DE ROMANIS BOOK 1: DEI ET DEAE

by Katharine Radice, Angela Cheetham, Sonya Kirk, George Lord

Bloomsbury (2020) p/b 264pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781350100039)

This first book of a two-volume course, designed to lead students of Latin from beginner level towards (but not quite as far as) GCSE level, could fairly be labelled ‘traditional’ in its methodological approach. However, it also contains some interesting innovative features. 

Each of the six chapters begins with a striking, full-page image. The authors have made controversial choices—the horrific ‘Saturn devouring his son’ by Goya on p. 5 and the (for me) gratuitous nudity of Hercules on p. 39, for example. There follow several pages on a mytho-historical theme; for instance, Chapter 2 tells the stories (in English) of heroes Hercules, Aeneas, Horatius Cocles, et al., nicely illustrated with high-quality, colour pictures of ancient and modern works of art, coins, etc. Following this are (in each chapter) four original sources (such as translated passages of Livy or Virgil) together with questions on each source and ‘questions for discussion’. So, there is plenty of material to immerse students in the world of the Romans before they come to the Latin language per se. Content-wise, there are notable highlights from Roman history (Servius Tullius’ illuminated hair, Manlius and the geese), but the material mainly centres around dei et deae, i.e. Roman religion. These sections are interesting and scholarly but are written in relatively sophisticated language, and so a teacher would need to consider the age and reading ability of his or her students here.

The ‘Core Language’ section begins (excepting the first chapter) with a list of 30 new vocabulary items, which are to be learned. New grammar is introduced by means of explanation. Sentences for translation from Latin into English follow each explanation. Interestingly, the authors have chosen to introduce the perfect tense before the other tenses, and the main three noun declensions are introduced together at the beginning. There are also short stories for translation, which usually match the cultural material from earlier in the chapter. Given the limitations of the vocabulary, and the decisions to gloss only a few words per passage and not to use any pronouns, inevitably there is a certain amount of repetition within these stories. They are, however, illustrated with very handsome black and white drawings.

The level of difficulty of the ‘Core Language’ exercises is potentially quite demanding. In my experience, it takes a certain type of mind to decode more-or-less random Latin sentences, where what is important is not the meaning of any particular sentence, but rather the underlying grammatical concepts. That the Latin grammar is the key focus of the textbook is evident in the assessment materials provided with the course. Just to give an indication, the first question on the Chapter 2 vocabulary test is: ‘ivi, iv– What part of speech is this word?’ The first question on the ‘grammar’ section is ‘What are the most important two rules about the endings for neuter nouns?’ Translation is tested by individual, unrelated sentences. It seems fair to conclude, therefore, that sound grammatical knowledge is the key aim of the course rather than reading fluency. 

The final section of each chapter is the ‘Additional Language’ section—pages of linguistic exercises such as derivations of English words, categorisation of parts of speech, manipulation of noun and adjective endings, English sentences for translation in to Latin. The intention is that this division into ‘Core’ and ‘Additional’ will ensure effective differentiation, but it may be the case that only the very highest ability students will comfortably manage the additional exercises. For example, the Chapter 1 English sentences for translation into Latin, such as, ‘Often the children terrified their mother,’ already go beyond what is required for this sort of task at GCSE.

The textbook contains a reference grammar section, a glossary of names, Latin to English and English to Latin vocabulary lists, and introductory sections on Latin pronunciation and on Roman society. It is usefully supported with a companion website containing a range of helpful materials for the teacher. These include (inter alia) audio recordings, teacher notes, links to relevant videos, additional worksheets, and end-of-unit assessments. 

As a secondary school Latin teacher myself, who teaches a relatively wide ability range within quite limited curriculum time, I do wonder whether there is enough of a ‘reward’ or ‘pay-off’ for students for the heavy investment in grammatical learning required for success on this course. However, I can see that many Latin teachers would welcome de Romanis as appropriate and useful for their students.

Giles Gilbert

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