Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Milena Minkova, Introduction to Latin Prose Composition. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2007. Pp. xiii, 154. ISBN 978-0-86516-672-1. $26.00.
Reviewed by Akihiko Watanabe, Western Washington University

Milena Minkova is a respected researcher, teacher and writer of Latin and member of the innovative Institute for Latin Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her Introduction to Latin Prose Composition, originally published in 2001 and recently reprinted, offers timely help to neophytes who have gone through elementary Latin and are ready for a serious grammar review together with hints for extended prose composition. It may also be useful for veterans who have taught and read Latin for years but may nevertheless want to be reminded of the basic rules and tools to begin writing in the language.

The book may be divided into three parts: grammatical review (Chaps. I-VI, VIII), vocabulary guide (VII), and suggestions for composition exercises (IX-X). A full bibliography of aids for Latin composition (pp. 150-152) and a list of critical editions from which examples were taken (153-154) round up the work.

The grammatical review is mostly concerned with syntax and excludes accidence, with which users of this book are presumably quite comfortable. The grammar is prescriptive rather than descriptive; Minkova's aim is clearly to teach the reader how to write correct, classical or rather classicizing (for more on my use of this term see below) Latin prose, without distracting them with diachronic, generic or socio-linguistic variations. The manner and order of presentation are similar to those of traditional composition textbooks like Bradley's Arnold, but Minkova tends to be more concise. The language is thoroughly up-to-date (Minkova's English is impeccable and accessible throughout, and readers would never notice that it is not her native language), a boon to those who are not fond of Victorian archaisms. An example or two are provided for every grammatical point. Most of these seem to have been taken from the familiar classics (e.g. Exegi monumentum aere perennius. (p. 3), Egredere ex urbe! (p. 84)) but some of the simpler ones may have been made up for the moment (e.g. Linguam Latinam disco. (p. 2)). Perhaps it is to be wished that the existing sources were always cited, although many of the quotations will be familiar to experienced teachers. The absence of citation perhaps serves to underscore the idea that what is being presented here is a uniform standard of "correct" Latin, stripped of its bewildering and arcane range of diachronic, generic, individual, social etc. variations. Recent developments in Latin linguistics, as far as I could see, are not incorporated (nor, to be sure, would they likely help beginning students or writers too much), although I did notice pragmatics receiving a short mention in the discussion of word order (pp. 99-100). A major difference from traditional Anglo-American textbooks is that there are no exercises to accompany the grammatical precepts. Those who feel they need reinforcement need to turn back to their elementary grammar books or to Bradley's Arnold vel sim. A short chapter on punctuation and orthography (VIII), again not found in many traditional textbooks, may come in handy for those revising a Latin text for publication.

Chapter VII, "The Use of Vocabulary in Latin Composition," will likely prove extremely helpful to those wishing to explore this art, especially if (as usually happens) some excursions from antiquity into modern topics are attempted. A few of the sources like the OLD, the TLL and Du Cange may be old news to students of Latin stylistics, but Minkova's discussion of more recent lexica and other aids by Bacci, Eichenseer, Egger etc. provides a much needed reminder that there has been a great deal of learned effort made to standardize the use of Latin in the modern world, a heritage that active users of the language today ought never to ignore. Minkova not only chooses the reference works judiciously but also provides good and concise explanation of their individual worth, making this section infinitely more useful than the simple bibliography one finds in other guides to composition (and many of them do not even have one). This chapter, which also includes a short but intelligent reflection on lexical innovation in Latin since antiquity, should be required reading for teachers (including autodidacts) of composition.

The final two chapters give guidelines and examples of composition exercises based on passages from classical and post-classical Latin. Minkova suggests doing questions and answers, paraphrases of different kinds, and imitations. The more adventurous and dedicated Latin teachers among us would have already tried out some of these in their own classrooms, but they would still likely profit from Minkova's experience and reflections. Minkova's own sample compositions such as a character sketch of Albert Einstein in the style of Livy, or the description of an earthquake after the manner of St. Augustine, are delightful and would make good subjects for stylistic analysis in class.

Minkova's book, if carefully followed, can equip the reader to begin writing Latin with good grammar and mostly classical vocabulary and idiom. The Latin that Minkova writes and wants to teach, to be sure, is not the nervously circumscribed, "pure" classical Latin à la Menge but the richer and more eclectic variety cultivated by Erasmus and others who, like Seneca's bee, feel free to hop around in the whole variegated range of Latin literature, from Plautus to Caesar to St. Jerome and Lorenzo Valla. By acquiring facility in this kind of classicizing Latin,1 the student may be enabled to read rapidly and with enjoyment not only the classical authors but also the copious, influential but recently much neglected corpus of post-classical (but still classicizing) Latin literature which has continued to accumulate without a break to this day. The absence of simpler composition exercises makes Minkova's book perhaps more suited for those who have already dealt with Latin for some time and now wish to rapidly review the basic rules of writing and go on to extended, free prose composition. Thus graduate students and professional scholars may find it more useful than undergraduates, but the more motivated of the latter can profit from it as well. This book is also cross-referenced in the Readings and Exercises in Latin Prose Composition by Minkova and Tunberg,2 which has tons of (fairly challenging) exercises and is its logical complement or continuation.


1.   See e.g. Tunberg, T. 1997. "Ciceronian Latin: Logolius and Others", HumLov 46: 13-61.
2.   Reviewed in BMCR 2004.06.28.

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