Like a knife through Cicero’s wordy butter, or How to remember more stuff

I have spent several lessons this week with sixth formers getting old school on our grammar. In the first instance, we had started off by going through some unseen Cicero, and to be frank it was like putting a plastic picnic knife through a block of butter straight from the fridge. We made hard work of it, nearly snapped the metaphorical knife of Latin enthusiasm. It was no good. We needed to warm the butter a little, or perhaps find a sturdier knife to get though our cold, hard, unyielding butter of Ciceronian oratory.

‘Shall we chant?’ I asked. Now, I love a bit of rhythmic recitation of linguistic paradigms, but unfortunately I’m no musician so I am not about to post a video of me dancing around my kitchen table to ‘hic, haec, hoc’ or beating out a rhythm to ‘ego, me, mei, mihi, me’ with my wooden spoons, but hopefully you get the picture. We worked through nouns of every declension, recognised patterns, memorised patterns, my student grinned, I grinned, my baby (annoyingly awake during this lesson) also grinned.

At last we returned to the Cicero and it was obvious that our chanting had paid off. Our knife of enthusiasm, whetted with knowledge, slid easily through Cicero’s wordy butter as it warmed to its rhetorical theme. Nominative plurals were abandoned in favour of dative singulars, genitives were given their rightful status, equilibrium was restored to Cicero’s speech. Everyone was happy. Hurrah!

So, if working through a translation feels like a putting plastic knife through cold, hard butter, then maybe it’s time to get old school with your Latin and restart the chanting.

Also, remember that chanting and singing can work as a revision tool in all your subjects, not just Latin. Try making lists of key facts and putting them to a beat, or to music, maybe to the tune of a favourite song. It will definitely be more fun than just writing it out over and over, or reading and re-reading and I bet you will remember more of it. Happy revising!

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Roman times…

Walking with my daughter to school, one of our pleasures is spotting and naming new plants. ‘This is lavender, Mummy — it smells of lavender, and it’s minty!’ Yes…

Given the sunshine we have been having, there are suddenly many more plants opening up and sharing their colours and scents with the world, and this thought always puts me in mind of the Latin names for months (it does!). The current month, April, is Aprilis in Latin, which comes from the verb aperio, to open. Lewis and Short (THE Latin dictionary) gives the definition of Aprilis as “the month of April (as the month in which the earth opens and softens)”.

How lovely! Just like the tulips and violets and lavenders which brighten our walks to and from school.

Some books to inspire budding classicists

There’s really no need to force your budding classicist through Commentarii de Puero Inepto, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid recently translated into Latin — here are some of my favourite books with a classical or otherwise ancient theme to inspire classicists of all ages.

I was given my first Asterix book when I was six and I decided it was too grown up for me, but it didn’t take me long to change my mind. The stories are entertaining, there’s a cute puppy named Dogmatix, and there are adventures featuring Roman soldiers with ridiculous names, magic potion provided by Getafix the Druid, there’s even a Corsican cheese so smelly it blows up a ship. My favourite adventure, Asterix and Cleopatra, contains one of the best puns ever, ‘We’ll be driven into the Nile! We’ll be annihilated!’, and also secretly educates the young reader about who built the pyramids, Julius Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra (JC is incidentally portrayed as balding and vain), and the existence of a library at Alexandria. Not a mummy in sight. Incidentally, the wife of Vitalstatistix the Gaulish chieftain is called Impedimenta, which, along with many other phrases and snippets of Latin, was a great help when learning Latin vocab in school.

The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, first in her Roman Mysteries series, provide maps of ancient Ostia (surely one of the most under appreciated places in Classics classrooms in England), historical details of the time, religious practices around the empire (Jonathan, one of the main characters, is Jewish) and cracking good adventures. One pupil of mine, otherwise a fan of the books, found it a little patronising that the names of some characters are a direct Latin translation of their jobs, the slave dealer’s name being Venalicius, for example. This did not bother me at all. I think they are fab, and so does the BBC who televised two series for their children’s programming. There’s also a powerful female lead in the headstrong and fearless Flavia Gemina.

Harry Potter. In case I need say more, the spells are in Latin, or a kind of Latin. JK did Classics.

Children’s author Joan Lennon has created a wonderful, ginger heroine in the form of Slightly Jones, Victorian child detective. Her hero is Sherlock Holmes, she lives with her intrepid grandmother, and it is the house full of lodgers with interesting backstories who provide the mysteries for Slightly to solve, all of which are set in famous museums. I have a personal bias in choosing to recommend The Case of the Cambridge Mummy, set in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but they are all jolly good reads. If you enjoy these, try Joan Lennon’s other series set in the medieval fenlands around Ely Cathedral with a young novice monk and his pet gargoyle solving mysteries together.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, for those who missed the recent blockbuster films, is set in Panem, a dystopian future America with privileged city dwellers served by the effectively enslaved inhabitants of the provinces. The entertainments for the masses (panem et circenses, bread and circuses, see what Suzanne has done there?) are provided each year by a televised gameshow fight to the death amongst the children of the outlying provinces. Katniss Everdene is another strong female lead. See how many classical allusions you can spot. Gripping.

