What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2

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. 

3. Violence

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.

4 responses

  1. I believe these criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.

    1. LLPSI replicates Roman ideologies because it is a Latin textbook that teaches the predominant viewpoints of the authors that are read in Classical Latin. This is not ‘problematic material’ unless one think one must believe everything one reads.

    2. LLPSI centers on Roman elites because (a) we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes; (b) the standard classical tongue that is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another; and (c) it is a great deal more pleasant to read about the inner workings of a family than a volume centered around the nearly ubiquitous suffering among the poor and disenfranchised. Second language learners don’t do well with depressing input. Furthermore, when great literature references the Romans (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Voltaire, FitzGerald et cet.) it is the life of the elite and the literary products of the elite that are requisite knowledge. Interested students may go on to learn about the rest of Roman life, but this is an excellent entry point.

    3. Yes, there is some familial “violence”. And it appears representative of the history. In fact, corporal punishment in the family isn’t infrequent in human history (it is not so uncommon in Europe today, and it was not uncommon, I believe, a century ago in the USA). Perhaps this is an opportunity for the writer to confront his presentism and amerocentrism. That would allow the writer to engage this material in a less sanctimonious manner.

    4. The portrayal of women is not sexist; rather, it is Roman. Nevertheless, it is simply untrue that the female characters are unduly confined. It is difficult to think of ordinary careers or responsibilities that are more important than child-rearing. Significantly, the responsibility of childrearing in ancient Rome, typically fell to the mother. Aemilia’s work (and the assistance of Syra and Delia) are illustrative of the way things were in second century Rome. The writer may might not like it (and clearly does not), but he may not re-make Rome in his own image. Are there other examples of women in the ancient world doing other things, certainly! And good for them too! But an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us. Furthermore, Aemilia discusses her complicated emotions regarding her brother, who is off at war, and her frustrations with her husband are clear; these make her less of a one-dimensional character. Lydia, who is able to read (!!), attempts to teach her fiancé Medus. I should not like to speculate as to why this significant point was omitted from the above essay.

    5. Everyone is not depicted as “white”. Latin does not, as far as I know, have one term for a “white” person, so this is only quibbling about the kind of presentistic diversity wherein diversity is judged only by a predefined set of categories, beyond which no diversity can be said to exist. And yet, there is great diversity in the story for a rich Roman household. Yes, there were people of darker complexion in Rome in the second century. Yes, they could have appeared somewhere in the story. But it is also no surprise that they do not since the majority of people in Rome, and likely those persons in the households of the rich, were more representative of the regions that are already represented by Julius’ household. This is hardly a “glaring shortcoming”. If it does come up with students, it is an excellent opportunity for discussion. That is not a bad thing.

    6. There are not “repeated appearances” of Christian overtones in the book. It is referenced in one of thirty-five chapters. In that one chapter students read some Latin from an early translation of the New Testament. This is not taken from the Vulgate (as the writer incorrectly asserts) but from the Vetus Latina, since the Vulgate had not yet been written at the time of the story. There are many good pedagogical reasons to imbed such versus into the text, but I’ll limit myself to responding to the writer’s criticism.

    Firstly, the writer seem to be confused about the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism, which – pace the condescending parenthetical definition – means ‘opposition to the withdrawal of any state support or recognition from any established church’. In any case, the writer seems to think that “strong antidisestablishmentarianism [sic] (“separation of church and state”)” justifies or requires that Christianity not be mentioned in schools. But this is not true. The doctrine which the writer surely intended to reference (i.e., disestablishmentarianism) protects a state church against government overreach, and thus prevents public educators (as agents of the government) from coercing students to pray.

    Finally, the separation of church and state in no way impedes teachers from discussing Christianity in an academic fashion, and it surely should provide no obstacle to and no cause for concern in the text under criticism. Indeed, what kind of education would a school provide students if it failed to acknowledge a religious movement with 2.5 billion adherents today and one that has figured so largely into international history for the last two millennia? How could anyone possibly teach about the dramatic societal changes in Late Antiquity, the causes of the Crusades, the art of the Renaissance, or the debacle of Henry VIII without at least teaching the basic tenants and history of Christianity? I suspect that there is a further confusion here and that the author did not mean exactly what he has suggested here because for a Latin teacher (a *Latin* teacher!) to suggest that this is somehow verboten, can be little more than the ignorant balderdash and buffoonery of one who cares more about his own brand of social ideology than actual education.

