A Response to AP Latin: A Student Perspective

I’m obviously not the first one to say this, but the AP Latin curriculum isn’t good.

In several different ways, it seems like the content of the course is slowly deteriorating over time. I’m sure some here can recall the days of four different tests, each covering a different Roman author. That’s right, four. Nowadays, it seems as if the College Board has really limited the curriculum as a result of the lessening number of students taking the exam (4,899 in 2021).

The effect of this lack of students? A curriculum that awkwardly shoves together two authors in a way that isn’t conducive to educating modern high school students. It hops back and forth between Caesar and Vergil for each unit—in such a way that your average juniors and seniors can struggle to gain a truly strong footing in the material. It’s a little strange.

There’s also an absurd amount of vocabulary. Based on the research of other teachers, there are nearly 11,700 words that a student must understand over the course of the syllabus. This amount of new vocabulary is much more than what the beginner Latin reader is used to dealing with in their first few years of the subject. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, but it is difficult if you’re in your third or fourth year of the subject.

The other aspect of this current AP curriculum that doesn’t exactly appeal to your average teenage high school student is in the subject matter inherent to these pieces. Commentarii de Bello Gallico is dry and does a tremendous job detailing the frequently boring military exploits of the Roman army in Gaul. For every chapter explaining the specifics of a battle, there are five more examining how Caesar sent a dull letter to a commander that one time.

On the other hand, Vergil’s Aeneid is much more interesting. There are lots of references throughout the text and its narrative serves as a nice introduction to the wider world of literature for newer Latin students. In fact, it inspired me to read other works of Roman poetry that I enjoy.

(Personally, my passion for authors like Catullus and Ovid was directly inspired by my work with Vergil this last year. It was the first time I had been exposed to this kind of poetic literature in my education, and now it’s my main interest in the subject. My favorite genre of these works are the semi-autobiographical elegies.)

However, there is one massive flaw with both the Aeneid and Commentarii Bello Gallico that each AP Latin student has to contend with. There is a total lack of variety in the material provided.

I don’t think I’m asking for too much here. This last year, I completed the course with five of my peers, and we were all shocked by something as simple as the lack of a relatable female voice. I can’t remember a single named female character in De Bello Gallico and the non-male characters of the Aeneid don’t exactly get much, either.

You have Juno and Dido, who are both characterized as “crazy” in their opposition to Aeneas.  From the opening lines of the epic, it is established that Juno is defined in the story by her conflict against Aeneas’ journey to founding Rome. Similarly, Dido is at first portrayed as the strong female ruler of Carthage, but after Aeneas departs at the request of Mercury, she becomes a crazed lunatic who commits suicide in a famously elaborate fashion.

The other prominent female characters don’t exactly have much to offer. Venus exists entirely as a mother figure in respect to Aeneas, and Lavinia acts as nothing more than a prize to be won at the end of the narrative.

The response to this shouldn’t be “well that’s how it is,” because there are countless examples of prominent, more defined characters throughout Latin literature.

And so, my peers and I, inspired by this notion and a friend’s passion for typesetting, decided to pursue our own educational resources for newer Latin students that featured these uncommon figures. The process for us consists of taking texts from books like Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves and resources like Tufts’ Perseus Digital Library and Oxford Scholarly Editions and adapting them to lower reading levels. It’s tedious and not exactly entertaining, but it’s been insightful to go through all these different resources and pick certain texts to adapt. Hopefully, this can become a resource useful for high school and lower-level teachers. Based off of the formatting of other educational texts, here’s a section I adapted:

Luke is a rising high school senior from outside Philadelphia, PA. He was new to the subject entering his freshman year, but has since fallen in love with Classical languages and culture to the point where he hopes to study it in college. His personal interest is specific to Roman poetry, but he has experience with traditional Greek authors as well. Outside of his academics, Luke enjoys theatrical performance and filmmaking.

