Feature Posts

Laudes Mantuano

Publius Vergilius Maro was born on the Ides of October, 2086 years ago last weekend. His work, the Aeneid in particular, is always with me—I like very much having a phrase or a verse pop up in my mind; I very much wish I knew more Vergil by heart.

Vergil is without question the reason I am still reading Latin. I read Vergil first in 1971-72, my junior year in high school, led willingly but slowly through the antiqua silva of the purple Pharr by Jack Lynch, a man who had been a Benedictine novice in Germany in his youth and who seemed older than Charon–iam senior, sed cruda deo uiridisque senectus. Jack wasn’t that old, of course; and his age was indeed green and fresh: he loved to run around and climb the furniture, dramatizing Vergil’s words. He certainly was old enough to have had his novitiate training in Latin, and he had many funny stories about it. Jack’s grading was interesting—really an old-fashioned recitation grade. He had a series of cards—8 and 1/2” by 11” inch card stock sliced in half the long way—and he would shuffle these and let the Parcae call on you. How well you translated and answered grammatical questions determined your grade for the class, which he recorded with a fountain pen in very cryptic symbols that none of us ever figured out.

Oblivious to the paleolithic methodology, being a talented student, I loved Vergil. The strangeness of the interlocking word order, transferred epithets, assonance and alliteration just held me spellbound. What I remember getting at the time was that here was a poetic voice who really understood that life was not for sissies: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. Since this was a year in which my parents separated, after some physical violence and a lot of alcohol, I got the part about the lacrimae rerum.

My next big Vergil moment happened in graduate school, when, along with a couple of other grad students, I was in charge of what we called The Classics Discussion Group at Cornell. We had some splendid plaster casts of the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the coffee house in the basement of the humanities building, and we used a photo that someone found of a group of northern European women in the Olympia Museum looking rather intently at Apollo’s midsection, clutching their purses quite protectively, as our group logo. This discussion group decided to hold an event to read the whole of the Aeneid aloud, in Latin, nonstop, in late September, 1982, in honor of the 2000th anniversary of Vergil’s death.

We managed to do it in about 10 hours, as I recall; we got volunteers from all over the university. I remember reading Anchises’ misguided prophecies in book 3, camping it up to make Anchises a doddering idiot (those of you who have heard Justin Slocum Bailey’s senex Romanus know what I was about, although Justin is a splendid actor and I am not). What struck me at the time, though, was the remarkable variety of ways that people read Latin verse aloud and how remarkably dull some of them were. This is a pity, because Vergil’s writing shines when read aloud with expression. We may not be able to recreate Vergil’s remarkable delivery, but any thoughtful expression is better than little or none.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I made my way in the degree mill through to the ABD-stage of things without learning anything about the GeorgicsTu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi finem di dederint. Now, as I find myself working in a small school dedicated to teaching students to understand what a life in harmony with the natural world really means, my hour has come. Haud facilis ascensus ad res rusticas (as if that were really what Vergil’s completed great poem is about). But it is nice to learn new things.

This modern and disjointed feuilleton is hardly the place to venture into serious criticism of Vergil’s work. But, speaking as one who was nurtured on the critical approaches of Michael Putnam, Ralph Johnson, and Fred Ahl, I don’t have a lot of patience for those who view the Aeneid as a masterwork of Caesarean propaganda. At floreant centum flores. Just please don’t tell me that you are in sole possession of a magic key to the meaning of the Aeneid. If you think you are, I shall cheerfully await you on the dark side of the gate of ivory, not of horn. I hope the shy Mantuan will be there to tell us.

Doing Projects Right

I confess that, for much of my high school teaching career, I’ve had reservations about giving project assignments to my Latin students. Latin language and Roman culture have always been the focus of my courses, and students make the best progress through sustained, frequent engagement with the language. Above all this requires time and attention, precious things in the average public school day and often under assault by various centrifugal forces. Taking time away from learning the language and about the culture in order to conceive, organize and work on an individual or group project has seemed to me a spectacular misuse of time.

Of course, looking back now, from the vantage point of the end of my teaching career, I am aware that my attitude says as much about me as a teacher and a person and about my various intelligences as it does about pedagogical principles. So there may be an element of kharma as I find myself teaching in a tiny semester school with an overall emphasis on human ecology—both knowledge of the natural world and awareness of our species’ place, actions, and impact upon it.