I should have been revising for my history A Level when I read Donna Tartt’s A Secret History. I justified it because the title was similar to Procopius’ Secret History of the reign of Emperor Justinian and his circus performer wife, Emperess Theodora, to which I should have been paying closer attention. But I digress. A group of US Classics students have a dark secret. Their thrilling story is bound up with Bacchic ritual. One for older teens, perhaps.

Now, I know that textual criticism is a somewhat niche subject, but hey, if you’re reading this you’re pretty niche already, and that’s a good thing. Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice is the fabulous rip-roaring adventure of Victorian Scots Presbyterian twin sisters who teach themselves ancient languages, take themselves off to the Sinai peninsula, amongst other places, and discover lost texts of ancient Syriac gospels. They also found a college in Cambridge, set up academic journals and are awarded honorary degrees by universities far and wide (but not Cambridge, to its shame). Note the strong female leads again. Words like ‘palimpsest’ and ‘genizah’ abound. I did mention that it is a rip-roaring adventure.

Following the textual criticism theme, Jasper Fforde writes dangerously addictive comedy fiction about literary detective Thursday Next. I urge you to start from the beginning with The Eyre Affair, however, if literary criticism really is your bag, then you can jump straight into The Woman Who Died A Lot. It also features my favourite medieval monk, the Venerable Bede, in an utterly spurious cameo. Dangerously addictive, I tell you, and another strong female lead.

There are so many more and everyone will have their favourites. Please share yours in the comments section below. That would make my day.

Summer’s Here! Top tips for tip top revision

I am not about to tell you how to revise — some people stick colour coded charts all over their walls, others like flash cards — do whatever works for you, but I do have a few top tips to help you focus and stay focused.

Mens sana in corpore sano, or, as I like to say, Healthy body, healthy brain¹

Looking after yourself during stressful times is very important. Firstly, have a proper breakfast to set yourself up for the day. Eat whatever makes you happy, be it porridge or bacon and eggs, just have breakfast!

Secondly, remember to take brain breaks. Stop working and get some exercise, even if it’s just a stroll in the fresh air. Moving your limbs will get everything flowing again, taking deep breaths of fresh air will relax you and if it’s sunny you get your healthy boost of vitamin D too. You will work better if you take a break and come back to it.

Multum in parvo — less is more²

If you are trying to learn lots of vocab or lists of facts, quotations, whatever, little and often is best. Work in short bursts and come back to it. The more often you return to a topic, the better. As above, however, remember not to overdo your studies but take brain breaks.

Varietas delectat — variety is the spice of life³

You might have one subject that you love, but you will have others that need time as well. Equally, you might have one subject that you feel needs lots of time spent on it, but you mustn’t neglect the others. Mix it up. You will benefit from the change of topic and change of approach that different subjects often require.

Finally, good luck in all those exams!

¹ Literally, mens sana in corpore sano means ‘a sound (or healthy) mind in a sound (or healthy) body’. It comes from Satire X of the Roman poet Juevenal, in which he lists what one should desire in life. He apparently felt that ‘virtue’ was the thing. Go on, look up Juvenal’s Satire X.

² Literally, multum in parvo means ‘much in little’ or ‘much in a small space’. It often refers to conciseness, but is also, delightfully, the motto of Rutland, the smallest county in England.

³ The Latin reads ‘variety delights’. My loose translation is in fact a misquotation from the English poet William Cowper, who wrote in his lengthy poem of 1785 entitled The Timepiece, from The Task, Book II, ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour’. Cowper was also famed for his translations of Homer. Cool, hey?

Swimming against the tide — adventures in prose composition

One year I had a particularly enthusiastic Year 8 Latin class. Not top set, but definitely a talented bunch. As a treat at the end of lessons we would sometimes spend a few minutes adding to their Latin story about a fish. The story didn’t make much sense and I can’t quite remember the antics of the fish. The grammar was good though. Naive latinists do not think within their capabilities but plot mighty tricky sentences as the whim takes them, so we would spend several minutes figuring how to put that thought into Latin. Out of necessity we would often have to look way beyond our Year 8 capabilities. I would explain more intricate grammar points than most of them would ever need to know, just so our fish could leap further, swim deeper, have more exotic adventures by far than any other Year 8 fish.

I left the school before members of that class reached Sixth Form, but I hear from some of them occasionally and they always speak fondly of those lessons. A few went on to do classics degrees. I wonder if they did prose composition at A Level, a discipline which I re-established in that school, and I wonder if they ever think of that brave little fish having wonderful adventures in grammar back in Year 8.

Did you do pro-co at school? When did you start? How did you find it? Please tell all in the comments below.