Today we have a guess post by Gregory Stringer, written with some input from myself.
As discussed in Part I, LLPSI is an outstanding language teaching and learning tool. And also, it is not without flaws in terms of both language instruction and content. In Part I we looked at its flaws as a tool for teaching language according to SLA principles and our best understanding as experienced teachers of best practices language instruction. In Part II, we look at some of the most glaring shortcomings of the book in terms of its content. While we argue that this book still presents a much richer, more nuanced picture of Roman society than perhaps any other book on the market, it nevertheless contains problematic material that cannot simply be brushed aside. Here they are in roughly chronological order of how they come up in the book.
1. Replicating Roman Ideologies
Almost all ancient texts contain ideologies that are rightfully abhorrent to modern readers, yet, of course, teaching with those texts doesn’t mean that we want our students to assume the ideologies contained within or that we personally endorse them because we teach them (i.e. Hopefully no one nowadays teaches De Bello Gallico because they want their students to grow up to lead a genocidal conquest). Rather we teach texts to learn more about the ancient world, its languages and customs, and to use those texts as jumping off points for constructive dialogue about the human condition, then and now. The same is true of any textbook – it is a tool for teaching and using a particular resource is not the same as an endorsement of all its ideology – though, understandably, that line can sometimes be more blurry with instructional materials written more recently. Nevertheless, the teacher must always carefully read the resources they provide and be prepared to discuss and deconstruct potentially harmful or controversial ideologies contained within any and all texts used in the classroom. This is perhaps slightly more complicated in a text like LLPSI, because in his attempt to teach culture in a method similar to the way he teaches vocabulary and grammar – i.e. implicitly via an inductive approach – Orberg embedded Roman ideology about a variety of topics including family life, enslavement, war, entertainment, and education into the storyline. LLPSI is generally careful to put ancient Roman ideologies into the mouths of his ancient Roman characters and these are (as far as I can tell) based on authentic ancient Roman textual sources (e.g. the extended discussion between Iulius and his wife Aemilia in Chapter XX about child-rearing and nursing is based on evidence from Aulus Gellius, Juvenal, and Tacitus inter alia). However, while these words spoken by the characters accurately replicate Roman ideologies (at least as held/voiced by the wealthy male elite) and are drawn from ancient sources, this could also unintentionally give the impression to less experienced or less skilled readers (or those who don’t make it all the way to the end of the narrative where more nuance is revealed) of an alignment with or an endorsement of these Roman values.
Also, there are a few places in the book where the character/narrator distinction breaks down. For example, at the close of Chapter XXVII when the paterfamilias Iulius has finished threatening his tenant farmer (colonus) with eviction if he doesn’t pay back rent and his tenet shepherd with corporal punishment for having allowed his sheep to wander in the nearby fields, the omniscient narrator quips “Etsi dominus severus existimatur, tamen inhumanus non est” (“Even if he is deemed a strict master, he is nevertheless not inhumane”). While the exact status of the colonus is not revealed in the text, we know that Iulius is an enslaver of others and I hope anyone teaching agrees that enslavement is, ipso facto, inhumane. And, while there is much material in LLPSI, especially in the supplemental readings of the colloquia personarum and the fabellae Latinae, which directly provide a portrait of the brutal reality of enslavement from the point of view of the enslaved as well as the surely complicate ways in which this played out in their individual lives, lines like this run the risk of feeding into an “enslaver apology” wherein the idea that some enslavers were not as cruel as others works to undermine the terrible reality that is enslavement, as much in the Roman world as anywhere or at anytime.
Lastly on this point, as with any book, the process of selection – what gets included and what gets left out – is necessarily an act of ideology. From Chapter I (“Imperium Romanum”) of LLPSI it is a Roman worldview we are presented with via a map of the Mediterranean with the outline of the Roman Empire and a discussion of what was and was not in the Roman Empire and throughout, anyone outside of the empire is repeatedly and emphatically described as “barbarians” (barbari).
