Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.44

Matthew Hartnett, By Roman Hands: Inscriptions and Graffiti for Students of Latin.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2008.  Pp. xvii, 110.  ISBN 9781585102945.  $16.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 780 words

Teachers of Latin in the initial stages often feel that they have a problem concerning the authenticity of the texts used to exemplify grammatical points. This is usually solved by simply accepting the need to invent brief examples specifically for the purpose, but Matthew Hartnett, teacher at St Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts, has hit on a more interesting plan; using genuine inscriptions and graffiti in order to exemplify straightforward morphological and syntactic features of Latin. They are not usually composed in a natural spoken register, of course, but they are undeniably usually short, and in fact examples can be found which do demonstrate all the main features of Latin grammar.

This is not a textbook in itself, and will require both a teacher and a separate grammar book to be effective. The first part of the book, "Nouns: the Uses of the Cases", contains thirty-nine inscriptions, presented in three sections: "Nominative and Accusative"; "Genitive and Dative"; and "Ablative". There is no explanation here of what these names mean, what the relevant endings are, or what the forms are for, which will presumably have been explained already. The other three parts are "Verbs: the Forms of the Indicative", with twenty inscriptions, in four sections; "Miscellaneous Forms and Constructions", with forty-three inscriptions, in six sections; and "The Syntax of the Subjunctive Mood", with forty inscriptions presented in eight sections.

There are thus one hundred and forty-two inscriptions in all. Each inscription is given a heading related to its content, a reference to the published source (usually CIL), a version in bold type and capital letters intended to be similar to the attested inscription, an edited version in normal bold type and punctuation (emended in such a way as not to contradict precepts given by the teacher, which begs a number of questions), a few lines of comment on the content allied with a partial paraphrase, and a glossary of several of the words. Seven of the more legible inscriptions are given a photograph, eleven are given a drawing, and two reproduce an illustration from an earlier publication (of 1897). This explanatory material does not include a translation, nor, for the most part, any linguistic comment on the use of the feature which it is intended to demonstrate. The fact that some of these texts are in hexameters or elegiacs passes unmentioned. Indeed, little linguistic pedagogical material interrupts the flow apart from a few gnomic references in the glossaries, and it is easy for a reader to forget that this is the purpose of the exercise. Since so many of the texts are epitaphs, the comments on the content tend to take the form of a question concerning the view of death taken in the phrasing, attitudes which are indeed surprisingly varied, but may not improve classroom morale.

The inscriptions themselves are varied. They were engraved, scratched or painted, as inscriptions on monuments, graffiti on walls, epitaphs, notices, adverts, messages on signs, rings, slave-collars, lamps and the Vindolanda tablets; the majority are from Rome or Pompeii, but there are also examples from England, France, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Turkey (manifesting no noticeable diatopically interesting variations); the majority are undated here, the earliest one given a dating being one quoted by Livy (6.29.9) but now lost, of the fourth century B.C., and the latest a Christian one of A.D. 381 (although one undated case is surprisingly taken from a fifteenth-century manuscript reference). No diachronic observations are made at all. This is unusual in itself, since linguists are used to these data being adduced in support of arguments concerning geographical variation, including Oscan or Umbrian evidence, for example, or chronological evolution, including attestations of archaic usage or of newly developing forms, such as those which the late József Herman used in most of his studies of "Vulgar" Latin, rather than to exemplify normal usage.

The book is neatly printed and is likely to turn out to be pleasant and instructive to use in class if the teacher gives it careful preparation in advance. The indexes could be exploited in interesting ways, since (for example) not all the illuminating uses of the ablative occur in the section entitled "Ablative". And it is always worth reminding students at more advanced levels that the great literature in what we call "Classical" Latin was a marked genre and a minority sport of the erudite, and that Latin as a whole (what used to be called "Vulgar Latin" until it became obvious that everybody used it) was rather different. Those with a particular interest in inscriptions will find this book useful too. But overall it will probably strike most potential readers as a charming curiosity.

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