Literature style questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

The questions that students struggle with the most in the OCR literature examinations are the style questions. In each literature examination, students will face a variety of short-answer questions that focus on style. Most challengingly, they will need to answer an 8-mark question on one selected passage, which will direct them to “refer to the Latin and discuss a range of stylistic features such as choice, sound and position of words.” By “refer to the Latin” the examiner means that they must quote it in their answer – it might seem strange to labour that point but students don’t always understand that this is actually what it means. In addition, it is important for the examiner to have evidence that the student understands the meaning of the word or words that they have quoted, so including a translation in brackets afterwards is a useful habit for them to develop.

One of the reasons that students struggle with style questions is – in my opinion – an excessive reluctance to develop their own response to the text and an over-zealous reliance on style notes provided by the teacher. For this reason, I radically changed my approach. In recent years, I have resisted all pleas to provide printed, written style notes to students. There are many reasons for this and none of them relate to workload; style notes are actually pretty easy to churn out and many teachers (including myself in the past) have always used them as a simple solution to ensuring that students have everything they need to prepare for the examination. Printed style notes can form a kind of security blanket both for us and for them – we feel we’ve given them every possible detail, they feel like they’ve got the information at their fingertips. But have they really got what they need?

In my experience, printed style notes are used poorly and students can often have a very limited understanding of the contents within them. Furthermore, they are nigh-on impossible to learn off by heart. This statement may surprise followers who are aware of my recommendation that GCSE students do learn the translation of the set text off by heart and it is true to say that I am a huge fan of learning by rote in the right context. Learning things off by heart – so long as you use the right techniques – is something any student can do, and it can provide them with a huge sense of advantage in the examination. However, whilst this process is easily done for the translation of a text using the first-letter technique and electronic flashcards (for advice on this see a previous blog post), it is a Sisyphean task to learn all the style notes. Whilst it’s what students say they want to do, in reality I’ve never had a student manage it successfully; there is simply too much material of too abstract a nature, so I do not believe that rote-learning is the best approach in this instance.

So what do I do instead? Well, I model the process of looking at a passage of Latin (one which they have already learned) and finding something to say off the top of my head. I then make students do this themselves on a regular basis, to mimic the kind of situation in which they will find themselves in the examination. Not only does this put the onus on them to be taking notes as they prepare and practise, it makes them much better prepared for the same process at A level.

It is worth remembering that students at GCSE level do not need to know a single piece of stylistic terminology in order to get top marks in the literature examination. Personally, I quite like technical terms, but a lot of students are put off by words like metonymy and polyptoton. I do teach them the terms as I go but I reassure them again and again that recalling the definitions of those terms and regurgitating them in the examination is not necessary – for this reason, again, I have stopped printing off a lexicon of stylistic terms, which some students find nothing but intimidating. Instead of this, I teach them some basic principles of things to look out for, using a ludicrously straightforward acronym: MRS VP:

Meaning
Repetition
Sound
Vivid (historic) present
Position

Below is a video from my YouTube channel detailing what I mean by these different terms and how they can be applied to the 8-mark question in the OCR examination:

The advice in the video is based on more than one training course I have been to, at which examiners explained how the 8-mark questions are judged. Equally challenging are the shorter-answer style questions, which often demand the same kind of quality points; however, these do specify clearly how many points are required and much of a student’s answer can be based on the meaning of the Latin in front of them, so long as they say something insightful about it.

Teaching students the MRS VP acronym is the first step. You then need to model the process for them by putting a passage of the text up onto the board using a projector or a visualiser and showing them how to use those basic principles to find things to say. I usually make it clear to students that I have not “prepared” the passage beforehand, i.e. that I am relying on my skills to think of things to say on the spot – this is, after all, what they will have to do in the examination. Likewise, I teach them other simple tricks such as running their finger down the first word in every line of a piece of verse and considering whether they could say something about it – an immediate guaranteed style point because it will focus on the position of words.

