Greek Studies

Some reflections from a student who took Greek for the first time this summer

“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” –Aristotle


We’ve all experienced times throughout when education feels simply bitter, with the fruits that are promised to come not even on the horizon. In other words, any time a test rolls around or a paper is due. And yet, nearly every time, the relief of being done is a sweet enough fruit, and the realization that at least some significant learning was done is just a cherry on top. In no other area of study have I experienced feelings of bitterness towards education followed by enjoyment of its fruits in such rapid succession than in learning Ancient Greek. 

As a lifelong Latin student, I admittedly thought that the first few classes, and even weeks, of my Ancient Greek course would be a breeze. Sure Latin and Greek were different languages, but they both fell under the Classics umbrella and used similar grammatical structures that are now second nature to my Latin oriented brain. However, I failed to account for a primary aspect of Greek: its alphabet. Most people, especially Classics students, know some of the Greek letters, like alpha, beta, or delta. Those in particular are familiar to English and Latin speakers, given that they closely resemble A, B, and D. It’s the rest of the alphabet that gave me, and most of my classmates, fits. 

Many of the letters were completely foreign shapes that represented unfamiliar sounds. Some contracted sounds, such as ‘th’ and ‘ps’ are simply one letter, with many letters out of order from our standard English alphabet, and some letters like ‘h’ even being shown by an accent mark rather than a letter. So when we were asked to read aloud and translate Greek words, I found myself first transforming the characters into their approximate English counterparts to read them aloud, and then translating them into their English definitions. Not only is pronunciation not stressed at all in Latin, the altered alphabet made each word feel like an enormous hurdle. 

However, as is Aristotle’s golden rule of education, the sweet fruits came not far behind. After a few hours of dutiful practice, both with classmates and alone, I became well acquainted with the formerly alien Ancient Greek letters. I can’t say it has become second nature, because to be frank I’m not sure if it ever will, but my fear of reading Greek words aloud has reduced dramatically. Unfortunately, that relief has been short lived, as our course has carried on to the minutiae of the language: declensions, conjugations, and articles. Yet, the immediate swing from bitterness to sweetness gives hope for further enjoyment of the Greek language. 

“The happy man is the one with a healthy body, a wealthy soul and a well-educated nature” –Thales

Many philosophers throughout human history have spoken to the joy that is necessary to properly learn and live, and that the happiest people are those who are the most educated. While this notion feels at times preposterous, I find that it is especially true when students are allowed to thoroughly learn the material that interests them at their own speed. 

picture of the greek alphabet with upper and lower case letters

By choosing an Ancient Greek course for the first time this summer, I have gone back to the basics of any language: vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. And while I have little memory of doing similar exercises to learn English, I can remember building the foundations of Latin nearly six years ago. However, I have now reached the Latin stage where classes and homeworks are dominated solely by translations– I have a dictionary on hand, because at this point there’s no time to study more vocab, and whenever I see an infinitive verb, I just assume that the author is using some form of indirect speech. To be frank, I don’t think I’ve seen any form of “esse” in years. This ease I feel with Latin has helped me read increasingly complex texts and perform more adept analysis, but the fundamentals of the language have certainly been a bit lost. 

During my experiences with Greek this summer, however, I have made a genuine commitment to understanding each and every aspect of the sentences I translate. I, of course, want to be precise with my vocabulary translations, but rather than simply trying to get through as many sentences as possible, and half-heartedly moving on from any phrases that don’t quite make sense, I’m trying to actually figure out what I don’t quite understand. While these goals have certainly made learning Greek more time consuming than I originally anticipated, it has actually brought considerable joy to me. For the first time in years I feel less of a time crunch to get through material, and therefore increased enjoyment and fulfillment in learning the material.


