Casual misogyny: Love and Marriage (WJEC/Eduqas)

I’m no expert when it comes to the Roman view of women. My specialist area was neoplatonic philosophy, so I would never lay claim to having a thorough and intimate grasp of this field, nor did I take any particular interest in feminist readings of ancient literature (indeed, I recall being specifically warned off it as a research area – by men, it may not surprise you to know). All of that said, as a trained Classicist I have read a fair number of sources that discuss women and/or their behaviour – for better or for worse. The current prescription for the WJEC/Eduqas GCSE specification includes a group of texts to which they have given the title “Love and Marriage” and I am working with a few students who are studying them.

One of the most important things to grasp as a Classicist, in my opinion, is that women were broadly considered to be inferior to men in the ancient world. I think we all need to get over that casual misogyny, if we’re not going to spend every moment of study being triggered. There is no point having a panic attack every time this inescapable fact comes back on our radar, just as there is no point in doing so when we are reminded that in the ancient world the existence of slavery was considered to be completely acceptable. What we must do, on the other hand, is address these facts head-on. Never let anyone tell you that Roman society was advanced and civilised; when compared to our own, their society was cruel and grossly unfair, and those who would seek to say so are utterly deluded. One does not have to admire something to be fascinated by it.

The first thing to note about the collection of texts selected by WJEC – and indeed, about the overwhelming majority of sources that discuss women in our possession – is that they were written by men, and (largely) for men. Hearing women’s voices is extremely difficult, although I find it disappointing that WJEC did not even try to do so. They have included some visual source material as part of the “Love and Marriage” prescription, but they did not elect to include the graffiti and politicised slogans penned by women, which would have been a nice nod towards the fact that we do, at least, have those as direct evidence of women’s opinions. What we do have in the prescription is a collection of paintings and sculptures depicting the marriage ceremony. And yes, I know the prescription is called “Love and Marriage”, but given that the rest of the sources are fundamentally about women, it wouldn’t have taken much of a stretch of the imagination to make it considerably more interesting and inclusive.

The first text in the collection pretty much encapsulates the nature of a wealthy woman’s expected ideal life in the Roman world. It is an epitaph, so necessarily idealised, and sums up the manner in which women were expected to conduct themselves and their lives:

hospes, quod dico paulum est; asta ac perlege.
hic est sepulcrum haud pulchrum pulchrae feminae:
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
suum maritum corde dilexit suo.
natos duos creavit: horum alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo,
domum servavit, lanam fecit. dixi. abi

Stranger, what I have to say is brief; stand still and read it through.
Here is the not very beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman:
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband with all her heart.
She bore two sons, one of which
She leaves on this earth, the other she placed beneath the earth.
Of charming conversation, and indeed of elegant step,
She looked after the home, she spun wool. I have spoken. Now go on your way.

It is surprising how hard one has to push young students to articulate how and why this epitaph is perhaps (to use modern parlance) problematic in terms of what modern women might expect for themselves, their lives and their legacy. I don’t know what the kids are into these days, but unless I am very out of touch then I am guessing that housekeeping and wool-spinning is not necessarily top of a 21st century girl’s list of ambitions (that said, crochet is apparently making a comeback). What is most notable to me about the epitaph is its coldness: Claudia’s achievements are those expected of a good wife and mother: nothing more, nothing less. She loved her husband with all her heart – there is no mention of that being reciprocated. The only personal attributes mentioned are those of the ideal desirable woman – she looked good, she conducted herself appropriately and made polite conversation. As my mother legendarily said to some considerable awkwardness at a dinner party in the 1970s, “women have been making intelligent conversation at these kinds of dinner parties for centuries, and look where it’s got us”. Indeed.

The other texts in the collection which discuss marital relations fall very simply into two categories: marriages in which the woman behaves herself in the correct manner, and marriages in which she doesn’t. Pliny’s Letter to Calpurnia Hispulla is a simply toe-curling account of his successful match with the 15-year-old Calpurnia the Younger, who is by all reports simply delighted to be married off to Pliny, who was in his mid 40s. (This, I am happy to report, does get something of a reaction from students). In addition to keeping the household in order as one might expect, Pliny reports that his young (indeed, by modern standards, child) bride is learning his speeches off by heart and even setting them to music on the lyre. We are also told that she “sits hidden behind a curtain” so she can hear him perform in front of his friends. Lord knows what this youngster truly thought of her marriage – we have some letters (not included in the prescription) from Pliny directly to her but none (of course) from her to him. Not that she wouldn’t have written them, you understand, but nobody would have considered them worth publishing or preserving for the future.

