Archive for the ‘A Classical Education’ category

Why Learn Latin?

September 30th, 2019

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, would no doubt have opposed the teaching of Latin in schools.

When I first taught Classics in a prep school, I had been asked by a headmaster friend to provide cover in an emergency. I felt no need to question whether lessons in the Classics were a waste of my own and my pupils’ time, or whether I was complicit in such crimes as the perpetuation of elitism, privilege and pointless tradition. The job was there, and I took it.

My passion for the Classics – embracing Latin and Greek grammar, mythology and Ancient History – dates from childhood and is something I was itching to share. All that pent-up enthusiasm made my lessons, for me at least, not only enjoyable but also immensely rewarding, as if I were passing on a torch. As a result I have been ‘covering in emergencies’, at a series of prestigious prep schools, ever since. Teaching is no longer just ‘a job’ for me. I really do feel as though I am on a mission.

Whilst many pupils are soon won over and able to see ‘the point’ of their Classical studies, there are always a few who are harder, or impossible, to convince. Sooner or later, the dreaded ‘D’ word, surely picked up from sceptical parents, will spring to their lips. So what is the point, they ask, of learning a ‘dead’ language?

My old school friend, the author Simon Winder, is such a sceptic. I thought he rather enjoyed our lessons with the legendary ‘Bird’ Raven, but then I read: ‘On a conservative estimate I must have spent over a thousand hours of my childhood in Latin lessons … In an adult spasm of masochism I recently bought Teach Yourself Latin which, to my total dismay, showed that eight years of Latin lessons had actually only got me about twenty-five pages into a three-hundred-page book’ (Germania, London, 2010, p.9).

However, my battered copy of our hand-written revision notes (only someone like me would have kept it) includes such arcana as Gerunds, Gerundives and Deponent Verbs, proof that, by the age of eleven, ‘Bird’ had already steered us to what is now GCSE level – but Winder always loved to exaggerate for comic effect.

I do not believe that Latin can truly be described as ‘dead’ when it survives, in heavily adapted and accented forms, in all modern European languages, including our own. A striking instance is the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ (sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt), which survives virtually intact in, for example, modern French (suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, sont). The differences are a mere matter of spelling and pronunciation, adapted to local palettes in the intervening millennia. (Incidentally, the last sentence alone contains eight borrowings from Latin.)

It has therefore often been said in defence of the Classics that they smooth the path to learning these more obviously useful or relevant languages, or to making sense of those with which one is unfamiliar. I believe this is undeniably true. Italian, for example, comes very easily to a Classicist.

A colleague who asked his pupils to write a defence of Latin showed me the response of a particularly sharp-witted boy who had been on a trip to Romania. He claimed to have recognised at once the meaning of a sign that read ‘Nu pecunie preste noapte’, for it was merely a garbled form of the Latin ‘nulla pecunia per noctem’, no cash overnight.

In justifying a Classical education, I prefer to avoid the usual arguments, however convincing, about linguistic skills and how helpful it is with one’s English grammar and vocabulary. I once taught the son of a well-known adventurer and survival-expert who regularly questioned his need to learn a ‘dead language’, since he was bent on a career as a bush-pilot. The intellectual case for Latin was hardly going to convince a young child. Eventually I wrote in his end-of-year report: ‘Johnny may not need to know Latin in his future career as a bush-pilot, but it might make him a more interesting person’.

For Johnny’s brush with an ancient language may turn out to be the greatest intellectual challenge of his life and he will surely be the better for it. I have found in my various schools that the Classicist is still held in some esteem by colleagues – the geographers, the chemists – who are in awe of the apparent complexity of his subject and apt to consult him on general matters as if he were an oracle. The Classics are worth keeping for that reason alone.

I take as my model the Classics master at Oundle in the late 19th century, of whom it was said: ‘He teaches Classics, but he teaches much more than Classics: from him the boys get their inspiration and ideals’. There is nothing else on the curriculum that is so broad in its remit. When the grammar is taught well, it should be integral to the wider study of Classical civilisation, with all sorts of moral lessons adduced.

Stories of virtuous Romans like Horatius, Mucius Scaevola and Cloelia are all on the Common Entrance syllabus, and even the youngest children can appreciate the wisdom of well-known Latin quotations like ‘carpe diem’ (Horace) and ‘festina lente’ (the Emperor Augustus), both neat illustrations of the imperative. If education is about introducing children to worlds beyond their own, the Classical world is the broadest horizon they will see.

