Mary Beard on Latin 'too hard'.

Mary Beard's blog on the Times website.

Is Latin too hard?

Research at Durham University claims to show kids are put off taking Latin GCSE because it is too hard – about a grade harder than other supposedly “hard” subjects. That is to say, if you can get a grade C at Latin, you’d be in the running for a B in Physics or German. And teachers, it’s said, have too much of an eye on the league tables to persuade their pupils to take the risk.

At least this is a change from the usual story about Latin. More than a third of all takers get the top A* grade (compared with less than 4% in Business Studies and around 6% in German – or, going the other way, 55% in Greek). And 60% in Latin get A* and A combined. How easy it must be, some wonder.

Actually these stories are easily compatible. Latin is an extremely self-selecting subject, chosen by some of our very brightest kids. No wonder they do extremely well — and, as I see when they apply to us, often get a string of other very high grades. The question is should Latin be the subject of choice for the less bright too?

People – we classicists included – sometimes get in a muddle here. There is no question at all that Latin and Greek should be available to the talented of whatever wealth and class. The erosion of classics in the maintained sector is a disgrace in Britain and elsewhere. (If you are so minded, it can’t do any harm to sign the on-line petition against the demolition of Classics in Portugal – the latest country to take a short-sighted decision about the provision of Classics.) But is it actually a sensible educational goal to try spread Latin and Greek right across the ability range?

There’s a baby-and-bathwater problem here. At the moment Latin and Greek are the only foreign language GCSEs where you still read some literature in the original language. Thank heavens that OCR, the only exam board now offering Classical languages, has valiantly kept on the “set books”, so some 16 year olds still get more than a taste of real Virgil, Catullus or Homer. Sure, it’s difficult — but interesting too, and it’s keeping some of our brightest and best engaged and on-message. You could notch it all down a level, but only at a cost. A simplified GCSE (with simplified Virgil) would not offer the same stimulus at all.

But there is in fact a bigger point here. What do we think that studying any of these subjects at GSCE is FOR? In modern languages, the repetitive, multiple-choice tests on how to find the cathedral from the car park, or how to order a pizza in Bologna are mind-numbing for the bright; but they do fulfil a function. Any one might need to order a meal or ask directions in a foreign city. If GCSE promotes that skill, so much the better – despite the doom-laden prophets of dumbing down.

Why then learn Latin? Certainly not for conversation. And not – at GCSE level at least – just to learn about the ancient world (there’s an excellent Classical Civilization exam for that). Nor to learn formal grammar (which can be taught more economically in a myriad of other ways). The central point of learning Latin is to be able to read some of the extraordinary literature written a couple of millennia ago. It can be formidably hard. Asking a school student to read Tacitus is a bit like asking an English learner to go off and read Finnegan’s Wake. But it is what makes the whole enterprise intellectually worthwhile. Make the whole thing easier (up the multiple choice and down play the real literature) and you’ve removed the very point of learning the language in the first place.

And that’s what’s going to kill the subject.

Letter in The Times supporting 'hard' Latin

From The Times

Sir, Latin, we are told, is a grade harder than any other subject at GCSE level (“Latin loses out for being too difficult”, June 26). Classicists fear that this may be a further nail in the coffin, as pupils abandon it to get higher grades elsewhere.

This is false reasoning. University admissions tutors, frustrated by the large number of A-grades gained by candidates at AS level, are turning their attention increasingly to performance at GCSE, particularly in those subjects known to require some intellectual rigour, such as German and Latin. As such, Latin is regarded as a useful discriminator and correspondingly valued. This is an argument for the continuation, not the reduction, of Latin in schools.

Few things of any worth are gained without effort, and the brain requires exercise as much as the body.

London SW13

My favourite lesson by James Essinger

My favourite lesson
Latin lover

Latin was a living thing for James Essinger

Interview by Alice Wignall
Tuesday June 27, 2006
The Guardian

I began learning Latin when I was in the third year, I think, of my grammar school in Leicester. It was great fun from the beginning. We had a very enthusiastic teacher called Mike Kinder and, cleverly, for the very first few lessons he didn't talk about the language, he told us about the Romans. When we did start learning the words, he gave us instructions in Latin for things we could do in the classroom, so we had a sense of Latin as a language to speak, not just to read.

