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