Thursday, June 21, 2012


Licia Landi, Luigi Scarpa (ed.), Meeting the Challenge: Bringing Classical Texts to Life in the Classroom. Proceedings of a SSIS conference in Venice, July 2008. Institutio, 4.1-3 (2008). Lecce: Pensa MultiMedia, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN 19734786. €25,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Kuhlmann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is given below.]

This volume contains 22 English articles which are the product of a conference held in Venice (June 2008). The main theme of these articles is the question of how to acquaint students with the texts of classical antiquity by using innovative methods. The focus is on Latin poetry, especially Ovid, but there are also papers treating Catullus, Virgil and Greek tragedy. The participants of this conference – mainly teachers of secondary schools – came from 15 countries including Europe and North America.

The volume is divided into three parts: "Lettura dei testi" contains ten articles on practical aspects of translating and analyzing classical texts; the second part "Approccio prevalentemente non linguistico" offers nine articles on methodological and intermedial aspects; the third part "Sviluppo della creatività" consists of only two articles, on creative film projects. As this short survey shows, the criteria for the three subdivisions of the volume are not very clear. Both the first and the second part offer practical classroom projects on several classical authors, but also theoretical articles with didactic reflections on important questions, such as: Why should our pupils and students read ancient texts? What do they learn and which skills and competencies do they acquire by reading, translating and analyzing classical authors? The second part contains some creative approaches to classical texts and even movie projects like the third part. A clear division into theoretical and practical papers would have been a more useful principle for arranging the articles.

Still, the whole volume presents interesting information about the situation of the classical languages and the specific methods of instruction in the different school systems of Europe and North America. Some papers, for instance, give an insight into the rather absurd method, apparently practiced by many students in several countries, to learn by heart the translation of Latin texts treated during the lessons and to reproduce this translation in exams. But there is no paper presenting a useful linguistic method to facilitate understanding and translating ancient texts. In general the volume shows that the knowledge of Latin and Greek and the extent of teaching the classical languages is diminishing in nearly all countries which sent delegates to the conference. Exceptions are countries like Italy, the Netherlands or Germany: Here, at least Latin is still one of the core subjects in secondary schools ( "Gymnasium"), whereas in other countries (UK, USA, Canada, Denmark etc.) the teaching of Latin (and Greek) is mostly restricted to some few private schools.

The introductory article by Bob Lister (pp. 17-24) reveals fundamental changes of didactical principles in the teaching of Latin texts. In former times classical education focused on grammatical knowledge. Even when the students had to read original texts like Virgil, they did need not to know anything about the content of the Aeneid or make an interpretation on literary aspects of the text; instead they had only to answer questions on the grammatical structure of the passages. This central position of grammar and pure formalism led to the crisis of classical education and to the disgust of many students with the classical languages. Modern textbooks for schools with their friendly design, illustrations and pictures make the ancient authors more accessible and help the students find a personal approach to the texts. Also various electronic tools (e.g. Perseus, hypertexts etc.) developed in recent years constitute an important advance for learners of Latin and Greek. Furthermore, as Lister shows, there is great interest today in the content of classical literature and culture, which has induced major publishers to produce many new translations of classical texts for a wide audience.

Many articles of the volume deal with the interpretation of literary texts, though they sometimes differ considerably from each other regarding the methodological and theoretical approach. The paper on Catullus' "Vivamus atque amemus" by Licia Landi (pp. 33-43), for example, is based on the (nowadays obsolete) biographic model of interpretation and does not distinguish between the real author Catullus and the persona ("lyrical self") of the poems. On the other hand, Imogen Goodier shows in her article on Ovid's Amores (pp. 243-263) the importance of enabling the students to analyze literary texts by taking into account the literary and cultural background of the texts. This implies the competence to detect the literary techniques of Ovid such as intertextuality, irony of the speaker/amator and artificiality, although – in Goodier's courses – some students blame Ovid for "lying" or "cheating" when they become aware that a simplistic identification of author and persona is not possible. Goodier is one of the rather few contributors who develops a precise programme regarding which competencies students of classical texts should acquire and how the interpretation of texts and their cultural background are connected.