Here experiential learning is emphasized in all subjects at least to a degree. Math is taught with an eye to real applications; science is taught with a lot of field work. My Spanish colleague teaches a unit in which his students describe an animal from our Traveling Natural History Program in great detail, focusing on their senses and their physical evolutionary adaptations in order to thrive in their environment. My French colleague makes every exam a real-world situation—for example, call up a hotel in Quebec City, make a reservation for the weekend and ask about parking arrangements in the Old Town (obviously the hotels are alerted ahead of time and agree to participate). My Mandarin colleague makes holiday dishes with her students entirely in the target language.

And me? I feel my hands are tied both by my school (oddly, I think) and by the programs of the schools my students come from. After six years of doing summer Latin immersions, I would like very much to use the 400-acre campus as my classroom and teach about the natural world and the Romans’ view of it in Latin. For one thing, this would support the science teachers’ efforts to teach binomial nomenclature. For another, it would make me once again terrifically excited about teaching.

But I can’t get my school to buy into this, because most of my students come from big-city, college-prep independent school programs and they are in pre-AP or AP Latin courses as juniors. I do understand this, but it is a pity.

Anyway, the final week of our semester is taken up by our Human Ecology Capstone (HEC) project, to which an entire week is devoted. This can push semester finals back before Thanksgiving (although some of my colleagues of course give them). This is one of many reasons I offer doing a semester final project instead of writing an exam.

I give students about 2/3rds of our semester to choose and work on their project, so they don’t get overloaded with having to work on their HEC project at the same time. I make it clear that three formal write-ups of their progress are as much a part of their grade as the project itself. Aside from alleviating the perils of procrastination and avoiding conflict with their HEC projects, my thinking here is that some projects do very worthy investigation of a topic, but don’t really come together at the end; also, a student may well convince herself that her original conceptional frame was just faulty. I see no reason why that conclusion in itself should penalize a student; a lot of bright ideas end in failure in life.

Results over seven years have ranged from good to truly fantastic. Out of about 45 projects, I’ve only had one that I would characterize as unsuccessful and one case where the student changed topics mid-stream. The latter student ended up writing a rap based on Francisco J Cabrera’s Latin poetry about the Aztec culture hero Quetzalcoatl and teaching himself how to scan hexameters in the process, so the end result was quite a success. The gifted Latinists have generally chosen topics that allow their talents to shine: one student wrote a 25-pp. paper investigating William S. Anderson’s and Richard J Tarrant’s editorial choices for the Phaethon tale in their Teubner and Oxford texts of the Metamorphoses (1.747-779; 2.1-328). That a high-school junior could organize this amount of data and say anything analytical about the evidence I found astonishing.

Another student, with whom I read Iliad 1, was quite interested in mythology and posed the Judgment of Paris question to the school community via a survey form. At first I thought this project was more than a little wacky, but the results proved interesting. Aphrodite got very few takers (were adolescents shying away from admitting how much they think about sexual attraction?), and the rest were evenly split between Hera and Athena. And everyone wanted to use their power for the good of humankind. My school is a remarkably altruistic place. This student was disappointed in a 2/3rds response rate on the survey and was only partially assuaged when I told her that any marketing or political survey company would jump for joy at such success.

Our school chef, a very experienced professional in the kitchen, has very wide-ranging knowledge of the history of food, loves working with our students, and has been more than supportive of students who want to investigate Roman food. Six of my students have planned and prepared a Roman supper for the school community (about 70 people). I require a Latin menu card for each table and a 10-minute pre-supper talk on available ingredients, eating habits over the course of a day and Roman preferences for flavors. And I love watching high school students up to their elbows in raw pork, stuffing sausage casings.

Of course, what I’m describing is unimaginable in many school situations. By applying to our school, students are self-selecting for personal responsibility and self-motivation in their learning. They expect to do a lot of physical work and learn by direct, hands-on experience. According to the Buck Institute for Education, a leading promoter of Project Based Learning (PBL), a challenging problem or question, sustained independent inquiry, and student voice and choice all are “essential design elements” characterizing good PBL. I’m very grateful to have an opportunity to see what PBL offers students who are succeeding in traditional college-prep programs, and I hope to embrace the model in my own teaching even more.

Consuetudines quo melius Latine et legatis et intellegatis.

As the school year has brought itself into full swing for many folk in New England, a lot of us are finding that time is wanting for our own Latin development, should that be a goal of yours. This past summer was such that I spent most of my time engrossed in Latin and Ancient Greek, specifically speaking it with the Polis Institute/UMass Boston at Bridgewater State University, two weeks with SALVI at both rusticatio omnibus and veteranorum, and finally with the Paideia Institute at Living Greek in Greece.

