What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 4 – Addressing the content challenges

In this final part of our series, Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part two of our series. (See also parts 1, 2b, and 3). As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting.

Introductory remarks

Seumas: So, the very first thing I want to say here, and this is in part shaped by the push-back we received, is that our first intention in part two was to present a number of issues or topics which people in general have found problematic in LLPSI. Whether any particular individual also finds them problematic, is to some extent a second set of questions, but as educators I think we need to firstly acknowledge that these elements of the text require awareness.

The second introductory point I would make is that the nature of the intertwined relationship of language and culture is complicated, and Latin’s situation is extra-complicated. Because Latin had a long ‘post-Roman’ existence, in which it continued to be used by extensive numbers of speakers and writers for whom it was a learned language of educated discourse, it is not enough to say that learning Latin requires approach and engaging classical Roman culture. More needs to be said.

1. Replicating Roman Ideologies

Seumas: It seems important to me that we recognise that students, in reading ancient Roman texts, are going to engage with Roman ideologies. Indeed, we should by no means shy away from that. Similarly, a textbook that seeks to engage learners by an immersive, historically set narrative, must and ought to present Roman ideologies in a way that is historically grounded. So, it is by no means the case that this should be excised or whitewashed from the text.

That said, LLPSI isn’t an ancient Roman text, it’s a 20th century European textbook. And so, what I want from a textbook is not a blanket re-presentation of ancient Roman ideologies in a way that normalises them for its readers, especially for younger students still developing the facilities to critically read and engage with texts.

As a teacher then, I try to approach these challenges in a number of ways. 

Firstly, I teach students in-language ways of speaking about perspectives. For example, secundum sententiam Iulii, secundum sententiam Medi, etc.. Recognising, for example, that neither Iulius, nor the book’s narratorial voice, portrays Iulius as inhumanus, but that enslaved persons in his household may have a different view, is a valuable step in developing critical distance.

Secondly, I won’t hesitate in class to stop and offer English-language commentary on what the text is saying. Rather than sanitise the portrayal of, e.g., slavery, we generally ought to go the other direction and speak frankly, but appropriately, about the reality of slavery as an ancient world phenomenon.

Thirdly, it’s appropriate to give students external readings that reflect and engage with scholarship on the range of these topics. This is part of training students not merely in language, but in the scholarly world of classical studies. 

Fourthly, we ought to appreciate the way that the text itself contains the seeds of its own destruction. This grows as you read on. In XII Iulius’ children question why the Romans are fighting the Germani, and Marcus points out that the Germani are defending their patria. To which Iulius’ reply sed patria nostra pulchrior est quam illōrum! Atque Germānī hominēs barbarī sunt echoes unconvincingly. This is further extended in XXXIII where Aemilius’ adopts a Tibullan perspective on war and militarism . Similarly, Aemilia’s growing witty repartée with Iulius provide a challenge to his perspective, as does the Medus’ narrative on his own enslavement in chapter XXXII.

GregoryMuch of what I wanted to say on this topic I have already said in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), but I would like to echo what Seumas has said about teaching students about perspectives. There has been a long tradition of teaching students, explicitly or implicitly, that the Romans were somehow an inherently superior culture. How some of that language and ideology has made it into both instructional materials such as textbooks as well as promotional materials for “why study Latin” has rightly been the topic of much discussion in recent years. We can all agree on the magnitude of the influence of the Romans, but the moral implications of that influence is clearly a subjective matter and something I endeavor to leave up to the students to decide for themselves as much as possible. As I said in Part 2B, I feel it is my job to give students as complete a picture of the society under study as I can, give them the skills to analyze texts, and then allow them to make up their own minds about what they feel about the Romans and their ideas, rather than be some sort of “cheerleader” for the Romans or Roman cultural attitudes. 

Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly with and equally practice the four steps laid out by Seumas above – namely, teaching students about perspectives, relaying to them the dark sides of Roman culture as much as whatever achievements they are customarily credited with, giving students quality external readings from secondary sources, from day 1, but especially as the get further along in their study, and finally, highlighting the ways in which LLPSI itself already calls Roman ideologies into question, particularly in many of the supplementary readings.

2. Centering of Roman elites

Seumas: While much of what students may go on to read in ‘classics’ is the product of, and centered on, Roman elites, again we ought to question what perspective it presents in a language textbook to begin by centring and norming Roman elites as LLPSI does. While we might wish that LLPSI did more in this respect, we as educators can do more. Firstly, we can discuss the lives of the non-central characters – what would it be like to live as an enslaved person in Iulius’ household. What of Albinus, Lydia, Lepidus, Dorippa, etc.. In this, the Colloquia Personarum is a particularly helpful supplement.