The father of ‘Utilitarianism’, Jeremy Bentham, who embarked on his own Classical education at the age of three, nevertheless opposed it for others, apparently because he regarded the ancients as immoral. Thus ‘while men are acquiring false words they are acquiring false ideas of things’ (Brian W. Taylor, ‘Jeremy Bentham and the Education of the Irish People’, The Irish Journal of Education, 1980, xiv, i, pp.22-3).

Bentham’s position was somewhat extreme – he considered poetry, in any language, to be ‘useless’ – but the ‘Utilitarian’ argument against the Classics is the one most commonly voiced today, as by the blogger Donald Clark (‘Latin is an old fossil that became stuck in the curriculum, not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of snobbery and tradition’ – Why in that case expose children to poetry or any literature that has no obviously useful purpose? Surely ‘education’ is about more than equipping the young to be drones in the workplace; and if the aim is that they should be able to count and express themselves, then Latin is likely to be more ‘useful’ than, say, Geography.

Clark considers the classical education to be a ‘waste of time’ and its advocates elitist snobs, yet the less it is taught, the more elitist it will become. It is not the fault of the private schools that it has largely been abandoned in the state sector, nor that the Classicist is perceived as almost the definition of a learned man or woman. The Latin word classicus means, after all, ‘front-rank’, ‘exemplary’ or ‘high-class’. As the arriviste knows all too well, Classicists stand in the front rank of educated men and women.

The footballer David Beckham, for example, has at least three Latin inscriptions among his many tattoos, and has had his children educated in Latin at exclusive schools. According to the College of Arms website, new grantees of arms like Sir Christopher Frayling and Sir George Martin almost invariably opt for Latin mottos to accompany their escutcheons, despite the advice of the heralds that these can be in any language (

It is striking, too, how many of the leading multi-national companies have names that hark back to Classical Greece or Rome (Amazon, Nike, Visa, Oracle etc.), no doubt as much because of their allure as because of their being universally recognisable.  At my son’s nursery school there are (unrelated) boys called ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Priam’. Like it or not, the Classics continue to command considerable prestige.

The main purpose of education is surely to introduce the young to the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of their elders. Far from being of mere antiquarian interest, ancient Greece and Rome have shaped our civilisation. Their legacy is all around us and deep inside us. The clinching argument, perhaps, is that through the study of the Classics we connect with our roots in the ancient world. In Peter Green’s neat phrase, it is a pathway to understanding the ‘long perspective of the past’ that has led to ourselves ( Mary Beard has written (Confronting the Classics, London, 2014, pp.3, 9) of the ‘terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity … the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value’. The Classical languages and literature constitute ‘an essential and ineradicable dialect’ of our culture which cannot be amputated from the modern world, unless – she warns – there is to be ‘a dark future of misunderstanding’.

In his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (once a standard of English literature, no doubt little read today), Thomas Gray reflected that the ‘rude forefathers of the hamlet’ in their neglected graves might, in other circumstances, have been distinguished men of action or of letters,

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll …

I suspect that most people would now struggle with Gray’s Elegy and with the vocabulary and allusions of the classically-educated poet. Are words like ‘jocund’ and ‘sequester’d’ readily understood today, and who is able to identify Hampden, Milton or, indeed, the Muse? Gray pre-supposes an audience who are as well-educated as himself. The child who is taught Classics is offered a head-start when it comes to broad culture, sophistication and eloquence. Should we deny that wealth of knowledge to the young?

Humane Classical learning has, moreover, been a solace to generations of men, from Oscar Wilde in his prison cell to T.E. Lawrence in his barrack-room and even to Karen Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch-Hatton (‘Denys taught me Latin, and to read the Bible, and the Greek poets’), who actually was a bush-pilot. Utilitarians will no doubt scoff.

Even to a beleaguered sixth-century Roman, Cassiodorus, Latin and its literature seemed a source of wisdom, virtue and stability as all else crumbled. ‘Arma enim et reliqua gentes habent,’ he wrote plaintively; ‘sola reperitur eloquentia, quae Romanorum dominis obsecundat’ (For the tribesmen have their arms and the rest; eloquence is found in sole obedience to the lords of the Romans).

It may not be for me to justify my work, which, to borrow a phrase from Herodotus, is merely λεγειν τα λεγομενα – to declare what has been handed down. Yet I still have that feeling of passing on a torch through my lessons. To quote Horace (Carmina III, i),

carmina non prius

audita Musarum sacerdos

virginibus puerisque canto

(As priest of the Muses

I sing for girls and boys

Songs never heard before).

I like to think of myself, therefore, as one of the conservators of that great tradition that has shaped our language, architecture, art, literature, economy, legal systems, politics and so much else, a potentially priceless gift and an offering to the young to do with in turn as they think fit.