At these various conventicula Classica, ut ita dicam, I shared with others some habits I developed to make myself a better Latin speaker (and now working on Greek) and also, therefore, a better reader of the Classical languages. I began my own journey into speaking Latin during summer 2016 with the Paideia Institute at their Living Latin in Rome program and it has been thoroughly fruitful thus far. I am hoping that these things will also help you. I am sure many others have similar habits they conduct but I thought I would lay out for you all what I do quo melius agam.

I break my practices into three parts: speaking, reading, and listening. I try to do these things daily but sometimes, life happens. Just like any habit, such as going to the gym, you might slip but what matters is that you pick it back up. The amount you do matters far less than the fact that you actually do it.

First, speaking. It is sometimes quite difficult to find opportunities to speak Latin or Ancient Greek (even though new communities and opportunities are cropping up every day) but there is one resource we all have: ourselves. Most of us have a strong enough monitor that we can recognize mistakes when others speak but sometimes lack the ability ourselves to be able to speak ex tempore and so there are few things I recommend that I have done myself quo melius loquar. I want to be clear that I am not necessarily proposing original ideas so much as specifically citing what I do and these ideas were pulled from various resources or articles I have read. I claim no credit for any of them. All things below can be substituted with lingua Graeca or pretty much any language you wish to develop.

-Memorize something every day. Take a sententia or locutio and commit it to your brain. It will make it far easier to access later when reading or speaking.

-If you are able, label things in your home or office with post-its in Latin (I do this in my classroom too). This will make the vocabulary seem more meaningful and ready for active use.

-Take a walk through your space for any amount of time (could be five minutes, could be twenty minutes). Narrate what you are doing as you are doing it Latine e.g. ‘Hoc tempore ad culinam ambulo ut cenam coquam etc.’ Then, take a seat somewhere and narrate what you did. After this, narrate what you did as if someone else were telling it.

Using the language actively like this is something many of us are not used to but, more importanly, it is something often we are afraid of doing. You might have been studying Latin for twenty-five years but when you speak, you don’t want to look like a tiro who just started Latin I. Doing the above might help you build enough confidence to get out into the real world of Latin speaking, ut sic loquar. All of this will lead to better reading.

Second, reading. This will likely be the easiest area to cultivate. Like I said above, it does not matter if you read for ten minutes or fifty, as long as you do it consistently. When one reads Latin, the goal is to understand it per se and with this in mind, your reading consuetudo should likely not be the speeches of Cicero or Histories of Livy but rather, simple material such as Øerbeg’s Lingua Latina: Per Se Illustrata which has helped countless autodidacts and Latinists become better. Read it without an English filter and read through until you feel like you have to translate. Once you get there, go back a few chapters and re-read up to that point.

Re-reading is incredibly productive for acquisition and fluency in languages because you are already familiar with the text and have expectations of what is coming. Therefore, feel free to re-read as often as you want unless it becomes boring. Tedium is the enemy of learning. If you are not enjoying it at all, read something else. We are all doing this because we love it. There are many introductory texts out there and if they are good enough for our students, they are good enough for us.

What I personally did was to read LLPSI thrice and I have been reading works ranging from Plautus to modern blog posts in Latin everyday for twenty-five minutes. That’s one sitcom episode on Netflix. I personally have many people in my life with whom I can text in Latin and this is what language is for: communication between people, not just dead authors. Reading is reading whether through a tome or an iPhone.

Third, listening. Listening to the language is thoroughly important in understanding it in all of its glory. Greek and Latin sound beautiful when read aloud, especially by experienced speakers and luckily, there are those out there that are helping us in this department. Podcasts such as Quomodo Dicitur?, Latinitium, Sermones Raedarii, and others exist in which experienced speakers will talk about rebus variis. 

I have listenend to episodes and readings from many sources everyday for the past year, sometimes for multiple hours (it can get very easy to lose time in the content), and I have re-listened to episodes and readings iterum iterumque. Listen while you do dishes, drive your car, do housework or yardwork, at the gym, or in the morning before you work. I find that listening to Latin in the morning gives me the boost I need to go into my Latin classroom mentally equipped for the day.

Many guides exist for how one increases their Latin and Greek abilities. There is a fourth part that I did not mention in my main body of text because it might not pertain to every person but something that I personally have done with great effect is to look up the grammar rules or tendencies in a prose composition book and then to use specific constructions in my speaking as often as possible. Exempli gratia, I might look up indirect questions with utrum and find that they end in necne to mean ‘whether I will ______ or not,’ and pepper that into my speech as often as possible.

Ultimately, this may not help you but it sure helped me. We all love Latin, that is why you are reading this, but, for me, doing this for my Latin renewed my zeal for the language in a way that never could have happened for me otherwise.


-Andrew Morehouse