I’ve often heard people discuss the extreme difficulty of the English language, and that, most of the time, it simply makes very little sense. From the spelling of our words to the grammatical structure of our sentences, English is often considered one of the hardest languages to learn. However, I don’t think that I personally understood why that was until I returned to the fundamentals of Ancient Greek.

stylized head of greek philosopher

Latin and Greek are the two foreign languages I have studied the most, and both have a calculated, almost mathematical, structure. Since the case of a noun or adjective determines what the word’s role in the sentence is, we as readers can identify each word’s job purely by looking at the ending. The same is true for verbs, as the ending tells us the person, number, tense, and mood of the verb all within a few letters at the end of the word. And while these rules, of course, have many exceptions, even those exceptions have trends that can be studied and then identified when looking at a sentence. In general, one can learn the languages by studying paradigms and grammar charts, in addition to practicing translating sentences. These paradigms are so accurate, in fact, that often personal pronouns and “to be” verbs can be omitted. The ancient Latin and Greek texts even had no spaces between words, punctuation, or capital letters; however, readers could still understand the material because of the steadfast rules of the languages. 

These immovable, easily explainable rules seem to be what’s missing from English. Most of the reasoning behind why certain words look the way they do or function in a particular manner is because that’s just the way it works (in word order). There’s not a easy declension or case system for all English nouns and adjectives, verbs don’t share common endings that allow one to identify their syntax, and spelling feels, at times, completely arbitrary. We have so many words that are spelled the same with different meanings or have the same pronunciation with different meanings that we categorize them: homographs and homophones. While not everyone has a mathematically-oriented brain, the calculated approach Latin and Greek take to grammar certainly makes them easier to wrap our heads around, in addition to highlighting the outright confusing nature of English. 
screen shot of a greek exercise

screen shot of a greek exercise

Having now completed my Introductory Greek summer course, I am able to reflect on the most impactful aspects that I took away from the class. While learning a new language always provides a new window into how we think about various dialects, grammar, and vocabulary, I find that learning a Classical language gives an additional perspective that modern languages cannot supply. By learning a dead language, I, and all Classics students, are forced to examine how life was when Ancient Greek was the common denominator. I briefly took a Spanish course in middle school, and I recall the translation passages consisting of dialogue between people getting food at a market, or walking down a city street; however, the Greek passages consist of philosophical debates between philosophers of the time, or strenuous journeys across dangerous seas in triremes. In uncovering these events that are so foreign to the modern eye, I am truly taking a history course along with a language course. This multifaceted learning experience certainly gives me genuine interest and enjoyment in translating large volumes of text. 

In addition, as I made my way through the unique, and admittedly odd, stories, I was forced to make somewhat of a human connection with the characters. For example, many of our passages involved a character who lived his life as Homer would, and frequently quoted the great poet. While his antics were at times confusing, I would always become a little more alert and absorbed in the text when he, and his Homeric philosophies, appeared in the passages. These little nuances, that can really be found only in the texts of Classical, dead languages, showcase the human interest that learning Ancient Greek provides. Looking forward, such connections to the text has greatly heightened my fascination with the Classics as a whole, and encouraged me to dive deeper into the field. 

Stylized painting of the ruins of the Parthenon emerging into the sun

My name is Matthew Abati, and I am a rising high school senior at Milton Academy just outside of Boston. I have been a Classics lover since middle school and am very excited to share some of my thoughts on the Classics here on Sententiae Antiquae! When I’m not in school, I love to read all types of books and play all types of sports.

Calgacus and Agricola Prepare for Battle

Two excerpts taken from opposing generals preparing to lead their men into battle against one another: Calgacus from Britain, Agricola from Rome. 

Top 12 of Rome's Greatest Battles - Ancient History Lists

The Agricola, Chapters 30-32, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Calgacus’ Speech To His Men

“The first battles, during which it was certain that the Romans were against us by varied fortune, were holding hope and help in our men, because the most noble of all of Britain, situated in the inner most shrines, were seeing no banks of servitude, we also were having eyes unviolated by the touch of tyranny. Our isolation and bend of rumor defended our remote places of the world and of liberty on that day: now the border of Britain is open, and everything unknown is magnified; but now there is no further tribe, nothing except rivers and rocks, and hostile Romans, of which you escape pride in vain through obedience and submission. The plunderers of the world, after they lack everything from laying waste to the world, search the sea: if the enemy is rich, they exact taxes, if poor, they exact homage, whom neither the East nor West will have glutted: these men alone out of everyone yearn for power and poverty equally out of affection. They call robbery, massacre, and plunder power under a false name, and where they make solitudes, they call peace … unless if you think that the Gauls and Germans and, it shames me to say, the majority of the Brits are held by faith and affection, although they shed blood for a foreign tyranny, nevertheless are longer enemies than slaves. There is fear and terror, weak chains of affection; which when you remove them, those who will cease to fear will begin to hate.”

