BMCR 2011.03.26

Geschichte und Funktion von Abbildungen in lateinischen Lehrbüchern: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des textbezogenen Bildes. Prismata 18

, Geschichte und Funktion von Abbildungen in lateinischen Lehrbüchern: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des textbezogenen Bildes. Prismata 18. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. 210; CD. ISBN 9783631597514. $61.95.

Table of Contents

This work is less comprehensive than its title implies: it is concerned only with Latin textbooks used in German schools, not with those from other countries and/or for older students. Moreover, the vast majority of the work is concerned with the twentieth-century history of illustration in these German schoolbooks (on the grounds that illustrations were rare in earlier periods). As a result of this narrow focus the author is able to investigate individual works in considerable detail and to explain not only their use of illustrations but how that use fitted into the particular educational philosophy, political stance, etc. of the works’ authors. In many ways, therefore, this is a book about the evolution of school Latin teaching in twentieth-century Germany, a topic that turns out to be surprisingly interesting. (The educational history of twentieth-century Germany is significantly different from that of English-speaking countries, because of the Nazification and subsequent de-Nazification of the school curriculum. It may not be obvious to outsiders that elementary Latin teaching could be susceptible to Nazification, but it was, and von Rothenburg’s detailed analysis of the Nazi effect on the illustrations of such books, and the subsequent effect of the purging of Nazi influence, is enlightening.)

The Latin books studied display a wide range of illustration policies. Apart from the simple question of whether or not to have illustrations, a question that since the First World War has been consistently answered in the affirmative, there are questions about the type of illustrations to include. Many Latin books are illustrated exclusively or primarily with photographs or drawings of ancient artworks. This policy has certain advantages: it puts the student in direct visual contact with antiquity (the illustrations are authentic in the same way that an extract from an ancient text is), it usually guarantees that the illustrations depict artworks of high quality, and it (ideally) awakens in the student an interest in ancient art. But the use of ancient artworks as illustrations also has disadvantages. The works concerned are often difficult for a modern child to understand or relate to: they may be damaged and incomplete, crucial details may be difficult to see, and very often considerable background knowledge is needed to decode the iconography or even to work out what the object pictured is and how it was originally used. These problems can be remedied, von Rothenburg admits, if the teacher explains the pictures to the children, or if lengthy explanatory notes are provided in the book — but either of these solutions turns the understanding of the illustrations into extra work for the pupil and involves devoting part of what is in theory a Latin course to what an English speaker might call Classical Civilization. How big a part of the course is so altered depends on the number of illustrations provided; in theory it could be a negligible percentage, but in practice von Rothenburg’s statistics of illustrations per page support his suggestion that for many recent German-language Latin textbooks the Classical Civilization component is large enough to entail a significant reduction in the language component.

Another problem with using ancient artworks as illustrations is that they may have little relationship to the text, or even contradict it. Attempting to illustrate a fable involving a dog, for example, an illustrator naturally reaches for the Pompeiian mosaic showing a chained dog and the words cave canem; this is the most famous depiction of an ancient dog, and one that can reasonably be expected to appeal to children. But when the fable involves not a chained watchdog but one that is freely roaming, and that free roaming is crucial to the plot, such an illustration can actively hinder the reader’s comprehension of the Latin. This kind of problem can be avoided by choosing or composing the Latin text to go with the available illustrations, but that process results in Latin texts that are, as von Rothenburg delicately puts it, unconvincing (p. 134).

Another possibility is to use modern pictures designed to go with the Latin. This system too can have problems: such illustrations are often of little artistic merit (one girl is so badly drawn as to make the text’s contention that the hero is in love with her improbable, p. 161), and they may contain anachronisms, giving the impression that the Roman world was little different from our own. But they can be deployed to enhance, rather than distract from, the student’s engagement with the text: a well-designed picture can raise questions in the student’s mind that are then answered in the Latin text the illustration accompanies, making the student eager to read the text to satisfy his or her curiosity. Such illustrations can also make a text easier for children to understand, particularly when the text mentions objects or activities unfamiliar to a modern child.

