Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks from the Ancient World
by Eleanor Dickey.
Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Softcover, 197 pages, $30.


In perhaps the wittiest satire of Latin teaching ever performed, the title character of Monty Python’s Life of Brian is caught in the act of writing a Latin graffito by a patrolling Roman soldier. The soldier is perplexed at what Brian is writing. “It says ‘Romans Go Home.’” The soldier’s reply is immediate: “No, it doesn’t.” Then, like a good British schoolmaster, the soldier corrects Brian’s poor Latin, drilling him in his verb conjugations and noun declensions along the way. As Brian flounders, the soldier seeks to aid his memory, first by pulling his ear, then by raising a sword to his throat. Brian gets the lesson. He is then told to write it on the wall a hundred times—and to have it down by sunrise.

Like students of today, Greeks who lived within the Roman Empire often toiled under real threats from their schoolmasters as they learned Latin. But unlike today, these ancient Greeks were not drilled in word endings in the hope of being able to translate the most famous works of Latin literature. Quite the opposite, actually: these Greeks memorized bilingual dialogues to learn to speak Latin in the marketplace, in the law courts, in the army, and in their business dealings.

We have Eleanor Dickey, the eminent scholar of how the ancients themselves learned Latin and Greek, to thank for redacting so many of the surviving manuscripts that sought to teach Latin to ancient Greeks into a format friendly for English readers. Whereas the ancient Greeks, for whom “Latin learning was largely a utilitarian enterprise,” followed Latin dialogues that had just two or three words per line in a narrow column matched with a vernacular translation to aid comprehension, Dickey has translated the Greek into our English vernacular to correspond with the target Latin. The tangible result, in addition to the excitement piqued by this unique encounter with our linguistic forebears, is a treasure-trove of supplements for the contemporary learner that will stir the minds of Latin and Greek students as they see these ancient languages become very much alive.

There are, for example, a number of colloquia, as they are called, that describe the daily school routine for children, from rising in the morning, to students arguing with each other, to accusations of (and clever excuses for) cutting class. There is a longer dialogue concerning a day at the bath complex, which would be a perfect complement to certain contemporary Latin textbooks that include this theme. Other colloquia “consist of sets of disconnected phrases, rather like a modern Berlitz phrasebook.” One even includes a selection of insults—which are always sought by curious Latin students—that teaches us “that ancient phrasebooks were probably not reference works designed to be used during a conversation, but rather collections of material that would be memorized before the user needed it.”

In addition, Dickey includes selections that taught Latin literature to these Greek students using the same two-column format that the colloquia employ. It will reassure today’s students that non-native Latin speakers in the Roman Empire were reading the same books as we are today, including the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Aesop’s Fables. Dickey points out that often these stories were adapted and grammatically simplified for the benefit of the learner, an action decried by some contemporary Latin teachers. She adds that, “like modern students, ancient Latin students often wrote translations of difficult words in their texts.” For each of the colloquia and the literature selections, Dickey provides a brief introduction. She also alerts readers to non-standard grammatical uses of Latin, from alterations of vocabulary to misuses of the subjunctive. By presenting today’s students with these errors, teachers can challenge their students’ grammatical knowledge in a creative manner, all while providing them solace that they are not alone in their Latin struggles.

Also included in this volume are selections from Latin grammar books, which “were always written in the language being discussed, regardless of the intended audience,” and which include explanations of alphabet, noun declensions, and verb conjugations that would be recognizable to today’s Latin learners; glossaries of words organized by alphabet, theme, and homonyms; and paragraphs for prose composition. Perhaps most interesting of all is the table of Latin verb conjugations written in Greek letters, a sure sign that the ancients learned Latin primarily to communicate orally rather than to read and write.

The final two chapters of this volume demonstrate how the ancient texts really looked: Dickey leaves the parallel Greek untranslated next to its target Latin, and includes some texts that did not make any spaces between words. This latter situation is as difficult for us to follow in a foreign language as it was for the ancients: this situation “led the ancients to give their beginning students running translations” as an aid.

To read through these collections of Latin learning texts expertly arranged and explained by Dickey is akin to giving today’s Millennials an experience of music via records and phonographs: the sound is still the same, but the encounter is rendered fresh with the help of some old tools. For all the differences in emphasis of instruction and in the arrangement of subject matter between then and now, the mystique of the Latin language transcends the test of time. Dickey’s volume reminds us that what is truly classic is ever old yet ever new.  

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.