Ancient and modern

How the Romans taught Latin (N.M. Gwynne would not approve)

Ancient texts for Greeks learning Latin (and vice versa) look suspiciously like the Cambridge Latin Course

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Barely a week passes without someone complaining about the teaching of English or foreign languages, usually because it involves too much, or too little, grammar. The ancients also had to face the problem. Clearly, non-Romans who wanted a career in Roman high society, the courts, civil administration or the army needed to learn Latin. So they did, and by the 2nd century AD, the Greek essayist Plutarch was able to say that almost all men used Latin. Certainly, as the Vindolanda tablets demonstrate, the Latin of the Germanic officer Cerealis was very respectable.

But Romans also admired Greek culture enormously, and Latin literature drank deeply at its well (the statesman Cicero could switch effortlessly between Latin and Greek). Trade too provided incentives for Romans to learn Greek; and as it was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean, and there were huge numbers of Greek slaves in Rome as well as immigrants, more Greek was probably spoken in Rome than the local lingo.

So how did the ancients do it? As Professor Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading) has shown in her outstanding scholarly edition of The Colloquia (Cambridge), when it came to learning foreign languages, the ancients initially (it seems) finessed the grammar and began with jolly bilingual stories featuring scenes and conversations from everyday life.

Professor Dickey lists 80 surviving manuscripts designed to enable Greeks to learn Latin, and vice-versa. They consist of vocabulary lists (very big on food), grammars, and texts (these make up more than half the material, with Virgil and Cicero especially popular). These texts appear in two columns, one to three words wide, the Latin on the left, and the Greek — a word-for-word translation of the Latin — on the right.

Among these texts are the colloquia, bilingual conversational stories for beginners. They tell of schoolboys going to school, lawyers in court, trips to the baths and people borrowing money from a banker, summoning friends for lunch and visiting the sick. They are constructed in a series of easily-digested, phrase-book style utterances.

Here is one featuring a tremendous weed straight out of St Custard’s. Omitting the Greek, I quote the Latin and Professor Dickey’s English translation:

Ante lucem — before daylight/vigilavi — I awoke/de somno — from sleep/surrexi — I got up/de lecto — from the bed/sedi — I sat down/accepi — I took/pedules — gaiters/caligas — boots/calciavi me — I booted myself/poposci — I asked for/aquam — water/ad faciem — for my face/lavo — I wash/primo manus — first my hands/deinde faciem — next my face/lavi — I washed/extersi — I dried myself/deposui dormitoriam — I took off my pyjamas/accepi tunicam — I took a tunic/ad corpus — for my body/praecinxi me — I belted myself/unxi caput meum — I anointed my head/et pectinavi — and combed [my hair]/…’

Fotherington-Thomas — for surely it is he — then leaves the bedroom with his pedagogue and nurse, greets his parents with a kiss and sets off for school. He greets the teacher, who kisses him and returns the greeting, takes his books (scrolls), writing tablets, styluses and ruler from his slave, rubs out the previous contents of the tablet, rules new lines, writes his work, and shows it to the teacher who corrects it and crosses it out. The teacher then orders him to read aloud. There is a squabble with a fellow pupil, the tinies in the class practise their Greek letters, and F-T gets down to his grammar, parsing words and declining nouns. He goes home for lunch (white bread, olives, dried figs, cheese, nuts, water), and back to school. I searched in vain for the Greek/Latin for ‘chiz’.

These conversations are full of interest. When slaves fail to make the bed up properly, the master refuses them permission to go out for the night and says they will be for it if he hears a single peep out of them. A man borrowing money at a bank asks what the rate of interest is — quibus usuris? The banker replies quibus vis — ‘Whatever you want’! Probably this was a polite convention: the man would not get his money if he wrote down the wrong rate. Likewise, the banker tells him to check that the coins he receives are not debased, and to ensure he repays the loan in equally good coin.

