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.