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

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.