2. Centering of Roman elites
The characters at the center of LLPSI are a wealthy Roman family, in this case, that of the aforementioned Lucius Iulius Balbus of Tusculum. While the book doesn’t give us much detail on Iulius’ career, we are told that he lives in a large villa in Tusculum and is the dominus of 100 enslaved people, most of whom never appear nor are named. In fact, chapter 2 teaches students the genitive largely through this relationship of enslavement “Iulius dominus Medi est. Medus servus Iūliī est.” (“Iulius is the enslaver of Medus, Medus is the enslaved of Iulius”) etc. While ultimately Iulius is decidedly not the “hero” or “good guy” of the book, in fact quite the opposite – it is rather Medus an enslaved man who escapes from Iulius’ household with his freedwoman girlfriend Lydia that the reader is meant to “cheer for”- but that is only slowly revealed throughout the course of the continuing story and many students or classes never get that far. Also, the intentional portrayal of the rich Roman Iulius as the book’s villain is somewhat undermined by the presence of Cornelius as the “good” neighbor. Cornelius consistently appears as a more thoughtful father and husband than Iulius, but the narrative glosses over his own status as a Roman enslaver because he is not as wealthy as Iulius. Does the fact that Cornelius only enslaves 10 people as opposed to 100 make him a better person? That said, in the final chapter of the narrative (XXXIV) Cornelius is also revealed as much less “humane” than he at first seems, as he revels in a description of violent gladiator games and a deadly chariot race.
In fact, while we would argue that LLPSI is, overall, much less violent than say the Cambridge Latin Course, much of the early narrative focuses on Iulius’ domination of his 3 children and the enslaved in his household. The eldest son, 9 year-old Marcus is constantly bullying and hitting his younger siblings provoking corporal punishment from his father. All this familial violence is presented in a humorous way and some teachers have reasonably raised concerns about teaching sibling violence and corporal punishment as comedy with students. Likewise, in Chapter IV some of Iulius’ money has gone missing and Iulius calls in the two most trusted enslaved men of his household to question them about it and threatens violence on the perpetrator. One of them, Medus, has indeed taken Iulius’ money and disappears and Iulius’ pursuit of him and his planned punishment are a recurring subtheme of the entire book which is treated somewhat comically in the early going in imitation of Roman comedy in a way that likewise makes some teachers/readers uncomfortable.
4. The sexist portrayal of women.
The women in LLPSI are consistently portrayed and described in highly problematic ways. While we can attribute elements of this, like the violence described above, to verisimilitude of a Roman setting and a replication of attitudes of canonical Roman writers, the level of misogyny present in the structure and narration of LLPSI is nevertheless inexcusable, indefensible, and avoidable. For example, female characters are described largely by their physical appearance in a way the men are typically not – e.g. in chapter six the words for pretty (pulcher) and ugly (foedus) are introduced through descriptions of the noses of the enslaved woman Syra and the young daughter Iulia. Furthermore, almost all of the dialogue, narration, and actions of the female characters is confined to so-called “women’s topics” – love, childbearing, jewelry, etc. Likewise, whereas much attention is paid to describing the life and education of the boys, we hear nothing about Iulia’s present or future as a young girl in ancient Rome and we only hear about the mother Aemilia’s courtship, marriage, and childbearing. And so, just because canonical Roman male authors often present a world which severely circumscribes the universe of Roman women (and even that evidence is often contradictory), we have plenty of other evidence – textual, inscriptional, archeological – that presents a much more dynamic reality for Roman women and this, and womens’ perspectives more generally, could and should be represented in the text.
5. Everyone depicted as “white”
While this is a result of the illustrations rather than anything written in the text per se, all the characters are drawn as pale skinned “white,” when we know from our sources that the reality of second century CE ancient Rome would have looked much different. This is also despite ostensible diversity of the characters, especially enslaved people of Iulius’ household as based on their names or backstories (Syra and Syrus, presumably coming from Syria, Medus we learn comes from Athens, etc.). Regardless, the book could certainly use more diversity overall and it’s unfortunate that the images in LLPSI don’t accurately reflect the diversity already present in the text.
6. Christian overtones
This is an issue that seems to come up especially in American public schools where strong antidisestablishmentarianism (“separation of church and state”) has led to a situation where many public school teachers are afraid to even mention anything remotely related to modern religions (although they will happily talk about Greco-Roman polytheism and mythology all day without a second thought!). Therefore, the repeated appearance of Christianity in the text makes some teachers nervous, especially in Chapter 28 when the freedwoman Lydia tries to convert her boyfriend Medus to Christianity via extended readings of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible). LLPSI does introduce all the Roman gods as well, though with little mention of lived Roman religious practice, and though the total amount of Christian material present is probably not actually disproportionate for the setting (about 1 chapter out of 35), some feel, perhaps not wrongly, that the scene at the end of Chapter XVI where Lydia and Medus’ ship is seemingly saved from a storm by Lydia’s prayers to her “dominus” more than subtly hint where the author’s actual sympathies lie.
We’ve covered a range of issues, but we’re aware that some readers may find other inclusions, or omissions, problematic. In recognising the text as an artefact, and a product of Ørberg’s own context as well, a teacher may find the text problematic enough to choose not to teach it. For our part, we both teach using LLPSI, and in part 3 we’ll address how we both, in different teaching contexts, navigate and seek to ameliorate these difficulties.