“Priōrēs pugnae, quibus adversus Rōmānōs variā fortūnā certātum est, spem ac subsidium in nostrīs manibus habēbant, quia nōbilissimī tōtīus Britanniae eōque in ipsīs penetrālibus sitī nec ūlla servientium lītora aspicientēs, oculōs quoque ā contāctū dominātiōnis inviolātōs habēbāmus. Nōs terrārum ac lībertātis extrēmōs recessus ipse ac sinus fāmae in hunc diem dēfendit: nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignōtum prō magnificō est; sed nūlla iam ultrā gēns, nihil nisi flūctūs ac saxa, et īnfēstiōrēs Rōmānī, quōrum superbiam frūstrā per obsequium ac modestiam effugiās. Raptōrēs orbis, postquam cūncta vastantibus dēfuēre terrae, mare scrūtantur: sī locuplēs hostis est, avārī, sī pauper, ambitiōsī, quōs nōn Oriēns, nōn Occidēns satiāverit: sōlī omnium opēs atque inopiam parī adfectū concupīscunt. Auferre trucīdāre rapere falsīs nōminibus imperium, atque ubi sōlitūdinem faciunt, pācem appellant … nisi sī Gallōs et Germānōs et (pudet dictū) Britannōrum plērōsque, licet dominātiōnī aliēnae sanguinem commodent, diūtius tamen hostēs quam servōs, fide et adfectū tenērī putātis. Metus ac terror est, īnfirma vincla cāritātis; quae ubi remōverīs, quī timēre dēsierint, ōdisse incipient.”


Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Agricola, Chapter 33,  Agricola’s Speech To His Men

“It is the seventh year, comrades, under the virtue and auspices of the Roman people, you all conquer Britain by our faith and duty. With so many expeditions, with so many battles, whether the enemies are adverse by fortitude or hardly adverse by patience and work, it is necessary to that nature of things, neither I regret the soldiers nor you regret your leader … For so that to have surpassed so much of the journey, to have escaped the forests, to have crossed the estuaries when the foe is ahead is beautiful and honorable, thus the most dangerous things for the fleeing men are most prosperous today: indeed a similar knowledge of the places or similar abundance of resources was for our men, but there are men and weapons and everything in these places. That which pertains to me, now it is my long standing conviction that flight is safe for neither the army nor the leader. Accordingly as a honorable death is more preferable than a shameful death, thus safety and glory are allowed in this place; it would not be indignified to have fallen at the limit of the land and of the world.”

septimus annus est, commīlitōnēs, ex quō virtūte et auspiciīs populī Rōmānī, fide atque operā nostrā Britanniam vīcistis. Tot expedītiōnibus, tot proeliīs, seu fortitūdine adversus hostēs seu patientiā ac labōre paene adversus ipsam rērum nātūram opus fuit, neque mē mīlitum neque vōs ducis paenituit … Nam ut superāsse tantum itineris, ēvāsisse silvās, trānsīsse aestuāria pulchrum ac decōrum in frontem, ita fugientibus perīculōsissima quae hodiē prosperrima sunt; neque enim nōbīs aut locōrum eadem nōtitia aut commeātuum eadem abundantia, sed manūs et arma et in hīs omnia. [33.6] Quod ad mē attinet, iam prīdem mihi dēcrētum est neque exercitūs neque ducis terga tūta esse. Proinde ut honesta mors turpī vītā potior, ita incolumitās ac decus eōdem locō sita sunt; nec inglōrium fuerit in ipsō terrārum ac nātūrae fīne cecidisse.


Throughout Calgacus’ and Agricola’s speeches, Tacitus communicates to the reader both an outsider’s criticisms of the Roman empire and a Roman leader’s perspective on the empire’s conquest. In presenting these two perspectives, Tacitus is able to critique the Roman rule he lives under and accomplish his goal of paying tribute to Agricola, whom Tacitus portrays as the perfect Roman.