The Red Roman Villa on Cypress Road, Newport, Isle of Wight: An Appreciation

September 9th, 2018

The kitchen and corridor beyond are imaginatively re-created above the original mosaic floors

Among the undistinguished suburban villas on Cypress Road, Newport, is a gem of an archaeological site. It was discovered there in 1926, while foundations were being dug for a garage.

The extremely well-preserved remains are of a Roman villa that is thought to date from the late 270s, long before the existence of any town on the Isle of Wight. It was a single-storey building with a corridor, or possibly open verandah, at the front, giving access to a series of rooms and to wings on each side. It faced southwards onto a courtyard that would have been enclosed by farm buildings. Without the modern streetscape, there would have been pleasant views across open country to the surrounding hills.

The plan of the house can clearly be read on the ground, as the stone bases of the walls are virtually intact. Above them, the timber frame of the house was infilled with wattle and daub, proofed with limewash and – it seems – painted red. The building was roofed with heavy slabs of Bembridge limestone, many of which, pierced with single holes for nails, were found on the site, along with the arched tiles that once finished the roof-ridge. Fragments of window-glass reveal that at least some of the windows were glazed. For others, wooden shutters probably sufficed.

Taking the plunge - the frigidarium

The interior walls were brightly painted, and some of the rooms had elaborate mosaic floors. As if these were not luxuries enough, the entire west wing was a purpose-built bath-house, with the classic sequence of a frigidarium (‘cold room’) leading into a tepidarium, sudatorium and caldarium (‘warm room’, ‘sweat room’ and ‘hot room’). These last three rooms were heated by an underfloor hypocaust, which depended on the stoking by a slave of a furnace outside. The pools are of similar size to a modern hot-tub – and opportunities for serious pampering.

The exterior walls of the bath-house wing may have been entirely of stone, while the three heated bathrooms were crowned by white plastered domes (domed ceilings were necessary to reduce condensation), constructed from the tufa blocks that were discovered in abundance by the excavators. The front room of the opposite (east) wing also benefited from underfloor heating, with hot air circulating from a separate furnace.

Roman hot-tub: the caldarium

It is extraordinarily easy to make a mental leap back in time, to see this place as it once was and to marvel at the level of luxury that was enjoyed here. The owners were no doubt indigenous Britons who had flourished under Roman rule and taken full advantage of its opportunities. Within about fifty years, however, the way of life here had declined to such an extent that fine mosaic floors had been taken up, and the grandest room of the house turned into a smithy. In the ensuing century, it is perhaps Saxon or Jutish raiders who were, literally, the death of the place, for the skull of a woman in her early thirties, with two huge cracks in it, was found in the corner of one of the rooms, into which her decapitated head had been heartlessly tossed.

There is even a reconstruction, based on a model from Pompeii, of a formal garden

Top Five Jobs for Latinists (apart from teaching)

January 13th, 2016

  1. Public Orator at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They have to make speeches in Latin on special occasions. (For an example, see
  2. Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, based in Vatican City. Latin is the main language there.
  3. David Beckham’s tattooist. The footballer’s Latin tattoos include VII (his original team number), Perfectio in spiritu (‘Perfection’, or perhaps ‘completion in spirit’), and Ut amem et foveam (‘that I may love and cherish). He is ‘reliably’ (Daily Mail) reported to have spent £55,000 on his various tattoos. Angelina Jolie, the American actress, could also put some business your way: she has Quod me nutrit me detruit (‘What nourishes me destroys me’) on her belly. (For illustrations, see and
  4. One of Her Majesty’s heralds. Part of their job is to design and issue new coats of arms, with mottoes. Nothing gives you class like a Latin motto! (For some up-to-date examples, see
  5. Scriptwriter on ‘The Archers’. The character of Jim Lloyd, a retired History Professor at Stirling University, is always spouting Latin to comic effect. One story-line revealed that even Vicky Tucker was a Latinist, though she wears her erudition lightly. (See

These jobs are not necessarily listed in order of salary. I suspect that Beckham’s tattooist may be the highest earner. Perfection in spirit indeed!

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk – in Latin

March 13th, 2015


hic ictus,

illa frigida

Michaela Pfeiffer,

illud aureum album,

hocce, istis puellis viciniae,

istis bonis,

artificiis ipsis,


exultantibus in urbe,

calceantibus Sancti Laurenti,

‘tam pulchra meum est basiare’.


nimis calidus sum,

denuntiatores vigilesque vocavi,

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna);

draconem abire facio.

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna)

dic nomen, scis qui sum,

calidissimus sum

et malus de illa pecunia.



puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

sabatto nocte et sumus in loco.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

eio, eio, O!