A good example of an intermedial approach to literary texts is a paper on Ovid by Joan Booth (pp. 173-191), who combines the interpretation of the erotic poem Amores 1.5 with a modern movie scene that helps the students visualize the erotic action in Ovid's elegy. By this means the students can see how reliable the Ovidian technique of presenting an erotic scene is and how this method of visualizing fills interpretative blanks.

The volume contains several other articles dealing with possibilities of working with pictures and movies in general. The paper on Ovid and the Vulgate by Ivo Gottwald (pp. 265-275), for instance, presents forms of free work with German pupils in grade 11. Here the pupils were allowed to produce creative material like photo stories, dramas, statues or other works of art based on Ovidian myths like Pygmalion, Narcissus or on Bible stories. As Gottwald rightly remarks, beyond fun and motivation, we have to ask what the students actually learn in creative projects. Gottwald, too, emphasizes the need to fill interpretative blanks ("Leerstellen" in the terminology of Wolfgang Iser) and the possibility of using Latin actively. The main problem in these creative projects is the question of how to mark the students' products. Gottwald suggests either not marking creative work outcomes at all or giving good marks to everybody. It seems clear that both alternatives cannot be the ideal solution and that the problem of marking in creative contexts needs further discussion.

Another possibility of working with movies is suggested by Panos Seranis in his useful paper on Sophocles' Antigone (pp. 287-304). Seranis shows how teachers can use existing movies of ancient texts when reading these texts in the classroom, in this case a 1984 BBC production of the play by Don Taylor, who worked with a relatively literal translation of the Greek original text. In his article Seranis precisely defines which skills and competencies his students could acquire comparing the Greek text with the movie production: students better understood the formal conventions of Greek drama and their function for the play (e.g. the chorus and its parts, division into scenes); furthermore they understood the characters and their emotions in the play, and it was easier for the students to find a personal approach to the tragedy. The problem of reading and translating Greek dramas in school is that it takes a lot of time. The students have to treat a relatively short play for several weeks, though the original drama was intended to be received within one or two hours. This problem of reception can be compensated by the movie, which helps students to imagine the original reception context. Besides, the students could see and learned to describe the differences between the two media. Regarding the characters, for instance, a drama leaves certain freedom for stage managers or movie directors insofar as they have to shape the dramatis personae by the play of features or the expression of speech.

The last two articles of the volume on Ovid and Virgil projects by Maria Elena Mantovani, Donatella Vignola and Geoffrey Revard treat similar didactic aspects, but here the students themselves had to write screenplays of ancient texts, which is a more creative approach to the phenomenon of intermediality in the classroom and, of course, requires more time.

One of the contributors, Rudolf Wachter (himself a Swiss linguist), treats a rather linguistic topic, how to pronounce Latin in the classroom. As Wachter rightly emphasizes, the ancient texts were produced for auditory reception, which should imply more practice of recitationes in the classroom too, because stressing certain words and passages or making pauses to distinguish sense units can help the audience understand the text better. Furthermore, auditory input makes it easier to learn a new language, a truism which is often neglected in lessons of Latin and Greek. In his article Wachter presents the most important features of the so-called pronuntiatus restitutus of Latin: (a) using the natural accent in Latin verses (versus the common tendency to mark metrical structure e.g. ín nova fért animús instead of the correct in nóva fért ánimus); (b) observing correct vowel length1 and (c) pronouncing the r as rolled (as in Spanish or Italian) and the v as [w] (as in English water) . But the last two features are not relevant for the meaning of Latin words or morphemes: it makes no difference in sense if the r is rolled or not, or if the v is pronounced as a labiovelar (as in English vowel) or as a bilabial (as in water). Not even word stress is relevant for meaning in Latin, because according to the paenultima law word stress depends secondarily on the quantity of a syllable and does not serve to distinguish words (cf. English the présent vs. to presént). The distinction between short and long vowels or consonants, on the other hand, is indeed relevant for meaning as the so-called "minimal pairs" annusanus show.2

Apart from the few critical remarks mentioned above, the volume offers very useful insight into the practice and problems of teaching classical literature in the classroom and provides teachers in schools and universities with valuable suggestions for new methods and approaches.