  2. I’m really sorry to say this, but reading this article made me highly question your capability of understanding the Ancient World, it’s philosophies and even teaching the Latin language altogether. You seem to want to reconstruct history into a very modern Liberal-American ideal that is completely incompatible with how things worked back then, and this is a great problem with many American and European teachers who fall victim to their solipsism and desire for a reform on history, even though the new version would be a complete farse, which makes me doubt your capacity of accepting the truth even though it hurts your feelings. The guy who commented already made the best points possible against this “article”, but I want to give my own opinions about the matter.

    1st – You cannot show how people acted or believed in a given era without following the authentic historical data. If I were to make a book on the Nature Method for Babylonian Akkadian, I would need to use the historical data to reconstruct the reality of that time so people can understand how they lived and in what they believed. LLPSI does that in a very ingenious way by showing rather than telling. No character there is completely good or completely evil, which makes the reality more realistic since the world is way more gray than a division of black and white. You literally whine about Iūlius not being portrayed as a complete villain when this is how people really are: unless you’re a serial killer psychopath, you’re not completely villainesque, and although you talk a lot about valuing nuance in the process of teaching, you end up attacking Ørberg’s work for being nuanced in regards to various topics from Ancient Rome instead of being overly cartoonesque and showing a fine line between good and evil, which gives to me quite a hypocritical vibe coming from your text.

    2nd – Just like our good friend commented, it’s obvious they would focus on the elites, since they are the best well documented in their ways of life and being the most referenced not only in ancient literature, but even in more modern literature. Focusing on lower class citizens talking in perfect formal classical Latin (again, mostly used in literature) not only would be historically inaccurate but it would also be near impossible, since our sources on their daily lives are too little for making anything good enough for a textbook like this one.

    3rd – The Ancient World was violent, you as a teacher must be able to understand that and to teach your students to understand how people acted in the past. If you cannot accept a non-sugarcoated account of history, then, I’m sorry to say, the problem doesn’t lie within the book, but on your on incapability of accepting the truth and teaching your students accordingly.

    4th – In no point LLPSI is sexist in it’s portrayal of women, rather, they were realist according to the norm. And even though they opted for realism, they still showed the women being capable of reading (Lÿdia reads the Bible to Mēdus and Æmilia receives correspondence from her brother which seem to be read by her) which was something quite rare in the Ancient World. In fact, I dare say Ørberg threaded through this path quite well, looking for an equilibrium between what is accepted and what is not.

    5th – This one is completely stupid and made me lose any respect for whoever is the writer of this article. First of all, the categorization of who is white and who isn’t is far from having a consensus. Depending on different cultures, the distinction may change a lot, while you seem to want to impose the American view of race and “whiteness” into many cultures, not only contemporary to yours, but also the ancient ones. In many countries, especially the ones of Latin Origin, Syrians are considered white. I hope you to understand that the concept of who is white and who is not doesn’t follow the American view in many countries. For Americans, the only people considered white for a long time were the Slavs, the Nordic, the Anglo-Saxon and the French, while in many Latin countries, the term white is extended to the Syrians, to the Arabians, to the Turks et cetera. I’d guess that although you seem to defend “diversity”, you still want to impose the American view on race to everyone, which is one symptom of what we call Imperialism.

    6th – The book doesn’t have Christian overtones, only a single chapter in the whole book talks about Christianity, and it’s not even exempt of criticisms that would be mostly common from the old pagans. At the II a.D, the Roman Paganism was getting weaker by the day, which makes it understandable that the characters didn’t actually seem that interested in their religion, but showed a great interest in philosophy and poetry instead, which is quite consistent with the reality of the elites.

    Nonetheless, I agree with everything that Patrick M. Owens said.

  3. Pingback: » What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 3 The Patrologist

  4. Pingback: » What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 4 – Addressing the content challenges The Patrologist

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