Feature Posts

In Praise of Mnemosyne in the Classroom

Virtually all of us teach Latin, Greek, or both to beginning students. We constantly encourage and press these students (indeed all our students) to work at retaining both meanings and morphology for each word, as knowledge of these is essential for understanding a word in a sentence context. And we evaluate and grade their ability to accomplish this, often through quizzes and tests.

But many of us are acutely aware of the limitations of pencil-and-paper assessment tools. Vocabulary quizzes test words often without context and often through translation, and passage translation testing (15% of the total on the current Latin AP exam) encourages many students to maximize their knowledge of an English translation of what they have read at the expense of their knowledge of the original text.

I think anyone who has taught Latin to high school students for several years is well aware of these problems, and indeed of others, like the suddenly high frustration and burnout rate for students of traditional programs in third-year Latin. As teachers, we all want to do our best for our students. But the temptation to teach what you know and how you were taught is very great. Some very good teachers of elementary Latin are content to teach in the same way, with the same materials, throughout their career. Other good teachers have moments of insight and revelation that engenders change.

A true story: I often think of a teacher whose workshop at an annual meeting I attended many years ago (this was in another part of the country). This teacher was offering strategies to make third year Latin a happier experience for all involved. But first she told this story on herself: she had fallen asleep in class as she was teaching the First Catilinarian. She knew she really had been asleep because her head was on the desk, and all her students were staring at her in mute fascination. She maintained that she was so bored (and boring) that she had put herself to sleep. And she was honest enough to say that this moment forced her to really think about what she loved about Classics, and how well she was sharing that love with students.

Personally, I’m a big believer in memorization and recitation of notable texts, both on the level of the “quotable quote” and on the much more extended level of a dramatic soliloquy, as a graded assessment on a par with a test. First, it’s a great way for students to practice and develop good, consistent pronunciation habits in a way different from reading a text aloud (i.e. no visual processing). Second, it encourages students to think about and understand Latin words in their actual order, as they come out in real time, in the context of a whole phrase or sentence. This is something they should be doing in any case, of course; but not many students do. Third it encourages students to think about which words in a sentence are emphasized and which words are not.

I wonder how many state JCL meetings include Latin recitation contests in their academic competitions. I expect the issue is objective judging. I agree with someone who would argue that it is not fair to penalize a student whose Latin sounds like (is phonetically indistinguishable from) English because that’s how their teacher reads aloud. But it’s not impossible to come up with a list of consistent pronunciation features that would be the basis for judging (e.g. correct word stress, articulation of double consonants, distinction between long and short vowels).

I feel so strongly about the value of memorization and recitation because of the difference it made in my own knowledge of Greek. As an undergraduate, I was involved in two full-scale productions of Greek tragedy in Greek, playing the Chorus Leader in Sophocles’ Ajax and the Chorus Leader and the Second Messenger in Antigone. This required memorizing hundreds of lines of Greek for unison recitation–essentially choral performance in the modern sense without a composed melody. After learning and performing these roles, I knew Greek in a completely different way: first, reading a Greek text aloud was no longer a challenge; what Bill VanPatten and others call my “mental representation” of Greek was vastly richer and more sophisticated. In effect, I subconsciously “knew” where a word was going through a combination of silent reading and recognition of word patterns. And second, I really had assimilated a great chunk of vocabulary.

I’d also like to add a word for memorizing a number of maxims, as well as notable literary quotes. Learning sayings is a great way to absorb aspects of a culture.

I was lucky to have a formidable guide to Russian aphorisms when I was studying Russian, one Catherine Wolkonsky, who co-authored a very useful if unsystematic Handbook of Russian Roots published in the early 1960’s.
I met her the second-to-last year she taught, in 1984, when she was 88. Although her short-term memory was rather a mess, it hardly mattered to me, as Yekaterina Aleksandrovna, as we called her, was a living link to the Tolstoy family (she had been secretary and companion to Aleksandra Tolstaya, Count Leo’s youngest daughter). Madame Wolkonsky’s two unassailable assets were 1) irrepressible charm and humor and 2) the “Old Petersburg” accent, the Russian upper-class way of speaking before the Revolution. She also taught me that many Russian aphorisms, which almost always rhyme, are rooted in the barnyard and folk tale: “Love is mean (or evil)–you can fall in love with a billy goat!” “Sorrow awaits–swing wide the gates!”

