A Murmuration of Latinists, or Where Was Caecilius?

Scansion is one of my most favourite things to teach. It is a lesson which simply has to involve every member of the class speaking out loud at some point. A murmuration of latinists is positively necessary. I noticed recently a headline about whether or not learning of macrons should be enforced. Macrons are those little flat lines above some vowels in Latin. Needless to say, I couldn’t bring myself to read the article. However, macrons are vital as the building blocks of scansion. Some of them any Latin student will already know without realising it – where was Caecilius? In the hortō, of course*. Others can be looked up in such marvellously learned tomes as William Ramsay’s 1806 A Manual of Latin Prosody (also available on JSTOR).

There are many beauties in Latin, but reading a properly scanned verse out loud is certainly one of them. The process of scanning a line is daunting to the uninitiated or poorly taught but there is no secret. Once you have positioned your strawberry jam pot, figured out your longs and shorts, checked for elision, added up your feet, found your caesura, patted yourself on the back, then the pleasure of reading aloud can begin.  The knack is to over emphasise each syllable, to take it slowly at first, as if pronouncing something utterly alien as carefully as you can.  Once you have done this a couple of times, you can speed it up to a normal speaking pace. By this time you will be grinning. Start scanning several lines and before you know it time will have moved on unimaginably. You have been having fun! I once bumped into a student several hours after a scansion lesson and he was still grinning. It had been his best lesson ever!

Unfortunately, this joy is reserved only for A-Level students in the UK. Why is it that the most fun and rewarding aspects of education so often have to wait until only the dedicated or privileged few can have a bash at it? Happy scanning!

* In fact Caecilius wasn’t in the hortō, but most of the rest of his household were.

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