BMCR 2007.10.16

A Concise Guide to Teaching Latin Literature

, A concise guide to teaching Latin literature. Oklahoma series in classical culture ; v. 32. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. xv, 112 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0806137975. $16.95.

Table of Contents

Ronnie Ancona, in her Introduction to A Concise Guide to Teaching Latin Literature, acknowledges the difficulties faced by both secondary level and college faculty in keeping up with scholarship in the authors we teach. High school teachers often have additional extracurricular demands in addition to high student loads, not to mention the difficulties (financial and otherwise) of having access to journals and scholarly work. College faculty must contribute and remain current in their own area of specialization, but may also be asked to teach any number of authors outside their specialty. A Concise Guide to Teaching Latin Literature is a collection of essays designed to give both faculty groups rapid familiarity with some recent scholarship on Catullus, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, and Vergil (not coincidentally the AP authors). Each essay presents a pedagogical approach to its respective author grounded in current scholarly inquiry.1 Readers will likely find the title something of a misnomer—the essays do not constitute a full guide to teaching Latin literature, or even to teaching these five authors. As Ancona herself notes in the introduction, “This is not intended as a ‘how-to’ book, but rather as one that will be suggestive and exploratory. Each teacher will decide what portions of the book might be adapted for classroom use and how” (p. x). As an exploratory work, the book succeeds. Teachers of Latin literature at both the high school level and the college level will find in this book at least food for thought about teaching these five authors, and will likely gain some practical ideas to use in the classroom.

In the first essay, entitled “Catullus, the Collection: Poems, Contexts, and Subjectivity,” William Fitzgerald argues for an approach to teaching Catullus that abandons the venerated biographical reading of Catullus’ poetry. While Catullus’ may “feel” quite familiar to us and our students, and we may be tempted to create Catullus’ persona based on the poems we read, Fitzgerald shows just how a particular poem, and therefore the persona suggested by it, may change meaning depending on the poems to which one relates it. For example, taking poems 11 ” Furi et Aureli” and 51 ” Ille mi par esse,” understood in a biographical reading to mark the end and beginning, respectively, of Catullus’ affair with Lesbia, Fitzgerald shows through poem 85 that love and hate can exist simultaneously in Catullus, a juxtaposition which puts the “biographical” reading of poems 11 and 51 in doubt. Fitzgerald uses a similar technique with poems 10 and 50, and asserts that when we read Catullus, we find the persona we want to find. In the classroom, Fitzgerald’s reading method invites students to give up looking for a singular “personal voice” of Catullus and to acknowledge the multiple meanings that a poem can have as the context of that poem changes. The approach is a refreshing antidote to the “love-story” reading of the Lesbia cycle (common at the secondary level), and it also allows a number of interpretations to coexist. Depending on their own cognitive development, some students may not quite be ready for Fitzgerald’s approach; a few students will no doubt want an authorial voice they can hold on to, rather than the Protean Catullus Fitzgerald’s approach will likely create. However, this method forces students to read the poems and the collection of poems very carefully, and for this reason it merits serious consideration.

In the second essay, “A Poet Restored: Contemporary Scholarship and the Teaching of Ovid,” Barbara Weiden Boyd has two goals: (a) to show the ways in which Ovid’s resurgence at the high school level coincides with recent activity in Ovidian studies; and (b) to show that Ovid is an ideal author for teaching students how to read and interpret. The second of these goals occupies the great majority of her essay. Boyd argues that Ovid requires a high level of participation from his readers and presents three examples of Ovidian passages that require active interpretive decisions on the part of the reader: Amores I.9, ” Militat omnis amans“; Fasti 2.119-144, purportedly celebrating Augustus’ receipt of the title pater patriae; and Metamorphoses 8.152-182, the “transitional” passage preceding the Daedalus and Icarus story). Boyd has chosen these passages specifically because they can be interpreted in different ways, and in their teaching she encourages the teacher not to prefer one interpretation to another in the classroom. For each passage above she provides an example of what she calls “reading Ovid on his own terms” and gives some of the varied interpretations that result if we reject outdated “critical stereotypes” of Ovid.2 Secondary teachers will note that, of these passages, only Amores I.9 is currently on the AP reading syllabus. The Fasti passage, which Boyd regards as an ideal text for showing the multiple interpretations that a passage can carry, is rarely read by college students and almost never read by secondary level students (unfortunately, it seems). But the key to Boyd’s technique is finding passages that are especially suited to multiple interpretations, and many passages in commonly taught works (and on the AP syllabi) spring to mind to which one might apply the method (the end of the Aeneid, for example). The method presented here is about teaching students how to read, with all the meanings the word carries, and it can be applied on some level to almost any text.