Of course, a Roman Madame Wolkonsky would be awfully hard to find. But in compensation we have perhaps 2200 years of Latin aphorisms to delight in.

A Bold Move at Cornell 2

Game changers in Classics are a rare event. I remember very well the stir the Gallus papyrus fragment caused in 1979. Here, for perhaps the second time in modern history (the other being P.Herc 817, a papyrus from the Villa of The Papyri in Herculaneum, containing a poem on the Battle of Actium), we had a fragment of a literary text that was copied within a generation or two of the life of the author.

The Gallus fragment increased our corpus of the poet’s work from one line to about 10 total.

Such notable discoveries however often scatter confusion where we thought matters were pretty well understood. In the 38 years since its publication, the Gallus fragment has generated more heat than light–perhaps because it does not clearly support the esteem Gallus’s work received from subsequent Roman poets. An accusation of forgery has been leveled against it (and refuted). And the orthography found in it is surprising, to say the least. If we took the orthography as definitive, every Latin text would need republication. I for one like the fact that it spells cum the conjunction quom. Effecting this one change in orthography could save our students tantam molem of frustration. Sed satis de minimis.

Another event, which I also see as a game changer, has burst into the world of Classics in the last month or so. Cornell University has announced the appointment of Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher as a “Professor of the Practice” in Latin, beginning in the fall of this year.

This last sentence needs unpacking. Professors of the Practice (the exact name varies from institution to institution) are a fairly new innovation which allows the university to offer a reasonably well-salaried but non-tenure-track position to persons of note and achievement in a particular field outside of academia. On the plus side, it allows universities to invite these noteworthies into their communities without expectation of writing and publishing academic research. On the minus side, it’s a way of circumventing tenured hires, which saves a lot of money. These P’s of the P have mostly come from IT, business, law, medicine and politics (Joe Biden has accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania, for example). Hiring a P of the P in the humanities is very unusual.

Soon-to-be-Professor Gallagher is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, MI. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the Catholic University of America, and the Pontifical Gregorian University. He has worked for more than a decade at the Office of Latin Letters at the Vatican Secretariat of State as the Pope’s chief Latinist.

The purpose of this hire is, quoting Gallagher, “to enhance pedagogy and the student experience.  My assignment isn’t just teaching them how to compose in Latin, but how to read better, how to speak, and how all those skills enhance each other.  I do intend to continue research and writing as far as I can, but my position is highly focused on the classroom; I’ll be helping students become as proficient as possible in Latin so that they can pursue their greater academic and career goals.” In other words, he will move the Cornell Latin curriculum for undergraduates substantially in the direction of the kind of four-skills competency that characterizes degrees in a vernacular language.

This is a major change for an Ivy League Classics Department, no question; and people active in the Living Latin community are paying close attention. Nancy Llewellyn just published an interview with Gallagher on the SALVI website; Cornell has promoted it here, and here.

I, however, am a lifelong “glass half empty” kinda guy. And I have what I think are some important questions:

  1. It would seem that Gallagher can switch, more or less, between restored classical and ecclesiastical pronunciations of Latin (see here and here). The late, much lamented David Morgan could do this flawlessly (compare here and here).  I very much hope that Gallagher will only use the restored classical when teaching at his new post.  If he doesn’t, then his students will be hearing a different sound system from that used by other Cornell Classics faculty, by a large section of the Active Latin community, and by the ancient Romans themselves. While of course one can learn to understand both pronunciations, this is an unnecessary hurdle for novice learners and speakers. If students are to be trained as specialists in Classical Latin literature and especially in Latin poetry, they need to be trained at least to read aloud with attention to vowel quantity and the whole range of sounds in the classical language. This is simply too important a part of what the poets were up to to be ignored.
  2. Msgr. Gallagher is, to assert the obvious, a Catholic priest, meaning he is trained to communicate and to defend the dogma of that church. If this article is any indication, Gallagher is utterly conventional in his Catholic view of marriage and would be satisfied to see civil marriage law changed back in this country and elsewhere to exclude LGBT persons. I cannot encourage people to read the above link to Gallagher’s article in Crisis strongly enough. It suggests to me that I am more than entitled to raise the question of what sort of teacher and mentor Gallagher will be to both LGBT students and also to women in a secular institution. Also, when Gallagher says he wishes to teach philosophy, will he teach from a Catholic or a secular point of view?