Cicero’s report of his brother Quintus’ marriage, by contrast, gives the picture of a most unsuccessful match, with the wife portrayed as a thoroughly unreasonable and difficult woman. Quintus is – of course – an absolute model of decency and Cicero is dismayed at the behaviour of his sister-in-law. Not as dismayed as Seneca, mind you, who in the text nicknamed Changing Morals makes it clear that pretty much all the women in Rome are loose and immoral, hell-bent on taking as many lovers as they can possibly fit into their day and totally lacking in any kind of decency:

num iam ulla repudio erubescit, postquam feminae quaedam illustres ac nobiles non consulum numero sed maritorum annos suos computant? …  num iam ullus adulterii pudor est, postquam eo ventum est ut nulla virum habeat nisi ut adulterum irritet? pudicitia argumentum est deformitatis. quam invenies tam miseram, tam sordidam, ut illi satis sit unum adulterorum par?

Is any woman today ashamed of divorce, now that some distinguished and noble ladies count their age, not by the number of the consuls but of their husbands? …  Is there no longer any shame in adultery, now that things have reached the point that no woman keeps a husband except to frustrate her lover? Chastity is now a sign of ugliness. What woman will you find so wretched, so undesirable, that for her a single pair of lovers is sufficient?

According to Seneca, Roman women were frankly rampant and if Catullus’s account of his lover, Lesbia, is anything to go by, then he’s not wrong. It is always worth telling students that the poems included in the selection are amongst Catullus’ tamest works, many of which would not make it onto the A level syllabus, never mind the GCSE. I’ll never forget being frankly agog at a lecture on Catullus during my first year at university – I wasn’t aware that university lecturers knew about those kinds of things or indeed used that kind of vocabulary. The very fact that Catullus’ lewd works appear to give us glimpses of undeniably empowered, liberated women in Rome only serves to make our inability to connect with their true voices all the more frustrating.

Passionate love affairs do not always run smoothly, and the WJEC collection also includes a poem by Catullus about being rejected by his lover, plus another by Horace in the same vein. They both speak of the pain of rejection and the account by Horace includes a possible reference to a desire for violent revenge upon his ex. Two extremely short poems, one by Catullus and one by Martial, both describe feelings of both love and hate for one woman and explore the idea that the poets can both love and despise their female partners at the same time.

difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te.

Unbearable, agreeable, you are pleasant and repulsive just the same:
I can live neither with you, nor without you.

The WJEC selections make an interesting collection, albeit with the disappointing omission of any kind of female voice. What we are left with is the male perception of women, which is without doubt of interest in itself. How men perceive women and set out to control them is the scenery that forms the backdrop to so many societies, including our own. One of the things that makes the study of the ancient world so interesting and so worthwhile is the opportunity to look at this frankly and from a position of relative progress.

The Wedding Ceremony, State Hermitage Museum, S.Petersburg

What’s wrong with GCSE Latin?

Sometimes you have to step off the treadmill to reflect on what is wrong with the system. After 21 years of preparing cohorts of students for Latin at GCSE level, it has taken me a year or so off the hamster wheel to reflect upon what is wrong with it and how the examination at GCSE level is fundamentally flawed.

To understand how the Latin GCSE fails our students, we first of all need to reflect upon what the purpose is of studying Latin – without this, the decisions made by the exam boards will seem even more incomprehensible than they actually are. First and foremost, forgetting any wild claims to promote excellence, increase vocabulary or whatever else we tell ourselves about our subject, the purpose of studying Latin is to train students to be able to read real Roman texts. This is the end goal and everything else is broadly irrelevant. This inescapable reality is – I believe – why both exam boards and QCA are so irrevocably wedded to the notion that students must study a substantial proportion of “real” Latin texts in order to gain a basic qualification in the subject.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this actually means. Unless a child has attended prep school and studied Latin from Year 5 or 6 onwards, students will have started Latin as a beginners’ subject in Year 7 and will be unlikely to have had more than one hour’s tuition per week in the subject. This may increase margially in Years 8-9, but not by much. Within that space of time, the exam boards are expecting a student entering Year 10 to be prepared to study real Latin texts, a frankly laughable notion. Imagine expecting a student of French to read and understand Voltaire or Maupassant during their GCSE course, when they are still wrestling with the fundamentals of the language.

The argument is often trotted out that modern language students have more to contend with, because they have to work on a wider variety of skills: Latin – being a dead language – does not require students to be tested on speaking or listening. Agreed, these skills take up a huge amount of teaching time for modern linguists that we do not have to dedicate when it comes to an ancient language. Believe me, however, this is more than made up for by the linguistic content required. My first Head of Department once quipped, when I mentioned to him that one of my Year 10 students had suddenly asked when we would learn to tell the time in Latin, that I should have replied “when you have learnt the pluperfect passive subjunctive.” He had a point. (He was right, by the way: the pluperfect passive subjunctive is required at GCSE). Rod, who had only ever taught French and German, had seen the list of grammatical constructions required for GCSE Latin and it never failed to astonish him.

Now that I am on the outside of the school system, working with a large number of GCSE candidates from a variety of schools, I am being exposed to a broad range of approaches from each school. Most of them do what I did and plough through as much of the GCSE language content as they can during the first two terms of Year 10, then start tackling the literature texts in the final term of Year 10 and throughout Year 11. This is the best we can do. I have come across one school that takes longer over the language then expects students to have gained enough linguistic knowledge to tackle the set texts very quickly due to their broader knowledge-base; this is frankly nonsense, given that the language required for the texts goes way, way beyond that required at GCSE for the language paper. Some schools start the texts immediately and encourage students to work on them from the very beginning, but this is rare.

