Pythius

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Pythius is a short adapted text by Marcus Tullius Cicero, published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology and written in its original form during the 1st century BC. The text is part of a work called the De Officiis (On Duties or Obligations), a tripartite treatise in which Cicero explains his concept of the best way to live. The work discusses what can be defined as honourable in Book I and what can be said to be to one’s advantage in Book II; Book III explores what to do when the two come into conflict. In the first two books Cicero draws heavily on the writings of the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, but he writes more independently in the final section.

Cicero wrote the De Officiis for his son, to guide him towards moral behaviour. Rather than just expound his theories, Cicero tells some colourful stories of characters that he believes have harmed the interests of others for their own personal gain: Pythius is one of them. It forms part of a collection of four stories in the Cambridge Latin Anthology under the title Personae non gratae, along with two other stories of notorious rogues by Sallust and by Pliny, plus another short piece by Cicero on the emperor Claudius’ shameless wife, Messalina.

Pythius is the short tale of a man who stages a false impression in order to sell some land at an inflated price. When he hears that a certain Gaius Canius has put the word out that he wishes to buy a private estate where he can relax and entertain friends, Pythius invites the man to dine with him, stating that – while his land is not actually for sale – Canius is welcome to make use of it. This is, of course, the first stage of the deception – making Canius want to buy the land by telling him that it’s not available: it’s the oldest trick in the book! In addition to this, Pythius instructs some local fishermen to do all of their fishing in full view of the estate on the day that Canius is visiting, thus giving the impression that the coastline in that area is abundant with fish: fishing was big business in the ancient world and well-stocked waters were very attractive to potential buyers.

Well, the inevitable happens. When Canius attends, he is overwhelmed by what he sees and offers Pythius an inflated sum of money to purchase the estate. Pythius eventually – and to all intents and purposes reluctantly – agrees. As soon as Canius is in possession of the land, he finds that the fishermen have moved on and that the waters are no more well-stocked than any other area. Yet he is stuck with his hasty purchase.

It’s been some time since Pythius has been on the syllabus and I found that the last time I had taught it I was still making use of the method of numbering the Latin words, a process favoured by the resources produced by ZigZag, whose publications I discussed in a previous blog post. As this is the shorter of the two prose texts I have decided to stick with this method to save myself some work and to and make use of my previous efforts as a bit of an experiment.

There are two ways of using the numbered method: you can go fully hardcore and expect students to produce their own translation, or you can provide the translation and let them use the numbers to match the Latin text to it (a process I usually support using colour-coding, as described in last week’s post about Sagae Thessalae).

Here is what I mean: below, the text is presented in a format which expects the students to produce a written translation on the lines below. This can be done whole-class and/or can be set as preparation work. It is a worthwhile use of time if you have it to produce a whole-class translation, and students can certainly benefit from this process both because it demands a certain level of rigour and because it develops their study skills – if students are expected to write down their own version of the translation prior to learning it, class time become crucially important; I do sometimes worry that the extreme level of spoon-feeding I have resorted to over the years means that some students will become unstuck in Higher Education – but this is the direct result of tying teachers’ appraisal to student performance and attainment!

Alternatively, you can make use of the same process but provide a translation, encouraging students to use the numbers as a guide to show them how the Latin relates to the English. Students might then use highlighters to make links between the Latin and the translation, or simply get used to the process of using the numbers as scaffolding. This method is better if you know you will be advising students to learn the translation off by heart and is especially effective if you want the whole class to be working to the same translation.

I will be interested to see how my students fare using this methodology. I can’t remember the exact reasons that I lost faith in the numbering method, but as I recall I did find that some students found it surprisingly challenging to follow. It is difficult as a subject expert to look at the text and the numbering through the eyes of a novice, and I guess what seems crystal clear to us can look like a jumble of indecipherable code to a fledgling Latinist. But it’s good to have the opportunity to revisit the methodology with a short text to see whether I abandoned it unfairly. Clearly, many people make use of the ZigZag resources, so there must be something in it. My suspicion, however, is that the students who struggle most will find it less helpful than it might seem. Another issue to bear in mind and certainly something I recall from past experience is that the method is actually very time-consuming to produce compared to colour-coding; it is incredibly easy to make a mistake, and one small slip in the number at the top of the page can spell disaster for the rest!

I shall approach the lessons with interest and will welcome any feedback from my students and from others.

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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