feel more empathy for others. The activity could also promote independent thinking and curiosity, provide practice with communication, and promote literacy skills involved in interpreting primary and secondary sources. With hopes set high, a colleague and I decided to implement a version of RTTP at the middle school level in our own classrooms.

Inspired by one of the Barnard programs, we assigned each student a role in the Roman senate and played out debates in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. I won’t go into the nitty gritty here, but ultimately, many of our desired results were achieved. Students became excited about the classical history and the class. They dove into primary sources and historical events. They sought out their own answers for questions and discoursed with their peers. They understood key points about the history. I was even able to rope in some language content and concepts using “graffiti” projects and short Latin compositions.

The challenges of this activity had to do with planning and implementing a project of this size in the time allotted. A protracted game with complex characters took many steps to set up. Scaffolding was key and takes time. Three years now using a similar project has resulted in my cutting down what students need to know to the most important points, reformatting all of the primary source materials, and focusing in on how to best “debrief” debates in order to avoid anyone going away with the impression that Caesar’s body was dumped into the Tiber. It took ample preparation to maintain continuity between debates, try to create meaningful assessments and assess students’ work, and role play during class time.

After discussing this project at length with my colleague from the seminar and with other teachers at school, I have come to a couple of conclusions about this level of role playing in the classroom. These may already be quite obvious to you!

  • It’s worth it. Most students enjoy role playing. They get into the ideas and they like to be empowered in their roles.
  • Students don’t always understand the activity. They need resources that clearly show them how to become this other person and frequent review of how to engage with their peers. A fishbowl framework will be my strategy this year.
  • The activity should either be everything you do in class, encompassing language learning and cultural units, or downsized to be a much smaller learning activity to spice up your classroom like a Saturnalia celebration. Balancing a sizable role playing agenda with separately language learning is a difficult task.

I would be excited to hear about your experiences, strategies, and opinions concerning classroom role playing in the comments or at C.A.N.E. this year.