BMCR 2001.06.15

Via Plana. Graduated Readings in Advanced Latin

, Via plana : graduated readings in advanced Latin. London: Bristol Classical, 2000. xx, 218 pages ; 20 cm. ISBN 1853996122 £9.99.

The goal of this book is to provide elementary Latin students with transitional readings to real Latin. The readings consist of unadapted passages from major ancient authors organized according to grammatical structures. These readings are intended to replace the “unseen translations” and prose composition exercises which have long served in the British educational system as a transition to advanced Latin classes. According to Taylor-Briggs, an honorary lecturer at the University of Birmingham, a basic drawback of this traditional approach is that the Latin student is presented in such readings with random problems of grammar and comprehension. Taylor-Briggs provides a more systematic approach by explaining specific aspects of Latin grammar which present a particular challenge to Anglophones learning Latin and by providing readings which contain significant examples of these grammatical features.

VIA PLANA is specifically written for students in the British school system, with graduated readings designed for the following five levels of study: Level One is intended for immediate post-GCSE students or the equivalent; Level Two is for students preparing for the A-levels; Level Three addresses the needs of first-year British undergraduates; Level Four, second-year undergraduates; and Level Five, last (third-year) undergraduates. The first chapter contains exercises only at the first two levels. In the next two chapters levels 1-4 are represented. All five levels are used in chapters 4-9. The last three chapters have exercises for levels 2-5, but not level one.

Theoretically, the U.S. equivalents for these levels would be advanced high school (Level One and Level Two) and undergraduate (Level Two through Level Five). The text would serve as an excellent review for U.S. high school students intending to continue Latin in college (Level One and Level Two) or for U.S. undergraduate students who have had one-year of college Latin and who wish to continue into intermediate or advanced courses (Level Two through Level Five). The book might also work well as a required transitional text for the first few weeks of an intermediate college Latin course, especially one which moved on to texts represented in the reader.

The book includes acknowledgements, notes to users, preface, students’ introduction, glossary of technical terms, and twelve chapters of grammar review and graduated exercises. A basic knowledge of Latin grammar is assumed by Taylor-Briggs, who targets grammatical features which require more detailed attention. In the first eleven chapters she reviews specific grammatical features (relative clauses, indirect speech, predicative datives, temporal conjunctions, gerunds and gerundives, purpose and result clauses, verbs of fearing/ quominus and quin, independent subjunctives, conditional sentences, coping with qui, quae, quod, etc, and coping with ut and ne). The last chapter consists of a revision of all these grammatical forms in context. Many of these grammatical discussions include excellent charts on English usage, such as the relative pronouns who/whom/which (Chapter 1), the sequence of tenses in indirect statements in English (Chapter 2), formulae for translating gerundives into English (Chapter 5), and the English translations of words introducing Latin result clauses like talis and tantus, -a, -um (Chapter 6).

VIA PLANA contains approximately 142 reading passages. Taylor-Briggs has chosen equal amounts of prose and poetry and has attempted to cover a variety of genres. The frequency by author, in general, reflects curricular interests. Cicero is represented twenty times, half from the philosophical essays, Ovid has fifteen passages, especially ones from the Heroides and Epistulae ex Ponto. Livy has eleven, Vergil nine (seven from the Aeneid); Catullus, nine; Caesar, eight (divided equally between Bellum Civile and Bellum Gallicum); Seneca the Younger, eight, mostly from his letters, with a few selections from his Medea; Sallust seven; Tacitus, six; Pliny the Younger, Tibullus and Lucretius, five each; Horace, Juvenal, and Cornelius Nepos, four each; and Propertius and Martial, three each. Authors represented only once or twice include Ennius, Hirtius, Lucan, Quintilian, Statius, Suetonius, and Valerius Maximus. In addition there are seven exercises of sententiae and short sentences from a variety of authors. Absent are authors like Plautus, Terence, Seneca the Elder, Petronius, Apuleius, and later Latin authors like Augustine. A selection for American readers would probably contain at least some readings from these missing authors plus more Vergil, Horace and Juvenal and more readings from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (represented only twice). Passages are identified only by author and title. The author intentionally did not provide book and line references in order to inhibit student use of published translations.

Words illustrating the grammatical feature of each chapter are put in bold in the reading exercises through Level Four. In Level Five Taylor-Briggs eliminates this aid in order to accustom the student to the simple Latin text and in order to make the readings more challenging. In the Level One exercises, the emphasis is on easily confusable vocabulary; e.g., Taylor-Briggs uses viris and viro, cunctati and cuncti, and opera/opem/operam/opus in exercise 1B for Chapter VIII on Independent Subjective. These words are underlined in the passage to draw the students’ attention to them.

Since the emphasis of VIA PLANA is on reading Latin by sight out of context rather than reading Latin with contextual aids, users of this book are expected to focus more on the grammatical features of the readings than on the intellectual or cultural context. While the text provides extensive grammatical support for the readings, the lack of contextual support is sometimes unfortunate. For example, Taylor-Briggs uses Tacitus’ Annales XIV,58 in a Level Four exercise for the second chapter on indirect constructions. The only contextual information provided is that the passage deals with a threat to Plautus’ life. Yet, in order to understand this passage fully the student needs to know the answers to questions like “Who is Plautus?” and “Why is his life threatened?” Some knowledge of Roman literature may be even worse than none in this case, because students with some knowledge of Latin may mistakenly assume that the passage is about the Plautus who wrote comedies instead of C. Rubellius Plautus, who was forced by Nero to commit suicide. The lack of such background will be felt by many students using this text.

While VIA PLANA may be an excellent tool for students intending to improve their grammatical skills, it does not help those many students whose transitional needs are based more on culture and context than on grammar and vocabulary. In “Latin III’s Dirty Little Secret—Why Johnny Can’t Read” in the New England Classical Newsletter (27 [2000], 206-226) Kenneth Kitchell illustrated the needs of these students by analyzing E.D. Hirsch Jr’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988). Kitchell argues convincingly that the average transitional Latin student has less difficulty dealing with problems of grammar and vocabulary and more problems with culture and historical context. For this reason a reader like VIA PLANA would be even more valuable than it is if it also provided some background and introductory material at the beginning of each reading and more extensive contextual notes (about culture, history, etc.) throughout the readings.