Review of “Latin Stories”

Latin Stories: A GCSE Reader
Henry Cullen, Michael Dormandy, John Taylor
Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2017
ISBN: 978 1 3500 0384 2

Any English speaker who calls Latin easy is either a genius or a fool. It is a synthetic Indo-European language that communicates in ways very different from English. Nouns are divided into at least five classes, each of which has five or six or seven cases – singular and plural – to express meanings that we express by adding prepositions. Pronouns have their own declensions. Except for the perfect passive tenses, verbs are generally inflected. Because the Classical grammar is a snapshot of a language in rapid and profound change, there are duplications and irregularities everywhere. The future tense, in particular, is broken, and has been reconstructed in every language I know that descends from Latin. Add to this an elaborate syntax, an indifference to what we regard as a normal order of words, and a vocabulary that is naturally poor, but expanded by allowing most common words to bear different meanings that must usually be inferred from their context.

This being said, anyone who denies the language is worth learning is a barbarian who deserves to live in the illiterate swamp that we nowadays call civilisation. Without denying the importance of the Greeks, Rome stands at the origin of our literature and law and religion. Latin was, until the late seventeenth century, the normal language of learning and international communication. Directly or indirectly, Latin has given English around sixty per cent of its words. I am not sure if anyone can write English well who is ignorant of Latin. I do not believe anyone can appreciate or notice the full register of our own classical literature without some knowledge of Latin. A further point is that, even today, a qualification in Latin is taken as proof of general intelligence. In short, Latin is a struggle, but a struggle worth undertaking.

The value of this book is that it makes the struggle unusually easy in its earlier stages, and enjoyable. The traditional approach to Latin lies through a close focus on writers like Cornelius Nepos and Julius Caesar. These have their merits, but are often dry and military. Latin Stories, on the other hand, gives exactly what its title promises. It gives a hundred passages drawn from Greek and Roman history, mythology and philosophy. Most of these are based on the works of the Classical authors, but there is one from the New Testament, and one from St Augustine, and several from Apuleius and Eutropius. They are varied in tone and content. The language of the stories runs from very basic – “Menelaus rex Spartae erat. Helena uxor eius erat, et Agamemnon frater.” (p.2) – to something bordering on that of the Roman classics – “Fulvia tamen, cum de rebus quae parabantur audivisset, consuli ipsi narravit quantum periculum esset.” (p.178)

Though always based on something in the Greek and Roman classics, these are all original compositions. At all levels, the language is clear and often elegant. I have compared the reworkings of Apuleius and Eutropius with the originals. The amount of reordering and rewriting is impressive. Also, close and repeated use shows much sophistication as a teaching resource. There are single passages, or whole blocks of passages, written to drive in certain constructions – the passive voice, for example, or deponent verbs, or ablative absolutes, or the various uses of the subjunctive. A further advantage is that, while knowledge of the 450 core words in the GCSE Vocabulary is taken for granted, every word outside this is explained at the foot of each passage.

As a teacher of reasonable experience and success, I have never had a negative reaction to the book. I run Easter revision courses for boys from the smarter public schools. They grab Latin Stories with both hands. They sometimes write to me after the results are out, telling me how the book undoubtedly raised their grades. When I run complete courses, I like to start with Ecce Romani 1 from the Scottish Classics Group. Then, once they tire of Cornelia and Flavia and Sextus and Marcus – usually before Lesson 8 – I move students to Latin Stories. Last term, I delivered an accelerated course in Latin to some MA students at my university. They were all beginners, some of them without French or Spanish. The course ran for ten weeks. I took them through a fortnight of Ecce Romani, followed by six weeks of Latin Stories. By week nine, they were ready for the sea voyage in Acts of the Apostles. They worked like slaves. I am a good teacher. Even so, it would have been a harder course to run without Latin Stories.

So I recommend Latin Stories. I recommend it to teachers of the language. I recommend it to students learning alone.

I am, however, reviewing the second edition of this book, and will say that I prefer the first. I appreciate that the book has been prepared for the GCSE examination, and that the recent change to the specifications requires change to all the course books. But I prefer the typography of the first edition. It is larger and easier to read. I also regret the omission of the six Perseus stories from the second edition. These have touches of probably deliberate humour – the repeated use of Medusa’s head, for example, or the words “imbre aureo,” which always get a snigger from the schoolboys I teach. A shame they were left out.

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More than this, the second edition has missed the opportunity to correct various defects in the first. Some of the passages – for example, the retelling of Pseudolus on p.24 – are too compressed to make sense to anyone who has not read the originals. Here and there, the stories have been amplified by adding another sentence or paragraph, but these amplifications are to stories that already made sense as they were. Then there are typing mistakes that have not been corrected – for example, “senex” in place of “Thelyphron” on p.58. Above all, a table of contents would have been useful. The list of sources given at the end of the book is an imperfect substitute for this.

But these are minor blemishes in a book that is probably the best Latin reader on the market, and that deserves to be stocked in every school that still has a Classics Department.