I have found these kinds of methods much more effective in the long-term and I cling to the fact that this part of the examination requires students to have developed some skills rather than acquired lots of knowledge: let’s face it, there is quite enough content in the literature examination that relies on rote-learning and we really don’t need to add to it.

A final point that few teachers realise is that it is extremely important to acknowledge to students that the way they must write about literature in their Latin examination will differ from how they are being trained to write about it in their English lessons. I am at a slight advantage here having taught English up to GCSE level for several years during my career. In my experience, it is important to teach them explicitly not to mention punctuation, which they will be in the habit of remarking upon in their English literature, especially in the process of studying modern poetry. However, this is not the only area of caution. In English literature, students are taught to “say a lot about a little” – in other words, to unpack and explore each individual quotation in enormous detail before moving on to the next one. In the Latin examination, by contrast, the examiner is looking for volume, so students really don’t need to explore the quotation in anything like as much depth: quote the Latin, tell the examiner what it means, say something reasonably intelligent about it (e.g. the verb is promoted to the beginning of the line and in the historic present, making its meaning vivid) then move on. Latin examiners may believe that they are asking students to write “in depth” but the reality is that they are not required to develop their ideas in the same level of detail as they need to in order to gain top marks in an English literature examination; this seems only right and fair given that they are being tested on similar skills but applying them to a text in an ancient language rather than their own.

How Many Kisses?

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

quaeris quot mihi bastiones
tua Lesbia sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aetuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulchrum;
aut quam sidera multa cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

“You ask, Lesbia, how many [of] your kisses are enough and more than enough for me. As great a number as [the grains of] Libyan sand [that] lie in silphium-producing Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus. Or as many as the stars [which], when night is still, observe the secret love-affairs of men. To give you this many kisses is enough and more than enough for a feverish Catullus: so many that prying people cannot count them, and wicked tongues cannot bewitch them.”

How Many Kisses is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 7 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. It is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. Catullus’s style was deliberately personal and avant-garde, in stark contrast to traditional poetry in the grand style; he wrote passionate, irreverent and sometimes lewd dedications to a string of lovers but most famously to Lesbia. His work is highly individualistic, humorous and emotive.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

Unlike the GCSE set texts that I have examined in my three previous blog posts, Catullus 7 is extremely short, which means that we have the space to examine it in some considerable detail.


Catullus addresses Lesbia directly, purpotedly in answer to a flippant question on her behalf. Is Catullus insatiable? So it seems. Catullus’ tone in the whole poem places Lesbia firmly in control: he is at the mercy of her charms and his desire for them is prodigious. This is a theme that is repeated across much of his poetry.

Catullus invents the word basationes for humorous effect: the 2nd declension neuter noun basium (picked up again in line 9) was the colloquial term for a kiss, but here he adjusts its composition to mimic the more formal 3rd declension noun osculatio (plural osculationes). So how many of these basationes will satisfy Catullus?


This kind of hyperbole is a poetic feature that students may have met before; many of them will have studied To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, as it is included in the AQA Anthology for English literature, and if they are familiar with it this should make an excellent point of comparison since it uses both Classical imagery and hyperbole in the same way that Catullus is doing here. The first half of Marvell’s poem is a classic example of this kind of hyperbolic conceit:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

The metaphysical poets such as Marvell aped a similar style to that of Catullus; their works were both humorous and intellectual, designed to tease and cajole the object of their affections into bed. In our poem, Catullus exaggerates the number of basationes that he requires from Lesbia by comparing them to uncountables: the fact that the sand is Libyan and lies between the two famous sites of the tomb of Battus and the oracle of Jupiter in Cyrene adds colour and vibrancy and is an acknowledgement of Lesbia’s education and culture: she is a docta puella, a girl of education and discernment.

Silphium is somewhat mysterious to us. We know it was a strongly-flavoured and highly-prized herb that was sought-after in Roman times but we have failed to identify exactly what it was: we do not even know whether it still exists. We do know, however, that it was used either as an aphrodisiac or as a form of contraception, hence it is an appropriate reference for Catullus to use in his sexually-charged address to his mistress.