Secondly, we can go beyond the textbook, to the range of sources (literary and non-) that attest to the lives of non-elites. Indeed, I would argue, we cannot understand Roman elites appropriately if we do not understand the world around them, the world in which they were elites.

We may also appreciate the fact, again, that the book itself complicates the centering of Iulius. As Gregory pointed out in part 2, Iulius appears as a less and less likeable ‘bonus dominus’ as the book goes on, whereas Medus’ tale of escape from enslavement takes on a positive role. Again, there is space in teaching to question all the characters of our text, discuss their choices, their life situations, and the mores that motivate their actions, to better understand ancient Romans, and ourselves, in the medium of Latin.

Gregory: This has been an enormous area of growth for me in the ten years that I have been teaching Latin, as I likewise was made to believe by my preparation that the “canon” was pretty much all we had from antiquity, which is not at all true, and that any attempt to bring other voices into the conversation was essentially a waste of time, which is even more false. Again, as Seumas says, bringing in the supplementary texts is one important way to address this, as Orberg did already attempt to broaden the perspective of the main text in them. While they of course often carry the same world view of the same author who wrote the main text, there is a concerted effort, as much for storyline as anything else, to bring in the voices of the other characters in the book. So, for example, in the Colloquium Personarum for Chapter V the enslaved Davus is faced with a moral dilemma when he runs into the escaped Medus in the temple in Tusculum. Should he inform Iulius or let Medus escape? Though the Latin is very basic, the underlying question of what is “property” and who or what can belong to whom in the ensuing conversation between Medus and Davus is anything but and exploring this with students is a great way to do what Seumas described in #1 – ask students, e.g. “secundum Davum, estne Medus servus Iulii?” (“according to Davus, is Medus the slave of Iulius?”)

Another thing I have done with my curriculum, where I have lots of contact hours with my students, is to insert modern Latin novellas, ancient inscriptions, and other, lesser known ancient Roman texts between certain chapters of LLPSI to highlight the themes and culture aspects under study. Again, a major weakness of many Classics programs is the false projection of “Roman attitudes” as if a unitary, unchanging, completely knowable thing when, of course, “Romans” (even if we were to confine ourselves only to elite Roman men, which we definitely should not) existed in a huge variety of geographical locations across a span of over a thousand years. Bringing in these other perspectives via other texts helps highlight this important difference between “Roman attitudes” (as in the expressed opinions of a relatively few elite men between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE) and the complex reality of the the beliefs and opinions, expressed or implied, of thousands of men and women from all ranges of social standings from all across the Roman Empire, as revealed in something like the strange epitaph of Alia Potestas. Again, the goal is to give students as complete a picture as possible, so we are not throwing out the perspectives of Roman elites, but rather no longer allowing them to speak for all ancient Romans by instead letting some other less famous Romans speak for themselves.

3. Violence

Seumas: Personally, I have not had a student who has voiced discomfort with the familial violence in LLPSI. I think we do well to recognise and acknowledge that (a) the kind of familial violence between siblings, and the corporal punishment of children, is relatively contextual to both ancient Rome, and to mid-20th century Europe; (b) the reality of child-directed violence in ancient Rome was likely very often worse; (c) here, and in other textbooks, this kind of violence occurs in the context of a comedic tradition.

All that said, I as an educator need to recognise that I might have students, especially those who have suffered domestic violence and abuse, who will find this material difficult, triggering, or similar. Especially if I, or fellow learners, make light of it. For my part, I mostly teach adults, and this shapes my own treatment of this material. Again, it’s not a matter of wanting to sanitise the past, but to consider how and how best to approach such themes.

I think it’s also worth stopping and pointing out that Ørberg’s pedagogical choices somewhat force this. The genitive case is introduced in the context of enslaver and enslaved persons. The accusative as direct complement of a transitive verb is introduced with one sibling hitting another. The subjunctive of indirect command is introduced by Iulius severely ordering around his coloni. These power relations are endemic to the introduction of grammar points, when they needn’t have been.