For the unintiated, let us be clear: GCSE candidates do not have anything like the linguistic knowledge required to study the real Latin texts that are prescribed for the GCSE. The only way they can cope with and even borderline understand the texts is to learn the English translation off by heart, a simply mammoth rote-learning task. This is what I spend much of my time supporting students with as many are not given the tools and the skill-set to do this on their own.

This year I had something of an epiphany when working with a handful of independent students. Why do we do it? The requirements for Latin GCSE are so unrealistic that I would go so far as to say that the qualification is wildly inappropriate. My belief that this is the case means that I no longer encourage students to take the qualification as a supplementary subject: it simply is way too much to cope with on top of their regular studies. I do not say this lightly, not least because it will mean I miss out on a significant amount of potential tutoring work. But the truth must be told, and parents of students who have a desire to study Latin independently need to think very long and hard about the reality of what that means and whether they are prepared for the sheer slog that it will entail.

So long as the texts required for GCSE go far beyond the students’ linguistic skills, the only way to prepare for the examination will continue to be to learn the texts off by heart. I shudder to think the number of wasted hours that has been spent on this. One of my skills as a tutor is in helping students with this process, because there are indeed ways in which it can be made less arduous and more manageable. I shall continue to do this, to assist students in their quest to attain top marks in the qualification for which they have been entered. But really – what are we doing it for? Is it really the best way to prepare students for a future in the subject? I do wish QCA and the examination boards would take a long, hard and realisitc look at what they are demanding from 16-year-olds and face up to the reality that their examination in its current form is not really fit for purpose.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Critiquing literary criticism

As we approach the second and final GCSE literature exam and as I continue to work with a huge number of Year 11s preparing for the verse paper, I cannot help but feel a little depressed about how difficult students seem to find the process of stylistic analysis. There is no other area in which I have observed even the most brilliant of scholars to be floundering so badly. So what are we getting wrong when it comes to the teaching, or is this aspect of the exam just insurmountably difficult?

Before I make my observations I wish to say that I include myself and my own teaching in what I have to say. Throughout my career I have watched students struggle with this aspect of the examination, so my observations of my tutees who are now wrestling with this are in no way meant to imply that I think I was “getting it right” when I was at the chalkface – indeed what follows is definitely a criticism of myself and my own approaches. How I have tackled the teaching of literary criticism evolved and improved over the years and my focus now with tutees is different from how I might have approached the problem 20 years ago, but students in my class struggled just as much as I see my clients struggling now. I believe this is something that all of us in Classics education need to do better and the more I think about it the more I believe we are woefully lacking in ideas when it comes to what to do.

Below are a couple of key observations of what seems to happen in Latin classes (including my own in the past) and which I think might be compouding the difficulties that students have with this particularly challenging element of the syllabus.

First of all, many schools massively over-teach technical/rhetorical terms. This mistake is encouraged by the resources published by ZigZag, used in Classics departments across the country, which start the process of literary criticism with a baffling list of rhetorical devices which (it is implied) students must have a grasp of before they even embark on the process of responding to the literature.

A ZigZag resource I was sent for review started with 16 pages of explanation of various terms from anaphora to polyptoton, each with an accompanying activity. Students are expected to learn the meaning of all of these devices and then learn to spot them in the Latin. Full disclosure: I used to do this. Why? I have absolutely no idea. It was stupid. I probably did it partly because everybody else was doing it. Also, like many other Classics teachers, I rather like literary devices and personally gain quite a lot of geek-filled pleasure from spotting them in everyday language and popular music. He watches afternoon repeats and the food he eats is a zeugma in a song by Blur from the 1990s; you held your breath and the door for me is another great one in a song by Alanis Morisette. But do students need to know any of these stylistic terms to gain full marks in the literature questions? No, they don’t. A brief look at any mark scheme makes it clear that technical terms offer little advantage other than time-saving; if a student calls something an anaphora rather than just “repetition at the start of a line/clause” it won’t gain them any more marks. Furthermore, the mark scheme’s expectation is that students answer the question with a plausible response as to why the author did what he did, rather than simply play a game of spot-the-device. The examiner doesn’t want to see “there is anaphora in these lines”. What he wants to see is something like, “the repetition of terter (three times … three times) at the start of these two lines highlights Aeneas’s desperation to embrace his father, which he tries to do in vain”. No technical terms are required – students must simply consider why Virgil chose to repeat the word ter at the start of the line. In my experience, teaching students to spot the technical devices is counter-productive: it makes them think they have made a valid point when they haven’t because they have used a clever word.

