Publication of Europe’s oldest children’s book completed at Reading

The recent publication of the Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana volume II, by Reading Classicist Eleanor Dickey, completes the work begun with her 2012 volume and makes available for the first time a complete translation of Europe’s oldest children’s book. The Colloquia are a set of bilingual dialogues and narratives used in antiquity for language teaching. They are a combination of material used for teaching Greek to Roman schoolchildren and material used for teaching Latin to Greek-speaking adults. The former materials make up the children’s book, which may have been used by Rome’s greatest emperors when they were at school.

This section of the book describes the daily lives of schoolboys. For example:

Teacher: Yesterday you played truant, and at midday you were not at home. I went to look for you and heard everything you did from your nurse.

Pupil: The person who spoke to you is lying; my father took me with him up to the praetorium. The magistrates greeted him personally, and he received letters from the emperors. When he got them he immediately went up to the temple and offered sacrifice for the eternal preservation and victory of the emperors. Only after that did we come down. He’s an important judge, you know: today he started hearing cases at dawn.

Teacher: You can always think of an excuse, can’t you? You don’t seem to realize that time off from school results in an ignorant boy. Now show me, how much have you written? Do you call that good? You really deserve to be flogged, but I’ll let you off this time.

The Latin-teaching materials include vignettes from the lives of adults in the Roman empire: shopping, eating, drinking, fighting, bathing, etc. This passage, for example, illustrates how to tell off a friend or relative who comes home the worse for wear after an orgy:

– Sir, is there anyone who acts like you and drinks as much as you do? What will the people who saw you in this condition say? Never before have you acted so greedily at a dinner party! Is this the way to behave when you are a respectable father, someone to whom others come for advice? It’s impossible to act more shamefully or ignominiously than you did yesterday!

– I certainly am very much ashamed.

– What are other people saying behind your back? You have got yourself great infamy and blame through such intemperance! Please never do anything like this again. Oh no, do you need to vomit now? I can’t believe this!

– I don’t know what to say; I’m so upset that I can’t explain anything to anyone.

The Colloquia also include collections of useful phrases, like a modern Berlitz phrasebook. The topics covered, however, are somewhat different from those one expects to find in Berlitz. For example, here is the section on how to make excuses:

– You did do what I asked you to immediately, didn’t you?

– Actually I haven’t done it yet.

– Why not?

– I’m going to do it in a little while, because now I’m in a hurry to go out / I’m hungry / I’m on my way to a wedding / I’m on my way to see a friend / my friends are waiting for me / I’m on my way to take a bath.

Professor Dickey, who is spending this term as Spinoza Visiting Scholar at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is surprisingly sorrowful at the publication of her book. She commented, ‘Of course it’s great to see the book appear at last, and Cambridge University Press has done a fantastic job of producing a beautiful volume with top-quality illustrations. But to be honest,

I’m sad to have finished this project. I’ll miss the Colloquia: it’s very rare that one has such a fun text to work on!’

For further information on the Colloquia see