Gregory: Likewise, I have never had a student specifically say that the violence in LLPSI bothered them, only other teachers. However, that is not by any means a fair sample since the very dynamic of me as the adult teacher of children from whom they receive a grade makes it somewhat less likely that they would voice this kind of complaint, unless I specifically asked them about it – something I may do anonymously in the future to get a better understanding of how they feel about the content of the book overall. As Seumas says, it’s not about sanitising the material – indeed, I feel it would be a grave mistake in the other direction to pretend that violence was not a part of daily life in Ancient Rome. Rather, how can we as teachers ensure that we are not sending subtle messages to our students that we condone or endorse that violence? I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to, but I do think it is an important question to keep in mind at all times.

As to how to address it, especially given the pedagogical choices Orberg made, I have some ideas. For example, instead of introducing the genitive largely via relationships of enslavement, I would significantly decrease that part of chapter II (though probably not eliminate entirely since it is representative of how Roman enslavers conceptualized the relationship) and instead replace it with an earlier introduction of Diodorus, the local school teacher who appears in chapter 15, as the magister discipulorum (“teacher of the students”) and the children as discipuli Diodori (“students of Diodorus”). I already do this in my own classroom with my own students. Likewise, I teach the accusative early on via classroom commands like “aperi librum!” (“open the book!”) and “claude ianuam!” (“close the door!”) and indirect commands in a similar fashion e.g. “magister Dianae imperat ut ianuam claudat” (“the teacher orders Diana to close the door”). We still read the examples as they appear in the book, but since students have already heard these constructions in other meaningful contexts, we don’t need to linger on these passages or unnecessarily use them in practice exercises for the sake of repetition.

4. The sexist portrayal of women. 

Gregory: I already covered this pretty thoroughly in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), so I suggest you go back and read what I wrote there. But I will reiterate that the sexist portrayal is largely a result of the authorial choice to center one imaginary elite family and their habits and customs, when, in fact, we know that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly. With the help of resources like the books Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome by I. M. Plant, The Worlds of Roman Women by Raia, Luschnig, and Sebesta, Skye Shirley’s “Women Writing Latin” class, Project Nota’s work in increasing the accessibility of women authored texts from various ages and contexts of Latin, I’ve been able to systematically revamp my curriculum to ensure that women’s voices are not excluded from the curriculum at any level. I already gave the example of what I did to give a more accurate picture of the education of women and girls as I teach chapter XV, and here is a full unit that I do centered on Ellie Arnold’s excellent novella Cloelia and using the Fabulae Syrae that accompany chapter XXVI of LLPSI.

Seumas: I don’t know that I would say much more. For my part, one can and ought to (a) acknowledge the historical constraints on women’s lives that did mean that for many, for the most part, their spheres of life were confined to family, children, etc., (b) recognising that does not obviate the need to recognise and acknowledge that this wasn’t true for all women and in all ways, as well as the fact that clearly ancient women were human beings of full dignity, with their own thoughts, who communicated and acted as agents, not merely as dependents. The fact that so many of our sources fail to see it that way is no reason for a textbook to normalize that view. (c) Doing so doesn’t necessarily diminish or denigrate in any way the value we may place upon domestic affairs, marriage, child-rearing. (d) One really can do all that, and then still go on and make use of the sources we do have, as you point out, to examine and portray the realities of other women, beyond the narrow constraints that LLPSI mostly presents.

5. Everyone depicted as “white”

Seumas: I would begin my comments here by recognising that ‘white’ is a socially-constructed category of relatively recent history, but it’s also inescapable now because it has been constructed, primarily in the USA, but by various processes to other colonial spaces. This, and the way that the reception of classical antiquity has functioned and continues to function in many places, to situate classical Rome and Greece as ‘precursors’ to a constructed historical trajectory of Western Europe as White, necessitates that we think critically and constructively. We can and should do all this, while simultaneously acknowledging that ‘white’ was not a functional category for the ancient Romans, that racism and prejudice existed in ancient Rome, but did not operate, necessarily, along the same lines or in the same ways that it does today, and that simplistic accounts serve no one well.

All this said, the text of LLPSI contains more hints of ethnic diversity than may be at first apparent. It is clear that numerous of the slaves are Greek, as we might expect. Davus, per the Fabellae Latinae, is a Briton. Syra and Syrus are almost certainly Syrian, and so on. We might also wish that our text explored this a little more.

However, when the accompanying illustrations appear, particularly in the colourized editions, to perpetuate a notion of Rome as white, we ought also here stop and raise questions. 

Practically, the best way to address this seems to me to provide outside materials, either scholarship or publicly facing (yet still scholarly) materials that both provide a more complete picture, as well as introduce and educate students into the ways in which classical reception has, and continues to be, complicit in white supremacy.