 

One Perpetual Sleep for A Week of Love

Catullus, Carm. 5

“My Lesbia, let’s live and let’s love,
Let all the rumors of harsh old men
count for only a penny.
Suns can set and rise again:
but when our brief light sets
we must sleep a lonely endless night.
Give me a thousand kisses and then a hundred,
then another thousand and a second hundred,
And even then another thousand, a hundred more.
When we’ve had so many thousands,
we will mix them together so we don’t know,
so that no wicked man can feel envy
when he knows what a number of kisses there’ve been.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Image result for medieval manuscript love
From here

Continue reading “One Perpetual Sleep for A Week of Love”

One Perpetual Sleep for A Week of Love

Catullus, Carm. 5

“My Lesbia, let’s live and let’s love,
Let all the rumors of harsh old men
count for only a penny.
Suns can set and rise again:
but when our brief light sets
we must sleep a lonely endless night.
Give me a thousand kisses and then a hundred,
then another thousand and a second hundred,
And even then another thousand, a hundred more.
When we’ve had so many thousands,
we will mix them together so we don’t know,
so that no wicked man can feel envy
when he knows what a number of kisses there’ve been.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Image result for medieval manuscript  love
From here

Continue reading “One Perpetual Sleep for A Week of Love”

Lyric Love, Translation and Transformation

Sappho fr. 31

“That man seems like the gods
To me—the one who sits facing
You and nearby listens as you
sweetly speak—

and he hears your lovely laugh—this then
makes the heart in my breast stutter,
when I glance even briefly, it is no longer possible
for me to speak—

but my tongue sticks in silence
and immediately a slender flame runs under my skin.
I cannot see with my eyes, I hear
A rush in my ears—

A cold sweat breaks over me, a tremble
Takes hold of me. Then paler than grass,
I think that I have died
Just a little.”

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν,
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναι-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλ’ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

†έκαδε μ’ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται† τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·

As many know and many love, Catullus 51 is a ‘translation’. This poem brought my first exposure to Sappho at the tender age of 16. I can translate it almost without looking at it.

“That man seems to me equal to a gods,
that man, if it is right, surpasses the gods
as he sits opposite you
seeing and hearing you

sweetly laughing; every sense escapes
miserable me: for the same time I see you
Lesbia, nothing is left for me

my tongue grows heavy, and a tender flame
flickers under my limbs, and twin ears
ring with their own sound, my eyes
are shaded by night.

Leisure, Catullus, is your problem:
you revel in leisure and you have done too much.
Leisure has brought kings low,
and destroyed cities once rich.”

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
* * * * * * * *

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures gemina, teguntur
lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

Sappho is pretty amazing. I also love this anecdote from Aelian:

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

Image result for medieval manuscript sappho
Boccacio, de mulieribus claris/Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées (trad. anonyme), 15-16th century, France (Cognac). Bibliothèque Nationale MS Français 599 fol. 42

Lyric Love, Translation and Transformation

Sappho fr. 31

“That man seems like the gods
To me—the one who sits facing
You and nearby listens as you
sweetly speak—

and he hears your lovely laugh—this then
makes the heart in my breast stutter,
when I glance even briefly, it is no longer possible
for me to speak—

but my tongue sticks in silence
and immediately a slender flame runs under my skin.
I cannot see with my eyes, I hear
A rush in my ears—

A cold sweat breaks over me, a tremble
Takes hold of me. Then paler than grass,
I think that I have died
Just a little.”

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν,
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναι-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλ’ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

†έκαδε μ’ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται† τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·

As many know and many love, Catullus 51 is a ‘translation’. This poem brought my first exposure to Sappho at the tender age of 16. I can translate it almost without looking at it.

“That man seems to me equal to a gods,
that man, if it is right, surpasses the gods
as he sits opposite you
seeing and hearing you

sweetly laughing; every sense escapes
miserable me: for the same time I see you
Lesbia, nothing is left for me

my tongue grows heavy, and a tender flame
flickers under my limbs, and twin ears
ring with their own sound, my eyes
are shaded by night.

Leisure, Catullus, is your problem:
you revel in leisure and you have done too much.
Leisure has brought kings low,
and destroyed cities once rich.”

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
* * * * * * * *

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures gemina, teguntur
lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

Sappho is pretty amazing. I also love this anecdote from Aelian:

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

Image result for medieval manuscript sappho
Boccacio, de mulieribus claris/Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées (trad. anonyme), 15-16th century, France (Cognac). Bibliothèque Nationale MS Français 599 fol. 42

One Perpetual Sleep for Love Week: From Catullus to Marvell

Catullus, Carm. 5

“My Lesbia, let’s live and let’s love,
Let all the rumors of harsh old men
count for only a penny.
Suns can set and rise again:
but when our brief light sets
we must sleep a lonely endless night.
Give me a thousand kisses and then a hundred,
then another thousand and a second hundred,
And even then another thousand, a hundred more.
When we’ve had so many thousands,
we will mix them together so we don’t know,
so that no wicked man can feel envy
when he knows what a number of kisses there’ve been.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Image result for medieval manuscript  love
From here

Continue reading “One Perpetual Sleep for Love Week: From Catullus to Marvell”

Lyric Love, Translation and Transformation

Sappho fr. 31

“That man seems like the gods
To me—the one who sits facing
You and nearby listens as you
sweetly speak—

and he hears your lovely laugh—this then
makes the heart in my breast stutter,
when I glance even briefly, it is no longer possible
for me to speak—

but my tongue sticks in silence
and immediately a slender flame runs under my skin.
I cannot see with my eyes, I hear
A rush in my ears—

A cold sweat breaks over me, a tremble
Takes hold of me. Then paler than grass,
I think that I have died
Just a little.”

