Archive for January, 2010

Let’s hear it for Nero

January 25, 2010

When it comes to antiquity, there are people whom history hasn’t been kind to. Intentions have been misunderstood, achievements gone unappreciated and outright slanders have been perpetuated. Great artists have been forgotten, ingenious ideas reduced to scrappy two line fragments, and political reputations destroyed.

There aren’t many, however, who have come off as badly as Nero. His terrible reputation has arisen from that most enduring myth; his dilettante recital of the fall of Troy as his own city was consumed by fire. The thing is, though, it simply didn’t happen that way. Without any books with me (I still miss library access), I can’t remember any sources offhand which talk about the efforts the Emperor personally put in to stem the disaster, but as we’re all friends by now I’ll ask you to take me at my word that they do exist.

Nero’s decision to make scapegoats of Rome’s Christian population in the aftermath cannot be defended, but it can be explained. It’s a rare society which doesn’t find outsiders on whom to allocate blame – who knew about the existence of a single ‘Muslim community’ until we were constantly being told not to blame that monolithic beast for world terrorism – and Neronian Rome was no exception. The Emperor was probably harnessing sentiments already in existence rather than trying to force his own monstrous whims on the population. After all, with monotheism as alien (and alienating) a concept to Romans as polygamy would be to us, this weird new cult who were attacking the quintessential values of Rome needed to be reigned in. The fire must have seemed as good a means as any.

Whatever the reasons, Nero would pay for his political expediency with centuries of condemnation. Myths from the middle ages in Rome would tell of the rotting walnut tree infested with demons which sprouted from his secret grave (supposedly the site of Santa Maria del Popolo in the city’s Piazza del Popolo). Hebrew numerologists went as far as to name Nero as the Book of Revelations’ Anti-Christ. We may have calmed down with the religious rhetoric in this day and age, but I still can’t think of a sympathetic portrayal.

Any contemporary perspectives favourable to Nero have been lost irretrievably, and the enmity of the senatorial historians to the Emperor and his legacy mean that we are unlikely to reach a measured and fully informed opinion. However, in the years after his death, we know of numerous false Neros who popped up around the Empire claiming to be the real deal. Surely, this would not be a viable (if far-fetched) route to political power if Nero was already the pantomime villain of later centuries. The military and the Senate might have hated him, but there must have been an enduring popularity for the man amongst the more dispossessed.

This issue has come to the foreground recently, as an Italian historian has urged the city of Rome to finally reflect one of its most infamous sons by naming a road after him. The newspaper La Repubblica (the lefty one which Berlusconi regularly scraps with) is running a poll on the issue. Should you care to cast your vote either way, the poll can be found at


Consistite! Grammar time!

January 14, 2010

Come now people.  I’ve been writing this blog for about 3 or 4 months now, and it seems its still not become an indispensable part of anybody’s life.  It’s been about a month since I last posted, and in that time, have I heard a single “Sam, without the colour provided by your insights into the world of ancient Rome, my life is but a grey simulacrum”?  No, I have not.  Still, putting this lack of communication from my legions of followers down to abject despondency, I forgive you.  I’m back from England now, Christmas is over, and There Boy is back.

Today, however, I’m talking about something a little more applied than usual: modern attitudes to learning Latin.  E-strolling through the, I found a post asking for suggestions on how to go about learning the language.  The poster asked if people felt that grammar or vocabulary was the more important area to concentrate on for a developing student.  Unanimously, the verdict was grammar.  A later strand in the discussion was from the original poster once again and it expressed her slight disappointment as well as her lack of surprise that she would have to head back to the world of ut + subjunctive and so on.

For some students no doubt, a heavy emphasis on grammar is fine.  This person, however, evidently isn’t among them.  One of the hardest things about learning a language is maintaining the initial enthusiasm; focussing almost exclusively on areas which we find frustrating and difficult will not help.

Furthermore, meaning is not conveyed by lexicalised grammar, but grammaticalised lexis.  If somebody must take the bizarre position of so explicitly ranking one of the two language systems above the other, vocabulary should take priority; there’s more of it, and it’s of more use.  Other posters wrote that you could look up a new word in the dictionary when you came to it, but assuming the motivation for learning is for the excitement of reading ancient texts, such a laborious and stilting process will inevitably be counter-productive.

The responses posted were symptomatic of (what I see to be) two central problems with the way that Latin is taught.  The first is the single line exercises that are a part of almost every text book I’ve ever seen.  They focus exclusively on translating a sentence with 100% accuracy and give little or no thought to being interesting.  When students swap the exercises for real and extended texts, they have to learn a different set of skills; it’s more important to get carried away by the Latin than to be translating into accurate English.

The second problem, and bear with me here chaps, is the teachers.  What I mean is that of all the thousands of people who start learning Latin, the small number that manage to sustain their love of the language over a long enough period to reach an appropriate level to begin teaching others are inherently different from the many, many more who give up early.  These people have presumably been taught using techniques with the traditional grammar bias and presumably, they loved it.  In turn then, they’ll go on using the same ideas with their own students and the cycle perpetuates itself.

All that said, the study of Latin grammar is of huge importance and it can’t be neglected.  However, if you get to a stage where you’re not enjoying the way you’re learning the language, just lay off that technique for a while and try something else.

Valete, omnis.