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Latin prose composition: Books and Method

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

Have you ever come across some­thing called “Latin prose com­po­si­tion” and won­dered what it was, if it was use­ful, how to do it and where to begin?

Latin prose com­po­si­tion hap­pens to be one of my favorite Latin learn­ing and teach­ing tech­niques that I’ve used often myself and have my stu­dents use it.

Latin prose com­po­si­tion is not actu­al com­po­si­tion but an exer­cise in trans­lat­ing from a mod­ern lan­guage into Latin. It is a didac­tic exer­cise with the focus of drilling vocab­u­lary and gram­mar. Latin prose com­po­si­tion books, such as North and Hillard, and Bradley’s Arnold, seek to con­sol­i­date the stu­dents’ knowl­edge of Latin syn­tax and lex­i­con while also prepar­ing them to use Latin active­ly and dras­ti­cal­ly improve their read­ing comprehension. 

In this arti­cle, I’ll go through a few ques­tions regard­ing Latin prose com­po­si­tion that I’ve got­ten through­out my years of teach­ing Latin. I’ll also rec­om­mend which prose com­po­si­tion books to use, how to use them and how not to use them.

What is Latin prose composition?

Latin prose com­po­si­tion per­haps sounds a bit odd. “Com­po­si­tion” imme­di­ate­ly brings to mind music com­po­si­tion, which is free and cre­ative. Latin com­po­si­tion, how­ev­er, is every­thing but free and cre­ative. “Com­po­si­tion” here is rather a euphemism for old-fash­ioned struc­tured trans­la­tion exer­cis­es to drill vocab­u­lary and gram­mar where you trans­late from a mod­ern lan­guage into Latin. But it is a tried and true—and from my expe­ri­ence as a Latin teacher—fantastic lan­guage learn­ing technique.

Latin prose com­po­si­tion guides you to start using Latin active­ly, even if it does so in a tra­di­tion­al, quite square way. It also con­sol­i­dates and improves your vocab­u­lary and gram­mar. It is (nor­mal­ly) a stan­dard part of Uni­ver­si­ty class­es in Latin—one of the few remain­ing exer­cis­es at Uni­ver­si­ties where you actu­al­ly use Latin actively. 

A pho­to­graph from a uni­ver­si­ty course in Latin prose composition 🙂

Is Latin prose composition useful?

Latin prose com­po­si­tion has three main utilities: 

  1. Drill gram­mar, vocab­u­lary, and com­mon idioms and expressions
  2. Force you out of your com­fort zone
  3. Start using Latin active­ly, in a guid­ed manner. 

First­ly, the well-struc­tured and repet­i­tive nature of Latin Prose com­po­si­tion books allows you to acquire a deep and nuanced under­stand­ing of Latin gram­mar and lex­i­con. Note that the main goal of these books is usu­al­ly to have the read­er inter­nal­ize the phrase­ol­o­gy and syn­tax of Cae­sar and Cicero, thus prepar­ing for their sub­se­quent reading. 

This means you will learn a lot from their spe­cif­ic use of vocab­u­lary and idioms – there is a lot of troop move­ments, mil­i­tary camps, charg­ing, and accus­ing peo­ple. This might not sound too inter­est­ing, but it is advan­ta­geous when you read Roman authors. 

Sec­ond­ly, if you have a good Latin com­po­si­tion book (see below) or attend a good Latin com­po­si­tion class, you will be forced to prac­tice things you did­n’t even know you could prac­tice or need­ed to practice.

In this man­ner, Latin prose com­po­si­tion is dis­tinct from free form writ­ing, wher you express your thoughts, and run the risk of stay­ing with­in your lan­guage com­fort zone.

You will thus be forced to move beyond the gram­mar and lan­guage you already know; if you have to trans­late a par­tic­u­lar sen­tence, you can­not avoid it or use cir­cum­lo­cu­tions. You have to find a way to express the book’s sen­tence in Latin. This way, you will get a thor­ough run-through of Latin syn­tax, extend your vocab­u­lary knowl­edge, and learn many great expres­sions along the way.

Last­ly, Latin prose com­po­si­tion is fun­da­men­tal if you want to write or speak Latin well. The exer­cis­es prac­tice your active use of Latin, mean­ing you need to find the words your­self in your own head, for­mu­late a sen­tence and make it cor­rect. Start­ing to write Latin in this way builds the con­fi­dence need­ed to progress and speak Latin.

Which Latin prose composition book should I use? 

A good Latin prose com­po­si­tion book will feel and func­tion a lit­tle bit like a check­list: you can tick off one thing after anoth­er. First, you might prac­tice the accusative with the infini­tive, then the abla­tive of com­par­i­son, next indi­rect ques­tions, and so forth. 

This gives a sat­is­fy­ing sense of “fin­ish­ing” things, mak­ing it easy to track your own progress. Grant­ed, hav­ing done a few exer­cis­es on a par­tic­u­lar aspect does not mean that you have inter­nal­ized it, but it is a great first step. Review and read­ing will get you there. 