The second thing I think we get wrong is to give students too much complex information. Many of my tutees have admitted that their notes are so jumbled and full of information (and technical terms) that they can’t make any sense of them. To ask a 15-year-old to take clear, decipherable notes on such a complex topic which they will then be able to learn and apply in an examination situation is asking rather too much in my opinion. Allied to this is my belief that “learning the style notes” is simply not possible. There is way too much literature to make this a viable approach. Students instead must learn to respond to a section of the literature and say some sensible things about it under pressure.

In recent years I have tried to teach students to look for really basic techniques and encourage them to think about the author’s craft using a simple acronym: MRSVP

Meaning
Repetition
Sound
Vivid (= historic) present
Position

Meaning is at the top because students must always be able to tell the examiner what the word means (and therefore why the author has chosen to repeat it or promote it or whatever). However it is the other four points that students need to be using to be talking about style. They are things which are relatively easy to spot – is a word repeated? Has it been put at the start of a line or next to another word for a reason? Is there a sound repeated for a reason? These are the basic fundamentals of the kind of literary criticism that the examiner wants to see.

I am confident in my use of this method as a few years ago I shared it at a training day which was being run by an OCR examiner. Not only did he describe it as “brilliant” but he started using it himself – indeed, it was included in his materials at the next training session I attended. However, in my experience it is no silver bullet. I have taught the acronym to every cohort of students in my final years at the chalkface and they still found the process incredibly difficult. Now I have had time away from the chalkface to reflect, I think what I was getting wrong is not being explicit enough in training them in the process of “seeing” these things in a text. If I had my time again I would dedicate a part of a lesson to each individual device and give students multiple sections from the text and ask them to spot it – “which words are repeated in this passage?” or “find the historic present verbs in this passage.” I would then use that task – spotting one of the basic stylistic methods in a familiar passage – as a regular Do Now at the start of every lesson. Until they were frankly sick of it.

I think it was this lack of very explicit training that was the mistake on my part – finding examples seems such a simple task to a subject expert and we must remember that it is not: children need to practise how to do it. One of the most interesting things about teaching is the process of constant reflection and asking yourself how you could do something better; it is somewhat frustrating that these thoughts are coming to me with perhaps even greater ease now I have had some time away from the chalkface to reflect. I hope perhaps that others will read this and consider applying my ideas.

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

The use of the historic present in Echo & Narcissus: OCR GCSE set text

This week my blog continues to be inspired by a random question which was sent to me via WhatsApp by a student:

Hi! I’m doing my Latin GCSE next week, and I was wondering … how to recognize the historic present, as I’ve tried to simply learn the words … however thats not quite working and I was wondering if there were any specific sign posts to signify that it is the use of the historic present. Thank you!!

A fortnight ago I examined the prose texts currently being studied in the overwhelming majority of schools and last week I covered the Virgil text. Here I shall take a look at Echo & Narcissus, the longest text in the alternative verse selections for 2023 and 2024. For details on the historic present in general and why I believe that students find it trickier than we might imagine, please refer to my original blog post on the prose texts.

Examples of the historic present in Echo & Narcissus

  1. The set texts opens with a historic present verb, although it is important to remember that this is not the beginning of Virgil’s narrative – the GCSE set text is an extract from a very long work called The Metamorphoses. Still, the very first word of our text is not only in the historic present but is a promoted verb: aspicit hunc trepidos agitantem in retia cervos: she catches sight of this man, driving frightened stags into his nets.
  2. The next occurence of the historic present, when Ovid jumps out of his past narrative for effect is here: sequitur vestigia furtim: she follows his footsteps stealthily. The same verb is repeated in the same form in the line below – repetition occurs throughout the text and is part of the game that Ovid is playing with the idea of echo and reflection throughout the text.
  3. The next clear example is when Narcissus first responds to Echo: hic stupet: he is amazed. His reaction continues in the historic present for this entire section, with dimittit, clamat, vocat, respicit and perstat all in the historic present, making vivid the young man’s bewliderment as he hears his words repeated back to him.
  4. Echo’s joyful response to Narcissus also uses the historic present, when she acts out the words she is able to repeat (let us come together): et verbis favet ipsa suis: and she herself follows her own words.
  5. When it comes to Echo’s response to her rejection, the entire passage which describes her feeling rejected, hiding in the woods, covering her face with leaves and wasting away into a non-corporeal entitry is all written in the present tense.
  6. The poem slides back into the past tense briefly to describe Narcissus tiring from the heat and hunting, before jumping back into the present tense to describe him quenching his thirst at the spring and his second thirst (for his own reflection) coming upon him: dumque sitim sedare cupit: while he wishes to quench his thirst is the first example, then dum bibit (while he is drinking) and spem sine corpore amat (he falls in love with hope without substance). The present tense verbs then continue for the enstire description of Narcissus’s love for himself; many of them are repeated in different forms as Ovid plays around with the idea of reflection throughout this section. Ovid does not return to the past tense narrative until his exclammation irrita fallaci quotiens dedit oscula fonti: oh how often he gave kisses to the deceitful spring. He then returns immediately to the present tense when he returns to his game of reflection: quid videat nescit, sed quod videt: he does not know what he is seeing, but what he is seeing … and oculos idem qui decipit incitat error: the same delusion which deceives his eyes provokes them.
A section of the painting “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse; it is held at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool

The use of the historic present in Virgil Aeneid VI: OCR GCSE set text

This week my blog continues to be inspired by a random question which was sent to me via WhatsApp by a student:

Hi! I’m doing my Latin GCSE next week, and I was wondering … how to recognize the historic present, as I’ve tried to simply learn the words … however thats not quite working and I was wondering if there were any specific sign posts to signify that it is the use of the historic present. Thank you!!

