Learning Latin the Ancient Way – Reading research in the Guardian

Learning Latin the Ancient Way, Reading Classics professor Eleanor Dickey’s latest book published this week by Cambridge University Press, has been reviewed in the Guardian. The review can be seen at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/ancient-greek-manuscripts-reveal-life-lessons-from-the-roman-empire The book explores how Greek-speaking students in the Roman empire learned Latin, using the fragments of their Latin textbooks preserved on papyri from Egypt and in medieval manuscripts. In some ways these ancient Latin learners had an experience strikingly similar to that of modern students: they used grammars, dictionaries, and commentaries; they read Cicero’s Catilinarian orations and Virgil’s Aeneid; they memorized vocabulary; they looked up the hard words and wrote translations into their Latin texts.

Prof. Dickey's most recent book: Learning Latin the Ancient Way (Cambridge, 2016)

Prof. Dickey’s most recent book: Learning Latin the Ancient Way (Cambridge, 2016)

But in other ways the ancient Latin learners had a very different experience from that of their modern counterparts. Some of these differences come from the fact that ancient learners came to Latin knowing ancient Greek rather than English. So they struggled to learn the Roman alphabet, but they had no problems with the distinction between nominative and accusative cases. Other differences come from ancient educational conventions: ancient beginners started off with bilingual texts, easy Latin accompanied by a running translation. Of course the students could not translate the Latin for themselves as a modern learner might do, since a translation was provided; instead they memorized the Latin, rather the way a student studying French today might memorize a dialogue about ordering croissants in a café in Paris.

Indeed the texts read by ancient beginners have much more in common with material read by modern French learners than with that read by modern Latin learners. Ancient students studied short dialogues and narratives about daily life: buying clothes, buying food, having lunch, borrowing money, and visiting sick friends. Of course, ancient daily life was not quite like modern daily life, so the dialogues also cover going to the public baths, winning court cases, making excuses, getting into fights, taking oaths in temples, and coming home drunk after a Roman orgy. Just like their modern counterparts, these dialogues were written to teach students about culture as well as language; therefore they offer us priceless insight into life in the Roman empire as Romans saw it.

Learning Latin the Ancient Way provides extracts from all types of ancient Latin-learning texts: bilingual dialogues, alphabets, grammars, dictionaries, annotated copies of Sallust, word-lists to Virgil, prose composition exercises, Aesop’s fables, stories about the Trojan war, letters of congratulation for sending to successful legacy hunters, an explanation of the Roman law on manumission, etc. Portions originally written in Greek have normally been translated into English, but the Latin remains in Latin; this means that modern students can experience and use these texts as their ancient counterparts would have done (or ignore the English and treat the passages like any other translation exercise). A few passages lack word division and punctuation, to make it clear what reading was really like in antiquity.

Professor Dickey hopes that her book will be used by modern Latin teachers and students (it is suitable for learners who have already done at least one year of Latin) and that it will enable modern learners to enjoy the ancient Latin-learning materials, which are now able to be used once more for their original purpose.

Copies can be purchased from Cambridge University Press (to whom Professor Dickey is very grateful for pricing the book at an affordable £18, a sharp contrast to most of her previous books): http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/classical-studies/classical-languages/learning-latin-ancient-way-latin-textbooks-ancient-world?format=PB.

Classics Summer Schools

By Rachael Hopley, Finalist, BA Classics

Being a classics student you are really spoilt for choice when it comes to summer schools. There are opportunities to brush up on your ancient language skills through the various JACT summer schools (Bryanston, Durham and Wells) or others such as at University of Swansea, Kings College London, University College Cork, or if you just fancy a bit of Homer, the Homer summer school at University College London. If you would like to immerse yourself in the classical world, JACT offers a Classical Civilisation and Ancient History summer school at Repton or you could apply to attend the undergraduate summer schools at the British School at either Athens or Rome, spending 2-3 weeks abroad in the hands of experts. I had the privilege of attending the JACT Greek summer school at Bryanston and, thanks to the Department’s Wardman bursary, the British School at Rome undergraduate summer school in the summer of 2015.

Bryanston, as the Greek summer school has become known, is an intense course. There were three hours of lessons a day (and as much work in between!), an afternoon seminar, evening lecture and opportunities to participate in plays and music as well as excursions on days off. It may not seem like a jolly way to spend the holidays but the small class sizes and frequent grammar tests worked wonders for my ancient Greek. Also, I was able to appreciate far more elements of the language, with some of my favourite seminars and lectures being David Raeburn’s readings (in translation and then in Greek) and Philomen Probert’s lecture on the debate of Greek pronunciation. Every year they also put on a production of a comedy (in translation) and tragedy (in Greek). A little shy, I was able to take a non-speaking role in the tragedy, which was a roaring success. As it was in Greek, you got a feel for how musical the performance of ancient plays would have been, with the chorus chanting to the beat of a drum. Bryanston’s comedies are always experimental and you can see how someone can play with ancient productions to pitch them to a modern audience (and see a few cameos played by renowned lecturers, which is always fun).

The British School at Rome undergraduate summer school was an immeasurably enjoyable and rewarding experience. Every day we explored a new theme (leisure and entertainment, death and burial, etc) through the sites and museums of Rome. We had the incredible guides of Robert Coates-Stephens, the Cary fellow at the school, and Ed Bispham, lecturer in Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford. In addition, the British School was able to obtain privileged access into sites normally not accessible to the general public. Highlights for me include going inside the Mausoleum of Augustus and into the substructure and top floors of the Colosseum. Having been focused strongly on just literature during my degree, I was able to better understand the use of archaeology in the study of ancient history while still using texts to bring sites to life.

These experiences were invaluable and I am extremely grateful to the Classics Department for the generous Wardman bursary which allowed me to go to the British School at Rome.