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.

Sagae Thessalae: the witches of Thessaly

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Sagae Thesselae (the Witches of Thessaly) is an adapted story from the mid 2nd century, published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The original story comes from our only complete surviving example of a Roman novel. Its formal title was Metamorphoses (Transformations) but it was most commonly known by its nickname, Asinus Aureus (The Golden Ass: the word “golden” is used in a metaphorical sense and could also be translated as “remarkable” or “miraculous”).

The novel was written by Lucius Apuleius and tells the story of a character, also called Lucius, whose fascination with magic results in his unfortunate transformation into an ass. Apuleius seems to have had his own brushes with magic, as he was accused (and acquitted) of using sorcery to attract the romantic attentions of a wealthy widow named Pudentilla. Apuelius was widely travelled, spending much of his life in Carthage in North Africa, where he became a chief priest. He was known for his neoplatonic philosophical writings, as well as for his famous novel.

In the novel, Lucius suffers many trials and humiliations in his transformed state, and the story explores themes of animal cruelty not often addressed in the ancient world. Lucius is ultimately converted back into a human by the goddess Isis, of whom he then becomes a devotee. A blend of humour, adventure, magic and susperstition in what was an unusual and emergent genre in the ancient world, The Golden Ass remains one of the most influential novels in Western literature.

The selected section for the OCR GCSE prescription sees Lucius in his original human form and takes place prior to his asinine transformation. The text is a story within a story, and indeed forms one of several such tales, strung together in what was known in the ancient world as a Milesian discourse – a collection of fables or anecdotes from traditional popular storytelling, embellished for an educated audience.

At our point in the text, Lucius is travelling through Thessaly, in northern Greece. By chance he meets a lady called Byrrhaena, who invites him to a banquet, where Lucius is asked what he thinks of Thessaly. Lucius replies that he is impressed by the region, but is worried by stories he has heard about the local witches, who are apparently in the habit of cutting pieces of flesh from corpses. One of the guests points to a man hidden away at a table in the corner of the room, saying that he has suffered this very fate while still alive. The man, whose name is Thelyphron, is urged by Byrrhaena to tell Lucius his story, and he reluctantly agrees.

As a young man, Thehyphron, found himself in Thessaly and short on cash. In a fit of youthful arrogance or perhaps desperation, he took on the task of watching over a corpse in return for money, but during the night he fell asleep under the influence of the witches’ magic spells. On awakening, all seemed to be well with the corpse and Thelyphron felt great relief. However, in a sub-plot thrown in to add colour, the corpse’s widow is accused of adultery and of causing his death and a necromancer is brought in to animate the body so that it can give testimony; the deceased is reluctantly awakened and reports (along with his wife’s guilt) that Thelyphron himself has been mutilated during the night. Only at this point does Thelyphron realise that he has indeed lost his nose and his ears, which were removed by the witches and replaced by imitations moulded from wax.

It is interesting to ponder what Apuleius’ purpose was in writing his novel, especially given our knowledge of his life and his other work. Many have argued that the book forms a set of warnings against meddling in magic; neoplatonic writers certainly saw a clear distinction between what they termed “magic” or “sorcery” and their belief in the workings of the gods. If Apuleius were a true neoplatonist he was probably very suspicious of spells and sorcery. The fact that he was accused of these very acts but successfully defended himself against the charge suggests that he was perhaps interested in the field and may well have studied the difference between sorcery and the emergent practice of theurgy, which came to influence the thinking of neoplatonic commentators in the later Roman empire. To us, from the outside, the rituals would look very much the same; but neoplatonists believed that theurgy was very different from magic.

In terms of an approach to the GCSE set text, students’ priorities will be to understand the meaning of the Latin (which is relatively simple and contains only one or two contrusctions that are beyond the GCSE language specification) and to learn the translation thoroughly. This they can do by making use of my flashcards on Quizlet, although if their teacher has provided them with a translation to learn they may wish to take a copy of the cards and edit them according to their teacher’s wording to avoid confusion.

I have provided my students with a colour-coded text. My version is based on an original produced by another Classics teacher named Mark Wilmore (whose outstanding resources I have made tremendous use of over the years whenever I could lay my hands on them), but I have adapted both the translation and the colour-coding according my own preferences. I have kept his original excellent idea of marking historic present verbs with an asterisk – this alerts students to the fact that the translation will be different from what they might expect (the historic present is not part of the language specification at GCSE level), and it also helps them from the outset to earmark and learn some aspects of the text that will be very useful to them when it comes to the syle questions.

The idea of the colour-coding is to help students to identify how the English translation relates to the Latin, but this can be further improved by the use of the flashcards. I encourage students to use the flashcards in a two-stage proces. Firstly, they should work through the flashcards in order, stating out loud the English translation that matches with the Latin on the card before flipping it to check. They should do this repeatedely until the process is easy. Once they are fully confident with it, they should then shuffle the deck: being able to quote the translation of any section at random is the point where they have truly mastered the text and its translation.