As I continued studying Latin, I was very interested in the complicated system of verbs and nouns and I remember feeling very satisfied when I worked them out. But I never had a sense of Latin as a practical language until I heard it being spoken in the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ last year. I feel much more of a connection with it now. It's a really fascinating subject.

I was fascinated by words from the beginning. I remember being at junior school and seeing the word “omit” – it was written down somewhere that we should omit certain verses from a hymn. I'd never come across the word before and I was really excited. I also loved history and stories from the past. And I was always interested in learning foreign languages. I found learning French verbs a lot of fun.

I never stopped studying, in a way. After university, I went to Finland and learned Finnish. It's only a difficult language in the sense that all the words are different from English. I even managed to have a nine-month relationship with a woman, entirely in Finnish, which I thought was quite an achievement.

· James Essinger is an author. His new book, Spellbound, is out now

Pupils told to avoid latin because it's too hard

From the Daily Mail

Pupils told to avoid latin because it's too hard

20:00pm 25th June 2006

Education experts raised fears over the future of Latin in schools, warning that teachers were telling their pupils to avoid the subject because it is too hard.

Academics at Durham University found that Latin is about a grade harder than any other subject at GCSE.

Will Griffiths, director of Cambridge University's school classics project, said the fact that Latin is seen as difficult represented one of the biggest threats facing the subject nationally.

“We know teachers who want their students to do Latin, but say to their students, 'in all honesty you have more chance of getting an A if you do French.'

“It comes down particularly to league tables,” he said.

Less able students “simply just won't enter the exam at all”.

Boris Johnson, shadow higher education minister and an author on Roman history, condemned the trend. “It is pathetic,” he said. “Latin is a wonderful subject that introduces you to the roots of European civilisation. It is a fantastic foundation for all kinds of careers. I never regretted doing it for a moment.

“It would be the worst possible outcome if kids were directed away from Latin just because it is difficult.”

Latin and Greek virtually disappeared from state schools after the introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980s. However, independent schools continued to teach the subject.

Mr Johnson said it should be openly acknowledged that some subjects are harder than others and pupils should be given credit for taking more difficult courses.

“If we pretend the A-Levels are the same and all A-grades are the same we are lying to the kids so they are endlessly switching to the soft options. “It would be absolutely tragic if Latin were to be further dumbed down in order to encourage people to take it,” he said.

“Teachers have got to have a bit of guts and get people to do difficult subjects.”

Dr Robert Coe at Durham University's curriculum, evaluation and management centre, analysed a figures for 600,000 students.

He compared the grades they achieved in each subject. The results showed that at grade C, Latin was about a grade harder than the next hardest subjects which tend to be sciences and modern languages.

Latin is about three grades harder than some other subjects such as sociology, the study found.

Dr Peter Jones, co-founder of Friends of Classics, a society for Latin and Greek enthusiasts, said the major problem was the lack of adequately qualified new Latin teachers.

“The main reason why there are so few (exam) entries is because there are so few state schools doing it,” he said.

“There are only about 35 teachers a year who are allowed to be trained in classics and there are more jobs than there are teachers.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult situation.”

Comments on the Daily Mail site includes these:

  • I only studied Latin for 3 years as we had no teacher after that. I loved it because I was good at languages – math subjects were far more difficult and tedious for me. I never imagined that one day I would be a translator and teacher speaking French and Italian and I really wish I had been able to study it to a higher level. You cannot know when it will be useful.

    – Diana, CH, Geneva

  • If Latin is now graded as harder than other subjects then we had better advise youngsters against numerous careers/directions/hobbies etc that would require some knowledge of this foundation to our, and others language. (And woe betide becoming a gardener)!
    I believe that any subject can be discussed with any age child if presented appropriately. IT was introduced as a subject that can be learned as part of every other subject on the curriculum. Why not Latin in some form? Even my 30 month old will repeat the Latin name of a flower as we play in the garden so it couldn't be that difficult to involve school pupils in some form of knowledge of this important language.

    – Philippa Hickson, Bournemouth, England

  • Anything above ABC standard is considered too hard by this system. Latin and Greek were taught as part of the curriculum when I was at school and both were very enjoyable to learn, but then again our teens are leaving this system barely able to read and write their own language so to burden them with these two more complicated languages really would tax them. Poor dears.