Ronnie Ancona, in her essay “‘Tensile Horace’: Negotiating Critical Boundaries,” acknowledges the difficulty of teaching Horace, especially when taught with Catullus or another seemingly more “approachable” author, and she argues that an approach informed by recent scholarship will make Horace more interesting to teachers and students alike. She is eager to replace the characterization of Horace as an old moralizer, an “unemotional (if wry) old commentator sending forth clichés” (p. 55), and she suggests that using current scholarship we can show our students the “tensions” that exist as Horace negotiates the social, historical, and literary constraints on his art. Ancona, too, stresses the importance of not suggesting to students a particular interpretation for a poem, but rather introducing the issues and questions created by the text along with the poem. As an example, she shares the wording of her own book’s introduction to the “Cleopatra Ode,” Ode I.37. She then discusses very briefly six recent (1994-2001) scholarly books that analyze the “tensile quality” of Horace, and shows how these books affect a reading of Ode I.37.3 While Ancona stresses that reading her essay is no substitute for reading these works of scholarship, I found her treatment of the books to be a very helpful introduction to (or reminder of) the scholarly works. However, Ancona makes few practical suggestions of how to apply the scholarly material in the classroom, which I would have found useful. The scholarship in these works is pretty heady stuff; much of the material is likely too subtle for the tastes of the average secondary level student, capable as they may be, and even for many college students. As a result, the teacher looking for a more practical “how to teach Horace” lesson may be disappointed by this essay. Nevertheless, Ancona’s essay and the works it summarizes can clearly change how a teacher reads Horace. As such it is a convincing argument in favor of the value of staying current with the scholarship of the authors we teach.

James M. May’s contribution on Cicero, “Ciceronian Scholarship in the Latin Classroom,” identifies three areas of scholarly inquiry that have occupied Ciceronian scholars recently, and gives some ideas how one might bring such questions into the classroom. The three areas are: (a) the relationship between the published speeches and the spoken version; (b) rhetorical analysis, including the persuasive process and Cicero’s presentation of character; and (c) cultural analysis of a speech.4 May not only introduces specific scholarship in each of these three areas, but also suggests how the scholarship bears specifically on teaching the Pro Archia, In Catilinam I, and the Pro Caelio, three speeches commonly taught to secondary level students and undergraduates. May gives examples for all three speeches, but for the purposes of this review I’ll cite those from the Pro Caelio. First, May shows how theories about the composition of the speech explain the repetitions, about which students (and scholars!) are often perplexed (specifically, section 34 mirroring sections 48-50 and 28 mirroring 41-43). Next, he shows how Cicero’s abundant use of comedic stereotypes (as in Geffcken) is an excellent opportunity for students to see the relationship of the persuasive process to Cicero’s presentation of character (not to mention offering an occasion to read a Roman comedy in translation). Finally, the Pro Caelio is rich in cultural material. As May summarizes: “The glimpse that the speech offers us into the private lives of elite Roman society, the partying at Baiae, the generational gap between the various members of the Claudius family, the possible connections between Clodius, Clodia, and the circle of Catullus, are all topics worthy of exploration, inherently interesting to students, and readily accessible at various levels of engagement” (p. 81). While at least one of May’s suggestions might seem obvious to some readers (for example, some form of persuasive process criticism seems to me absolutely essential for understanding the speeches on even a basic level), his essay is packed with useful and practical ideas; I recommend it to anyone teaching the speeches of Cicero.