Support with Latin set texts

One of the biggest challenges students face when they reach GCSE and A level in their Latin studies is the literature elements of the examination. Suddenly there’s a whole new world of real, unedited Latin in front of you, some of it in verse! This can be incredibly daunting. For teachers also, even those with years of experience, the challenge is huge: if you’re working with OCR, the examination board insists on changing the texts regularly (normally every two years), which means a process of constant development and renewal, especially if you teach both A level and GCSE. For teachers working in a one or two-person department, or on their own as a tutor, this can be pretty gruelling. Every two years you must get to know a new text and produce all the resources that your students will need to study the text, learn it and practise examination-style questions; it also means that there is extremely limited access to past examination papers.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of resources available to support teachers and students in their set text studies. When I first started in the profession there was nothing, indeed this almost drove me into the arms of another subject: I was very concerned about the idea of constantly renewing my knowledge and re-developing resources on such a regular basis. Happily, times have changed and below is my super-quick guide to what’s out there to support us now. If you’re a teacher of Latin who is overwhelmed by how to prepare your resources, or if you’re a student who is struggling with their set texts, then this blog post is one for you!

If you are working independently then it is crucially important to make sure that you are studying the right texts. This may sound crazy but it is extraordinarily easy to get it wrong, especially at A level when the board forbids certain combinations of texts (for no apparent reason). I would advise anyone working on their own (whether they be a tutor, a teacher or a student) to reach out to the Classics community and ask someone to check their selections and combinations. I did this only recently, when OCR released advance information about the 2022 examinations; I asked some Classics teachers in another local school to check my interpretations were correct. Usually people are only too happy to help and you may find others who are working alone who will appreciate you doing the same for them.

The prescriptions for 2020 and 2021 were repeated for a third year in 2022 as a way of supporting teachers during the pandemic. This of course means that it’s all change for 2023 onwards. I will be taking a closer look at the GCSE texts prescribed for 2023 and beyond in future blog posts, so watch this space! For now, my exploration below is a general source of advice on where to find support and information, whatever the texts consist of.

As an excellent place to start, look no further than the workbooks produced by David Carter. Carter has done an outstanding job in building high-quality, student-friendly resources to support learners in their journey and if you’re struggling to get a handle on the set text then you really can’t go wrong by investing in these user-friendly workbooks – particularly if you’re on your own. A surprising number of schools remain committed to encouraging students to produce their own translation, meaning that many youngsters can flounder when it comes to the details. Carter provides a working translation as well as support with the grammar and the syntax, so these really are a game-changer. He has also moved towards providing some style notes, in line with the expectations of the most recent specifications. Carter’s prices remain resolutely affordable and in recent years he has also graduated towards eBooks and SoundBooks for iPad.

Teachers of A level and GCSE Latin will find the resources produced by ZigZag invaluable; these are a little on the pricey side for individual student investment and they also really need an expert to guide you through them. However, if you’re really keen and/or you’re working with a tutor, then these could be good for independent study too. The ZigZag publications provide a broad range of support to accompany the texts, with examination-style questions as well as a considerable amount of analysis and advice on scansion for the verse texts. They also provide numbered word-order to guide you as to how the Latin works against the translation, a method I have used myself over the years. Personally I am less keen on the presentation of the ZigZag resources compared to Carter’s workbooks, but I have invested in them previously as a starting point for my own preparation as a teacher.

Whilst preparing this blog post I almost fainted when I discovered that the GCSE Latin set texts for 2020 and 2021 (also repeated in 2022 due to the pandemic) have been produced as a self-published book by someone called George Sumner and have been available on Amazon for some time. I haven’t been able to track him down on the internet or via any social media channels, so if anyone knows how to get in touch with him, please do let me know as I’d love to connect with him! I have no idea whether he is planning to produce the next round of texts for 2023 and 2024 but I shall certainly be keeping a look out!

A hugely important resource for Latin teachers is the Classics Library website run by Steven Jenkin. This website is an absolute must for all Classics teachers and should already be known to any teacher of Latin who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last decade. The Classics Library resource bank is a great place to source any texts already prepared by other professionals, as well as to find practice examination questions and/or mock papers. No students are allowed, I’m afraid (you need a teacher log-in), but as a student or a parent you could and should ask your teacher or your tutor whether they’re signed up to and making use of the site. There is a similar set-up for the ARLT (the Association for Latin Teaching), who also have a bank of resources that teachers can sign up to. (By the way, if you’re wondering what the “R” stands for in ARLT, the group used to be called the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching, but they’ve dropped the “reform”!)

Finally, a resource you may or may not be aware of is my own YouTube channel “Latin Tutor”, which is packed full of videos to support students with their set text studies. Lots of schools make use of my channel, most particularly the advice on how to rote-learn the texts using a variety of methods including the first-letter technique, a methodology used by actors to learn their lines. Rote-learning the translation is not something that all teachers recommend, but in reality it is sometimes essential when students are pressed for time in terms of their grammatical studies (the reality in a lot of state schools with tight timetables). My channel also contains advice on how to tackle the longer-answer questions in the GCSE examination, both the 8-mark style questions and the 10-mark mini essay: these two questions combined are worth 36% of the literature examination, so ignore them at your peril! The 10-mark question in particular is very easy to prepare for, and my video advises you on how to aim for a top-band mark in the examination.

Set text work is a challenging but ultimately rewarding part of your Latin studies, indeed it can be your saviour or your downfall. If you know your texts really well and have practised the sorts of questions that will come up, the literature can really pull your overall grade up; by the same token, if you don’t know the texts then your grade will plummet! Remember to start the process in good time to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well.

In Defence of “Teaching to the Test”

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that
“teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn’t happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn’t?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.