In his speech, Calgacus frequently refers to the Romans as an evil and dishonorable empire that has oppressed generations of tribes throughout Europe, and will do the same to the Brits if they don’t fight back against the Romans. In detailing Calgacus’ speech over the course of three chapters, Tacitus himself is able to critique the cruelty of the Roman empire. In chapter 30, Calgacus introduces the Romans to his listeners as the “plunderers of the world” (raptores orbis), immediately displaying the different perspective he and the Brits have on Rome and its conquests.

Calgacus also refers to the Roman “tyranny” (dominatio) twice in his speech; such a choice not only compares the Romans to tyrants, but also reminds the reader of the reign of Domitian. With Domitian’s violent years as emperor occurring just a few years before the Agricola was published, Tacitus uses this diction to give a more concrete example of when the Roman empire was just as cruel as Calgacus claims them to be. Calgacus then uses rhetorical devices to highlight the malignant deeds of the Roman empire. When he writes “si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi,” Calgacus employs an anaphora, whose repetition further emphasizes Rome’s need to always demand some form of retribution from their enemies: when Rome is rich, it demands tributes, when poor it demands homage.

Similarly, Calgacus uses asyndeton when he writes “auferre trucidare rapere.” By placing three infinitives one after another without any conjunctions, Calgacus calls attention to the multitude of Rome’s crimes and shows that the army is forever robbing, massacring, and plundering their enemies. Furthermore, throughout Calgacus’ speech, yet particularly in chapter 31, he refers to the Brits and those under Roman rule as slaves, even comparing the Brits to the newest, mocked slave in a family (ac sicut … petimur). This word choice provides a stark contrast to the Roman empire’s perception of those they conquered, as they believe peace results from their conquest while the conquered consider themselves no more than slaves. While these criticisms come from Calgacus, the multiple references to Domitian suggest that Tacitus may be injecting some of his own opinions about the empire and agree with some or many of the claims Calgacus puts forth. 

Calgacus also highlights the division among and weakness of the Roman army in his speech. Across our readings throughout the year, the Roman army has always been portrayed as a formidable force that can conquer anything in its path; however, similar to the different perspective Calgacus offered on the Roman empire’s cruelty, he also offers a new angle on its weaknesses. He begins by explaining that Rome’s perceived strength in numbers is a fallacy, as the army is composed of many foreign tribes who are not truly loyal to Rome. When Calgacus notes that the Gauls, Germans, and Brits “spill blood for a foreign tyranny” (dominationi … commodent), he emphasizes the lack of loyalty that the tribes feel towards Rome, which is merely a foreign tyranny, rather than an illustrious empire. He builds on this claim when he later argues that the tribes are held by fear and terror (metus ac terror) rather than affection of the Roman empire. As a result, Calgacus states that those same tribes “will cease to fear and begin to hate” (timere … incipient) the Romans; in this clause, Calgacus uses parallel structure to highlight the contrast between the fear that the tribes used to endure, and the hatred they will experience. Throughout Calgacus’ extended speech, Tacitus presents to the reader the outsider’s perspective of the Roman empire: that the empire savagely makes slaves out of its subjects, controls them with fear, and, despite its appearance of strength, at its core lacks loyalty and unity. However, Tacitus then provides Agricola’s speech as rebuttal to the negative, foreign perceptions of the empire. 

As a contrast to Calgacus’ speech and the criticisms he voiced against the Roman empire, Tacitus presents Agricola’s speech to give an example of the benevolent, honorable leaders that make Rome far greater than what Calgacus depicted them as. Tacitus first shows Agricola’s honorable nature when Agricola refers to all the Roman soldiers as “commilitones,” or fellow soldiers. This word choice suggests that Agricola inspires great faith and unity in his men, as calling them “fellow soldiers” implies that Agricola, too, is a dutiful member and active participant in the army, rather than someone who merely gives orders. Such an implication also responds to Calgacus’ claim that the Roman army lacks loyalty and unity: while the entire Roman empire may not showcase similar valor, Agricola certainly does. In addition, Agricola employs rhetorical devices to emphasize his arguments, with the first of which building his claim that loyalty is robust in the Roman army.