Table of Contents

Saluto di Licia Landi, Organizzatrice del Convegno (SSIS Veneto)
Carmela Palumbo, Direttore Generale per il Veneto del Ministero dell'Istruzione
Umberto Margiotta, Vice Rettore dell'Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia
Relazione Introduttiva
Bob Lister – Bringing classical literature to life in the classroom
Lettura Dei Testi
Gillian Mead – Exploring the meaning of Latin literature via soundscape
Licia Landi – "Vivamus atque amemus". talking to Catullus in class
Claire Le Hur – To what extent can pupils elicit a personal response to literature through translation, and just how important is a literal translation for examinations
Nicoletta Natalucci – ICT for Classical texts
Barbara Pokorna – Ovid's Metamorphoses in the works of Dutch Painters of 17th century
Mark David Rasmussen – Teaching the Renaissance through Virgil and Ovid
Luigi Scarpa – Latin and gender culture
Lisa St Louis, Shawn Graham – The Use of Moodle,Virtual Reality and Other Emerging Technologies in Online Classics Teaching
David W. Taylor – Comparative translation as an aid to students' response to Latin poetry
Rudolf Wachter – Recitationes: combining effective assessment with pleasurable listening
Approccio Prevalentemente Non Lingistico
Joan Booth – Sex at siesta time: Reading Ovid, Amores 1.5 through film – and vice versa
Angelo Chiarle – Can Cicero and Horace still help us in the age of reality shows?
Eric Dugdale – Good grief: learning empathy through ancient drama
Linda A. Fabrizio – The Aeneid: Teenagers Make Connections to Literature, Film and Music
Imogen Goodier – True Love: Making Roman poetry relevant to young people: a case study of teaching Ovid's Amores Book 1
Ivo Gottwald – Latin photos: Student interpretations of Ovid and the Vulgate
Per Methner Rasmussen – Different Aspects of Teaching Latin A-level at the University of Copenhagen
Panos Seranis – Teaching Sophocles' Antigone Through Film: Challenges and Reflections
Claudia Texeira – Cinema and classical texts: the example of catabasis
Sviluppo Della Creatività
Maria Elena Mantovani, Donatella Vignola – Metamorphosis. Experiencing the "last world" through the images of a short film
Geoffrey Revard – What Would Virgil Do?


1.  Yet, for French or Spanish natives it is difficult to make a clear distinction between long and short vowels because this distinction does not really exist in French and Spanish phonology, and the same problem arises in the case of double consonants (annus vs. anus or nollet vs. nolet) because double consonants are not pronounced in modern standard English, French, German, Dutch etc.
2.   Another topic is the problem of historical sound change. In the time of Augustine or in the Middle Ages, Latin pronounciation had changed considerably: But should we really pronounce texts of these ages just like Cicero? This would have been an interesting point for this article.


  1. There is an important Spanish teachers group who discuss several years ago about the better way to teach ancient greek and latin in schools and universities. They publish their didactical results, and they share their materials with anyone interested. They have recieved the prize of the Sociedad Española de Estudios Clásicos of the year 2012. This is the url:

