Monday, August 1, 2011


J. C. McKeown, Classical Latin: An Introductory Course. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. xx, 421. ISBN 9780872208513. $53.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Antonio Ramírez de Verger, Universidad de Huelva (

Version at BMCR home site


Few of us would have believed only a few years ago that the Arts Faculties of Spanish universities would be taking in students with no previous knowledge of Latin.1 Today, up to fifty percent of first-year undergraduate students may have no Latin. This is the harsh reality we have to deal with. Whenever I have to prepare classes for the new year, I ask myself how I can manage to teach basic Latin in just one semester to students with no previous knowledge of the language. I then anxiously contact high school Latin teachers to ask which method is the most suitable to achieve this task, one which, to me, seems virtually impossible. I also ask around in other universities to seek consolation in the misfortunes of others. But I never find an answer that fulfills my expectations. Some use the method of H. H. Ørberg (Lingua latina per se illustrata, I-II), some the Cambridge Latin Course, others the Oxford Latin Course, and others again the more traditional Spanish method of Segura Munguía (Método de Latín), while a few rely on their own methods, using material from here and there. They tell me about the pros and cons of each one, but all agree that it is virtually impossible to teach even basic Latin in six months. Then, not quite two years ago, I came by a copy of Classical Latin by McKeown, a first-class Ovidian scholar, currently Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I read it with great curiosity and attention, studied the exercises on the author's web page, and decided to try it out on first year students of Hispanic Philology and English Studies at the University of Huelva. I used it in class from September 30, 2010, until January 28, 2011. About 80 students started the course, but only 50 stayed through to the end (student absenteeism in Spain is now chronic). McKeown's method is aimed at a one-year undergraduate course or an intensive semester. Practice has taught me that Classical Latin is indeed designed for a full year or two semesters.

Classical Latin consists of 28 chapters, 5 appendices, and two indexes. Each chapter contains: a) grammatical explanations (Lectiones Latinae), which make up 'the core of each chapter', and finishes with a vocabulary section; b) practice of material learned in the previous section (Prolusiones) with two-way Latin-English analysis and translation; c) Lectiones Latinae, where students read real texts by Latin authors, divided into Lege, intellege (simple texts) and Ars poetica (poetry); d) Lusus (, where students gradually learn how much Latin lies behind the vocabulary of English (Thesaurus verborum), and find out about Roman customs (Vita Romanorum). From chapter 5 on there is a section on Aurea dicta of the great Latin authors, which, taken together, make up a Thesaurus sententiarum.

Beginning to study Latin with the present indicative, the present imperative, and present infinitive of all the verbs seems an excellent idea to me, since the student gets used to the different conjugations. One of the strong points of this book's method is the stress it places on vocabulary, which students have to learn from day one. Memorization, largely ignored in teaching practice since the 1980s, is a skill which should be exercised daily, and the younger the student, the more reason there is to use such a powerful tool. The first declension is introduced in chapter 2. Initially this can be a problem for pupils (such as Spanish and, I imagine, English speakers as well) whose native language is uninflected. It takes me some time to explain the concept of inflection to my Spanish students. The teacher needs more time and effort than is briefly suggested in two paragraphs on p. 15. Some students grasp such a concept quickly while others need more time to understand its morphosyntactic complexity. The problem is solved by practising and comparing, with numerous examples, the way inflection functions in Spanish and in Latin. It takes students a couple of weeks to assimilate the theory and practice of inflection. Classical Latin orders the cases by nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative, leaving the vocative a little to one side. In Spain we follow the order of nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative (which I assume is in order to economize in the learning process, especially with neuter nouns). This is the order I followed during the semester and it seems to have worked quite well. It also seems a good idea to introduce Latin prepositions and conjunctions gradually from the beginning, as this method does, while teaching the declensions and conjugations.

The second declension is not introduced until chapter 5, because the imperfect and future tenses of all verbs are introduced first, in chapter 3, with chapter 4 then devoted to direct questions, irregular verbs (sum, possum, eo, fero) and a succinct and crystal-clear description of the lexical function of compound verbs (pp. 42-43).

Chapters 5 and 6 go on to the second declension and to first and second declension adjectives (bonus, bona, bonum and similar), as well as introducing us to adverbs, especially those derived from adjectives. At the same time, without realizing it, we are gradually exposed to syntactic matters such as the use of adjectives as nouns and multiple agreement (pp. 62-63).

Chapter 7 deals with the perfect indicative, and there is further insistence on learning all the verbs introduced up to this point. I am not so convinced by the idea of delaying the study of the subjunctive until chapter 22. I assume that this is because English does not use the subjunctive as much as Spanish does. Even so, the subjunctive, which is so common and important in Latin, should have been tackled previously, in conjunction with the indicative, since chapter 22 suffers from Latin subjunctive overload. Another area which could have been more extensive is the 'Translate' exercises, which I feel should be longer, although it is true that pupils can find more of these exercises on J. C. McKeown's web page, and there are additional exercises in the Workbook, which I did not receive.

Chapters 8 and 9 belong to what I would classify as the more intense chapters, as opposed to lighter ones like chapter 13 (Correlative Adjectives and Adverbs, Irregular Adjectives) or 15 (Deponent Verbs). The pupils, now versed in the concept of inflection and with a knowledge of the first and second declensions, can, with a little effort, ably learn the third declension as well as adjectives of the second and third type (such as omnis, omne and felix, felicis, respectively). There is no harm in devoting a little more time to these two chapters, since future payback is guaranteed.