Gregory: Seumas has already said it all pretty well. I will only add that just because something is a social construct, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences. Representation matters and if we allow the utterly false narrative that the Romans were somehow the “white” ancestors of “Western Civilization” to persist, we will be doing a great disservice to all our students of all backgrounds. Since I took over at my school 10 years ago I have watched my program triple in size (from 85 to 251 students) and go from 22% students of color (compared to 28% school-wide) to 48.5% students of color (compared to 35% school-wide). Though I can’t prove it and I know correlation does not equal causation, I can’t help but think that mine and my colleague John Walsh’s willingness to approach this and other the issues head-on has been part of that growth and transformation of our program.

6. Christian overtones

Gregory: The Christian sub-story is in fact one of the few places in the main narrative where we do unambiguously hear a woman sharing her ideas outside of stereotypical so-called “women’s issues,” as Lydia tries to teach Medus about Christianity and it is one of the most interesting parts of the whole narrative. And, based on what we know of the early spread of Christianity, it seems quite reasonable that a 2nd century freedwoman in Rome may become invested in it, though there is much else about her character that is left unexplained. I personally don’t think the limited Christian content is a reason one shouldn’t be able to teach this text, but, as I pointed out in Part 2 and 2B, this is highly dependent on the context you teach in and I trust the judgement of my colleagues. So I don’t know that I would change anything about this and I think academic discussion of early Christianity should be a part of any Latin curriculum. I would however, add some more traditional Roman religion into the narrative as well. Why not show us Iulius and Aemilia worshipping the Lares in the atrium of their home? Or perhaps a public sacrifice in the Forum of Tusculum? Maybe Lydia and Medus could encounter the large Jewish community in Rome at that time? Again, there are obviously constraints to any book and some things will necessarily be left out, but these posts were about ideals, so I think we are allowed to wish for more. In the meantime, as for how to approach this issue with students, like with all the other issues cited above, it’s often just a question of giving additional context and supplementing with more external texts, things like Pliny’s letters can add context about early Christianity from the Roman point of view, and Gellius, Cicero, and novellas like Vanderpool’s Augury is for the Birds and Sacri Pulli can pull provide compelling material about aspects of polytheistic Roman religion at a variety of levels.

Seumas: Personally, and aware that I write this as a Christian, I don’t find the Christian elements in LLPSI particularly objectionable. I am aware that some people do, and this plays into broader questions of role and representation of religion in secular teaching spaces. Some people do find, and have expressed, that especially in chapter XXVIII it appears that the text supports Christianity through Lydia’s explicit proselytism, and the course of events in ch XVI, where Medus’ mouth, about to pray to Neptune, is swamped by a wave, while the storm abates apparently in response to Lydia’s prayer.

In my view, the text presents an opportunity for two kinds of discussion with students, and engagement rather than retreat from religious topics, especially in a pluralist civic space, is the better way forward. Firstly, both Lydia, and the representatives of Greek and Roman religion here (Medus, and the gubernator), experience the same set of natural phenomena – a storm, and their deliverance from it. How they interpret it is quite different though – Lydia attributes their rescue to the Christian God’s interference, the gubernator responds with a defence of traditional Roman religion. Secondly, we ought to engage more vigorously with religion in its ancient forms, because religion was so vital to their experience of human existence. In this regard, as we mentioned in part two, LLPSI sadly does us some disservice – there is very little of lived Roman religion in the book, no mention of the lares, no mention of Iulius and his household, or anyone else really, engaging in religious practice. We might also take note that there is no Jewish presence in FR, another historical omission that ought not be overlooked.

Lydia’s character, too, raises opportunities for discussion. While I find her the least plausible character in the book (a seemingly unattached Greek (freed?)woman living in Rome without any apparent work or relationships, who elopes with her pagan fugitive boyfriend to Greece at the drop of a hat?), it ought to nonetheless lead us to discussions of the place and nature of ancient Christianity in the late empire. The often chronological snobbery of focusing on the narrow slice of the Late Republic and Early Principate, leaves many students simply importing their present experiences and notions of Christianity onto the early centuries CE, and thus ill-equipped to historically engage with one of the most formative influences on european and mediterranean history since. The antidote here is not less religion, as if we could sanitize the ancient world of religion to fit modern notions of secularity, but more, to present the panoply of ancient religious life.

4 responses

  1. I am pleased to read here a moderate and reasoned debate on difficult issues and nothing of the hysteria of ‘cancel culture’ etc.

