The brightest and most promising of my former students expressed her gratitude for the two years in which I taught her Latin, but simultaneously gave voice to a regret that we did not spend more time talking about the broader historical, cultural, and social implications of the texts, as well as ancient civilization more generally. As with all good criticism, this cut deep because I recognize the justice of the reproach, and have long been concerned about it in my own teaching. Unfortunately, (and I hope that this does not sound like idle excuse fabrication), the tremendous burden imposed by the rather extensive and rigorous AP Latin curriculum does not allow for broad general reading in the Classics with advanced high school students, nor does it encourage the most interesting reading. To be sure, some of the Vergil selections represent poetry at its finest, but many of the best parts of the poem are still omitted; moreover, Caesar in all of his arid insipidity seems to actively drive students away from the study of the Classics. People often associate the study of Classics with the study of the sublime, but I think that Caesar serves as an excellent case study in the utter horror that one often confronts when reading ancient authors.
Julius Caesar is simultaneously one of the most famous but deeply controversial figures in history, and his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars has long been a fixture of Latin classes. He is lauded by some for his political cunning and ability to subvert the entire Roman ruling elite to his own will, and alternatively dismissed as a monomaniacal tyrant who committed genocide before dipping his blade in his own countrymen’s blood to achieve that subversion. I will make no attempt to adjudicate this matter, which has been hashed out for nearly two-thousand years. Yet, I wonder how we are to teach this as a text in high school? Surely, there is much to be said for the repetitive and simple vocabulary, the countless examples of well-balanced tricolons, and the pedagogical continuity with previous generations when students begin to read Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Caesar gives an objective and impersonal account of a war which happened more than 2,000 years ago. This historical distance seems to mitigate the cruelty of the entire endeavor in some students’ minds. Some of my colleagues in the history department have begun to complain about the dispassionate way in which many students, unborn or still infants during 9/11, talk about the day with a certain flippancy as simply something that happened and not a horror or crisis in human history. Caesar himself, by rendering the entire account as impersonal as possible, contributes to this reception. Consider his note, after defeating the Veneti in Book III of the Gallic Wars, Itaque omni senatu necato reliquos sub corona vendidit (“And so, with the whole senate having been killed, he sold the rest into slavery.”) One cold sentence contains every fatal blow delivered to each member of a governing body as he breathed his last breath, and everything endured by the survivors in losing their rights as human beings.
Perhaps it ought not to be surprising then that these same students are able to casually read of the systematic devastation of a large part of the Gallic race. Worse still, I feel that I as a teacher have become complicit in this trivialization by casually asking students things such as, “Who’s ready to read about another round of murder today?” Yet, I find that when I think upon all of the slaughter then so dispassionately described in Caesar, and all of the slaughter so dispassionately described in the newspaper today, my very soul turns away in disgust, and I find it nearly impossible to think of each individual death brought on by violence through the ages. It is for good reason that Edward Gibbon referred to history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” I wonder, is it even possible to discuss these things in a totally earnest and uncynical way without simply descending into despair? And how do we discuss them with the young? Caesar’s value as a repository of clear Latin is undoubted; yet, how can we use the systematic horror recounted therein as a tool to inform our common humanity? Surely, it cannot be by retaining the same dispassionate perspective with which Caesar provides us.
Moving from slaughter to slavery, and from ancient to modern, I worry that many of our current Latin textbooks have embraced a light and playful attitude toward the topic. One need look no further than the Cambridge Latin Course and Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina, both of which I have used in the classroom. Lingua Latina does not go too deep into anything, but the routinized punishment of slaves with violent beating is used as a gag throughout, complete with the onomatopoetic (and student-pleasing) tuxtax tuxtax to conjure up the sound of the thwacking. Students love the characters in the CLC, most notably Grumio, the somnolent kitchen slave who is depicted living a perfectly happy life in the Roman villa; there is no hint of beating, crucifixion, or torture in a trial which may await him. The course offers a historical note (not in the actual Latin) about the lives of slaves, but it is rather sanitized. Later, the paterfamilias Caecilius purchases a beautiful slave girl, and all of the students giggle as they translate Melissa Grumionem delectat with ‘Melissa pleases Grumio.’ This is all rather jocular and cartoonish, and gracefully sidesteps the serious issues here. Did Caecilius ever rape Melissa? Is that what masters did in the ancient world? If the question comes up in class, it seems rather difficult to address the issues of slavery and women’s suffering seriously after it has been turned into a recurring punchline.
