Bloomsbury (2020) p/b 288 pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781350100077)
This is the second volume of a new two-volume ab initio Latin course. Book 2 is structured just as Book 1: six chapters containing (i) cultural material in English, (ii) authentic source material in English with questions, (iii) core language, (iv) additional language. The big names of first-century BC Roman history feature heavily in the cultural material and in the Latin stories: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus. Boudicca and Roman Britain feature in the final chapter, while the first chapter focuses on Rome’s kings and the very early Republic. Additional support for teachers is available on the companion website.
The core language sections are the real substance of the textbook. The preface to Book 2 repeats the advice of Book 1: ‘It is unlikely that you will complete all the material in each chapter: there is a wide range so that it is possible for you and your teacher to pick and choose the material which is most helpful for reinforcing the content of each Core Language section.’ The cultural material is substantial and well-illustrated, but ultimately perhaps peripheral. The teacher’s notes suggest that the cultural material will prepare the learner for the Latin sentences, but it is hard to see how the information on Caesar’s Gallic wars can help the learner with sentences such as domina ancillas lacrimantes punivit. On the other hand, these sections can provide a solid basis for GCSE Classical Civilisation or GCSE Ancient History.
As in Book 1, vocabulary is restricted to 30 words per chapter, and only a small number of vocabulary items are glossed in the prose passages, which is intended to enable a more intense focus on the grammar. There are more, and longer, passages for translation in Book 2, although there are no comprehension questions on the Latin texts to be found within the textbook. A teacher would also have to consider whether his or her students are interested enough in Roman history to enjoy reading stories such as ‘Marius reforms the Roman army’ or ‘Octavian becomes Julius Caesar’s heir’.
The aim of the course is to provide ‘an excellent starting point for those keen to progress to GCSE.’ Book 2 takes the learner quite a long way towards GCSE, with only a few areas of Latin language still to cover—mainly subordination with the subjunctive (e.g. purposes clauses, indirect command, etc). In some ways the learner who has mastered the additional Latin exercises, such as the English to Latin sentences, would have gone well beyond GCSE level in this respect. This is one of the puzzling aspects of the course. The very demanding grammar focus seems a bit out of proportion. GCSE Latin language tends not to be tested in this way, but rather by the comprehension and translation of continuous stories. It is not as if the course is training students in philology. In fact, some of the grammar explanations may offend purists (‘mare has unusual endings’).
The writers are keen to distinguish the learning of Latin from the learning of modern foreign languages: ‘Over the years there have been strong advocates for teaching Latin in a way which is akin to modern language, but it is the belief of the writers of this course that for most students the value of learning Latin alongside a modern language is precisely that it is a different process and develops different skills.’ It is perhaps true that Latin tends to appeal to the more academically able student who can manage ‘a steady pace, a careful acquisition and consolidation of knowledge,’ but I fear that the writers of de Romanis may have missed an opportunity to make the subject of Latin genuinely accessible to a range of learners.