Via Latina: A review

Via Latina: De Lingua et Vita Romanorum, by Maria Luisa Aguilar & Jorge Tarrega

This is a new, and much anticipated volume, put out by Cultura Clásica, a Spanish outfit responsible for a good deal of quality Latin and Greek materials, but about whom I confess to know very little.

The preface (written in Latin, like the rest of this entire volume), speaks of their plan, commencing seven years ago, to prepare a new volume for beginner students in Latin. They have three main concerns in mind: (1) That the method should centrally concern itself with the use of the language. That said, Latin is both the object and the means of study. (2) The contents should concern itself with the doings of the Romans, from which cause the bulk of the book follows an outline of Roman history from Larentia to the Gracchi. (3) A vast variety of exercises, which I can attest they have indeed supplied, which will engage learners in the language, with meaning.

The overall structure of the book is a division into 12 chapters, each with three readings. At the end of each chapter, there is a short grammatical explanation section, also done in Latin, and in every second chapter, a ‘culture/history’ essay, also delivered in Latin. By now you have fully realised that the whole book is in Latin, so I will stop saying so.

A reading is about 35 lines (7-ish words to a line, so 245 words or so per reading, 735 words per chapter). There’s margin notes, which give Ørberg style helps, often synonyms, explanations, derivatives, etc.. Sometimes these are to words that don’t appear to have been introduced yet, but which a student might guess/intuit based on cognates. The marginalia are not comprehensive, nor designed to be as they explain in the preface – an instructor is to fill in the gaps.

Illustrations also adorn the margins, as well as larger images which adorn the top third of many pages. These are indeed illustrative – showing the action of the story as it unfolds. That story is a history of Rome, familiar to any reader of Livy, from earliest times onwards.

The Latin reads well. It’s not overly complicated, nor does it feel un-Latinate. There are a few points which are, well, less straightforward. cap 5, l2-3 in oppidō Tarquiniā nātus is quite confusing if you don’t know that Tarquinia is the name of a town, and it is not introduced or noted in the margin. So your putative first reader is confronted with a feminine ablative, clearly related to the name Tarquinius, but with not enough context to figure out what’s going on.

Errors appear few and far between, which is always, always pleasing in a textbook (looking at you, revised editions of Athenaze that introduced more errors than previous editions!). This isn’t one of those reviews that gives you a list though, but there is a spelling error on p25, in margine quarere for quaerere.

A few points of criticism:

Firstly, there is the subject matter, which will please some and deter others. Certainly some teachers feel that a grounding in the Rebus Gestis Romanorum is a sine qua non of foundational Latin learning. My concern is not with that debate, though I long to see more resources that recognise and willingly decentre “Romans” as prototypical Latin speakers. Rather, there are several clear episodes in this history that are uncomfortable reading at any stage. Having to deal with the Rape of the Sabines (Abduction and Sexual Servitude), and the Rape of Lucretia (Sexual Assault), as key elements of the main narrative, is going to make this difficult to implement in some schools or with younger readers. There is also a degree of pro-Roman and pro-Imperialism cheerleading in the text, which derives in part from leaning so heavily on Livy as its source for a narrative through-line.

Inevitably at this point some of you who still read this blog say, “Yes, but we can’t just mollycoddle everyone and live in a fantasy world where these things didn’t happen, or hide them from students.” True, but how we speak about the abduction of women in order to force them into arranged marriages for child-rearing, and when, and to whom, are all questions to be asked and answered by educators. I would not treat that episode the same with a 12 year old, a 20 year old, and a 50 year old learner of Latin. For those thinking of using this text in a school classroom, this will be a real consideration.

Although much is made of starting with Larentia, who features prominently in chapter 1, women throughout the book are confined to their usual places in a Livian history, and it would be hard to maintain that this text does much to reverse the marginalisation (and sexualisation) of women in Roman history, Latin pedagogy, or classics more broadly.

Similarly, the illustrations will cause some to pause. Aesthetic tastes vary (and the style here will not be to everyone’s enjoyment), and there is nothing explicit, but there are certainly things that are going to be on the edge for some readers (or parents). This includes an almost entirely naked Lucretia being assailed by Tarquinius (p122), a small image of a naked man, front-on, on p90 (illustrating the word corpus), several scenes of the aftermath of battles (which most people will not find too gory, if only because people tend to be more upset at sex than violence), and blood seeping out of murdered Tarquinius Priscus (p84).

These two factors, I’m sad to say, are probably enough to stop its widespread use in schools.

I will say, in praise of the illustrations, that there is a considerable effort here to portray a range of skin tones, and so we are spared the whitening of Roman ethno-identity. This is a welcome change from other textbooks. 

 However, I want to turn now to the question that is inevitable : comparison to Ørberg.

Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is (mea quidem sententia) not simply the best textbook that exists for Latin, but the best textbook by far. It is not the best textbook imaginable though. Now, Via Latina doesn’t claim to replace LLPSI, or to be doing what Ørberg did, or anything like that. However, in virtue of being a Latine tantum textbook, written in what people now think of as an Ørberg-style (illustrations, marginalia latine, etc), and with some specific Latin-use orientation, it is inevitable that the comparison will be made. Could this replace Ørberg?

I don’t think so. And before I turn to why, that’s neither here nor there – this book doesn’t have to replace Ørberg, doesn’t claim to, and you don’t have to think of it as an Ørberg alternative. The reasons I think so are, I believe, worth considering.

Firstly, there is not enough volume of continuous narrative Latin here. 735 per chapter-unit, over 12 chapters, is approximately 8820. I can tell you that Familia Romana, with 35 chapters, has a chapter length of 680 words in cap 1, up to 1479 in cap 34. That is simply far, far more words to encounter over the course of a text. Secondly, the rate of new information in LLPSI is slower, both structurally and vocabulary. You can see this in VL’s capitulum 1: it echoes LLPSI’s capitulum 1, but with far less repetition, and the introduction of pronouns (is, ea, id). The combination of less repetition, more new information, moves the learner at a more rapid pace with less reinforcement. Thirdly, the more you read Ørberg, the more you become aware of just how much he crafted this over a lifetime to make both macro and micro features “per se illustratae” – the many points at which things are understandable within the text, without recourse to external help. VL does not succeed very well at this, and I am not sure they were trying to (in which case they shouldn’t be faulted for it, but the comparison must be made). VL is not an Ørberg-slayer, and I am unconvinced we will see one for quite a long time. Yet, maybe we don’t need an Ørberg-slayer, maybe we just need more good Latin materials for students – and that is what VL is.

There is one thing that VL does better than Ørberg though, and it should be absolutely praised for this: the exercises. Ørberg has essentially 3 unvarying exercises: cloze endings, cloze words, and simple comprehension questions. VL has a considerable variety of exercises, aimed at facilitating comprehension, meaning-based connections, and familiarity with forms. I could see myself adapting these exercise types for other texts, and some of them would make excellent assessment-type questions as well.

In turning to VL’s positives, this is a very welcome addition to the world of Latin reading material for learners. I’d have no problems recommending this as a text worth adding to one’s collection, and using for various purposes, including as a supplement within a program built around other things. It’s well written, quality Latin, aimed at learners, and introduces a (version of) history of Rome up to the Grachii. The illustrations, with the above caveats, are well done and are more beneficial than not (e.g. plenty of other books have illustrations that either contribute nothing, or in fact detract).

Via Latina, then, is a new textbook worth your attention, even if you don’t end up using it to teach with. It has some significant positives, but some significant flaws as well. What I do hope is that many teachers will take a look at this book, make some use of it in their classrooms, but also consider how we all can create more and better resources in the future.


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