I am a firm believer that developing real ability to speak and understand Latin helps one to read and to write it more authentically and with greater facility. I have absolutely no doubt that Daniel Gallagher is uniquely qualified to help students progress along this path in a way that will continue to change approaches to teaching Latin in this country. But one of the reasons I enjoy teaching the Roman world is because it was much more tolerant of multiple, equally valid explanations and answers to important questions than we are today. Perhaps Daniel Gallagher has no intention of teaching about Greco-Roman culture. But if he does–and I imagine that he does–it is very much an open question what kind of teacher he will be.

Gaming the Classics: Rome via Board Games 5

I can’t think of any grand introduction today, so let’s just dive right in and talk about board games set in ancient Rome. If you’re not a member of the board game scene, you might be surprised to learn just how deep that rabbit hole goes. Pretty much every imaginable setting has been board-game-ified in some way or another, with classical history being particularly well represented. Here are five excellent historical games to get you started, whether for your classroom, school classics club, spoken Latin conference, or just game night at home.

Games are listed in order of complexity, from lowest to highest. All are rated as appropriate for ages twelve and up.

Rome: City of Marble

Rome: City of Marble

Rome: City of Marble is a tile-laying game similar to Settlers of Catan. Set during the reign of Augustus, players take the role of patrician families in Rome jockeying for influence points (called imperium in the game) by investing in public buildings, such as baths, theaters, and temples. Players earn extra imperium and additional bonuses for undertaking particularly large civic projects, such as aqueducts. The game is easy to learn and quick to play. The title of the game is a reference to a quote attributed by Suetonius to Augustus: “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.”

The board for Concordia

The Empire board for Concordia

Also set during the Pax Romana, Concordia describes itself as a “peaceful strategy game of economic dominance.” Starting in Rome, players send out settlers to cities where they produce various commodities: Food, wine, bricks, etc. Throughout the game players draw cards that allow various actions and gain favor with different Roman gods; for example, the “Mercator” card allows for extra money and trading, and gains the player favor with Mercurius. The game ends when all cards are played and the winner is the one with the most favor with the gods. Concordia has two separate maps (the Empire for larger games, Italy for smaller ones) and also has a number of expansions available (consisting of additional maps and gameplay mechanics) in case you get tired of the base game.

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

The initial board setup for Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

If peaceful economic dominance isn’t your (or your students’) bag, give war a chance with the award-winning Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. An impressively faithful adaptation of the Punic Wars, it’s a deep and well-designed game of strategy, tactics and diplomacy. In keeping with historical accuracy, Rome and Carthage are unequal powers, with different sets of action cards, different generals, different technology and different political situations. While the rules take some time to learn and strategies are complex and often subject to random luck (as they were in the actual war), the game is a masterful portrait of the conflict on both sides.



Trajan combines the themes of the previous three games, with players vying for dominance in multiple areas of Roman life: Military conquest, economic power, politics, urban development, and simply (as one reviewer put it) “navigating the Roman bureaucracy.”  The gameplay is driven by a unique mechanic that is similar to Mancala, Tabula, or other “pebble” games. This is a deep one, with complex rules and a wide variety of strategies for winning. The art direction is particularly lovely, with a board that depicts the Empire from the perspective of the city of Rome (which is, of course, how the political elite tended to view things).

The Republic of Rome

The Republic of Rome

The Republic of Rome is a vast, intricate, long-lasting game meant to simulate the function of the Roman Senate during the Republican period. You play as various factions and families competing for offices, military command, and economic favors. Players make proposals to the Senate which other players then vote on. A player’s ability to make proposals is determined by which offices their faction members hold. Proposals may include assigning senators to governorships, going to war, addressing various civic concerns brought by the Roman people, or prosecuting rivals. At any time the game may send a wide variety of threats to Rome – civil unrest, bankruptcy, famine, etc.; at these points players must cooperate to keep Rome from collapsing, because if that happens, everyone loses. Political strategy games don’t get more complex than this, and games can last 5 hours or more. If you come across this one (it’s somewhat rare), take it!

Runners up (that are still worth checking out): The Downfall of Pompeii; Quo Vadis?; Albion; Augustus; Britannia; Alea Iacta Est.