Feature Posts

A Bold Move at Cornell

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

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.

Project Domus

For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed leading my eighth-grade Latin class in a project on Roman houses. I am sure that many teachers of Latin have some sort of domus-related activity, and this is mine. The project aims mainly at introducing students to this important aspect of Roman daily life; it also offers plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast their own lives to ancient ones and to engage in Latin language composition and communication through simple descriptive sentences.

I like to start this project by discussing different the living situations of Romans, from the insulae of cities to urban domī to elaborate villas in the countryside. They study a number of houses that were preserved and excavated around the bay of Naples. We hone in on the typical Roman domus, discussing different generic rooms in the Roman house and their apparent uses and features (e.g. the vestibulum, atrium, culina, peristylium etc.). An impressive array of resources are available to students, and here are just a few that I have enjoyed using:

VROMA does a lovely job of clearly labeling rooms with links to names and longer descriptions of the rooms’ apparent uses. I love the simple floorplan as well.

This site does a similar job with a few more rooms added to the layout.

This virtual tour is a neat video, and it works for activities where you want students to identify different rooms (they could even do it in Latin!).

This video was created by a student (of either History or Latin). He brings up some interesting points and identifies room names for a quick and dirty review.

Khan Academy has a number of resources as well, like this article on the house of the Vetii.

After discussing and describing the Roman house, students are tasked to create their own domī. They go about choosing features, frescoes, and furniture for their houses, which would appeal to Roman taste as well as their own. In years past, the final products have come in the form of posters, dioramas, and google drawings, and I also ask students to describe their houses and the function and/or appearance of the rooms and the objects within.

Students tend to enjoy this project because of the degree of personal choice and creativity that goes into designing their own home. Some students–and even some adults–may never have given any thought to the architecture and design that they might want in their own house; this project gives them an exciting opportunity to do just that. I will add lastly that the project brings together culture and language learning and is easily tailored to students’ ability and comprehension.