Pompeii_eps - Cambridge School Classics Project

Pompeii and the Cambridge Latin Course
Most Latin courses before the Cambridge Latin Course appeared in 1967 had
concentrated on teaching the language by traditional methods, i.e. by drilling
grammatical tables, by translating sentences from and into Latin and by providing
short passages from Latin. The content of these passages usually retold an event or
anecdote from Roman history. Background material was sparse. The understanding
was that pupils would eventually make the transition to reading and appreciating real
Latin and would also be able to translate into Latin. Only a small proportion of pupils
ever achieved these aims, even at a time when Latin was largely taught in selective
schools with a good time allowance.
The Cambridge Latin Course (CLC) presented a radical new approach. The two
objectives of the Course were:
1. To teach comprehension of the Latin language for reading purposes
2. To develop from the outset an understanding of the content, style and values of
Roman civilisation, with particular reference to the first century AD.
The Course argues that to prepare for the aim of comprehending and reading Latin,
not only a new linguistic scheme needed to be adopted, drawing on the insights of
modern linguistics, but also that extensive reading material was required to develop
both reading skill and the appreciation of Roman literature and civilisation, which are
inextricably linked together. Most importantly, the content of the Course must be
intrinsically interesting if it were to appeal to a wide range of pupils in the then new
comprehensive schools. For them, and indeed for pupils in selective schools, Latin
would very often become an optional subject, in competition with a wide range of
other subjects.
The choice of Course content and literature
Traditionally the first authors that were read had been Caesar (Gallic Wars) - thought
to be the easiest prose author - and Virgil (Aeneid), or selections from Ovid, Catullus
and Martial. Cicero and Livy would follow at A level. As mentioned above, reading
material had usually consisted of episodes from Roman history but these were too
brief and disconnected to develop character or context in depth. Nor did Caesar’s
campaigns easily engage the interest of the young, especially girls, struggling with
real Latin for the first time. It might have been possible to construct a course that
concentrated on the Late Republic, the favoured period for study, and led to the
reading of Caesar and Cicero ‘the Golden Age’ authors, but the politics of the period
are extremely complex even for interested adults to understand and the visible
archaeological remains considerably fewer and less arresting than those of the
following century.
The place where the whole life of a Roman town, its people, institutions, buildings
and artefacts are revealed is of course Pompeii. Before the CLC this unique resource
had hardly been used in school textbooks, because of their concentration on the earlier
history of Rome and the ‘Golden Age’ authors. Pompeii offered the opportunity of a
rich and detailed narrative, which would culminate in one of the most dramatic and
catastrophic events in history – the eruption of Vesuvius. (As the climax of the first
book of the Course, the eruption had also the practical advantage of enabling the
writers to dispose of characters who would not be required in the later books of the
Course.) With such a resource it would be difficult not to engage the interest of
The history of the first century AD was also much less complex for pupils to
understand, since Rome was under the rule of one man, the Emperor. At the same
time such an autocracy raises important topics for discussion, not least the rule of
despots today.
In their selection of content the writers were also able to prepare pupils for the
discussion of themes and characterisation they would meet later in the course and in
Latin literature. The literature would mainly be that of the first century AD, Pliny and
Tacitus (adapted) in prose, while the same poets as before would continue to be set.
Virgil and Ovid belong more to the early Empire than the Republic, Martial to the
first century AD, but the overriding reason for reading them, with Catullus, is their
quality as poets.
Why does the Pompeian material interest pupils?
First and foremost it provides interesting historic characters living lives for which the
material evidence survives. For example, we know that Caecilius, the paterfamilias of
Book I, was an auctioneer, tax-collector, farmer and money–lender, because we have
records of his accounts; his house has been excavated and a portrait bust discovered.
The Project writers were thus able to construct a narrative about Caecilius which tries
not to distort the known facts about him, although he is given an invented household,
which includes a son, Quintus. As we explore the various aspects of life in Pompeii,
we meet other characters, some authentic, others fictitious, but operating in a material
world, of which a large part still survives: the streets, forum, law court, theatre, baths,
etc. Copious illustrations (many now in colour) and written material in English
supplement the narrative.
The popularity of this book and the Course as a whole is due to the elements that form
the constituents of the best radio and TV soaps or serials, i.e. interesting characters
that the audience can identify with or love to hate, that appear often; dramatic
incidents; a strong background.
Developing an understanding of Roman civilisation and literature
From the previous paragraph it is evident that pupils become familiar with many
aspects of everyday life in Pompeii. This knowledge is not restricted to facts about its
institutions and practices, but also involves the beliefs, ideas and values underlying
them. This is not only valuable in itself, but is also essential preparation for the
reading of the authors. For example, if one comes to Virgil with no understanding of
Roman religious beliefs or to Pliny without being familiar with the system of
patronage that permeated Roman society, then one is in for a bewildering time,
compounded by the difficulties of the language.
Again, if pupils have never met interesting characters in their course and never been
able to question motivation and relationships, it is unlikely that they will be able to
say much about the conflicting emotions described in a Catullus poem or to detect
innuendo in a passage in Tacitus.
Even with the limited resources of language available in the first book of the Course it
is possible to start developing these necessary understandings from the outset. The
later books pursue the same principles at deeper levels of sophistication and
complexity, while still following the adventures of our hero, Quintus. From small
town Pompeii the Course progresses to two contrasting parts of the Roman Empire,
Roman Britain (Fishbourne) and Roman Egypt (Alexandria), then back to Roman
Britain (Bath and Chester) and finally to Rome itself (life in the city, the Emperor and
intrigues at court).