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Eleanor Dickey Latin classes during the Roman empire

Guest post by Eleanor Dickey, professor of Classics
at the University of Reading, England
wo thousand years ago, when the Romans ruled a vast empire whose
inhabitants spoke all sorts of different languages, many of those inhabitants wanted to learn Latin. So they signed up for Latin classes, where
they learned using textbooks containing little dialogues about everyday
life. These dialogues are in some ways remarkably similar to texts used today to teach modern foreign languages, introducing learners to Roman
culture along with Latin: they illustrate how to use the public baths, the
banks, the markets, the temples, the lawcourts, etc. Here is one about visiting an ailing friend:
The two-column format of this text is original, though the translation was
originally into Ancient Greek rather than into English. For unlike their
modern counterparts, the ancient learners’ dialogues are all bilingual,
with a running translation in the students’ native language. The translation matches the original line for line, so that the learner can understand
exactly how the original means what it means. This works better with Ancient Greek than it does with English, because of the fixed word order of
English, but I’ve managed to keep the line-for-line format in all but two
lines of the passage above.
An ancient Latin textbook as it appeared in the fourth century AD (reconstruction).
The reason learners needed bilingual texts was that in antiquity writers did
not leave spaces between words; they also did not normally use punctuation or capitalization. It is not too difficult to read one’s own language
in that format, but reading a foreign language is really tough, since if you
don’t know where the words begin and end, you cannot use a dictionary.
And without a dictionary you have no hope at all with a monolingual text.
The extract below is written with both the Latin and the English in the ancient format: can you work out what it says? (Hint: the dialogue is about
someone who claims another person owes him money; as in the previous
passage quoted, parentheses indicate words in the English that are not
actually present in the Latin.)
Among the dialogues are many about going to school, such as this one:
These school dialogues are particularly valuable for people today who
would like to know exactly how ancient students learned languages. In the
extract above, for example, the boy’s first exercise is reading aloud, a task
that was extremely challenging without word division or punctuation. In
the extract below, we see language learners tackling an impressive amount
of grammar:
A learner reads from a wax tablet in front of a teacher in a 2017 reconstruction of an ancient Latin class (photo: Alex Wickenden)
Ancient Latin learners, in fact, did most of the things modern Latin learners do. In addition to learning grammar, they translated Latin texts into
their own language, and texts into their own language into Latin. They
read Virgil’s Aeneid (though usually they didn’t get very far) and Cicero’s
Catilinarian Orations. When they had gained enough vocabulary to be
able to cope without a running Latin translation, they read monolingual
Latin texts, using dictionaries and commentaries to decipher them and
writing translations of the hard words into their copies of the text. And,
like many modern learners, some ancient learners eventually became very
good at the language and went on to read texts without needing to look
up the hard words and write them down.
The book Learning Latin the Ancient Way explains more about how ancient students learned Latin, Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World
provides translations of all the ancient Latin-learning dialogues, and
Reading ancient schoolroom offers a modern reconstruction of ancient
Latin classes.
For more articles, Latin audio and video, go to LATINITIUM.COM
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