Two friends go the baths (towel, strigil, face-cloth, foot-cloth, oil, soap) and hand their clothes to the slave to guard against theft. They exercise with a ball and wrestle for a bit (one of them is reluctant — non scio si possum — because he has not done it for a long time). They pay the keeper and plunge in. Dried off, oiled and dressed, they buy goods at the bath-shop — chopped food, lupins and beans in vinegar — and go home.

When over 40 years ago the Cambridge School Classics Project produced a Latin course consisting of carefully graded stories, it was a controversial move. But as these marvellous colloquia show, nothing could be more achingly traditional, with a pedigree going back 2,000 years. So Professor Dickey will be publishing these colloquia, suitably adapted, as an elementary Latin course. Might as well have the real thing, after all.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Brimstone52

    A Latin starter about food with a political slant…

    Per Fructus Placentam Ad Libertatem.

  • Walter Melvin Roberts III

    I wonder what age of Roman student these things were directed towards? Fine for 6th or 7th graders; but an insult to the above-average high school student — That is what I think about graded readers. (Being in the thick of teaching above average high school students with Ecce Romani 1, 2, 3, I am everyday more and more amazed with what this series enables students to get away with NOT KNOWING! For instance, right now I am running my ER 3 students through a series of quizzes to make sure they can produce from memory the declension of the various forms of the demonstrative pronouns. They seem to have learned from ER that one can get by with a vague notion of “this” or “that” — without ever being force to grapple REALLY to identify case, number, or gender.) My salvation has been to put copies of Bennett’s New Latin Grammar in all of their hands: we go back and forth between ER and NLG, comparing the presentations of this or that grammatical point. A final cri de coeur: That ER 2 is still (at Chapter 39!!!) mucking around with “Time Constructions with and without Prepositions (cf. ER 1, Chapter 12) —WHEN STUDENTS HAVE STILL YET TO BEGIN LEARNING THE SUBJUNCTIVE FORMS OF THE VERB!!! — this I find a complete travesty!

    • Walter Melvin Roberts III

      Mission Statement (

      Detroit Greek and Latin (hereafter DGL) is a 501(c)(3) public non-profit dedicated to offering Greater Detroit area students the opportunity to learn Ancient Greek and Latin.

      In addition, DGL aims to fortify existingLatin programs, and to increase the rigor of classics and language arts curricula—especially within the Detroit Public Schools.

      Every student deserves access to a classical education in accord with the highest standards: one anchored in Ancient Greek language and literature.

      Every bright and earnest elementary student deserves a taste of Homer in the original.

      Every beginner of Latin should have opportunity of arriving at AP (Advanced Placement™) status in Latin (and/or Greek).

      In order to better comprehend the world in which he or she lives, every student should know how to think about ancient artifacts, societies, peoples, and literature. Every thoughtful adult deserves exposure to
      the wisdom, artistry, and heroics of antiquity. Through adult education courses and lectures, DGL works to extend public awareness of Greek and Latin tradition. In consultation with administrators, principals, and teachers, DGL works to increase the overall rigor of language arts, global languages, social studies, and STEM instruction.

    • Roxane Murray

      My online class for adults over 55 (I’m a student, not the teacher) used Cambridge I the first year, Cambridge II and Ullman/Henderson the second year, and Ullman/Henderson and Latin Via Ovid the third year. We used Ecce Romani I as a summer reader on our own after the first year, and didn’t much like it, so we used Cambridge III as our summer reader the next year because the stories were more fun. Cambridge gave us a quick start but was light on grammar, and UH brought the grammar but was light on reading practice. And we kicked the kids’ backsides in the NLEs.

      • Walter Melvin Roberts III

        What are the “NLEs”?

  • filologos101

    For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity.
    Thucydides, 2.2.35

  • Gundemar Rex

    How clumsy to have the English translation every three words. Do away with it. Modern languages are not taught this way. There’s no reason why Latin and Greek could not be taught like real languages. Do away with the translation method, please.