(urbanus = after the city fashion, refined in manner, elegant; funcum = funk – otherwise untranslatable!)


This hit

That ice cold

Michelle Pfeiffer

That white gold

This one, for them hood girls

Them good girls

Straight masterpieces

Stylin’, while in

Livin’ it up in the city

Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent

Got kiss myself I’m so pretty


I’m too hot (hot damn)

Called a police and a fireman

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Make a dragon wanna retire man

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Say my name you know who I am

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Am I bad ’bout that money

Break it down


Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

Saturday night and we in the spot

Don’t believe me just watch (come on)

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Translated by Rupert Willoughby, 12 March 2015

View the original at

Plan B, ‘She Said’ – in Latin

December 7th, 2014


Calumnia Stricklandi Bancae


dixit ‘te amo, puer, te amo tantum’.

dixit ‘te amo, parvule, o, o, o, oo, oo’.

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit ‘te amo parvu-u-u-le …’


Itaque dixi ‘ita non est ut dicis, puella.

quomodo me amare potes?

Hac nocte convenimus.’

sed dixit: ‘verum puer te amavi ab initio.

quando primum audivi de amore aliquid in meo corde incanduit.’

dixi: ‘noli garrire. discede statim et ianuam claude. (dixit)


‘sed te amo puer, te amo tantum.’

dixit ‘te amo parvule, o, o, o, o, oo.’

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit: ‘te amo parvu-u-u-le.’ (quod ita sit.)


itaque in basilica sto causem dicens, testem exsistens,

quaesitori iudicibusque referens quod vigilantibus dixi

illo die deprehensus sum, ‘sum innocens’ confirmavi.

Se percepit repudiata, eius cor fractum aliquo obsessi,

quippe qui amans mea musica,

quod deditam meis musicis facit.

hac de causa amor eam dementiscet,

non secernens virum ab musicis.

et narro hoc omne in loco

dum mea puella in portico lacrimat.

est magis quam umquam designavi,

consimilis illo cantico a Zutonis, ‘Valeria’,

sed iudices id credere nolunt,

et illud me nervosus facit.

compressis manibus sedentes, vultibus detorquentibus non credentibus,

sanguinarii oculi adfixi mihi,

me concludere volunt et clavem abicere,

me dimittere quamvis eos dicam ut …


dixit ‘te amo, puer, te amo tantum’.

dixit ‘te amo, parvule, o, o, o, o, oo’.

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit ‘te amo parvule, e, e, e, e …’


itaque dixi ‘in nomine Tartari cur convivis abjecte?

non scis amorem, si autem hoc scias non facias.’

She Said


She said ‘I love you boy I love you so’.

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh o-oh.’

She said ‘I love you more than words could say.’

She said ‘I love you ha-a-a-a-by.’


So I said ‘What you’re saying girl it can’t be right.

How you can you be in love with me?

We only just met tonight.

But she said ‘But boy I loved you from the start.

When I first heard love goes down something started burning in my heart.’

I said ‘Stop this crazy talk, leave right now and close the door.’ (She said…)


‘But I love you boy I love you so.’

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh o-oh.’

She said ‘I love you more than words can say.’

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’ (…Oh yes she did)

But I love you boy I love you so.’

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh ooh’.

She said ‘I love you more than words can say’.

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’ (…Oh yes she did).


So now I’m up in the courts pleading my case from the witness box,

Telling the judge and the jury the same thing that I said to the cops

On the day that I got arrested, ‘I’m innocent’ I protested.

She just feels rejected, had her heart broke by someone she obsessed with,

‘Cos she likes the sound of my music

Which makes her a fan of my music,

That’s why love goes down makes her loose it,

‘Cos she can’t separate the man from the music.

And I’m saying all this in the stand

While my girl cries tears in the gallery.

This has got bigger than I ever could have planned,

Like that song by the Zutons, ‘Valerie’,

But the jury don’t look like they’re buying it,

And this is making me nervous.

Arms crossed, screw faced like I’m trying it,

Their eyes fixed on me like a murderer’s.

They wanna lock me up and throw away the key.

They wanna send me down even though I told em she …


She said ‘I love you boy I love you so’.

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh oh.’

(Yes she did.)

She said ‘I love you more than words can say’.

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’.

So I said ‘Then why the hell you gotta treat me this way?

You don’t know what love is. You wouldn’t do this if you did.’

Translated by Rupert Willoughby, 3 December 2014

View the original at

Heaven-Sent Brightness

May 4th, 2014

παμεροι· τι δε τις; τι δ`οὐ τις; σκιας ὀναρ

ἀνθρωπος. ἀλλ` ὁταν αἰγλα διοσδοτος ἐλθῃ,

λαμπρον φεγγος ἐπεστιν ἀνδρων και μειλιχος αἰων.