    Nevertheless I find many of your comments, while understandable, to be revisionist. We cannot change the past. Orberg was a man of another age and the Romans he wrote about of a much earlier time. While we have our own viewpoints, it is arrogant to assume we are superior to people coming before us and can look down god-like on what we perceive as their weaknesses. How will we be viewed in a hundred years, a thousand?

    When I was at school corporal punishment was as common as in FR. Yet I would hesitate to say we are now morally superior to the generation that went through WW2. There have been changes but not all are improvements (cf. the obesity crisis).

    Yes there are challenging aspects of Roman life, e.g in the ‘marriage scene’ in the beginning (as we have it) of Petronius or the fact that someone like little Iulia would probably be married off at twelve. But in this context, rather than getting upset about the past, we could rather reference the present facts that many girls get married at eight in Yemen, and the legal age for marriage in Iran and Nigeria is nine.

    We can express our disagreement with Orberg or ‘Iulius’ just as we can with say Athens had a very limited democracy but like all societies, and our own, it’s a case of work-in-progress.

    • I am not entirely sure what sense of ‘revisionist’ you intend to mean here. In any case, all work of historiography involves some element of historical revisionism – not that we are rewriting the past itself, but we are reinterpreting our evidences for the past to construct what we always hope to be a more accurate depiction of that past, insofar as it is accessible to us. Neither Gregory nor I are interested in pretending untrue things about ancient Romans, nor about Ørberg and his historical context. We instead seek to present historical data in ways that elicit critical reflection and discussion, not unquestioned and unquestioning face-value.

      As for the questions of morality, I think in part this can only be argued with some consideration of one’s broader position on ethics. For myself, I am not convinced that humans of this present age are in some way morally superior to those of the past. However, there are aspects of the past that I think we ought to find morally repugnant. One of the clearest cases of this is slavery. While we ought to go to lengths to understand how ancient Romans, and others, thought about enslaving humans, and how slavery operated in their society, this does not mean we need to suspend all judgment and simply say, “well, times were different”. Society and its practices were different, yes, but only some form of moral relativism can consider that a justification for saying it wasn’t morally bad for Romans to practice slavery as they did.

      Our particular concern, in terms of LLPSI, is to recognise and highlight the difficulties with what is often implicit, unchallenged, and uncritically presented in the book. For any particular teacher, learner, or learning context, different aspects of these may be points of contention. Some of them, we would posit, ought to be points of contention. All of which a skilled instructor can use as teaching points, to enhance our learners apprehension of the historical context of Latin in the Roman eras, beyond the presentation of the textbook itself.

      • There’s certainly a difference between critically examining the past and simply judging it by modern standards, which may or may not be superior. Maybe marrying off women at 14 is repugnant, or maybe encouraging them to slave away under florescent lights until they’re 35 before starting a family is repugnant. Maybe our system of democracy is better than Athenian democracy, or maybe democracy itself is evil, as Plato thought, and we are worse off for implementing it more thoroughly. If you think the answer is just obvious and that anyone who doesn’t see it is a monster, then it is you (the general ‘you’) that is the moral relativist.

        The only implicit, unchallenged assumptions are the modern ones. Students are in no danger of being transformed into Romans simply because one book they happen to read did not ‘highlight its own difficulties.’ It might actually be good for them encounter a different worldview–in its own words, and without the coddling of a teacher.

        • It’s unclear to me how much of your comment is generalising and how much is pointed. I certainly agree that both the past and the present are subjects capable of critical examination and deliberation. Nor do I think that students are in any “danger of being transformed into Romans” due to reading one book. The teacher’s role, and I strongly suspect my friend Gregory would agree in this response, is not about ‘coddling’, and the perception that we are advocating that is a chronic misreading. We recognise, though, that especially younger, school-aged, students do not necessarily have developed abilities to read and engage texts critically. Facilitating the development of critical thinking and engagement is precisely one of the tasks a teacher ought to be engaged in.

          What is apparent, is that there is a long and well-established tradition within classics of implicitly and uncritically accepting certain perspectives on the past, in a way that underwrites biases towards, e.g. militarism, Great Man history, elitism, sexism, and that the reception of antiquity in the field of classics has been hand in glove with discourses of colonialism and empire, slavery and race, gender inequality, and so on, especially in the 16th century onwards. I’ve met countless students who “love Latin and love Rome” because they uncritically glorify Rome as an idealised world, in which they project white, male, elite superiority and supremacy. One textbook didn’t create that, but their own experiences of classics certainly enabled it.