BMCR 2000.02.15

Finis Rei Publicae: Eyewitnesses to the End of the Roman Republic: an Intermediate Latin Text

, , Finis Rei Publicae: Eyewitnesses to the End of the Roman Republic: an Intermediate Latin Text. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 1999. 180. $26.95.

1 Responses

Intermediate Latin is a difficult course to teach. The dual aims of grammar review and reading real Latin can pull both teacher and students in two directions at once. Should one do intensive grammar review before embarking on readings or attempt to integrate the two? It seems that everything needs attention at the same time. And what about Roman culture? Ideally, an Intermediate Latin textbook should contain readings and material for grammar review, along with some cultural information. In addition, it helps if the readings are structured around a theme that lends some coherence to the course. Also desirable are reading selections that enable students to increase the ease and speed with which they read Latin. This is a tall order, and one that I have tried to fill this year, as I have been teaching Intermediate Latin, a course in which I attempt to integrate grammar review with readings that focus on the struggle for power in the late Republic. Needless to say, I greeted the arrival of Finis Rei Publicae: Eyewitnesses to the End of the Roman Republic: an Intermediate Latin Text ( FRP) with great interest, and I immediately tried out a few Sections with my students. While the book did not fulfill all of my high hopes, it has a number of strengths.

In the words of the authors, “The goal of Finis Rei Publicae is … to combine the intrigue and excitement of a critical moment in western history with a program for solidification of a reading knowledge of Latin prose” (xi). To this end, FRP combines readings (excerpted but not altered) with review of grammar and forms, as well as material on the historical and cultural context of the chosen texts. The book is composed of 40 Sections, which, if covered one per class meeting, would fill out a semester-long course. For each Section, a Latin text is given. These vary in length from one paragraph to several, and become significantly longer in the last 10 Sections of the book. On the same page with the text are a vocabulary list (with words to be memorized marked with an asterisk), information on syntax, and notes containing further grammatical help as well as information on the historical context of the passage. Each Section also reviews a grammatical construction that has appeared in the reading passage. Exercises cover this construction as well as the generation of forms, with each Section prompting students to review several paradigms. These grammar aids are meant to be used with Allen and Greenough or Bennett,1 and references to these texts are given throughout the book. Finally, most Sections contain illustrations depicting artifacts, maps or historical figures relevant to the reading selection. The book also offers an introduction on the pronunciation of Latin, appendices containing terminology, important names, timelines, an alphabetical list of vocabulary glossed, and a map.

The selection of texts aims to create a narrative of the events of 50-48 BC. The authors justify this choice by observing, “Although the final battle for political control of the Roman state was not fought for another three years, and although the formalization of a new order did not take place for another half-generation, in these two years a dagger was driven through the heart of the Republican Roman political system” (x). While this rationale lends a focus to the book, the sharply defined time period limits the authors in their selection of texts. Indeed, the majority of passages come from Caesar (or Hirtius) with a smaller number from Cicero’s letters, and one passage from Velleius Paterculus. In addition, there are passages in translation from Plutarch and Caesar. The publisher’s letter that accompanied the text is somewhat deceptive, however: while its claim that FRP includes passages from “Cicero, Caesar and other classical authors” is strictly correct, the passage from Velleius is the only one not from Cicero’s Letters, Caesar, or material the authors characterize as “‘ghost written’ … by … Hirtius” (xi).

These are certainly worthy passages for students of Latin to consider, but the narrow temporal focus may dictate the selection of texts more than is desirable for a class at the intermediate level. For instance, expanding the scope of the book only slightly would enable the authors to include poetry (e.g. Catullus), as well as prose, and passages from Cicero that do not come from the Letters (e.g. the Catilinarian Orations). Not only do these texts enhance a depiction of the late Republic, but they expose students to a greater variety of styles and genres. In addition, most of the passages in FRP are quite difficult for students reading Latin for the first time. A greater flexibility in selecting texts would allow for some easier selections to be included. Should students in their second week of an Intermediate Latin course be faced with a sentence like the following (20)?

Nam Gaius [Scribonius] Curio, tribunus plebis, cum Caesaris causam dignitatemque defendendam suscepisset, saepe erat senatui pollicitus, si quem timor armorum Caesaris laederet, et quoniam Pompei dominatio atque arma non minimum terrorem foro inferrent, discederet uterque ab armis exercitusque dimitteret: fore eo facto liberam et sui iuris civitatem.

The number of subjunctives alone would tax even the most well-prepared of second year Latin students. Intermediate Latin courses, however, are often populated by students whose knowledge of Latin syntax is less than complete. For them, the above sentence may prove impenetrable.