Last week I examined the prose texts currently being studied in the overwhelming majority of schools – Sagae Thessalae and Pythius. I started with the prose texts because the student enquiring asked specifically about the Sagae text, plus the prose exam is imminent, on May 26th. From my work with a wide range of tutees it seems that there is a more even split between students who are studying the Virgil text and those who are studying the Amor texts – Echo & Narcissus plus the three shorter poems – so I am going to look at both selections. This week my attention is turned to the Virgil.

For details on the historic present in general and why I believe that students find it trickier than we might imagine, please refer to my blog post from last week.

Examples of the historic present in Virgil Aeneid VI

The first thing to note is that much of the whole text is written entirely in the present tense, where Virgil is describing what this area of the Underworld looks like or when he is using direct speech, both of which occur throughout the selections on the specification. It is only the examples I highlight below that should be classified as historic present.

The first concrete example of the historic present occurs after Virgil has begun to describe the events observed by Aeneas in the past tense in lines 313-314, then suddenly switches into the present in lines 315-316:

navita sed tristis nunc hos hunc accipit illos,
ast alios longe summotos acrcet harena.

But the grim boatman takes now these, now those,
while others he pushes away, driven off far from the sand.

Virgil has already created a sense of pathos in the previous lines, describing the souls begging to be allowed across the Styx; here the arbitrary and callous nature of Charon is heightened by the historic present verbs.

The next example is in line 384, where the continued journey of Aeneas and the Sybil is given in the present tense, which then switches back to the past narrative in the lines that follow:

ergo iter inceptum peragunt fluvioque propinquant.
Therefore they continue the journey [they had] begun and approach the rive
r.

In line 387 Charon’s aggressive greeting to Aeneas and the Sibyl is also introduced in the historic present:

sic prior adgreditur dictis atque increpat ultro
First he addresses them thus with words and rebukes them spontaneously.

The next example occurs in line 407 where Charon has been affected by the Sybil’s response:

tumida ex ira tum corda residunt.
Then his heart calms down from its surging anger.

Charon’s immediate response is then enlivened by a series of numerous historic present verbs in lines 410-413:

caeruleam advertit puppim ripaeque propinquat:
inde alias animas, quae per iuga longa sedebant,
deturbat, laxat foros. simul accipit alveo
ingentem Aenean.
He turns around his dark blue craft and approaches the riverbank
, then he drives away the other souls , who were sitting along the long benches, and he clears the gangways; at the same time he receives mighty Aeneas into the boat.

The description of Aeneas climbing into the boat then reverts to the past tense narrative, before the next action of Charon in line 416:

incolumes vatum virumque … exponit
He puts ashore both the priestes and the hero, unharmed.

The next example is not until line 703 where Aeneas catches sight of the more pleasant aspects of the Underworld:

interea videt Aeneas
Meanwhile Aeneas sees

This is done again in line 710 when Aeneas’s response to the sight of numerous souls is one of strangeness and fear:

horrescit visu subito …
Aeneas shudders at the sudden sight …

The promotion of the verb and the use of the adverb subito further heightens the vividness of this descrption.

The actions of Anchises where he takes hold of Aeneas and leads him to a position where he can better see the march of future souls is the final use of the historic present, in lines 753-754:

dixerat Anchises natumque unaque Sibyllam
conventus trahit in medios turbamque sonantem,
et tumulum capit
Anchises had spoken and he takes his son and the Sibyl alongside him into the midst of the assembly and the murmuring crowd and chooses a mound …

The soul of Anchises with Aeneas and the Sibyl at the entrance to the underworld; by Biagio Manfredi — Getty Images

The use of the historic present in Sagae Thessalae and Pythius: OCR GCSE set texts

This week’s post is inspired by a random question which was sent to me via WhatsApp by a student:

Hi! I’m doing my Latin GCSE next week, and I was wondering … how to recognize the historic present, as I’ve tried to simply learn the words in Sagae Thessalae however thats not quite working and I was wondering if there were any specific sign posts to signify that it is the use of the historic present. Thank you!!

Students do find historic presents hard to spot and I believe there are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, something we Latin teachers perhaps fail to address is that students are specifically taught by their English teachers that a change of tense is a very bad thing. They get marked down for it. In the ancient world, by contrast, a switch in tense was considered fine writing and done for deliberate effect; I do wonder whether the modern view that it is poor writing inhibits our students in their ability to respond to it.

