BMCR 2012.03.33

Latin Stories: A GCSE Reader

, , , Latin Stories: A GCSE Reader. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 190. ISBN 9781853997464 $27.00 (pb).

This book, written by a group of three English school teachers, sets out to provide a comprehensive set of practice translation passages for school pupils preparing to sit language papers as part of the General Certificate of Secondary Education examination in Latin. Readers unfamiliar with the English school system are directed to a concise overview in a recent review of one of John Taylor’s other publications (BMCR 2010.08.72). Since 2004, only one examination board (OCR) has offered GCSE and A-Level examinations in Latin and Greek. There is therefore only a single examination syllabus available to classics teachers (where there is often a choice of two or three for their colleagues in other departments). For the GCSE in Latin, pupils sit two language papers, the first requiring marginally less grammar and vocabulary than the second.1 Together they form 50% of the award. It is not a coincidence that this book is the latest in a series of textbooks produced over the last decade, all of which are designed to prepare school pupils in Latin and Greek for a specific set of examination regulations, many of them authored by John Taylor.2 Here Taylor is joined by Henry Cullen, his colleague at Tonbridge School, and Michael Dormandy, head of Classics at Ashford School.

The book comprises four sections. Section 1 (by Dormandy) contains thirty passages for translation designed to cover the prescription for Language Paper 1. In accordance with the prescription, the passages are stories drawn both from mythology and Roman domestic life. This is the only section of the book which has a noticeable gradation in the complexity of grammar, and as such provides a useful initial selection of passages for use with students during the first weeks or term of the GCSE course. As with all the sections in the book, any vocabulary that is not found in the GCSE list is glossed.

Section 2 (twenty exercises by Taylor) provides more practice for Language Paper 1, with stories taken from mythology. The level of grammar required is constant throughout. These passages are also accompanied by comprehension questions of the same style required in Language Paper 1: pupils are asked to extract information from the passage (without rendering a complete translation), and to offer English derivatives of certain Latin words. The GCSE does not require pupils to comment on the use of accidence or syntax, and no such questions are set. The majority of passages are self-contained stories, though a few are sequential, for example the myth of Jason and the Argonauts spread across four passages.

Sections 3 (30 exercises by Cullen) and 4 (20 by Taylor) both follow the prescription for Language Paper 2. Together they represent the same sort of preparation as sections 1 and 2; section 3 contains passages for translation only, and Section 4 has accompanying comprehension exercises. All are taken from episodes in Roman history.

There is no accompanying key to the comprehension questions in either sections 2 or 4, and thus the book seems designed for use under the supervision of a teacher or instructor, rather than as a tool for self-study. Neither is there a vocabulary list or reference section included. It must be used, therefore, in conjunction with a language course.

Teachers in the English school system will find this an enormously useful resource to provide comprehensive practice for their students preparing for the current prescriptions in the GCSE. It is well tailored to the linguistic requirements and the question-style of the examinations, and should fill a gap in the market for a reading course for this purpose. There are only two deviations from the OCR grammar prescription. The authors note in the preface that section 2 makes use of fear clauses involving timeo + ne, which are not required by the GCSE. The other receives no explanation: passage 82 (p.150) seems to include a final clause involving a gerund ad aquam ferendum. Knowledge of the gerund is not required for GCSE, whereas that of gerundive is. It is conceivable that this is a typographical error for the gerundival construction ad aquam ferendam. This explanation would also excuse the use of the un-classical construction of a gerund taking an accusative object. The book is otherwise a good representation of classical style executed within the confines of the grammatical and lexical prescriptions. Similarly, it is well produced and sensibly laid out. The only other typographical slip which could cause students problems is fractos on p.150 which should be feminine ( fractas).

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the book is the list of “sources of passages” in a short appendix (pp.188-190). It reveals an intrinsic oddity in the GCSE prescription that almost half of the passages in an exam should be stories drawn from ‘mythology.’ Inevitably this means Greek mythology, and so there is the danger that school pupils may associate Latin as the primary medium through which the modern world encounters Greek myth. The authors have Latinized names (Ulysses, Hercules, Diana etc.), but we nevertheless find the peculiar situation in which a passage of Latin prose is “based upon” (in the words of the appendix) a Greek version in verse by Euripides.3 The authors do not specify further what exactly they took from their source texts, but an inspection of the passages which are based on works of Latin prose reveals that it is usually the bare outline of a story’s plot, rather than any details of syntax or vocabulary. As such, the book is an impressive feat of prose composition! The subject matter of the passages is ultimately dictated by the examination board rather than the authors, but it does raise the point of the marketability and longevity of a publication which is so closely tied to one set of examination regulations. OCR has already made one major change to the style of its language papers since it became the sole board offering the Latin GCSE. A future change would not render the book obsolete, but it could certainly compromise its primary purpose, and therefore it may be off-putting for schools to invest in multiple copies now.

That said, language instructors in other teaching environments should also be able to make good use of this book. The self-contained nature of each passage makes it a useful companion for any ab initio language course. An instructor in a different system should, however, be aware of the extent and limitations of the GCSE grammar prescription. Most notable are the absence of present and perfect subjunctives (and therefore of primary sequence in subordinate clauses), the use of the subjunctive as a main verb, and the gerund (as noted above). The comprehension questions accompanying passages in sections 2 and 4 can easily be ignored if they are not deemed useful, and the entire passage used for translation practice.

Overall this is a welcome addition to the resources available to the schoolteacher in the English system. The more up-to-date publications there are like this (well-tailored to the needs of school pupils, and with engaging story lines) the stronger the position of the subject in departments across the country will become.


1. The full set of examination regulations is available here

2. With Bristol Classical Press Taylor has published Greek to GCSE part 1 (2003), Greek to GCSE Part 2 (2003), Greek beyond GCSE (2008), Essential GCSE Latin (2006) and Latin Beyond GCSE (2009), all aimed at the OCR prescriptions.

3. The story of Iphigeneia at Aulis in passage 48, page 106, for example.