Catullus continues his hyperbole. Having compared the number of kisses he craves to grains of sand, he now compares them to the number of stars in the sky, then enriches this with the image of those same stars silently watching lovers in the silence of the night. Note that these liaisons are illicit (furtivos), all adding to the atmosphere of highly-charged excitement.


In line 9 Catullus uses both the noun basia and the verb basiare, overwhelming us with this vocabulary in the same way as he wishes to overhwlem Lesbia with his kisses. The word pernumerare is a compound verb, exaggerating the imagined difficulty with counting the kisses. vesano, which I have translated as “feverish” can also be translated “mad” or “insane” – it acknowledges Catullus’ apparent lack of control in Lesbia’s presence. There is a nod towards traditional beliefs in the close of the poem, as it was a common superstition that to count one’s blessings was bad luck; Catullus and Lesbia are safe, however, because Catullus is so passionate that no-one will ever be able to count up the number of their kisses. In this way, Catullus concludes his poem with an amusing argument as to why Lesbia should be happy to put up with his voracious appetite for her affections.

Echo and Narcissus

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Echo et Narcissus is an extract from the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Transformations), published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The Metamorphoses was a complex and unusual epic poem, which chronicled more than 200 myths from the ancient world. Many scholars argue that it defies classification altogether, since it does not really fit in to the usual parameters of a traditional epic. The Metamorphoses was written at the start of the 1st century AD and its central theme – as the title suggests – is change and transformation.

The tales of both Echo and Narcissus resonate throughout Western art and literature and indeed Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a whole was a huge influence on key literary figures such as Keats, Dante and Shakespeare. It has also inspired numerous 19th and 20th-century works of art and music.

Painting by John William Waterhouse (1903), viewable at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Echo was a nymph who endured Juno’s wrath for a trick she played on her. Juno’s husband Jupiter, the king of the gods, enjoyed regular visits to the beautiful nymphs down on earth. Eventually, the ever-jealous Juno becomes suspicious and follows him in an attempt to catch him in the act. Echo (at the behest of Jupiter) keeps Juno talking, flattering her and drawing the goddess away from her fellow-nymphs, thus allowing Jupiter to slip away from the scene of the crime. Enraged that her revenge has been thwarted by the talkative nymph, Juno curses Echo by rendering her able only to repeat the final words of another’s sentences; Echo, completely unable to say anything further on her own, suffers a harsh but apt fate in return for her loquaciousness.

Sometime after she is cursed by the queen of the gods, Echo catches sight of the beautiful young Narcissus while he is out hunting with his companions. Immediately infatuated, she follows him quietly, for of course she is unable to speak. During the hunt, Narcissus becomes separated from his companions and calls out. Hearing his words repeated back to him, as Echo is cursed to do, Narcissus is startled and calls out again, several times. Echo can only repeat what he says yet again. Eventually, she rushes towards her beloved but he rejects her on sight. All Echo can do is repeat his final words one last time before she flees in shame. Despite the harshness of his dismissal, Echo’s love for Narcissus continues to grow. Heartbroken, she spends the rest of her life wandering the hills until nothing but her echoing sound remains of her.

But Nemesis, goddess of revenge, decides to punish Narcissus, for Echo was not the only individual that had been rejected by this remarkably beautiful youth. Narcissus went through all of his life spurning the numerous advances of others, all hypnotised by his beauty. His fate was foreshadowed by the prophet Teiresias, who predicted at his birth that Narcissus would only live to a ripe old age if he never discovered own reflection. This is how Nemesis ensures his punishment: she lures him to a pool, where he leans in to drink the water and – upon seeing his own remarkably beautiful face – he at once falls deeply in love with it. Unable to tear himself away from the enchantment of his own image, Narcissus slowly wastes away, a fire of unrequited passion burning inside him. Echo laments his passing. At last, he turns into a flower with white petals surrounding a golden centre. Even in the Underworld, his spirit is doomed to gaze at himself in the Stygian waters.

