Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Eleanor Dickey, Learning Latin the Ancient Way. Latin Textbooks from the Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. 187. ISBN 9781107474574. $29.99.

Reviewed by Peter Kuhlmann, Seminar für Klassische Philologie. Humboldtallee 19. D-37073 Göttingen (pkuhlma@gwdg.de)

Version at BMCR home site

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Learning Latin the Ancient Way provides an introduction to learning Latin in antiquity through original sources. The texts are preceded by a helpful introductory chapter (pp. 1–9) addressing the questions of who learned Latin in antiquity and how they did so, how the textbooks survive, and what kinds of teaching materials they contained. The texts are categorised as follows: colloquia with dialogues whose subject matter derives mainly from the lives of younger students, didactic texts from ancient mythology, legal texts, examples of model letters, and didactically adapted original texts by Virgil and Sallust. Dickey also provides examples from Latin grammar books of late antiquity (Dositheus and Charisius), glossaries, alphabets, and transliterated texts, i.e., Latin texts in Greek script for Greek-speaking learners. A complete overview of the ancient papyri and medieval texts containing such didactic materials (ch. 10) proves especially useful. The book concludes with an up-to-date bibliography on language learning from antiquity to early modern times; the focus is on relevant editions and handbooks.

The edition is primarily intended for teaching Latin at the university level, as a complement to modern textbooks. This fact explains a few peculiarities in the presentation of the texts. For the majority of texts originally written in both Greek and Latin, Dickey presents only the Latin version, alongside an English translation. Even though this might be due to the circumstance that many Latin students lack sufficient knowledge of Greek—this is how Dickey explains her presentation of the text (p. 8f)—the absence of the Greek version is occasionally lamentable. In ch. 2.6 (pp. 74f.), for instance, the passage from Virgil is merely given in Latin and then translated into English, although readers are likely to be familiar with the Latin text and experts might well have greater interest in the learning aid that accompanied it, namely the Greek translation. That very learning aid, however, is withheld from the reader here. Furthermore, the texts are not prepared according to the Leiden Conventions and lack an apparatus criticus; this, however, is indeed acceptable, since Dickey only presents some exemplary passages.

Despite its brevity, the volume contains a broad variety of well-chosen materials, some of which are probably new even to experts in the field of the ancient history of education. This clearly reflects the author's great familiarity with the topic and both the ancient and the medieval materials. In a brief yet informative way, Dickey presents an array of conclusions and theses based on the source materials, the focus being on the questions of who learned Latin, in which context, and for what purpose in ancient times, and how antiquity differed from the Middle Ages. At the same time, the reader is provided with a good overview of the many questions arising from the nature of the sources; in the case of papyri, for example, we do not know if they go back to a private household, an actual school, or a private teacher. Thus the sources allow for only very few, if any, conclusions about the status of instruction in Latin within the Greek school system.

Another interesting aspect concerns the differences between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East of the Roman Empire. In the West, the Etruscans, Gauls, and others learned Latin from an early age almost as a second mother tongue; similarly, children belonging to the Roman upper classes, of course, also learned Greek. In the East, by contrast, Latin was predominantly learned by older people, which is why it had the status of a foreign language. The presentation of texts also shows that Greek teachers of Latin had problems learning the Latin alphabet, which is why Greek transliterations of Latin texts were popular. It is also worth noting that the texts indicate a somewhat holistic approach to teaching, meaning that Latin (and Greek) instruction was mainly based on learning entire phrases or texts and their meanings by heart; the analytical method that is commonly used today and that foregrounds the explanation of grammatical structures was less important. Yet just as in modern foreign language teaching, this was probably dependent to a high degree on the teaching context and the learners' needs. Generally speaking, the principle of bilingualism shaped all phases of foreign language learning: not only were single phrases and entire texts presented bilingually to the readers so that they always had a semantic orientation, but also the single conjugated forms were provided in both Greek and Latin. Again, this differs significantly from modern teaching techniques.

On the whole, this is a very useful book, and the author deserves special thanks. Much interesting information on the sources and recent research is concisely presented in a field often obscure even to experts. Moreover, the attractiveness of the presentation and analysis of the texts will hopefully encourage students to undertake further research in the field.

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