It is crucial that students learn the numbers thoroughly (chapter 10) since they are just as important in ancient texts and epigraphy as they are today. After all, learning them properly is a matter of memory and practice. Included in this chapter is an extremely useful section on 'Nouns of Limited Form and Variable Meaning' (pp. 105-107).

Having already gone to all the effort involved in the first three declensions, chapter 11 on the fourth and fifth declensions is a 'piece of cake' for the vast majority of those who have been steadily following the course. The same applies to chapter 12 (Comparative and Superlative Forms of Adjectives and Adverbs) if these forms are taught working from what has been learned previously and from comparatives and superlatives in English and Spanish.

Another intense chapter is number 14 on 'The Passive Voice of Verbs' in the indicative, with a long list of previously seen verbs in the passive. The exercises seem somewhat scanty and the student will need more time to assimilate the intensity of the material. And I do not think it would have been too much to add the subjunctive in passing. If this chapter is mastered properly, chapter 15 on deponent and semi-deponent verbs is a walkover, even with the addition of 'Expressions of Time and Place' (pp. 167-169).

Chapter 16 is devoted to the syntactic uses of the cases, which the student will learn more effectively through practice rather than theory. Here, too, a much greater number of exercises might have been expected.

I cannot quite see why the pronouns are not taught until chapters 17 ('Pronouns I') and 18 ('Pronouns II'). A glance at the first chapter of Caesar's De bello Gallico will show us that it is impossible to cut one's teeth on the text without a knowledge of the pronouns, which could have been introduced gradually, I would suggest, over the various chapters. Here, perhaps, the author has gone too far in his aim to systematize. These are intense chapters and the student's memory also plays a very important role here.

Chapters 19 ('Participles') and 20 ('Gerunds and Gerundive, the Supine') are very well developed. A Spanish-speaking student will have no problems learning the passive past participle and the gerund. The rest is a question of patience. With the ablative absolute (pp. 223-225) students can have fun detecting and translating them.

After another less intensive chapter (21) on Indirect Statement, which is not so important at this level, we come to the study of the subjunctive mood (ch. 22). A great deal of time and no little practice need to be given over to this. Here, too, the material could easily have been spread out over a number of chapters.

Chapters 23-27 are devoted to subordination. Two of them, chapters 23-24 ('The Present and Imperfect Subjunctive in Subordinate Clauses I-II'), seem somewhat confusing. What is studied here, in fact, as in Spain, is Purpose Clauses (pp. 278-280), Result Clauses (pp. 280-282), Indirect Commands, Clauses of Hindering and Preventing (pp. 290-292), Relative Clauses of Characteristic (pp. 292-293), Indirect Questions (pp. 302-304), Clauses of Doubting (pp. 304-305), Clauses of Fearing (pp. 305), Conditional Sentences (pp. 313-315), Temporal Clauses (pp. 323-328), and Concessive Clauses (pp. 328). Experience tells me that if students are to learn subordinate clauses properly, there are two boxes they have to tick before tackling the theory: memorization and understanding of the conjunctions, as well as a more than adequate knowledge of the morphology of verbs. Almost everything else will be added to these later.

The final chapter (28) deals with impersonal verbs, a matter of lexis more than anything else.

The book closes with a number of appendices: a) Appendix 1 Latin Readings (pp. 351-361) with famous quotations from canonical Latin authors (Horace, Caesar, Virgil, Seneca, Cicero, Sallust, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal, and others); b) Appendix 2, with a very useful and comprehensive summary of Latin morphology (pp. 362-376); c) Appendix 3, with a list of the prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions (not 'Conjuctions' as on p. 378) which the student should have learned over the course (pp. 377-380); d) Appendix 4 English-Latin Vocabulary (pp. 381-394); e) Appendix 5 Latin-English Vocabulary (pp. 395-408) of the terms that have appeared in the different chapters and which the student should have learned. Finally, the Index by Subject makes it easy to search for any topic dealt with during the course.

Classical Latin has many points in its favour and little to be said against it. Students who work through it on a day-to-day basis will reach the end of the semester with a knowledge of basic Latin, and in my case, and to my surprise, a significant number were capable of reading authentic texts by Eutropius, Caesar, and Phaedrus. If my students could study Classical Latin over two successive semesters, I have no doubt that they would be in a position to begin to read Caesar perfectly well, as long as they followed the method from beginning to end and learned the required vocabulary. A warm welcome, then, to this new and even entertaining method if it enables our students to make suitable progress in Latin in such a short time.


1.   This review has been translated from the Spanish by J. J. Zoltowski. Thanks are due to the Spanish MEC (FFI2008-01843) and the Junta de Andalucía (HUM2005-04375) for their financial support.

1 comment:

  1. The review's author, it seems, has little or no experience with one-year or one-semester (never mind six-week intensive) courses in introductory Latin, so it is hard to get any comparative judgment on other books used for such courses in the American market. We hear that the book's author is a scholar of Ovid. That's fine as an argument from authority, but what kind of principles have been used in producing this textbook? What kind of vocabulary is introduced (what are the criteria for selection), and how large is it? Of what quality are the grammatical explanations, of what quality are the (inevitable) bits made-up Latin? What formats are the exercises? How did the attrition in the class compare to other years?
    In other words, it would be helpful to hear from people who can compare this book to the other players in the market, such as Wheelock, Learn To Read Latin, etcetera.