Creatures of a day! What is a man? What is he not? A dream of a shadow is man. But whenever Zeus-given brightness comes, a shining light rests upon men, and a gentle life.

(Pindar, Pythian Odes 8, lines 95-7, 446 B.C.)

Why Learn Ancient Greek?

June 11th, 2013

Schoolboys and girls learning classical Greek are often heedless of their good fortune. They refer to it scornfully as ‘a dead language’. However, the death of Greek has been grossly exaggerated. A language is never dead as long as a body of literature survives. And what a body of literature: Homer and Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato – men whose words, thoughts and stories resonate through the ages, still well-known, loved and relevant after nearly three millennia.

Boys and girls grappling with the Greek alphabet should bear in mind that, but for the Greeks, it is doubtful that we would be able to write at all. The ancient Greeks improved on the system of symbols that they had learnt from the Phoenicians, and invented vowels, so that it was possible for the first time to represent the full range of sounds in a written form. The Greek alphabet was the world’s first true alphabetic writing system. The unwilling pupil may disagree, but their system was so simple to learn that it made widespread literacy feasible for the first time. All modern western alphabets are directly descended from the Greek alphabet. The Romans borrowed from it shamelessly and the Latin alphabet, in which English is written today, includes no fewer than nine unaltered Greek letters.

This supposedly ‘dead’ language lives on, moreover, in all modern European languages, including English. We, the speakers of English, continue to use not only Greek letters but numerous Greek words in their original form – chaos, orchestra, climax, zone, analysis, idea, crisis, character, emphasis, echo, scene. There are countless other English words that have been adapted from the Greek – economy, philosophy, aristocracy, democracy, strategy, zoology, catholic, holocaust, psychiatry. How impoverished our language would seem, if all these words were taken away!

It is, however, in the language of modern Greece that we see the strongest signs of life. Modern Greek is far closer to ancient Greek than Italian is to Latin. Visitors to Greece who have studied the classical language will easily interpret the sign that reads Ἐθνικη Τραπεζα της Ἑλλαδος (National Bank of Greece). They might wonder how the word for ‘table’ (ἡ τραπεζα) has come to mean ‘bank’ – except that it had already acquired that sense in classical times. Similarly, they will readily understand the signs in parks that read: ΑΓΑΠΑΤΕ ΤΑ ΔΕΝΔΡΑ – ‘Love (or be kind to) the trees’. There are unadapted words still in use in modern Greece that appear on the earliest recorded Greek texts, dateable to about 1400 B.C. (they are contained in the clay tablets, written in the so-called ‘Linear B’ syllabic script, found at the Mycenean palaces of Knossos and the mainland) – words like ἐχω, I have, θεος, god, μελι, honey, παλαιος, old. It is only the pronunciation that has changed, and that is easily mastered.

Modern schoolboys and girls are taught ‘Attic’ Greek, the dialect of Athens (capital of Attica) in its classical heyday. The power and prestige of Athens ensured that its dialect became the standard speech throughout the Greek world. Most of the surviving classical Greek literature is in Attic Greek. It was spoken, or at least written, in the East Roman or ‘Byzantine’ Empire, which survived the fall of Rome by a thousand years, until it, too, fell to invaders, the Turks, in 1453 A.D. In modern Greece, Attic is still considered the ‘correct’ form of the language, other usages being merely colloquial.

He may not appreciate it, but ancient Athens is as relevant to an English schoolboy as it was to his Byzantine counterpart. In 508 B.C., one of its elder statesman, Cleisthenes, proposed at a public meeting that the Athenian constitution should be changed, and that all major decisions should thenceforth be agreed at a public assembly. Those eligible to attend would eventually include all male citizens, whatever their class or means, over the age of thirty. Slaves (mere chattels) and women (unreasoning inferiors) were of course excluded, but every male citizen was included equally. The invention of ‘democracy’, the means by which Athens was to be governed during its classical age, was the Athenians’ enduring legacy to the world.

It was during that enlightened period that Athens also gave the world both tragic and comic drama and some of the wonders of classical art, of which the Parthenon complex, on the Athenian acropolis, is surely the defining monument. Medicine, mathematics, philosophy, even atomic theory, were all advanced there. It was in Athens, too, that another form of literature was invented, by Herodotus: the writing of ‘history’, based not on myth and hearsay but on reasoned enquiry. History-writing as we know it had simply not existed before, and Herodotus was its father. Athens, ‘the great democracy’, was thus the ‘seat of a culture which could be said to be the “education of Greece”. The thinking, the theatre, the arts, the varied lifestyle which we still admire were all Athenian or based in Athens’ (Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World, London, 2006, p.161).