The integration of grammar review with the readings and the presentation of syntactical features as they appear in the passages are aspects of the book that deserve praise. Not only does this method reinforce what students are learning, but it also helps them make the transition to recognizing various constructions in real Latin. The only drawback is an inevitable one: invariably the first Sections will contain constructions that have not yet been reviewed. FRP deals well with this issue by putting common constructions such as indirect statement near the beginning. The grammatical material itself is generally sufficient, particularly when one remembers that a reference grammar is intended to complement the book. Still, some additional explanation will be necessary in class, as the treatments of most constructions are abbreviated, and may consist only of a chart (as is the case with the uses of ut [39]). The exercises, too, are keyed to the reading passage in each Section. In the Sections of FRP I tested with my Intermediate Latin class, these exercises proved to be the most helpful aspects of the book.

My students found the vocabulary lists in each Section a source more of frustration than help. They noted that the lists contained all the words they already knew and none of the ones with which they really needed help. I, too, found the selection of words glossed puzzling. I see the value of guiding students in memorizing certain common words (the items marked with an asterisk), but wonder about putting so much help on the same page with the text. On the other hand, if each passage comes with a vocabulary list that includes more than the words that must be memorized, it should contain the words students cannot reasonably be expected to know by the time they have reached that point in the text. To take Section 1 as an example, ferox, tempto, salva, and prudens are glossed, but valeo, servo, gloriosus, and terribilis send students to the dictionary. I choose these examples because they all seem of similar difficulty and none is marked for memorization. Granted, all of these words, glossed or not, have English cognates and, thus, their meanings may be inferred, but valde (Section 28) receives no gloss and, as a syncopated form, is not easily guessed.

I found that this abundance of help on rather simple matters and lack of guidance on some more difficult items characterized other aspects of the book as well. For instance, the pronunciation guide (xiii-xviii) and explanation of parts of speech (3) seem too basic for students who have had some Latin and have thus, presumably, covered this material. Some difficult constructions, however, are ignored in the notes. In Section 3, a purpose clause and a cum clause receive no mention in the notes (8), although these constructions have not been reviewed at this point in the book. The authors might make standard a practice they adopt in Section 1, where they simply name the construction (there, a potential subjunctive [2]), thus enabling students to look it up easily in a reference grammar. Even more helpful would be to direct students to the pages of FRP that explain that construction. The exception to this silence on some difficult aspects of the texts is the presence of several notes on textual matters that seem outside the expertise and concern of Intermediate Latin students (e.g. 21 n. 16, 41 n. 7, 67 n. 4).

On the other hand, the occasional “Hints for Translation” come in just the right places: they are relevant to the passages they accompany and provide practical guidance for students approaching connected Latin for perhaps the first time. In addition, they create opportunities for discussing sentence structure and prose style. One of the most useful “hints” treats connective relatives, often a stumbling block. Others include periodic sentences and word order. The “Historical Notes” are also helpful, but more are needed unless the students have a background in Roman history. Likewise, a sentence or two setting the scene should precede each selection. In the later Sections, such introductions are included as transitions between passages when some lines have been omitted. They not only convey information not provided in the Latin texts, but also help students pick up the story, especially when preparing for a class that does not meet every day.

I noted only two typographical errors in FRP. In the exercises for Section 6 (24), cogita should be cogito ( cogita is the answer, which my students were delighted to find supplied for them). In the Glossary of Persons, names that appear in the text are in bold type, but are described in the heading as being underlined (151). Other than these minor slips, the layout of the book is attractive, with easy-to-read text and tables (though some may find that the flow-chart detailing the organization of the Roman community in 49 BC requires some patience). In the texts themselves, selected words appear in bold type or in italics to indicate that they appear in the vocabulary list (bold) or in the grammar and syntax section (italics). I found this system helpful; it would be more so if the authors articulated it at the beginning of the book. All that detracts from the generally pleasing and professional appearance of FRP is occasionally poor image quality. The line drawings are excellent, but some of the images that appear to have been scanned from photos suffer from low resolution.

In general, I would have reservations about using this book with an intermediate Latin class, primarily because of the difficulty of the passages. In addition, the challenge of assimilating a large number of names and historical events, in my experience, can prove difficult for students for whom syntax is still a struggle. The built-in review of forms and constructions, however, is attractive, and my class especially enjoyed the images, which led us to discuss some relevant features of Roman culture.


1. J.B. Greenough et al. (eds.), Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges (Boston 1931). A fairly complete version is also available on the Perseus Project website ( C.E. Bennett, New Latin Grammar (Boston 1960).