The OCR set-text prescription consists of 82 lines published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology, plus a section of the text in translation between lines 57 and 58, which students will also need to study so that they understand what happens in the section of the text that has been redacted. As ever, the way the text is presented in the Anthology is entirely and infuriatingly unsuitable for teaching and therefore the classroom teacher is left with the usual challenge of how to present the work to their students. I sometimes feel quite dizzy at the thought of so many Latin teachers across the country, all spending hours producing their own workable versions of the text.

Last time I taught this text, which was many moons ago, I was still making use of the numbered method and found this in my archives:

I have the whole 82 lines presented in this way, which will prove useful should any of my clients who approach me find themselves studying this prescription. Personally, I have almost always chosen to teach the Virgil selection and this remains the more popular choice in most schools; with a text as lengthy as Echo and Narcissus, you also lose one of the advantages of choosing the verse selections over the Virgil, which is that the shorter poems can prove more manageable for students to learn.

Students generally respond very well to the story of Echo and Narcissus and indeed I have found that most of then love mythological stories that seek to explain natural phenomena such as the tale of Ceres and Proserpina (or Demeter and Persephone). The story of Narcissus should also spark considerable discussion in relation to the modern definition of narcissism (both the medical definition of the personality disorder and the one used in common parlance). It will also be great fun to explore with students the modern trend of filtered selfies and how they feel this relates to the myth.

Prehistoric Mojo on Twitter: "Good old one - Oh no, not again! It's another  selfie from Narcissus! #joke #Greeks #selfie #firstselfie #Narcissus  https://t.co/5Lsjx2t9KD" / Twitter

Cartoon by Bill Whitehead.

Echo and Narcissus is not the only text that makes up the Verse Literature A selections for 2023 and 2024, as the board have also included three much shorter texts from the section of the Anthology named “Amor“: two poems by Catullus: How Many kisses? and Conflicting Emotions, plus a fragment of Petronius named Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep. I shall look those in three separate blog posts over the next three weeks and that will involve some serious frisking of the archives! As the poems are very short, it will also be an opportunity to look more closely at the texts, which has not been possible with the longer texts.

Virgil Aeneid VI

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023-2024

One day, or so my fantasy goes, OCR will publish the lines of the Virgil set text and every single line of the prescription I will have taught before. The fact that this has not happened in the 21 years I have been teaching is a testament to their ingenuity, their record-keeping and perhaps their sheer determination to make the lives of all Classics teachers as fiendishly challenging as possible.

Happily, the text this time around has a significant number of lines in common with previous specifications. My record-keeping is not as meticulous as OCR’s appears to be, but from the dates on the files I have just been hunting through, it looks like the 6th book of Virgil made an appearance in around 2010 and prior to that in around 2003. This year’s specification includes:

Lines 295–316: I have taught these lines before.
Lines 384–416: I have taught these lines before.
Lines 679–712, 752–759, 788–800 I cannot find in my resources.

Teaching an epic: where to begin?!

One of the biggest challenges that confronts us when embarking on the Virgil text is how much to teach students about the work as a whole and its place in the historic canon. To start with, it is most important that students are given a very basic introduction to the definition of an epic. I usually go with this one:

A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation.

After that they need to understand who Homer was on a very basic level: i.e. that he wrote in Greek, and that he was the first and the greatest of the epic poets and thus the father of Western literature. They also need to understand that epic stems from an oral rather than a written tradition.

Many students will have heard of some key Homeric stories, so I tend to hang the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey around those – Trojan War/Achilles/Hector versus monsters like the Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis. I also explore how the word “odyssey” has entered into the English language.

Following their bluffer’s guide to Homer, students need to understand that Virgil’s poem was commissioned as a work of national pride by Augustus – they don’t need to understand the ins and outs of Augustan propaganda, but they usually find it interesting and indeed relevant to understand that this is what was going on; how much detail you explore with them will of course depend on the amount of teaching time that you have, but it is certainly important for them to understand that the Aeneid was deliberately created for a purpose, whereas Homer’s writings are the result of a process of evolution.