The limited vocabulary and subject matter that are required for Common Entrance and Scholarship exams are all redolent of ancient Athens, that tiny city, of only about 50,000 inhabitants, where such remarkable things happened. Words that appear frequently include:

ὁ δεσποτης, master, and ὁ δουλος, slave. It is ironic that a citizenry believing in ‘democratic’ freedom should also have been slave-owners. In fact, there were at least two slaves (almost all non-Greeks, traded on the wharves of Piraeus) for every citizen. They were central to the Athenian economy, working in the silver mines that were its mainstay, as well as in agriculture or in various crafts or as household servants. Many were recognisable only by their tattoos. A general in the Persian Wars once had an important message tattooed onto the shaved head of a slave, not trusting him to convey it verbally.

The native-born Athenian is a citizen, ὁ πολιτης (origin of our word ‘politician’), entitled to have his democratic say, who considers it humiliating to serve any master but himself – hence the number of one-man businesses and crafts in the city. He is jealous, too, of ὁ οἰκος, his house, often built round a courtyard, with an upper storey to accommodate the slaves. Here, the οἰκος νομος, law or organisation of the household, prevails – whence our word ‘economy’. The streets are so narrow and crowded that is it usual to knock before you exit – the doors are large and they open outwards.

ἡ ἀγορα, the market-place, is a focal point of the city. All roads lead to it, a meeting place as well as a shopping centre, enclosed by colonnaded buildings and numerous shrines, where I might θεραπευω (worship) or θυω (sacrifice) to my favourite θεος (god) or θεα (goddess). Here also the judge, ὁ κριτης, administers justice. Other prominent features are τα μακρα τειχη, the long walls that surround the city.

Most noticeable of all are the frequent military references in the exams, for the Athenian army, ἡ στρατια, was a citizen army. The soldier, ὁ στρατιωτης, must equip himself – if he can afford it – with τα ὁπλα, the arms, that are required of ὁ ὁπλιτης, the ‘hoplite’ or infantryman. Consisting of a gleaming breast-plate, helmet and greaves (to cover the calves and shins), and a large, circular shield (about three feet in diameter), these are prominently displayed in ὁ οἰκος. These weapons probably weighed up to fifty pounds, but made the wearer almost invincible to frontal attack, and the Greek hoplites in their legendary formation, ὁ φαλαγξ, one of the most effective fighting forces in the ancient world. The general, ὁ στρατηγος, who led them was a tribal official and there were regular opportunities to στρατευω, march or go on an expedition, or to pitch camp, το στρατωπεδον. Nor should one forget the real source of Athenian military might, the fleet of triremes, αἱ τριηρεις, manned by οἱ ναυται, the sailors, who are also proudly free.

The purpose of studying classical Greek is to understand the rich heritage of Athens, and to be able to read the ancient authors in the original. That is why candidates for Common Entrance are asked to translate simplified passages from ancient literature, such as the story of the death of Hector at Troy that is in the January 2013 paper. To be able, in the process, to prove one’s superior intellect is just a happy side-effect.

Pagans and Christians at Chedworth Roman Villa

January 4th, 2013

The Roman Villa, Chedworth

The Roman villa at Chedworth, near Cirencester, was abandoned in the fifth century. The roofs must soon have collapsed, and local builders seem to have helped themselves to the stonework, little of which remains. By the time of its romantic rediscovery in 1864, the entire site had been buried under woodland.

The nymphaeum is at top left

The surviving evidence at Chedworth is of a luxurious house that had enjoyed its heyday in the fourth century. It had grand reception rooms, under-floor heating, a pair of bath-houses and fine mosaic floors that are still largely intact.

Even in the century of Constantine the Great (the first Christian emperor), the traditional pagan religion had been observed there. The mosaic floor of the triclinium (dining-room) includes an image of Bacchus embracing Ariadne and it was overlooked, from special bases, by statues of Diana and of Lar, the household god. Another prominent feature (well preserved today) was the nymphaeum, a shrine to the nymphs, that had been raised above a spring at the side of the house. (Chedworth Roman Villa, National Trust Souvenir Guide, pp.5, 8, 18-19, 38-9.)

Bacchic scenes in the triclinium

Despite Constantine’s Edict of Toleration and the example of most of his family, Christianity was still the religion of a tiny minority, particularly in the West. There had even been an ‘Apostate’ emperor, Constantine’s nephew Julian, although on his deathbed in 363 Julian is said to have bitterly acknowledged the triumph of Christ: ‘Vicisti, Galilaee’ (You have won, Galilean). Throughout this period, the most obdurate pagans, ‘often at considerable cost to themselves’, were to be found among that most conservative group, the senatorial aristocracy, who would have included the owners of Chedworth.