A technical reason students find it hard is that most of them are not taught morphology in detail. Certainly I did not have the teaching time to enlighten students as to the details of all five conjugations and how their stems change, so students’ ability to spot the difference between a present tense of a 3rd or mixed conjugation verb and its perfect tense, and indeed the difference between a present tense verb and the future tense of the 3rd, 4th and mixed conjugations will probably be hazy.

One possible approach is to scrupulously translate historic presents in the present tense, but given our modern disquiet with switching tenses this can end up spoiling the narrative as a whole in translation. Another solution is to mark them up in the text, and the version of Sagae Thessalae which I have borrowed and adapted from the inimitable Mark Wilmore does exactly that – all historic presents are marked with an asterisk.

It is important for students to bear in mind that not every present tense verb will be in the historic present. A historic present is defined as a change into the present tense when the narrative is taking place in the past. As a general rule, therefore, direct speech doesn’t count, as the present tense is probably simply a report of exactly what was said. Nor does it count if the entire narrative is written in the present tense, although of course if an author decides to write an entire narrative in the present, then that in itself is done for effect. But what you’re looking out for for the historic present is a sudden switch into the present tense within a past-tense narrative. This is done deliberately to make the scene vivid.

Given the imminence of the literature examinations and the fact that this student who contacted me is probably not the only one struggling with this, I have decided to do a quick sweep of the main set texts and point out the historic presents in them. This week I am looking at the prose, which is being examined on May 26th – I will look at the verse texts next week and the week after.

Examples of the historic present in Pythius

Most of Pythius is written in the past tense, but a series of historic present tense verbs towards the end highlight Canius’s bewilderment and panic as he realises he’s been conned: invitat Canius postridie familiares suos. venit ipse mature. cumbam nullam videt. quaerit a proximo vicino num feriae piscatoram essent: on the next day, Canius invites his close friends; he himself comes over early; he seems not one fishing boat; he asks his nextdoor neighbour whether it was a fishermen’s holiday. Note that three of the verbs are promoted also, which further strengthens the vivid effect.

Examples of the historic present in Sagae Thessalae

Sagae Thessalae is peppered with verbs in the historic present; below is a summary of them:

  1. medio in foro senem conspicio: I catch sight of an old man in the middle of the forum.
  2. animum meum commasculo: I strengthen my spirit. Actually the verb means something like “make manly” – Thelyphron actually tells himself to “man up”.
  3. et statim me perducit ad domum quandam: he leads me at once to a certain house. perducit is also a compound verb – the preposition per glued onto the front of it also makes the action more vivid.
  4. ubi demonstrat matronam flebilem: where he points out a weeping woman.
  5. mustela terga vertit et a cubiculo protinus exit: the weasel turns its back and goes out of the bedroom immediately.
  6. somnus tam profundus me repente demergit: a sleep so deep suddenly overwhelms me.
  7. cadaver accuro: I run over to the corpse.
  8. omnia diligenter inspicio: nihil deest: I carefully inspect everything: nothing is missing.
  9. ecce! uxor misera flens introrumpit: look! The wretched wife burst bursts in, weeping. Here you could talk about the emphatic interjection ecce! as well as the historic present verb.
  10. reddit sine mora praemium: she hands over my reward without delay. Here you could mention the fact that the verb is promoted as well as in the historic present.
  11. immitto me turbae: I push my way into the crowd. Here again you could mention the fact that the verb is promoted as well as in the historic present.
  12. et surgit cadaver et profatur: and the corpse rises up [and] speaks out. The use of polysyndeton (repeated conjunctions/connectives) further dramatises these historic presents.
  13. respondet ille de lectulo et … populum sic adloquitur: he responds thus from the bier and addresses the people in this way. The first of these two historic presents is promoted also.
  14. igitur ignarus exsurgit … ianuam adit: therefore he unwillingly gets up … [and] goes to the door.
  15. sagae ceram ei applicant nasumque …. comparant: the witches attach wax to him and fit on a nose.
  16. temptare formam incipio. manu nasum prehendo: sequitur; aures pertracto: deruunt: I begin to examine my appearance. With my hand I grasp my nose: it comes off. I touch my ears. They fall off. Here you could talk about the tightly-packed sequence of historic presents. I would also mention the literal meaning of sequitur – his nose “follows” his hand as he takes it away from his face.
  17. et dum turba … me denotateffugio: and while the crowd identifies me … I make my escape. Mention also that denotat is a compound verb.

The first-letter technique

Yesterday I was reminded during one of my sessions that revisiting the best ideas and the best advice is important.

In today’s blog post I want to share the best and most effective methodology of learning a piece of text off by heart. The method is one used by many actors to learn their lines, and is certainly one that can be used if you or your child takes on a large part on stage. I teach the same method to my tutees as a means of learning the translation of their Latin set texts off by heart, the purpose of which is to make the literature element of the examination super-easy.