When Agricola states that “neque me militum neque vos ducis paenituit,” he uses an anaphora to liken himself to his men. The goal of this phrase, literally, is to remark that he trusts his army, and his army trusts him, and the identical word positioning in the phrase further reveals the similarities and trust between Agricola and the army. Agricola also uses another anaphora when he states “tot expeditionibus, tot proeliis” in order to highlight the previous experience and success the Roman army had in battles like the one they are about to enter. The repetition of “tot” calls the reader’s attention to this phrase and heightens Agricola’s point about Rome’s history of many victorious battles. Finally, towards the end of chapter 33, Agricola yet again reinforces the necessity of loyalty and valor to his men and all readers: he claims that “an honorable death is preferable to a life of shame” (honesta … potior). Such a remark reiterates Agricola’s steadfast devotion to valor and adds to Tacitus’ narrative that Agricola is one of the most honorable men Rome has ever seen.

Throughout Calgacus and Agricola’s speeches, Tacitus compares the barbarian perception of the Roman empire’s cruelty and disloyalty to the Roman perception of the empire’s honor and strength. By detailing Calgacus’ speech for three chapters, Tacitus explains with incredible detail all the empire’s flaws. While these flaws are highlighted through the voice of Calgacus, Tacitus seems to share many of Calgacus’ beliefs, in particular those about the empire’s cruel history. Agricola rarely addresses the Roman empire’s barbaric nature in his speech, and Tacitus even includes subtle references to Domitian, the most apt example of such cruelty. However, in presenting Agricola’s speech, Tacitus dispels many of Calgacus’ claims that the Roman army lacks loyalty and unity, largely because Agricola himself shows such great valor that inspires loyalty. This intentional structure reveals to the reader that Tacitus admits to some of Calgacus’ criticisms of the empire being true, yet still believes in Agricola’s spectacular nature as a leader who unifies his men. As a result, Tacitus is able to use these speeches to both acknowledge the shortcoming of the Roman empire, with its history of violence, and praise Agricola as one of the few truly good influences on the empire.


Matthew Abati is a rising high school senior at Milton Academy just outside of Boston. He has been a Classics lover since middle school.

Livy and Ennius on the Founding of Rome

Two excerpts detailing how Romulus defeated his brother, Remus, and became the founder of Rome.  

Ab Urbe Condita, Chapter 7.1-7.3, Titus Livius:

It is reported that the omen first came to Remus, six vultures; and now with the omen having been delivered when double the number showed itself to Romulus, and his own multitude greeted each as king: those (lay claim to the kingship) because of time in advance, and these men by the number of birds. With an altercation having been gathered by a contest of angers they turned to murder; there Remus, having been hit, died in the crowd. The more well known story crossed over the new walls in mockery of the brother; from which by the anger of Romulus, when he added these words while also chiding, “then thus, should anyone cross over my walls,” he killed Remus.

priōrī Remō augurium vēnisse fertur, sex volturēs; iamque nuntiātō auguriō cum duplex numerus Rōmulō sē ostendisset, utrumque rēgem sua multitūdō cōnsalūtāverat: tempore illī praeceptō, at hī numerō avium rēgnum trahēbant. inde cum altercātiōne congressī certāmine īrārum ad caedem vertuntur; ibi in turbā ictus Remus cecidit. volgātior fāma est lūdibriō frātris Rēmum novōs trānsiluisse mūrōs; inde ab īrātō Rōmulō, cum verbīs quoque increpitāns adiēcisset, ‘sīc deinde, quīcumque alius trānsiliet moenia mea,’ interfectum.

Book 1 of the Annals, Lines 81-100, Quintus Ennius:

Caring with great care and then desiring

The kingdom, they give their attention at the same time with auspiciousness and augury.