    – Freddie, Northants

Peter Wiseman on Caesar's assassination and after

Peter Wiseman's review of three books in the TLS begins with this exercise in imagination, about what it was really like in the moments after Julius Caesar's death:

It was a run of more than 500 metres, with a steep little climb at the end of it, from the Senate-house in Pompey's Portico, where Julius Caesar had been murdered, to the Capitol. It can't have been easy to run in a blood-
soaked toga while brandishing a sword and shouting out that the tyrant was dead and freedom restored. The adrenalin must soon have been spent when the cheering crowds failed to materialize. What sort of freedom, and for whom?
And what sort of tyrant had he been, anyway?

Practical problems in staging a triumph

Mary Beard is writing a book on the Roman triumph. Today's blog entry (A Don's Life) reveals the practical problems involved in standing in a chariot and in the final ascent to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.


Latin at the Language Show

“It is, perhaps, a great irony that state-funded universities can and often do offer Latin (including ab initio classes), yet state-funded schools normally do not offer it. Perhaps some marketing whizz-kid could persuade more people to study it?”

This comment from the Scotsman reminds me that four Classical organisations, JACT, ARLT, Friends of Classics and Oxford University Classics Department Outreach, are sharing with the Cambridge Latin Course in promoting Latin at the Language Show in Earls Court, November 3-5.

More news as plans develop.

Jordanhill has dropped its course in Classics

From the Scotsman

Training college axes Latin


SCOTLAND'S largest teacher training college has dropped its course in Classics, claiming there is not enough interest from state schools.

Last night, teachers and opposition politicians claimed the decision to axe the course at the University of Strathclyde's Jordanhill campus would force Scottish schools to recruit Latin teachers from England and cause the subject to die out.

The Glasgow university has suspended its 2006-07 Classical Studies course because councils and the Scottish Executive will not fund places for probationer teachers.

Ministers claim there is inadequate interest in the subject despite a rise in the number of school pupils passing exams in Latin or Classical Studies, according to the latest figures.

Henry Maitles, head of the department of Curricular Studies at the University of Strathclyde, said: “We are continuing to monitor demand on a year-by-year basis and when possible, we will offer the course. This was the case this year [2005-06].”


1. Christopher Crossley, Wuhan, Hubei, China / 5:39am 25 Jun 2006

Both Latin and (Ancient) Greek are subjects that are still studied at my old school (which I left after gaining “A”-levels in modern languages, by the way).

I have no hesitation in saying that I really did enjoy studying the Latin language for the first four years of my time at school, yet my enthusiasm for learning the language at school was effectively killed off when the streamed set I was in during my fifth year was taught by a new teacher who turned studying Latin from joy to purgatory. I failed the “O”-level as a result, much to my regret, and I have always felt that not having a Latin qualification after five years of study has left a big, if not gaping, hole academically. That was 24 years ago.

It is, indeed, regrettable that a university has chosen to suspend the teaching of Latin to would-be classics teachers owing to a lack of applications from the state sector, but I guess that it would be very hard to find anybody who was educated in the state sector and might have taken Latin as an extra outside of school if it was not offered there.

Latin may be one of the roots of modern European languages, yet, unfortunately for classical scholars, the state has never made it compulsory for Latin to be studied in school. Conversely, there would be those, whether educated in the state sector or privately, who would say that Latin is simply a “dead” language that is of no use whatsoever in the workplace today – except for biological names of animal species and botanical names of the Linnean vintage, perhaps, plus “official” names for parts of the body: remember the malleus, incus and stapes?

Of course, one can remember names and simply insert them into the grammar of one's own or other modern language, no problem. However, since many former state school pupils do study biology, zoology, physiology and medicine, as well as allied disciplines, there is a danger that even the usage of Latin names might eventually peter out and vanish, since one can easily substitute modern, generic names, at least in everyday speech, for them.

However, one must caution against panicking unnecessarily- this may not be the thin end of the proverbial wedge merely because one university decides to suspend classical teaching to would-be school teachers. Nevertheless, one should watch the situation with caution. One university's loss just might be another university's gain if it is a question of economics. So many decisions in higher education are, after all, based on economics nowadays.