Thereafter, as the Church was ‘showered with benefactions, and privileges, invited to undertake responsibilities, and progressively given a directive role in society’, Christianity had become ‘respectable and even fashionable’, attractive to people of all ranks. (J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome (London, 1975), pp.1-2.) One of the more unexpected converts was the owner of Chedworth.

The chi-rho symbol from the nymphaeum

On his orders, the nymphs had been symbolically banished from their shrine, for a coping stone from its octagonal basin was incised with the famous christogram, representing the chi and the rho which are the first two letters of Christ’s name – ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ in Greek. It was the symbol that Constantine had had his men paint on their shields before his great victory at Milvian Bridge in 311, and it appears on fourth-century baptismal fonts (mostly portable lead tanks) that have been discovered throughout Roman Britain. (Paul Stephenson, Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (London, 2009), pp.1, 5, 135-6, 232-3.) An old pagan altar had been tossed into the Chedworth shrine, which had probably been converted by its owner to use as a baptistery.

Chedworth baths

Christianity at Chedworth had, however, been an aberration. In the late fourth century, there had been a resurgence of paganism in the West. The coping stone had been peremptorily removed from the nymphaeum, and relegated, as building material, to the steps of the west bath-house. Christianity was to be no comfort to those who had to face the final abandonment of the villa.

The swallows still nest in the eaves at Chedworth, as they would have done in Roman times. Surprisingly, the site teems also with specimens of the rare ‘Roman snail’ (helix pomatia), a protected species that is mainly found today in the Chilterns and on the North Downs. At Banstead Woods, near Epsom, these creatures, distinctive by their size and pale colour, are being poached at an alarming rate, and are apparently fetching high prices from French restaurateurs (Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2012). At Chedworth, where they loiter unmolested by the outdoor tables of the café, there is something almost reproachful about their presence. ‘You brought us all this way,’ they seem to say. ‘You used to think us a delicacy in your triclinium, milk-fed and roasted in sow’s udders. Why don’t you want to eat us any more?’

A Day at the Dig Part I: Roman Silchester 2012

July 22nd, 2012

Owing to the continuous heavy rain, this season’s excavations at Roman Silchester have been more challenging than ever. However, the usual festive atmosphere prevails, as was apparent at yesterday’s Open Day, when many of the participants wore ‘themed’ costumes.

The rain has also beautifully brought out subtle but revealing contrasts in the soil, which are not so obvious on ground that has been baked dry by summer sun. For example, there are dark stripes marking the remains of floor-level beams, dark circular stains indicating post-holes, more dark stripes along the third-century street (pictured left) suggestive of wheel ruts.

The picture on the left illustrates the progress of the archaeologists over the years from the third-century street level (behind Amanda Clarke, Field Director, in the fetching hat) down to that of the first century (on which she is standing). They are continuing to concentrate on the earliest Roman layer in Insula IX, dating more precisely from about 40 to 60 A.D., where they have discovered a large number of insubstantial wooden buildings.

Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke, who oversee the dig, remain convinced that these buildings were for military use, and indeed that the Calleva of that period was highly-militarised, if not a garrison town. As Professor Fulford has discovered in previous excavations, there was a square wooden building under the later Forum, which is equally likely to have had a military purpose. In further support of the theory, the finds in Insula IX have included horse harnesses, belts and buckles, a ballista bolt and – in the last three weeks – three tiny pieces of chain mail.

The team are also revealing further traces of the iron-age settlement that existed before the arrival of the Romans, including what may have been the hall of a chief. There is evidence beside it of a substantial track. Its route through adjoining fields is to be investigated by means of ground-penetrating radar. Where the street runs past the chief’s house it is lined by a row of post-holes. There is also a flanking trench, which was either to support a fence, or for drainage.

Remains of amphorae, samian-ware and goblets imported from the Continent are evidence that this was no backwater. The Atrebates enjoyed a relatively sophisticated diet, which included such exotica as dill, coriander and celery. Most exciting of all has been discovery this season, in a well, of a single olive stone, the very earliest to have been found in Britain – a Continental import before ever the Romans arrived. This is not surprising given that Commius and his Atrebates, the first-century B.C. colonisers of this place, were émigrés from Gaul.