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν,
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναι-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλ’ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

†έκαδε μ’ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται† τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·

As many know and many love, Catullus 51 is a ‘translation’. This poem brought my first exposure to Sappho at the tender age of 16. I can translate it almost without looking at it.

“That man seems to me equal to a gods,
that man, if it is right, surpasses the gods
as he sits opposite you
seeing and hearing you

sweetly laughing; every sense escapes
miserable me: for the same time I see you
Lesbia, nothing is left for me

my tongue grows heavy, and a tender flame
flickers under my limbs, and twin ears
ring with their own sound, my eyes
are shaded by night.

Leisure, Catullus, is your problem:
you revel in leisure and you have done too much.
Leisure has brought kings low,
and destroyed cities once rich.”

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
* * * * * * * *

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures gemina, teguntur
lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

Sappho is pretty amazing. I also love this anecdote from Aelian:

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

Image result for medieval manuscript sappho
Boccacio, de mulieribus claris/Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées (trad. anonyme), 15-16th century, France (Cognac). Bibliothèque Nationale MS Français 599 fol. 42

One Perpetual Sleep: From Catullus to Marvell

Catullus, Carm. 5

“My Lesbia, let’s live and let’s love,
Let all the rumors of harsh old men
count for only a penny.
Suns can set and rise again:
but when our brief light sets
we must sleep a lonely endless night.
Give me a thousand kisses and then a hundred,
then another thousand and a second hundred,
And even then another thousand, a hundred more.
When we’ve had so many thousands,
we will mix them together so we don’t know,
so that no wicked man can feel envy
when he knows what a number of kisses there’ve been.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Continue reading “One Perpetual Sleep: From Catullus to Marvell”

Saccharine Saturday: Catullus 70 and 87, Two Poems to Lesbia

“There’s no one she’d prefer to marry to me

Catullus, Dead but Still so Alive
Catullus, Dead but Still so Alive

My woman says, not even if Zeus himself asked her.
She says: but what a woman says to a lover in desire
It is better to write on the wind or running water.”

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

When I was sixteen and studying for the Catullus/Horace AP (which no longer exists! O Tempora! O Mores!), I thought this poem clever in its brevity and directness. (And, oh my, I oft quoted it to ladies of my acquaintance and age!) I always liked the brusque repetition of dicit in line 3 and the classic image (‘borrowed’ I guess, from Sophocles and others) of writing on wind and water. Of course, what romantic or even cynic is ignorant of the verisimilitude of the use of hyperbole in the first line?

More than half a lifetime later, I cringe a bit at the phrase mulier mea and the implicit and structural sexism of the poem: can we read the woman’s infidelity of speech in bed as a universal human failure (because, please, don’t men lie as frequently if not more to a cupidae amanti?) or does the heft of Catullus’ comment rely too heavily on ancient misogynistic tropes to be saved?

“No woman can claim that she has been loved as much
Truly, as my Lesbia has been loved by me.
No promise has ever been made in as much faith
As can be found on my part in loving you.”

Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam
vere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea est.
nulla fides ullo fuit umquam foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

Though the twenty-first century me still cringes a bit at the possessive mea Lesbia, people do still talk this way. These two poems are connected by style (hyperbole, anaphora; length), diction (nulli/mulier; nulla/mulier in the first lines) and content; but I think the latter is the superior composition both for its artistry (in its repetitions, inversions and pauses (for example, look how the pentameter stops at me and at tuo/ex; the formalist in me is losing it!) and its less possibly offensive character. Who has not felt the sting of the unequal love, the proffered faith, and the total commitment? Of course, the careful balance and brilliance of the compositions undermines claims of passion. And, yet, the integration of a passionate claim within the controlled context of a carefully built poem speaks to a poet’s power to make something out of nothing, to build order out of chaos.

And, in short, though I ply my trade now as a Homerist, it was Catullus who seduced me into Classics. The dirty bastard is still playing his tricks on the world.