It is, perhaps, a great irony that state-funded universities can and often do offer Latin (including ab initio classes), yet state-funded schools normally do not offer it. Perhaps some marketing whizz-kid could persuade more people to study it? Let's remember that Isaac Newton's books were originally published in Latin before they came out in English…

Interview with Boris Johnson

Cafe Babel, a European magazine that I hadn't heard of, has an interview with Boris Johnson about his book on the Roman Empire and the EU.

Daniel Kramb – London – 24.6.2006
Boris Johnson, dreaming of Rome

British star politician Boris Johnson has just written a book on why the Roman Empire worked so well, and the EU doesn’t. He speaks about the superiority of European civilisation, the need for Latin lessons and noxious Roman fish sauce

He read too much Aeneid as a child… (Boris Johnson)

A white marble bust stares at me in a small office, opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. Then, the door swings open and he storms in. Meet Boris Johnson, British politician, columnist, journalist, TV presenter and true celebrity, equally loved and loathed for his eccentric wit and trademark hairdo. Formerly editor of The Spectator, one of Britain’s most influential political magazines, he returned to active politics last year and is now the Shadow Minister for Higher Education for the Conservatives, Britain’s second biggest political party.

“I simply got obsessed with it and decided to go and crack it out,” he says, now sitting on one of the room’s green armchairs. Mr Johnson’s obsession is the Roman Empire, and The Dream of Rome is, all at once, a vivid and amusing history of it, a contrasting exercise with today’s EU, and a battle cry to learn the Classics again.

Rome: the most successful brand ever?

“European powers have always looked back into history and tried to find something that validates their status as the great power of Europe,” says Mr Johnson. “They see Rome and they see ways in which they are like the Romans. It’s a way of confirming your primacy.” And today, he thinks, it’s the EU that looks into this ‘mirror of Rome’. The founding fathers, he says, have probably chosen Rome to sign the treaty for its symbolic universality: “It was a way of harking back to the achievements in creating this enormous unified space – with a single mind, a single will, a single system of government – that lasted for 600 years.”

So how did Rome pull it off? Minimal regulations and a tiny bureaucracy, says Mr Johnson, and most of all, the cult of the emperor, that everyone was happy to buy into. Unlike in today’s EU, in the Roman Empire people wanted to be Romans more than anything. Take garum, he says, Rome’s very own fish sauce. ”The stuff was deeply disgusting, almost radioactive. I couldn’t believe it: they ripped out fish guts and fermented them, and so on. The point is that in spite of its evident toxicity, everybody in the Empire ate it.”

“To create people who are ‘in mind European’ is not a runner anymore”

Ironically, it wasn’t the success of the Empire that got Mr Johnson to write the book, but the resistance to it. How similar, he wondered, was Romano-scepticism to current day Euro-scepticism. I put to him that he’s known for his Euro-scepticism, too, but he protests vehemently: “I’m not really. I’m fascinated by Europe. I’m fascinated how these countries are so different, have different interests, and are so mutually antagonistic,” he says. “But realistically, the attempt to create, as Jean Monet said, people who are ‘in mind European’ is not a runner anymore. I believe people want to be different.”

Then, he strikes out. “I do assert, in a chauvinistic way…” He pauses, almost visibly collecting the right words, “I do assert, in a sort of Berlusconi-esque way, the superiority of Western, liberal, Judeo-Christian civilisation to everything else in the world.” BANG. He thinks again, then nods convinced and reassuringly: “Yes, I do. I travelled all over the world and I feel qualified to say that, for me, European civilisation is the highest.”

Unite Europe? First, put Aeneid into school bags!

On European unity, Mr Johnson has his very own idea. “The best thing we could do, if we really wanted to make it happen, is to teach everybody Latin again, to insist that every child in the community has a common cultural inheritance.” This is Boris Johnson home terrain; Latin and the Classics are his heart-felt passion, and all of a sudden he starts citing from Aeneid, the Latin book he wants all European children to read – and shamelessly ignores me and my next question for what seems an eternity.

Finally realising my concern – what would the iPod generation make of it? – he rumbles, in an almost screaming fashion, hands over head: “I don’t care what they make of it, the little prats! When I was a nipper, no one asked me what I made of it! We weren’t asked, we were made to learn it. They should jolly-well learn it, for the good of their souls.” He smiles warmly, very pleased, then adds: “It would make a huge difference,” stretching the ‘u’ sheer endlessly.

