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Review of H.C. Nutting’s Ad Alpes

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


In any lan­guage, but per­haps espe­cial­ly in Latin, there is a con­sid­er­able dis­con­nect between the rather straight­for­ward lan­guage used in learn­ers’ text­books or oral speech and the sophis­ti­cat­ed lit­er­ary lan­guage we are ulti­mate­ly aim­ing to read. With­out a doubt, the best way to bridge this gap is by exten­sive read­ing of com­pelling texts at a high-inter­me­di­ate level.

Such texts, how­ev­er, are few and far between in Latin, although some gems can be found among the read­ers com­posed and com­piled by gen­er­a­tions of Latin teach­ers. This book is among the very best of these. It is the work of H.C. Nut­ting, pro­fes­sor of Latin at Berke­ley in the first third of the 20th cen­tu­ry, who was pas­sion­ate about Latin gram­mar and usage and about keep­ing Latin alive in Amer­i­can high schools. What he per­haps lacked in class­room charis­ma he more than made up for by his pro­lif­ic pro­duc­tion of use­ful teach­ing resources, of which this is the crown jewel.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Essen­tial Books for Learn­ing Latin

In his pref­ace, Nut­ting dis­cuss­es the tran­si­tion, gen­er­al­ly in the third year, from sim­pler Latin (at that time, Cae­sar) to that of an author like Cicero. Three dif­fi­cul­ties, he says, con­front the stu­dent at this stage: unfa­mil­iar vocab­u­lary, sophis­ti­cat­ed sen­tence struc­ture, and con­tent that may be less than compelling.

Address­ing the third issue head-on, Nut­ting wrote his book “for the instruc­tion and enter­tain­ment of a youth­ful audi­ence,” since “no third-year book can afford to neglect the ele­ment of inter­est.” A frame sto­ry pro­vides coher­ence sim­i­lar to a nov­el­’s, trac­ing the jour­ney of a noble Roman fam­i­ly through the length of Italy, from its south­ern­most tip to the Alps. To keep the chil­dren enter­tained, the old­er house­hold mem­bers nar­rate a pletho­ra of inter­est­ing short sto­ries from Roman his­to­ry, myth, and leg­end; the fam­i­ly also encoun­ters var­i­ous adven­tures along the way.

The sto­ries are judi­cious­ly edit­ed from their orig­i­nal sources. Sen­tences are kept rea­son­ably short and straight­for­ward, although gram­mar is not shel­tered. More advanced words and those par­tic­u­lar to each sto­ry, as well as poten­tial­ly trou­ble­some con­struc­tions, are hand­i­ly glossed at the bot­tom of each page, while an index of more gen­er­al vocab­u­lary is found at the back of the book. The dif­fi­cul­ty of the Latin is about the same through­out, which makes it easy to pick and choose selec­tions for read­ing at will.

The fam­i­ly’s jour­ney takes place AD 138, late enough for the sto­ries to include a great vari­ety of mate­r­i­al: ancient myths, Roman leg­ends, his­to­ry up to Hadri­an, and even a few Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives recount­ed by Anna, the Jew­ish nurse. The sto­ries are tak­en from a wide range of sources, includ­ing Ovid and Vergil, Sue­to­nius, Livy, Pliny the Younger, Nepos, Plutarch, Cicero, and the Vul­gate. There are even a few snip­pets of verse, not only from Horace but also Vergil, Ovid, Cat­ul­lus, Cicero, and oth­ers. Since the book’s core vocab­u­lary and struc­tures are com­mon to all of lit­er­ary Latin, it is an excel­lent prepa­ra­tion for not just Cicero, but any of the prose authors and poet­ry as well. Any­one who reads the whole text will come away with a knowl­edge of many sto­ries and events sem­i­nal to Roman cul­ture, as well as a sense of the rich­ness and vari­ety of Latin literature.

The Latin itself is excel­lent; word order, idioms, and turns of phrase are mod­eled on the clas­sic Roman authors the stu­dent is being pre­pared to read, yet the lan­guage does not seem stilt­ed. Because much of the action con­sists of dia­logue among the fam­i­ly mem­bers, not only struc­tures of lit­er­ary nar­ra­tive, but also those use­ful for oral con­ver­sa­tion con­stant­ly recur: ques­tions and answers, requests and excla­ma­tions abound. Oth­er key gram­mat­i­cal fea­tures and turns of phrase are fre­quent­ly repeat­ed and some­times dis­creet­ly clus­tered with­in a chap­ter, so that they are imper­cep­ti­bly acquired. For exam­ple, as sto­ries are sug­gest­ed to the char­ac­ters by the cir­cum­stances of the jour­ney, var­i­ous phras­es for remind­ing such as “admo­ne­or de…”, “mihi vide­or recor­dari”, “haec me admo­nent”, “mihi in mentem ven­it” are repeat­ed­ly rehearsed and quick­ly become sec­ond nature. Gram­mat­i­cal struc­tures like abla­tive absolutes, indi­rect state­ments and ques­tions, rel­a­tive claus­es, ut and cum, pur­pose and result, con­di­tions, imper­son­al verbs, wish­es, sug­ges­tions, com­mands, and many oth­er lin­guis­tic fea­tures are seam­less­ly inte­grat­ed into the flow.