  2. Response to 2012.06.39
    Response by Luigi Scarpa, Università di Padova (>Preview

    Prof. Peter Kuhlmann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, has given a peculiar review of a special edition of Institutio, with regard to the papers presented at the conference held in Venice in July 2008, the central theme of which was “bringing classical texts to life in the classroom”.
    Kuhlmann begins with criticizing the way the proceedings were grouped within the volume. Naturally, this organization was meant to help the reader make sense of the large amount of material presented. No contribution was able to be classified from its first to its last word exactly according to a single category. However, I challenge anyone to divide these articles according to Kuhlmann's proposed criteria distinguishing simply between theory and practice, since many articles refer to both.
    I’d like to draw particular attention to the opinions expressed by Kuhlmann with regard to the contributors Landi and Wachter. In the other cases, the professor merely summarizes the works of a representative group of the presenters (his choices, although subjective, are nevertheless permissible) and lets the work of other authors be read without his critique.
    Kuhlmann's criticism with regard to the didactic proposals of Licia Landi (“Vivamus atque amemus: Talking to Catullus in class”), who collaborated closely with me in the collection and publication of the articles, seems almost incomprehensible. To begin with, there is no strictly “biographical” approach to interpreting Catullus because the interpretive process includes many other aspects, such as linguistic and literary ones, as well as the relationship with Greek models and the cultural, social, and political context of the Catullian world. Didactically, this is executed with an identification of key elements and questions posed to the students to gauge their comprehension of the aforementioned phenomena and of the personal perspective of the poet ("lyrical self"), beyond the biographical aspect. Why should reference to the biography of the author make the model obsolete? What is obsolete is an approach that does not take into account the literary filter through which biographical details necessarily pass. Those details remain a desirable reference when they are available. How can you not make reference, for example, to the biography of Horace when trying to understand his poetry? Kuhlmann also seems to forget the theme of the conference: does he think, perhaps, that you can approach it by proposing an exclusively formal reading of authors in the structuralist style, which is actually the obsolete approach? In any case, if this is what he believes, he will only get an amused smile from those who know the reality of schools today.
    Next, I’d like to draw your attention to the contribution of Wachter ("Recitationes: Combining effective assessment with pleasurable listening"), which I think is quite ripe for criticism, for reasons that Kuhlmann doesn’t even mention:

  3. 1) The concept of vowel length is a relative concept. Long vowels are long because they have a longer duration (double the conventional metric) than a short vowel. Of course, we shouldn't even be speaking of vowels, but rather of syllables. And these are distinguished between closed syllables, which end with a consonant and are always long because to the number of vowels you add that of the closing consonant, and open syllables, which end with a vowel and have a length that coincides with that of the vowel.
    2) Accented syllables are distinguished from unaccented syllables because they are pronounced with greater intensity in modern languages and with a higher tone in Latin. It is not at all true that, if a long open syllable is accented, it becomes long because of this; while, if it is unaccented, it risks being pronounced as short, even if it is long. In other words, we ought to force ourselves, in order to speak as the Romans did, to pronounce the 'u' in 'mu' as a long vowel, as in 'mutatas', while the 'a' in 'ta' should be pronounced as a long vowel since it is accented. Not to mention the “terrible” difficulty in pronouncing the brevity of the 'o' in 'novus'. While speaking them, one only needs to lengthen the duration of the vowels of the long, open syllables to distinguish them from short, open syllables. Closed syllables are long without any particular effort from the speaker; the accent doesn’t matter. With regard to pronunciation, classical or “national,” the solution that everyone should keep their own pronunciation (as Kuhlmann suggests) because there aren't many chances of speaking Latin words outside of one's own linguistic context anyway, is not a very good one. It would be very nice, indeed, if everyone (except, perhaps, the Italians, whose pronunciation coincides with that of the Catholic Church, which has its own historical legitimacy) adopted the “prononciation restituée” of Latin, if only for the sake of scientific precision. Furthermore, this ensures that the perception of the phono-symbolic phenomena (so frequently found in poetry--one needs only to think of Plato), such as alliteration, assonance, and anaphora, isn’t lost. What’s more, this way a bit of historical phonetics could be introduced, which is useful in the study of the formation of the Romance languages.
    3) With regards to the accent, `nulla quaestio'. At least, we must teach the rule of the penultimate and the enclitic accent. Furthermore, the rendering of the accent in Latin, which served a musical purpose, is absolutely unthinkable. The loss of the accent--and its musical purpose--would give credibility to the claim that Latin is a dead language, which instead is absolutely alive for the contents of culture of which it is a carrier and custodian.
    4) It is very right, as the table of Wachter clearly shows, to try to teach and read a text in a comprehensible way by using categories of textual linguistics, like those of topic and comment. However, here the problem does not concern pronunciation, accents, and quantity. It regards any textual matter and its comprehension, even texts written in a student's mother tongue. This problem is what elementary school teachers call “reading comprehension.” It implies a difficulty peculiar to the teaching of classical languages: the relationship between comprehension and translation.
    Finally, we are more than happy to send the electronic version of the special edition of Institutio in order to give rightful attention to the many deserving contributions that call for a less superficial reading than the one given by Mr. Kuhlmann.


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