Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.28

Milena Minkova, Terence Tunberg, Readings and Exercises in Latin Prose Composition: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. With Answer Key.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus, 2004.  Pp. 196.  ISBN 0-941051-78-1.  $19.95 (pb); $8.95 (answer key).  

Reviewed by John E. Ziolkowski, The George Washington University (
Word count: 928 words

This is an excellent little book filled with varied exercises in Latin composition. Prepared by the team that heads the Institutum Latinum at the University of Kentucky, it consists of twenty-five chapters that provide selections from Latin readings as models for composition. These texts range from classical authors like Cicero and Seneca to Renaissance writers like Thomas More and Erasmus, although most are from the ancient Roman world: Caesar, Livy, Nepos, Pliny the Younger, Plautus and Tacitus. The key difference from traditional books of Latin composition is that the assignments are not simply translations from English, but rather exercises in helping students compose sentences and paragraphs based on the reading. Thus students must re-read the Latin excerpts very closely and develop their own compositions within that context. Exercises require them to add words that change the emphasis of the original extract or rephrase sentences with different grammatical constructions. There are also exercises in using Latin expressions as well as "free compositions" following an introductory sentence created by the authors. Each chapter contains a proverb that serves as the basis for a short composition exemplifying the use of the proverb. Here also the introductory sentence is provided.

The Table of Contents lists the familiar names of grammatical constructions covered in each chapter (there is no Index). It would appear that after the first two chapters the others could be taken out of order as the teacher might wish. Thus if you wanted to use this text in coordination with a class in Cicero, for example, you could easily do this by selecting the seven chapters that contain excerpts from Cicero and perhaps ignoring the others. If you have the luxury of teaching an entire semester of composition, you might simply follow the order of the book. The twenty-five chapters (180 pages) supply more than enough material to keep a class busy for one semester.

As a sample of the methodology here is an outline of Chapter 10 on Impersonal Verbs. First, reference is given to the sections in the grammars of Allen & Greenough and Bradley's Arnold where detailed explanations regarding impersonal verbs may be found. Then comes a short paragraph from Thomas More's Utopia. Although the passage contains no examples of this construction, the first exercise asks students to rewrite ten sentences using licet, oportet and necesse est (an example is given). Sentence #1 is "Aegroti publicis in hospitiis sunt curandi. (necessity)" The Answer Key provides two versions: "Publicis in hospitiis curare aegrotis necesse est" and "Publicis in hospitiis curentur aegroti necesse est." Another selection from the text of Utopia is given, followed by exercises. One requires completing the blanks of nine sentences with words from a list of eight impersonal verbs (interest, pudet, miseret, refert, taedet, paenitet and piget). The sentences paraphrase the text of More. Next an exercise requires students to rewrite a third text (unidentified) using impersonal verbs about weather (from a list of nine). Solutions to both of these exercises are given in the Answer Key. Finally, there are two free compositions with the opening sentences provided. In the first, Latin expressions for "more than expected" are to be employed (from a list of nine including maiora fide). In the second, students are asked to write about the proverb Propria vineta caedere (Horace, Epistulae 2, 1, 220 meaning "'to cut down one's own vineyards' ... used for people who treat themselves too severely").

Other chapters have different exercises; e.g., in Chapter 14, students are asked to rewrite a passage from Cicero's first oration against Catiline "so that all direct questions become indirect depending on the following words: Cicero Catilinam rogavit..." Again the Answer Key provides the answers. It must be emphasized, however, that the authors expect students to have access to the rules of grammar for consultation or to know the various constructions from prior exposure. This is not a text for second-year Latin but rather for more advanced classes. A short Appendix discusses the most significant conventions of modern Latin (e.g., the use of Arabic numerals, new Latin words instead of clumsy circumlocutions to express modern terms like "computer").

What is gained by this approach? Why not simply use one of the traditional books of Latin composition cited by the authors? They do not really discuss this point although they do suggest in the Preface that their manual is something different ("being an introduction to prose writing"). One thing students will gain from this methodology, it seems to me, is a greater appreciation for the way thought is expressed in a text. Students are thus encouraged to want to express their own ideas in Latin, although there is no particular emphasis on imitating the style of the various authors of the excerpts. Different benefits come from the close association of reading and writing Latin than from drilling grammatical constructions, just as there are different gains to be derived from learning Latin by an inductive method such as Orberg's "Nature Method" versus an analytical text like Wheelock's. Minkova and Tunberg invite students to consider the Latin text as a serious medium of expression more than as a source of grammatical illustrations or a puzzle to be translated into English. But then one could ask, why stop at prose texts for this purpose? Paraphrasing passages from Vergil's Aeneid into Latin prose would serve this purpose equally well. This book will stimulate teachers to employ its methodology on whatever authors they are reading in class. For all who would like to introduce more composition into their Latin reading courses, this text will certainly offer an attractive option.

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