Let us take for example the first few lines of Sagae Thessalae, the most commonly-studied prose set text for the current OCR specification for GCSE Latin. Below is the first section of the Latin text, with a suggested translation underneath. It is the translation that your child will need to learn off by heart (not the Latin – that really would be a nightmare!)

iuvenis ego Mileto profectus ad spectaculum Olympicum,  cumhaec etiam loca provinciae clarae visitare cuperem,peragrata tota Thessalia Larissam perveni. ac dum urbem pererrans tenuato viatico paupertati meae fomenta quaero.

“As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province. Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa.  And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished, I was looking for remedies for my poverty.”

To go about learning a section like this, the best thing to do is to break it up into sections and learn it using the first-letter technique. The passage breaks up quite nicely into five short chunks as follows:

As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, 

since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province.

Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa. 

And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished,

I was looking for remedies for my poverty.

Below is a representation of the first-letter technique for these lines. A student writes down the first letter of each word, spaced out in short chunks. Notice that I have used the punctuation – making use of capital letters, commas and full-stops acts as a further trigger for the memory:

While most people will struggle to learn these five sections of prose off by heart, the use of chunking combined with the first-letter technique enables most people to do so within a couple of minutes. Once a student has written out the first chunk in first letters, they should find that they are immediately able to recite the first chunk merely by looking at the letters. They should then repeat the process with the remaining chunks, then try to recite the whole thing, using the letters as a prompt. Within a couple of minutes, their ability to recall the entire passage will be notable. Students can then go on to repeat the process with the remaining text – not too much at once though!

Once a student has mastered the translation of a reasonable amount of text, that’s the time to turn to the Quizlet flashcards. It’s important not to wait too long to do this, as the rote-learning of the English translation will not be much use to a candidate without at least some grasp of how it relates to the Latin. A child who has learnt the translation off by heart should be able to use the flashcards to prompt themselves on each section as follows:

You will notice that I have divided the flashcards into smaller chunks – this is to assist the student in recognising which Latin words and phrases map onto which sections of the translation. There will be some hesitation as a student learns to map their rote-learned translation onto the Latin as represented on the flashcards – but that’s fine. Remember, the rote-learning is merely a prop to assist them in coping with the set text in an examination. It’s very important to move onto the flashcards swiftly, in order to begin the process of making the rote-learned translation do its job of supporting the student in recognising the Latin text.

A student should repeat the flashcards in chronological order until they are fully confident with the translation for each. Once confidence has been gained, it’s then time to hit the shuffle button and see if they can recognise and translate small chunks in isolation – that’s when they can really prove to themselves that they are recognising individual Latin words and phrases and can render them into English.

The whole process might seem arduous when a student first begins, but I have yet to find a student that is not converted to the the system once they realise how effective it is and how much power it gives them over the text. Knowing the text thoroughly is 80% of the battle – and I mean that sincerely. A student should be able to score a pretty good grade in the literature element of the examination simply on the basis of knowing the text really well; many of the questions are comprehension and ask for nothing more than for the student to explain what the text means. Once a student has gained mastery with a section of the text and can perform well on basic comprehension questions, then time can be spent on fine-tuning their response to the text and training them in how to answer the more complex questions, something which I have addressed in other posts.

WJEC or OCR GCSE specifications?

As a career-long devotee of the OCR specification, for various reasons it is time for me to get to grips with the Eduqas (WJEC) specification. I am aware that my successor at the large comprehensive I used to work in is going to switch to WJEC and given that A level Latin is no longer available in our area (unless you go private) I fully support his decision and would have taken it myself. For my own part I’d like to be able to offer support to students taking both specifications, plus a home-schooled boy I am working with now will – I believe – respond much better to the WJEC course.

Given my need to concentrate on the finer details of the differences between a specification that is new to me and one which I know like the back of my hand, I decided to focus my mind by writing up my findings in a blog post. There’s nothing like having to explain something in your own words to make one concentrate. This is, by the way, a recognised truth when it comes to learning: simply reading something or even taking notes from a source is unlikely to aid your understanding. Putting your source to one side and then trying to explain it in your own words has been proven to be a much more powerful way to ensure that you will remember what you are studying. This is because our memory is reconstructive rather than reproductive; memory works (and therefore improves) by continuously regenerating what it remembers, so forcing yourself to reproduce in your own words something you’ve read about is a challenging but effective way to ensure that your newfound knowledge will stick.

So, here are my findings. If you’re interested in the full range of qualifications available in all Classical subjects at all levels in the UK, Steven Hunt provides a really useful overview in a 2020 article for the CUCD, which is publicly available. He discusses the specifications available for A level, the IB and beyond.

General overview

A GCSE qualification in Latin and accredited by OfQual for use in English state schools is offered by OCR and by Eduqas, which is the examining body of WJEC accredited for use in England. AQA used to offer a GCSE in Latin but this was discontinued before the new GCSEs were launched in 2018. Both OCR and WJEC have shared criteria, which are dictated to them by OfQual: the number of examination papers (three) and the length of those papers, the minimum length of the literature that must be studied in the original Latin (around 200 lines), plus a choice between an element of prose composition or questions on grammar and syntax. There is no coursework or controlled assessment and the examination must be linear, not modular – in other words, it must be sat as a series of final examinations at the end of the course. Despite these prescriptions, the two examination boards still provide some considerable variation, which I examine below.