There are sev­er­al good Latin prose com­po­si­tion books out there. How­ev­er, I do have two favorites that are great to use, one after the other. 

The first one is North & Hillard’s Latin Prose Com­po­si­tion, which is aimed at stu­dents who are start­ing to write Latin – but keep in mind that you still need to know basic Latin when you begin as it is not writ­ten for com­plete beginners.

Once you’ve fin­ished North & Hillard, the sec­ond book I rec­om­mend is Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Com­po­si­tion. This is the stan­dard book for advanced prose com­po­si­tion and a very good one at that. 

Note, if you feel that the con­tent of these books is bor­ing, you are like­ly cor­rect. It is quite bor­ing, but the exer­cise as a whole is fun.

Two great Latin Prose Com­po­si­tion books: North & Hillard and Bradley’s Arnold. As you can see, I’ve used them more than once. Pho­to: Amelie Rosengren. 

How are Latin prose composition books constructed?

Usu­al­ly, Latin prose com­po­si­tion books are divid­ed into chap­ters with dif­fer­ent top­ics, each focus­ing on one aspect of gram­mar or syn­tax. Both my favorites, North & Hillard and Bradley’s Arnold, are con­struct­ed in this way.

Every chap­ter begins with an expla­na­tion of the focus of the chap­ter, fol­lowed by a few more or less illu­mi­nat­ing exam­ple sen­tences in Latin. Last­ly, you find the actu­al exer­cise: Eng­lish (or anoth­er mod­ern lan­guage) sen­tences to be trans­lat­ed into Latin. 

How to use a Latin prose composition book

To use a Latin prose com­po­si­tion book is fair­ly straight­for­ward: Read the expla­na­tions and exam­ples found in each chap­ter thor­ough­ly. Then reread them. Make sure you under­stand them, and if you don’t, con­sult a gram­mar or two on the subject.

Next, read the sen­tence to be trans­lat­ed care­ful­ly. Note that the Eng­lish in these books might be a lit­tle bit dusty and old-fash­ioned, and the mean­ings of cer­tain words may be dif­fer­ent today due to seman­tic change over the last hun­dred years.

Next, trans­late into Latin.

Remem­ber, almost every Eng­lish sen­tence is writ­ten so that it has to be trans­lat­ed with the gram­mar or syn­tax that that spe­cif­ic chap­ter teach­es. If you, for instance, are trans­lat­ing sen­tences from the chap­ter on the gen­i­tive of price, the chances are that the sen­tence will want you to use the gen­i­tive of price in your translation. 

After you have fin­ished a chap­ter, check the answer key (avail­able online) and see what you did well and what you need to review. Remem­ber, how­ev­er, that there are usu­al­ly many ways you could trans­late a par­tic­u­lar sen­tence. Still, if you read the chap­ter exam­ples and use the book’s glos­sary, you will most like­ly come close to the answer in the key.

What not to do in Latin prose composition exercises

First of all, if you don’t know a word or an expres­sion when trans­lat­ing into Latin, don’t look it up in a dic­tio­nary as would oth­er­wise be rec­om­mend­ed. Dic­tio­nar­ies will give you too much infor­ma­tion, and chances are you might find the entire sen­tence that you’re try­ing to trans­late as an exam­ple in the dic­tio­nary. Remem­ber that the books are prepar­ing you for Cicero and Cae­sar, which means at times they use Eng­lish trans­la­tions of their texts, so you might actu­al­ly find the “right” answer in a dic­tio­nary. Instead, use the list of vocab­u­lary that you will find in the back of your prose com­po­si­tion book. That list will give you every­thing you need, no more no less. 

Don’t rush. Do every com­po­si­tion exer­cise care­ful­ly and dili­gent­ly. Don’t use a com­put­er, instead, write by hand. This gives your brain extra time to process what you are doing and research has shown that “the addi­tion­al con­text pro­vid­ed by the com­plex task of writ­ing results in bet­ter mem­o­ry” (Smok­er, Mur­phy, Rock­well, 2009, “Com­par­ing mem­o­ry for hand­writ­ing ver­sus typ­ing.” In Pro­ceed­ings of the Human Fac­tors and Ergonom­ics Soci­ety Annu­al Meet­ing).

Final tips for Latin prose composition

Prac­tice Latin prose com­po­si­tion every day: a chap­ter a day for a year will do won­ders for your Latin, even if it might not feel like it now. In addi­tion, when you feel the exer­cis­es are becom­ing too easy, try doing the oral­ly, read­ing the eng­lish and trans­lat­ing instant­ly into Latin. 

When you read Latin and encounter a con­struc­tion or gram­mat­i­cal aspect that you’ve prac­ticed in your prose com­po­si­tion book, stop for a while. Let it soak in that you have actu­al­ly writ­ten sim­i­lar sen­tences, which means that you are on your way to writ­ing a Latin in the same style that the Romans did 2000 years ago. Take pride in that!

Final­ly, remem­ber that Latin prose com­po­si­tion is guid­ed trans­la­tion drills and are only a small part of what you need to learn to read Latin lit­er­a­ture: the most impor­tant thing to do is to read as much as possible.


Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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