History and Literature | Learn Latin

Latin Classes During the Roman Empire

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Guest post writ­ten by Eleanor Dick­ey, Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Read­ing in England.

Two 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 law courts, etc. Here is one about vis­it­ing an ail­ing friend:

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle: “Latin Class­es dur­ing the Roman empire”.

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.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle: “Latin Class­es dur­ing the Roman empire”.

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.

Eleanor Dickey

Eleanor Dickey

Eleanor Dickey is Professor of Classics at the University of Reading in England. Professor Dickey’s field of research pertains to a wide array of subjects, from aspects of conversational Latin and greek language (e.g. Greek Forms of Address, Oxford University Press 1996), to the language learning dialogue books of antiquity (The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana, Cambridge University Press 2012-15).
Written by Eleanor Dickey

Written by Eleanor Dickey

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