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10 June 2023

Weekly Blog: It’s all Greek (and Latin) to me. Teaching Classics in the 21st century. 

Weekly Blog: It’s all Greek (and Latin) to me. Teaching Classics in the 21st century. 

You can imagine my consternation on receiving an email from the Head of the College asking for a blog entry about our subject areas. Blogging is certainly unchartered territory for me as a recovering archaeologist / teacher of Classics, so at this moment in time I could fully sympathise with the students who come to us feeling very unsure about having to take this slightly niche subject. What is it? Why do we have to do it? What will I get out of it? - all equally applicable to being asked to take Latin in school or write in an unfamiliar register!

As blogging appears to be something of a diary, I think it’s no harm to introduce you to my week in the Classics department. Still fresh on my mind (and with remnants stuck to the inside of my bag) are a series of amazing Roman shields completely by Prep IV students in one or two planes of symmetry and with aluminium bosses made from the little trays off the bottom of jam tarts (we had a jam-tart party to start the lesson). Ancient weaponry is a secret love of mine and preparing a whole cohort (from the Latin cohors meaning a company of soldiers) with an array of red shields made from card freshly plucked from Reprographics gave me a real sense of satisfaction. Prep IV looked accomplished and intimidating in equal parts holding their array of shields. 

Soon I find myself in the library answering some last-minute questions from Year 13 on their final examination topic. Philosophers. Poets. Love. Desire. Essays. Stoicism. This is a good time to be stoic – a philosophical mindset which advocates overcoming emotions with self-control. The exam is just hours away and Seneca is the author of the moment. His bons mots seem so relevant to the thoughts of a person just before a major exam “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” and “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”. He is in the room in more ways than one and soon another rite of passage in the form of an A Level exam will be ticked off the list for another year group. 

Still musing over the dialogues of Plato (Greek philosopher) and the fragments of Sappho (Greek poet), I recall that we are sharing information about LGBTQ+ individuals in Latin and Classics lessons during Pride week. I smile to myself as I wonder how to talk about something as defined as sexuality for cultures (Greek and Roman) who held no such definitions and were much more concerned with the status of an individual than their assigned sex or sexual orientation. I suspect that for some year groups it might be helpful to talk about the Julian Laws brought in under Augustus where families were encouraged to have children for population growth and to have more formal relationships (rather than a series of lovers of either sex). For other groups, Sappho will be a perfect starting point as a female poet of 6th century BC Greece. Her poetry is well-known for exploring female love affairs and anyone who reads Victorian novels will know that sapphist was a modish word for a woman who loved another woman (contemporary Victorian definition). The much more modern ‘lesbian’ also leads back to Sappho who lived on the island of Lesbos. 

Taking my thoughts to Year 8 where we are preparing for a trip to Colchester, our more recent lessons focus on Roman Britain. Did the students realise before today that Britain was still prehistoric (non-literate) before the Romans got here? Surely it must fascinate them to know that Julius Caesar essentially wrote the first words ever about Britain and its inhabitants at the time. It’s funny to think that his comments boil down to a remark about the locals having long hair, not eating chicken and Kent being very nice. Caesar’s commentswould be no more out of place today as they were in prehistoric Britannia. 

Speaking of Britannia, it's been literally historic over the past few months observing the students adapt from having Elizabeth Regina to Charles Rex on stamps and coins. I would like to think they spotted the change of Latin word and certainly the word ‘rex’ has been on a journey throughout Roman history, similar to the word ‘witch’. Initially revered, monarchs in the Roman world soon became outdated as command could not necessarily be passed to the next wisest leader, as it was an inherited role. The monarchy was finally ousted after the crown prince assaulted a noble woman called Lucretia and was never reinstated. When Julius Caesar became too big for his red boots (red for power-dressing; think Liz Truss circa October 2022), the word ‘rex’ was bandied about a little too often at parties and feeling threatened, his administration duly assassinated him. 

The hatred of the word ‘rex’ would make great sense as to why Jesus of Nazareth was executed under Roman administration as he gained the moniker Rex Iudaeorum ‘king of the Jews’. Having posited this theory to both Year 10 and 12, I asked Mrs Elliott during our car-share conversations, and she verified that in RS, treason (use of the word ‘king’) is considered a viable reason behind his death. So that means that royalty, the safety of women and girls, and cancel culture are as relevant to the people living over two millennia ago as they are currently. This reassures me greatly about the place of Classics today and as we can see, the unfamiliar can become the familiar if you know where and how to look. There is certainly variety in this subject, and it seems every discipline and part of school life can find a connection with something in Classics. Like, I guess, with the concept of a blog, from the 20th-century word ‘weblog’ and originally from the Greek ‘logos’ meaning a word, thought or speech.

By Mrs O'Mahoney

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