[Here] Remus devotes himself to the auspices and
alone saves the second bird. but Romulus seeks the fair on the high
Aventine, and preserves the high-flying race.
They contested whether they should call the city Rome Remoram.
All men were concerned as to which one was the most impudent.
They wait or use, when the consul sends the signal
Volt, all eagerly look at the edges of the prison,
As soon as the painted from the jaws of the chariot will issue:
Thus the people waited and the edge held
Rebus, which great victory was given to the kingdom.
In the meantime the white sun had retreated into the inferno of the night.
From the outside, the white light gave itself to the rays.
And at the same time, from afar, the most beautiful bar
The bird flew to the left: at the same time the golden sun rose.
Three or four holy bodies of birds descend from heaven
, and give themselves to precipices and beautiful places.
From this he sees that Romulus was given to him as the prior, and
the throne was established under the auspices of the kingdom.

Curantes magna cum cura tum cupientes Regni dant operam simul auspicio augurioque. [Hinc] Remus auspicio se devovet atque secundam
Solus avem servat. at Romulus pulcher in alto
Quaerit Aventino, servat genus altivolantum.
Certabant urbem Romam Remoramne vocarent.
Omnibus cura viris uter esset induperator.
Expectant vel uti, consul cum mittere signum
Volt, omnes avidi spectant ad carceris oras,
Quam mox emittat pictis e faucibus currus:
Sic expectabat populus atque ora tenebat
Rebus, utri magni victoria sit data regni.
Interea sol albus recessit in infera noctis.
Exin candida se radiis dedit icta foras lux.
Et simul ex alto longe pulcherruma praepes
Laeva volavit avis: simul aureus exoritur sol.
Cedunt de caelo ter quattor corpora sancta
Avium, praepetibus sese pulchrisque locis dant.
Conspicit inde sibi data Romulus esse priora,
Auspicio regni stabilita scamna locumque

Livy and Ennius both describe similar events in Romulus’ and Remus’ augury contest. The two authors agree that Romulus and Remus vied for their own name to be used as the name of the new city, and relied in some way on omens to determine this. However, the accounts differ in the way in which the story is told, as Livy emphasizes the crucial role the two brothers played in this contest while Ennius focuses on the role of the fates, rendering the two brothers as merely agents of the gods’ wills. 

Livy begins by detailing how six vultures showed themselves to Remus first as an omen (priori … voltures), and later 12 vultures showed themselves to Romulus as an omen as well (iamque … ostendisset). These omens made both brothers, and their followers, believe that they each should be considered king of their new city: Remus and his crowd believed the omens pointed favorably to him because he saw the birds first, while Romulus and his crowd believed the greater number of birds seen by Romulus outweighed the timing (tempore … trahebant). However, the true naming process transpired completely independently from these omens. According to Livy, the story goes that Remus was mocking Romulus by crossing over the line where Romulus’ city walls would stand, breaching into his territory (volgatior … muros). This mockery angered Romulus so greatly that he killed Remus (interfectum) and stated that anyone else who also crossed into over his city walls would receive the same fate (sic … moenia mea), an act that gave him sole power. Despite Livy’s brief discussion of the omens, Remus’ murder, and the city then being named after Romulus, occurred “from the anger of Romulus” (ab … Romulo), confirming that the contest between the brothers was decided entirely by the brothers. 

Ennius similarly leads with discussion of the omens, yet, in contrast to Livy, continues using those omens to prove why the city was named after Romulus. Both brothers look out for omens (simul … augurioque) to win the “contest” and the right to name the city after themself. Ennius further states that each brother so diligently looks for omens because that alone is how they will decide who the city is named after (certabant … vocarent). After repeated descriptions of the birds, namely the 12 that Romulus sees (cedunt … avium), Ennius writes that Romulus will be given the throne, which was established by an omen (data … stabilita). Throughout the story, Ennius barely even mentions Romulus and Remus, instead focusing entirely on the nature and beauty of the birds. He even takes time to describe the setting and rising of the sun (sol albus … lux), further emphasizing his writing flourishes over the fundamental facts of the story and differentiating himself from the fact-driven style of Livy’s writing that relies on more simple sentence structure. 

watercolor of two men looking at birds with hills in the background
Romulus and Remus – Crystalinks

My name is Matthew Abati, and I am a rising high school senior at Milton Academy just outside of Boston. I have been a Classics lover since middle school and am very excited to share some of my thoughts on the Classics here on Sententiae Antiquae! When I’m not in school, I love to read all types of books and play all types of sports.