As the prescription is taken from Book VI, it is also important I think for students to understand that the Aeneid is split into two halves, with Book VI forming the bridge from one to the other. The first half is a loose imitation of Homer’s Odyssey (journeys and monsters) and the second is the same for the Iliad (fighting and self-definition). Book VI obviously echoes the descent of Odysseus into the Underworld in the Odyssey, but it also marks the crossover point between the two halves of the work and therefore the shift in tone and mindset towards the Iliadic half of the poem.

The journey to the Underworld is the final stage of Aeneas’ odyssey to Latium, which is mapped out in the first half of the poem. Aeneas’ experiences in Tartarus and Elysium offer him a kind of closure to his Trojan past and prepare both him and Virgil’s audience for his future destiny as the founder of the Roman people. As he emerges from the Underworld, reeling from the images of Rome’s future glories, Aeneas manifestly becomes the proto-Roman victorious general that he must be for us in the Iliadic half of the poem. Through that famous pageant of future Roman luminaries, Book VI also forms Virgil’s central piece of propaganda within the poem; while there are key pieces of conspicuous self-definition at each end of the epic (in the speeches of Jupiter to Venus in Book I and to Juno in Book XII), Book VI is without doubt the most chest-thumping of moments for any self-respecting Roman. This is partly why it is so crucial for this proscription that students understand the Aeneid as a commissioned work of propaganda; Aeneas’ time in the Underworld also affords Virgil the opportunity to map out the moral standards of Augustan Rome, echoed in the cycle of reward and punishment that he witnesses.

At the start of Book VI, which you will want to read in translation with your students, Aeneas’ visit to the Sibyl builds an atmosphere of awe and mystery, with Aeneas’ ritual prayers and the Sibyl’s prophecy. The sense that Aeneas is on a destined path to glory is underlined by his assisted discovery of the golden bough and the Sibyl’s prophecy that “another Achilles” awaits him: we can be in no doubt now that Aeneas is destined for a heroic future. The foreshadowing of the war in Italy also marks the beginning of the transformation of Aeneas’ character from traumatised and reluctant itinerant to victorious military leader and worthy father of Rome.

During his odyssey in the first half of the epic, Aeneas’ meetings with Homeric monsters placed him firmly within the Greek heroic tradition, as he faced up to the grotesque horrors that Greek heroes like Heracles, Odysseus and Theseus have faced before him. In the Underworld, his journey is more personal and profound and his meetings with Palinurus, Dido and Deiphobus see him revisit and make peace with three key periods in his past: his perilous journey as a refugee, his extended delay in Carthage and his former life in Troy. Crucially, Aeneas moves swiftly past each one, a process which is concluded with Deiphobus urging him on towards his future destiny: so Aeneas faces up to his own personal history and is ready to move on, to become reborn as the genitor of the Roman people.

In my archives from back in the day I have lines 295–316 and lines 384–416 produced in the format below. This is just over half the prescription so I am on the scrounge and have already been sent an interlinear translation by Andy James, Head of Classics at Guildford High School, where several of my ex-trainees work. I have sent them my versions of Sagae Thessalae and Pythius in return so it’s a fair swap! The interlinear translation is a really great starting point for me but I do like to provide students with considerably more scaffolding, so I still have work to do: I will probably turn it into a colour-coded text like the one I am using for Sagae Thessalae.

Virgil is a real joy to teach and students respond well to it as a rule. For the last several years I have taught the prose text first as I tend to find that the games Virgil plays with word-order as well as the massive shift towards unfamiliar vocabulary are simply too much for students to cope with; this is working particularly well this year starting with Sagae Thessalae as this particular text contains a significant amount of familiar vocabulary as well as some pretty straightforward grammar that really does not stray far beyond the GCSE language syllabus. The Virgil is always a greater challenge.

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 Tacitus 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 biting 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, Thelyphron, 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 contructions 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 repeatedly 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.