Latin books also differ widely in the quantity and quality of illustrations. Photographs of ancient remains are not always of high quality, and new illustrations are not necessarily any better in this respect. Clearly quality is advantageous, but it also drives up a textbook’s price, which is a serious disadvantage.

This book is not simply a historical survey of illustration usage, but also an analysis of the pros and cons of different practices. The author concludes (pp. 193-4) with a set of recommendations: the illustrations in Latin textbooks should not be reproductions of ancient (or other) artwork, but should be custom-made to go with the text and to engage children and arouse curiosity about the story to follow. They should be of high quality in both design and execution and should show ancient objects in use and people in action, rather than static, museum-like displays. Pictures of ancient art should be segregated into a separate booklet, along with the explanations necessary to allow children to understand the artworks, so that teachers and children themselves can browse through the artworks at the pace they think right and not be tied to the publisher’s view of how much Classical Civilization belongs in a Latin course. (An English speaker might interpret this conclusion as ‘Classical Civilization material belongs in separate textbooks’, but because of von Rothenburg’s exclusive focus on the German school system he does not think of it in these terms.)

The detailed study of German schoolbooks is preceded by a cursory sketch of the history of illustrations at earlier periods; antiquity and the Middle Ages get fewer than twenty pages between them, while the Renaissance and subsequent centuries get somewhat more generous treatment. In this section attention is not confined to Germany or to Latin textbooks; sweeping generalizations are made about illustration in antiquity, the middle ages, and the Renaissance. Latin textbooks, according to von Rothenburg, were not illustrated during these periods; in order to reach such a conclusion he has to restrict the meaning of ‘illustration’ to exclude, on the grounds of having only tangential connection with the subject matter, a number of pictures found in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The whole discussion of these periods is disappointing; not only is it superficial, but important counterevidence is not mentioned. The Hermeneumata Leidensia are widely believed to be a Latin textbook put together for Greek speakers in the early third century AD, and they contain unmistakeable references to illustrations related to the text.1 These illustrations are not preserved, but they must originally have been present, and the fact of their loss raises the question of how many other ancient works lost their illustrations in the course of transmission. Sometimes von Rothenburg asserts that a particular text was originally unillustrated without citing any evidence; it is possible for such evidence to exist, and sometimes it does exist (for example, precise descriptions of plants point to an originally unillustrated herbal, p. 17), but the unsupported statements nevertheless lack conviction. Additionally, the work of Otto Jahn on ancient Greek illustrations is almost completely ignored; as Jahn gathered considerable evidence for illustrations in antiquity, someone arguing against his position really ought to have engaged with the material he presented rather than dismissing it without mention.2

Although none of the illustrations discussed are printed in the book itself, the work comes with a CD containing 250 images; this is easy to use owing to good cross-references between text and CD. The images are a tremendous help in allowing the reader to understand and evaluate the arguments in the text, but I would have preferred photographs of the entire page on which each illustration occurs, rather than close-ups of the illustrations only. As it is the original captions are sometimes cut off, and one cannot see how the image relates to the text, an issue that can be important in von Rothenburg’s arguments. But these are quibbles: the CD is a great benefit and, as it must have taken the author a lot of extra work to produce, is a testimony to his dedication to the subject and his desire to share his knowledge with the reader.

This book would be an excellent one if the superficial discussions of the early periods had been omitted and if it had been given a title that reflected its actual scope. As it is, readers seeking material outside that scope will feel disappointed by this book, but those interested in the work’s main topic are likely to be very happy.


1. Cf. G. Flammini (ed.), Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana Leidensia (Munich 2004); mention of illustrations in lines 1982, 2006, 2592, and 2617.

2. O. Jahn, Griechische Bilderchroniken (Bonn 1893); cf. von Rothenburg p. 21.