Will we ever get back that “childhood bliss”?

The Dream of Rome ends asserting that, if history was anything to go by, we will never stop trying to reproduce the Empire. “If you grew up in Europe, you grew up with that memory of Rome. You had this idea that there was that pre-existing unity. It’s like a memory of childhood bliss, which the elderly continent struggles ever afterwards to recapture,” says Mr Johnson – and he is certain that we will never succeed.

But what about the EU, that real-life attempt towards greater unity? “I’d say wider, looser, nicer. Forget about Common Foreign Policy, forget about the Common Agricultural Policy. Do things that give people practical tools for living and working in, and benefiting from, the European Union. That’s what it should do.” He glances around the room, thinking about examples, then, all of a sudden, explodes: “Plugs! This European Union thing is running for 60 years and I still can’t plug in my toaster when I arrive in Brussels.”

Plugs, of course, are yet another problem the Romans – our lucky ancestors, who so effectively achieved what we are so painfully struggling with – didn’t have to bother with. Perhaps, things simply got too complicated?

The Dream of Rome, by Boris Johnson
Hardcover £18.99

Daniel Kramb – London – 24.6.2006

Oyez, oyez! Classical Civ teachers have it made.

If you teach A level Classical Civilisation and use the AQA syllabus, then you are in clover from next year. Someone has actually published a coursebook for you and your students.

And it's a real good un, as far as I can judge.

Rather than read quickly through all that was on offer, I selected some topics that I haven't taught for many years and tried to assess how useful those sections of the book would be to me and to my students.

The Life and Times of Cicero:

One paragraph gives the overview, followed by the two reasons for his importance – partcipating in his times and writing about them. We are given 5 questions to consider as we study the topic, and then an extended survey of Roman society and government, and Cicero's part in them.

In the wide margins there are boxes with extra material of different kinds:

  • Tips – e.g. It is best to avoid using the word 'democracy' to describe the Roman system ….
  • Facts (in shaded rectangles) e.g. The senate had originally been an advisory council, but in Cicero's time ….
  • Think about … These include comparisons with modern Britain, and often include 'What do you think?'
  • Wha's in a word? e.g. The words 'senate' and 'senator' are linked to the Latin word senex ….
  • Further study or Further reading. (Self-explanatory)
  • Activity

Continuing with the main text, we are given notes on the 7 key men in Cicero's life, a comparison between Cicero's and Pompey's careers, a chart of the letters which are the set text – with a strong recommendation that the student makes his/her own chart, 5 topics to consider after reading the letters; finally there are six pages posing, and giving material for answering, 8 typical essay questions.

Later in the book is a very interesting feature – a sample exam answer on Cicero (there are others on all the other topics) with notes on what is good in it, and questions about what might be missing.

I was going to go through other topics in this review, but that would be tedious. What I wanted to illustrate was how this book is thorough in its coverage of the syllabus, student-friendly in its language and layout, and wise in its advice. There are 40 pages on coursework, tied closely to the set topics, with suggested questions – and reasons why those particular questions aren't good enough.

For sample pages from the book you can visit

Ordering details: Classical Civilisation for the AQA AS specification IBSN 1-904226-88-4, available derect from the publishers: Rhinegold Book Sales, FREEPOST LON20614, Oundle, Peterborough PE8 5BR.
Credit card orders 01832 270333.
Fax official school orders to 01832 275560

The book costs £18 for 160 A4 pages, and I reckon that any parent would stump up the cash to help their child do well in the exam. Although it is aimed at the student, the teacher would be foolish to be without a copy.

I don't know of any similarly focussed books for A level Classics, concentrating on a single exam board's particular AS syllabus, and Rhinegold Publishing Ltd is to be congratulated on publishing this, as are the experienced teachers and examiners who have written it: Sally Knights, Alan Potter and Steve Woodward. If this book is a commercial success, who knows what other study guides they may produce for us? If it isn't, if teachers who take this AQA syllabus don't buy the book, then it will be our own fault that there are no more like it.

And no, I'm not getting a percentage on books sold! I just think that this is an excellent product, and one which we should take advantage of, and support.