In the fifth and final essay, “Dido in Translation,” Richard F. Thomas suggests that teachers can introduce students to reception study and interpretation by having students analyze published translations. Taking as his example the longstanding debate over Aeneas’ actions toward Dido (i.e. was Aeneas right and/or wrong?), Thomas shows that a study of translations can show interpretive stance very clearly. For example, Thomas shows that John Dryden was keen to make Aeneas blameless and to put all blame onto Dido—in Dryden’s translation, Aeneas is an ideal leader, while Dido is weak, prone to emotion, and generally morally degraded. Dryden may very well have been a misogynist, but Dryden’s interpretive stance was also the product of his culture, and Thomas shows how useful this exercise can be for making students aware of how cultural assumptions color our understanding of texts. Thomas gives examples from other translations published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and shows convincingly that many of them struggled to balance Aeneas’ heroism and his culpability. This kind of reception study would be practicable and effective for students of all skill levels. Such a study may help students become more attuned to their own translations, and inspire them to look beyond that first definition in the dictionary (or on Whitaker’s Words) when reading texts. It may even help students become aware of and develop their own interpretive voices. Ideally, students would learn that all reading (and translation) is fundamentally interpretive, and I’m eager to try a translation study in my own class, if only to accomplish this last aim.

In addition to bringing teachers up to date with some relatively current scholarship, the authors of these essays endorse very similar, well-regarded pedagogical techniques. All five scholars propose activities that, in one way or another, invite students to be active participants in the interpretive process, to actively construct their understanding of a text. All five also propose “authentic” tasks for their students, i. e. they are asking their students to accomplish tasks commonly performed by classical scholars (intertextual study, reception study, rhetorical and cultural studies, etc.). Individual teachers will have to decide how appropriate these activities are for their students; some of them, particularly those in May’s and Thomas’ essays, do not depend entirely on a student’s ability to read Latin, and so are appropriate for students at various skill levels. Other activities will likely remain difficult for all but the best students (reading Horace, for example, will always be difficult). Although the book, according to the back cover, is “aimed specifically at keeping teachers up to date on recent developments in Latin scholarship,” the compact treatment necessarily limits the essays (with the exception of May’s) to one aspect of scholarship, particularly for these authors whose scholarship is so vast. The mission of keeping teachers up to date really needs a full (and affordable) series, perhaps featuring one author each year on a rotation. Nevertheless, until the arrival of such a publication, teachers of Latin Literature at all levels will find much food for thought in this book, and, at $16.95 and 110 pages (including notes and bibliography), the book is great value in money and time.


1. The essays were originally delivered in a panel at the 2003 APA Annual Meeting in New Orleans and have been modified for the current volume. The panel was titled “Latin Scholarship/Latin Pedagogy: Scholars Address the Classroom,” sponsored by the APA Education Committee and the Joint APA/American Classical League Committee on Classics in American Education.

2. Boyd, with reference to S. Hinds’ 1987 article “Generalising about Ovid,” identifies these as: “(1) the ‘shallow and over-explicit’ Ovid; (2) the ‘excessively literary’ Ovid; and (3) the ‘passive panegyrist’ Ovid” (p. 27). She adds a fourth, too: Ovid’s (apparently) violent aesthetics in his treatment of sexual relations (p. 28).

3. The six books Ancona treats are: Ancona, R., Time and the Erotic in Horace’s Odes. Durham: Duke UP, 1994; Bowditch, P. L., Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage. Berkeley, California UP, 2001; Davis, G., Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Discourse. Berkeley: California UP, 1991; Lowrie, M., Horace’s Narrative Odes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997; Oliensis, E., Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998; Putnam, M., Horace’s Carmen Saeculare. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

4. May credits C. Craig’s chapter in Brill’s Companion to Cicero for the identification of these three categories.