The most poignant discovery has been of a little dog in the foundations of the supposed chief’s house. An animal of two or three years old, resembling a miniature poodle, it is of a type never previously seen in Britain, a land better known for its cunning hunting dogs. Professor Fulford thinks the animal was an offering, deliberately buried in the foundations to ensure the life of the building. One wonders if it had been the cherished pet of the chiefly family – and hopes that its death was quick and painless.

Pressed on the causes of Silchester’s decline in the fifth century A.D., Professor Fulford points to evidence of deliberate spoliation, with the rubble of demolished buildings having been tossed into wells. The inhabitants had a habit of digging these wells into ancient latrine pits, which cannot have helped. Whatever the causes of its gradual abandonment, the thoroughly-Romanised Calleva Atrebatum had no future in Saxon-dominated Britain.

For last year’s Silchester blogs, see

News from Ambridge: Vicky Tucker recognises the story of Sabinus and Ambiorix and reveals her classical education

April 16th, 2012

Ambiorix the Gaul: Brian Aldridge beware

Vicky Tucker wears her erudition lightly. The well-meaning but controversial second wife of Ambridge’s one-eyed milkman, the hapless Mike Tucker, she is known for her ampleness ‘in form and deed’ and for her lack of tact. She is fond of dancing, cooking, gardening and sun-worshipping. She loathes killjoys who might want to interfere with her fun – and exams. A characteristic utterance at Willow Farm, in her pronounced ‘Brummie accent’, might be ‘Ooh Mike, I like the look of that cruise’ ( Who would have thought that she had benefited from a classical education?

On Friday 13 April, conversation in the village shop turned, as it often does these days, to Brian Aldridge’s alarming plans for a massive milking factory. Not only will it be a blot on the landscape: the idea of keeping cows indoors, instead of allowing to them graze in the open, is denounced by the traditionalists as cruel and unnatural.

Brian’s most articulate opponent is undoubtedly the retired academic Jim Lloyd who, in the presence of Vicky and another customer, Bert Fry, referred to him as ‘the most insufferable, pompous, self-centred man’.

‘I grant you he can put on a carapace of charm’ – Jim continued – ‘when he’s trying to sugar-coat this megalomaniac scheme to blight our glorious countryside with a monstrous industrial edifice. But if he thinks he can buy off the deeply-held objections of a community with a cash donation and a few pints of ale, then he’s heading for the biggest disappointment since Sabinus trusted the word of Ambiorix the Gaul – and we all know how that ended.’

The bucolic Bert (likeliest utterance: ‘My Freda bakes the finest cakes in Borsetshire’) seemed not to recognise the allusion. Indeed, Jim’s invective was greeted with a stunned silence, until Vicky artlessly enquired, ‘Was he the one with the potion?’

No doubt Jim has Caesar’s De Bello Gallico constantly to hand, but it must be a while since Vicky read it, for it was not Ambiorix, but Cativolcus who took the potion (an infusion from a yew tree). Ambiorix and Cativolcus were the two kings of the Eburones, a people between the Meuse and Rhine rivers, who rebelled against the Romans in 54 BC. Ambiorix persuaded their beleaguered commander in Eburonia, Quintus Titurius Sabinus, to surrender, promising that he and his soldiers would be unharmed.

Sabinus had been naïve to trust Ambiorix. According to Caesar, he ‘orders those tribunes of the soldiers whom he had at the time around him, and the centurions of the first ranks, to follow him, and when he had approached near to Ambiorix, being ordered to throw down his arms, he obeys the order and commands his men to do the same. In the mean time, while they treat upon the terms, and a longer debate than necessary is designedly entered into by Ambiorix, being surrounded by degrees, he is slain.’ (De Bello Gallico, V, xxxvi-vii).

Colourful detail is added by Cassius Dio (Historia Romana, XL, vi – p.415 of the Loeb edition), who says that Ambiorix seized Sabinus, ‘stripped him of his arms and clothing, and then struck him down with his javelin, uttering boastful words over him, such as these: “How can such creatures as you wish to rule over us who are so great?”’

Few of Sabinus’s soldiers escape. Many take their own lives, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. It was left to Caesar to wreak his terrible revenge on Eburonia. Ambiorix fled with his men across the Rhine and was never found. As for poor old Cativolcus, ‘being now worn out by age, he was unable to endure the fatigue either of war or flight, so, having cursed Ambiorix with every imprecation, as the person who had been the contriver of that measure, he destroyed himself with the juice of the yew-tree, of which there is a great abundance in Gaul and Germany’ (De Bello Gallico, VI, xxxi). Surely too cruel a fate, even for Brian Aldridge?

It is surprisingly that Jim resisted a rather apt pun by quoting from the original Latin: ‘qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat’ (who had entered into the design together with Ambiorix). Perhaps he is saving it for another time.