But despite all this pre­med­i­tat­ed use­ful­ness, the Latin is ele­gant; Nut­ting clear­ly pos­sessed not only a metic­u­lous knowl­edge of usage in the ancient writ­ers, but a sure sense of the spir­it of the lan­guage, a deep love of the par­tic­u­lar ele­gance of expres­sion that is unique to Latin, and a deft ear for the rhythms and sounds that delight­ed the Romans.

Each chap­ter cov­ers one day of the fam­i­ly’s jour­ney, pro­vid­ing numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for expres­sions of time, lan­guage con­cern­ing trav­el­ling and motion, food and lodg­ing, weath­er, inter­per­son­al exchanges, and clos­ing for­mu­las. With­in each day’s frame­work, sev­er­al brief sto­ries are told, often sug­gest­ed by the places vis­it­ed, or con­nect­ed by a theme. As Nut­ting puts it, “the units are so short that the stu­dent may hope to accom­plish some­thing def­i­nite at one sitting.”

More­over, the rich nar­ra­tive offers many oppor­tu­ni­ties to fur­ther bol­ster the inter­nal­iza­tion of the lan­guage through var­i­ous aux­il­iary activ­i­ties, from Ras­sias-style inter­ac­tions to re-telling the sto­ries with a dif­fer­ent twist, script­ing and act­ing them out, or even going on to read the orig­i­nal ver­sions in the ancient authors.

Final­ly, Nut­ting’s sto­ry frame­work itself invites fur­ther explo­ration of many cul­tur­al top­ics, includ­ing geog­ra­phy, trav­el, fam­i­ly and house­hold, the role of men, and the real­i­ty and expe­ri­ence of slaves, women and chil­dren; not to men­tion civic and mil­i­tary life and cur­sus hon­o­rum, reli­gion includ­ing Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty, glad­i­a­to­r­i­al games, city and coun­try, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and the func­tion­ing of the Roman empire.

The cre­ators of this new edi­tion have retained all the aux­il­iary mate­r­i­al of the orig­i­nal, includ­ing sev­er­al dat­ed black-and-white pho­tographs, a detailed Eng­lish table of con­tents, a line map, Eng­lish para­phras­es of some of the Latin verse, an orig­i­nal Latin lul­la­by by Nut­ting him­self, an end glos­sary of core vocab­u­lary in addi­tion to the more spe­cif­ic gloss­es on each page, and a valu­able index of names and sub­jects which helps locate spe­cif­ic sto­ries and events. In a future edi­tion, the images could be reworked and the archa­ic Eng­lish verse para­phras­es, inge­nious and love­ly though they be, left out. It would be won­der­ful if the ancient sources for each sto­ry could be provided.

Typo­graph­i­cal errors, includ­ing macrons, which are invalu­able for read­ing the sto­ry aloud, have been cor­rect­ed by the edi­tors.  Line num­bers aid in dis­cussing the text with oth­ers. In fact, every­thing about this book is designed to facil­i­tate read­ing Latin as a lan­guage, rather than deciper­ing it as a code. Read­ing and re-read­ing it is not only enjoy­able, but it will also pay great div­i­dends to those aim­ing to improve their Latin read­ing flu­en­cy and lit­er­a­cy; and it will do won­ders for com­pre­hen­sion and speak­ing abil­i­ty in those who use Latin active­ly. Not a word or sen­tence is wast­ed, with every­thing being geared to hold the read­er’s inter­est while build­ing an accu­rate and rich men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Latin lan­guage. In oth­er words, this is a supreme­ly worth­while and very fun read that I unre­served­ly recommend.

This new edi­tion of Ad Alpes is avail­able here

You can also find a three-part Audio­book of Ad Alpes, with a com­bined run­time of 7 hours and 19 min­utes, here.

Ioanna Laeta

Ioanna Laeta

Written by Ioanna Laeta

Written by Ioanna Laeta

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