Compulsory language paper

The language paper, compulsory in both specifications, lasts for an hour and a half and makes up 50% of both qualfications. Both specifications have a set vocabulary list and both of them state that students will be tested through translation and comprehension, plus a choice between some grammar questiona and some short prose-composition sentences (for which there is a restricted vocabulary list and a restricted grammar list). Both boards test students’ knowledge of the accidence and syntax laid out in their specifications and this is where the differences lie: the demands placed on students by the WJEC language specification are notably lighter than those expected by OCR.

Both specifications call for a knowledge of all five declensions – in reality, this means a focus on declensions 1-3, as the words from the defined vocabulary list in the 4th and 5th declension are vanishingly few. Similarly, both specifications expect a knowledge of all forms of adjectives, including their comparatives and superlatives. However, there is considerable difference between the two boards when it comes to a knowledge of verbs and all their derivative forms: OCR theoretically demands the indicative forms of regular and deponent verbs in all voices and tenses except for the future perfect; in the subjunctive it requires the impefect and the pluperfect. WJEC, when it comes to the passive voice and deponents, demands only the present, imperfect and perfect passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person indicative! I had to read this several times to make sure I was reading it right. So, no pluperfect passive and no passives of any kind in the subjunctive and they will only need to recognise passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person. When it comes to the syntax, the basic uses of the subjunctive seem to be identical with the expectations of OCR.

Participles? OCR expect the lot, whereas WJEC do not list the future participle as an expectation. They also state – and brace yourself here, if you’re an advocate of the OCR syllabus – that the ablative absolute is not required. I am still reeling from this. No ablative absolute. I mean … wow. It goes on. Another shock came when I realised that WJEC only expect students to recognise the present active infinitive – no others. This means that their testing of the indirect statement will be very basic and the relevant rules for the sequence of tenses will be very easy to teach.

Other smaller differences in the expectations for the language paper remain, such as WJEC does not include malo in its list of irregular verbs, unlike OCR. Likewise, the verbs sum and possum are only required in the present and imperfect indicative, present infinitive and imperfect subjunctive for WJEC. These differences may seem minor but in reality it means that there is a massive stack of knowledge not required by WJEC. The fact that students end up with the same qualification does give me pause, and were I teaching with the aim of preparing students for A level then I would stick with OCR. However, with the removal of A level as an option in my local area then my successor’s decision to switch to WJEC is entirely correct: it would almost be madness to do otherwise.

Literature and culture: with options:

The boards differ further in the way they lay out their literature and culture papers. For OCR, candidates must be prepared for two out of the following three options, each worth 25%: prose set text, verse set text or Roman literature and culture in translation. This means that all candidates must study one text of around 200 lines in the original language, and many will study two. Personally, I always taught both set texts as I hated the vagaries of “just teach them some stuff about slavery/daily life”.

WJEC lays things out a little differently. Their “Latin literature: themes and sources” paper is compulsory and worth 20%. Teachers have a choice of theme but whichever they choose consists of a mix of both prose and verse texts in the original language. There is also some supporting material, which is designed to place the texts in their cultural context. For the final paper, worth 30%, teachers can choose to prepare their students for “Latin literature narratives”(basically more set text work, mostly in the original with some sections in translation), or they can choose the “Roman civilisation” element, in which students study some general themes and sources all in translation. Personally, I will be avoiding that for the same reasons as I avoided the cultural background paper with OCR.

A key difference in approach to the literature between the two boards is that OCR literature examinations are closed book, which means that the students need to know the texts really well – frankly, they need to know them off by heart. WJEC take a rather different approach by making their examinations open book, meaning that students are provided with a clean copy of the Latin text plus the vocabulary list. In terms of teacher preparation and school investment, the very fact that WJEC provide the the texts and the vocabulary online as a PDF download is in itself quite a revelation – OCR leave you to get on with it all by yourself. That said, there is no set translation provided, so teachers will still need to prepare their own working translation and/or one for their students.

I am keen to reach out to teachers who are more experienced in preparing their students for the WJEC literature as I am as yet unsure how much they feel their students should rely on the texts in the examination. Something I recall from doing open-book examinations back when I sat my A levels is that you really don’t have time to be looking too many things up, so in reality you still needed to know the text like the back of your hand. I am also not sure how much advantage it will give students when the text is all in Latin; surely they still need to know a translation really well, since none of them will be truly capable of translating real Latin on sight (especially if they haven’t studied the OCR language specification!)

So, my mission now is to do so and start making as many friends as I can with the WJEC advocates. I am looking forward to the process. I am also excited about the prospect of working with different texts and I like WJEC’s decision to include supporting material, which forces teachers to contenxtualise the texts for their students; OCR’s approach encourages robotic rote-learning, which always felt like something of a shame. So, calling all teachers of WJEC – where are you? I’d love to learn from you.