Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.22

Richard Ashdowne, James Morwood, Writing Latin: An Introduction to Writing in the Language of Cicero and Caesar.   London:  Bristol Classical Press (a division of Gerald Duckworth & Co.), 2007.  Pp. vi, 186.  ISBN 978-185399701-3.  $23.50.  

Reviewed by Dana F. Sutton, University of California, Irvine (
Word count: 1059 words

For modern Classicists, mention of a Latin Prose Composition textbook conjures up the vision of books written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and reprinted umpteen times by umpteen publishers, often in disreputably blotchy photographic reproductions. Most often these consist of the time-honored progression from North and Hillard to Nash-Williams, and ultimately to Bradley's Arnold. And why not? If you overlook the deplorable fact that textbooks written for consumption by British schoolboys are nowadays assigned for undergraduates and even graduate students, and if you regard prose composition as, in essence, a chore necessary for reviewing Latin grammar and instilling a more precise grasp of its syntactical and stylistic niceties, thus improving students' ability to read and appreciate Latin, these traditional textbooks are as serviceable as they ever were. And, truth to tell, these are the principal (or, more accurately, the only) reasons why most Classics programs retain prose composition in their curricula. If, on the other hand, you regard Latin prose composition as a potential vehicle for self-expression, for the communication of ideas having any possible interest to modern writers and readers, as a medium in which one might aim for something approaching artistry, or just as a way of having fun, that is a different matter entirely. Somewhere along the way Erasmus was shown the door, and the fun quotient in prose composition as it has usually been taught since the nineteenth century is minimal.

And it is not greatly increased in this textbook. Its subtitle raises hopes for something new and different, and a claim for refreshing modernity is made in the Introduction: "We have striven to avoid the excessively militaristic and political examples of old-fashioned Latin grammar books. Instead we aim to reflect the diversity of Roman and modern life in a way not done before in this kind of book: there are still some soldiers, politicians, emperors and slaves --they were a fundamental part of Roman life, and it would be wrong to neglect them entirely -- but there are also wayward boyfriends, querulous wives, and domestic, rustic and urban scenes. We hope these will prove as entertaining as they are challenging." Yes, some of the material students are required to translate is more entertaining than the common run of such stuff, but a lot of it is imperceptibly different from those one would find in a similar textbook written a century ago: among the concluding continuous exercises one even encounters the obligatory Macaulay paragraph (and Macaulay is the most recent writer laid under contribution). More important, this veneer of modernity does not disguise the fact that the authors have little new to offer in terms of pedagogical approach. This book goes about its business in the traditional way: one feature of grammar is introduced per chapter, then the student is required to translate a series of sentences illustrating that feature. On the plus side, the grammatical explanations are very clear and concise. On the minus, the review material provided is a bit thin, and many teachers would probably feel the need to develop supplements.

By the time this journey through Latin grammar is completed (a matter of 122 pages, divided into twenty unnumbered sections), the various parts of the disassembled engine are spread out on the workshop floor. Evidently the authors felt that it is now time to put the entire thing together and observe it in operation. This in itself is a good idea, but they appear to have had little idea of how to go about the job. After a useful discussion of on word order, they conclude with a section on Latin Prose Style (eighteen pages), in which a handful of passages by Cicero, Caesar, Livy, and Tacitus are presented as exhibits of style. Each is accompanied by a number of detailed grammatical notes and suggested translations of selected words and phrases. But since these passages are not presented against the background of any general discussion of style, and since the running commentaries have little to say about non-grammatical issues the student will pardonably be puzzled about what he or she is expected to learn from them. The Tacitus passage is probably too difficult for students at this level, and the invitation (p. 153) to try introducing a couple of rhythmical clausulae in the concluding connected passages set for translation (on the basis of the information given about them on p. 136) borders on the absurd: how many students at this stage of development have a sufficient grasp of quantification to do this? For that matter, the injunction (p. 151) against the importation of poetic words into prose presumes that students (who most likely will be using a Cassell's or Langenscheidt, not Lewis and Short or the Oxford Latin Dictionary) have any means of discerning poetic vocabulary items. The value of this entire section of the book seems doubtful and raises questions about the realism of the authors' understanding of their intended audience.

It may seem as if my intention is to disparage this book. It is not. While I have serious reservations about the wisdom of the section on Latin Prose Style (and in any event a cynic may suspect that most teachers will not manage to get that far in the book by semester's end), it offers a wholesome and beneficial grammar review, and the brevity and lucidity of its explanations is admirable. Moreover this book is offered by a publishing firm that can be counted on to keep it in print, a practical consideration not to be neglected by textbook-ordering instructors. But one cannot help observing that, pedagogically, it has nothing especially new to offer. The overall impression is of a curiously old-fashioned textbook (that Macaulay paragraph is a dead giveaway), and one cannot help wondering what precisely inspired its authors to write it. A teacher exclusively concerned with leading students through a grammar review will not regret selecting this as a textbook. But anyone harboring different ambitions will probably want to consider some other teaching materials, such as Milena Minkova's recent Introduction to Latin Prose Composition.

I regret having to report that the authors have subsequently (in 2007) published an accompanying so-called key, which "offers the authors' fair copies of the exercises in their book." My heart goes out to the poor student introduced to Latin prose composition by an instructor who needs such help.

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