These are modern pedagogical resources, but their treatment of slavery actually seems consciously designed to help students absorb ancient texts later. You can read many works of ancient literature with no real understanding of the experience of Roman slaves and still understand them as literature, but once the Latin student cracks open a volume of Plautus or Terence, it becomes all-important. In that sense, books like the CLC prepare students to expect slaves in scenes from everyday life, but they also pave the way for adopting the Roman attitude toward them: ‘Haha, that slave is about to get beaten! What a joke!’ I understand that the intent here is to help pave the way for students to receive and experience these works as the Romans did, but we as Classicists should admit that this is impossible. We can try our best to set aside preconceptions, and learn as much as we can about cultural context, but a Roman never had to do either of these things. We are observers and preservers of things past, and will never be ‘reborn Romans’. It also seems less than laudable to try to recapture and renew the Roman attitude toward the people whom they considered merely in the light of occasionally inconvenient property. My students often ask whether I wish that I could be transported back to ancient Greece or Rome, and I answer emphatically no. The antiquarian’s job is to decry modern civilization, but this practice itself goes back to Hesiod, and I doubt that any Classicist would actually claim that life was better in ancient Greece or Rome. These are objects for study, not revivification.
Once we have moved beyond the introductory learning phase, I am not sure what I can do to seriously address the question of slavery in class, as most of the ancient sources are obviously problematic. Sure, someone like Seneca might advise a friend to be a benevolent master, but this was supposed to be insurance against misfortune, and not a general rule of humanity. Standard curricular options like Catullus and Vergil have little to say, and Caesar presents us with the same problem of callous indifference discussed above, though I concede that reading against the grain of his indifference may be the most effective strategy. The most affecting summary of the problem that comes to my mind was not written by an ancient writer or a classicist, but by George Orwell in his Looking Back on the Spanish War:
“When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘Felix fecit’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.”
These horrors of war and slavery are two issues which loom large in teaching and discussing Classical literature, but even among works of pure fiction there is so much of what can only be described as horror. As an end-of-year myth unit, I went through the myths surrounding the House of Pelops all the way to the point at which Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra. This is an exceptionally dark set of myths, but one must nevertheless concede that the themes of rape, incest, and murder loom large in much of Greek myth. Yet, the Greeks (and the Romans following them) somehow managed to confront and engage with these stories in a serious way, while not losing (but perhaps even enhancing) their sense of humanity. I should note emphatically that this sense of humanity alone did not entail morality or good deeds; Scipio is said to have wept while quoting Homer at the destruction of Carthage, but at least he felt something. One may readily ask why a body of history and literature containing so much that is awful should still be given such extensive study. To butcher Horace, mutatis nominibus, de nobis fabula narratur (change the names, and the story is about us). One may as well ask why we do not simply neglect or destroy physical relics like the Parthenon or the Pyramids, which are in their own ways monuments to forced labor, oppressive social systems, and much else that is base. Yet, it is not as though we ourselves have arrived at some Utopian pinnacle from which we can glibly talk about the manifest moral inferiority of the ancients. Do women enjoy equal rights with men the world over? Has slavery been effaced from the world? Do people not die every day in countless violent conflicts? There is much in Classical literature which is sublime and beautiful – the perfect artistic expression of humanity’s loftiest and most abiding sentiments. There is also much in Classical literature, history, and civilization which is utterly repugnant, but we ought to study it all the more for just that reason. One does not find a cure for disease by forgetting or ignoring it, and so too with the sickness of the soul: only through diligent study of all that is worst in humanity can we avert it and bring about a better world.
All of this sounds rather fine and hopeful, yet it has brought me no closer to solving the more practical problem of dealing with these issues effectively in a public high school classroom. Unlike a college lecture hall, even the most expansive high school has fairly narrow limits, beyond which the teacher treads at his peril. Similarly, even in Latin we are bound by something bordering on a mandated curriculum, which renders students far more likely to be thinking of the eleven billion uses of the ablative than, say, reading Greek philosophy in translation or really discussing issues of ancient history and society. In sum, I may simply be confessing my own failures as a teacher over the past two years, and wish that I had found a better way to step aside from grammar grinding and syllabus ploughing to really teach something. I will try my best to rectify this in the future, and I eagerly solicit any and all comments either on the theoretical or practical side of this question.