The Association for Latin Teaching

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The approach of Christmas gives opportunities to use Latin in a different way. The language of the Christian Church was not very different from classical Latin. It was probably nearer to the language spoken by ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire than was the language written by Cicero or Tacitus. It is certainly easier to understand.


The Latin version of the Bible, The Vulgate, was written by St. Jerome in the last quarter of the fourth century. Rome had not yet been sacked by Alaric the Goth. The Latin Bible is part of the literature of the Roman Empire, unusual in that it was written not for a rich and highly educated elite, but for everyone. Jerome's version of the Christmas story as told by St Luke will not teach our students any bad grammar. Some idioms may reflect a Hebrew original, but they are easy to understand. It would be easy to make a simple Latin nativity play from St Luke's narrative as an alternative to reading the text.


Latin carols use the language of the Vulgate. If there is an opportunity to teach the whole school to sing in Latin for a carol service, that is all to the good. Students may be surprised to learn that 'Adeste fideles' is the original and 'O come all ye faithful' merely a translation. Macaronic carols, part Latin, part English (or German), could be a gentle way in to the singing and understanding of a few Latin phrases: Insist on 'Gloria in excelsis Deo' rather than 'Come and worship ...' as the refrain to 'Ding dong merrily on high.' It is easier to sing, for one thing! 'In dulci iubilo' rather than 'Good Christian men rejoice', please, or any politically correct variant.


For the study of Roman religion and Roman society, the Saturnalia offers a chance for lighthearted participation. The learned articles reproduced on this site suggest a number of harmless end-of-term activities.

A student could dress as the teacher and take part of the class, inspired by the exchange of roles between masters and slaves at Saturnalia. Letting a pupil take the master's place was a favourite strategem of ARLT founder Rouse.

There would be no harm in all the class wearing the pilleus, the cap of liberty, as slaves did at Saturnalia, and as a sign that they will soon be free of school. It gives the chance to revise the methods by which a master could free his slave.

Freedom of speech was given to slaves during Saturnalia. If the teacher thought it helpful, and can cope with the results, the class could be invited to comment, freely and with no come-back, on the Latin lessons. The teacher could read part of Horace Satire 2.7 as an example of this freedom of speech. (See below)


For those planning to read St Luke's story of the Nativity in Greek, here is a word list  Word list

Christmas Pages

Resources for Classics Departments in the Christmas season


Latin Carols

Christmas Readings in Latin

Making Latin Christmas cards

The Saturnalia


Horace Satire 2.7


DAVUS. I've been listening some time, and wishing o say a word to you, but as a slave I dare not.

HORACE. Is that Davus ?

DAV. Yes, Davus, a slave loyal to his master, and fairly honest -- that is, so that you need not think

him too good to live.

HOR. Come, use the licence December allows, since our fathers willed it so. Have your say.

DAV. Some men persist in their love of vice and stick to their purpose; the greater number waver,

now aiming at the right, at times giving way to evil. Thus Priscus, who often attracted notice by

wearing three rings, but once in a while by wearing none, was so fickle in his life, that he

would change his stripe every hour. Passing from a stately mansion, he would bury himself in a den,

from which a decent freedman could scarcely emerge without shame. Now he would choose to live in Rome as a rake, now as a sage in Athens -- a man born when every single Vertumnus was out of sorts.

Volanerius, the jester, when the gout he had earned crippled his finger joints, kept a man, hired at a daily wage, to pick up the dice for him and put them in the box. As he was the more persistent in his vices, so he was the less unhappy and the better man, than the one who, with rope now taut, now loose, is in distress.

HOR. Are you to take all day, you scape-gallows, in telling me the point of such rot?

DAV. 'Tis you, I say.

HOR. How so, villain?

DAV. You praise the fortune and manners of the men of old; and yet, if on a sudden some god were for

taking you back to those days, you would refuse every time; either because you don't really think that what you are ranting is sounder, or because you are wobbly in defending the right, and, though vainly longing to pull your foot from the filth, yet stick fast in it. At Rome you long for the country; in the country, you extol to the stars the distant town, you fickle one! If so it be that you are asked out nowhere to supper, you praise your quiet dish of herbs, and, as though you were in chains when you do go anywhere, you call yourself lucky, and hug yourself, because you have not to go out for some carousel. Let but Maecenas bid you at a late hour come to him as a guest, just at lamp-lighting time: "Won't someone ring me oil this instant? Does nobody hear me?" So you scream and bawl, then tear off. Mulvius and his fellow-jesters sneak off with curses for you that I cannot repeat. "Yes," he would say, "'tis true that I'm a fickle creature, led by my stomach. I curl up my nose for a savoury smell. I am weak, lazy, and, if you like to add, a toper. But you, since you are just the same and maybe worse, would you presume to assail me, as though you were a better man, and would you throw over your own vices a cloak of seemly words?" What if you are found to be a greater fool than even I, who cost you five hundred drachmas? Don't try to scare me by your looks. Hold back your hand and temper, while I set forth the lessons taught me by the porter of Crispinus. You are the slave of another man's wife; Davus of a poor harlot. Which of us commits a sin more deserving of the cross? When vehement nature drives me, she who satisfies my passion sends me away neither disgraced nor anxious lest some richer or more handsome man possess her. You, when you have cast aside your badges, the ring of knighthood and your Roman dress, and step forth, no longer a judge, but a low Dama, with a cape hiding your perfumed head, are you not what you pretend to be? Full of fear, you are let into the house, and you tremble with a terror that clashes with your passions. What matters it, whether you go off in bondage, to be scourged and slain with the sword, or whether, shut up in a shameful chest, where the maid, conscious of her mistress's sin, has stowed you away, you touch your crouching head with your knees? Has not the husband of the erring matron a just power over both? Over the seducer a still juster? Yet she does not change either garb or position, and she is not the chief sinner, since she is in dread of you and does not trust her lover. You with eyes open will pass under the yoke, and hand over to a furious master your fortune, your life, your person and repute. Suppose you have escaped: then, I take it, you will be afraid and cautious after your lesson. No, you will seek occasion so as again to be in terror, again to face ruin, O you slave many times over! But what beast, having once burst its bonds  and escaped, perversely returns to them again? "I am no adulterer," you say. And, in faith, I am thief either, when I wisely pass by your silver plate. Take away the risk, set aside restraint, and Nature will spring forward, to roam at will. Are you my master, you, a slave to the dominion of so many men and things -- you, whom the praetor's rod, though placed on your head three or four times over, never frees from base terror? And over and above what I have said, add something of no less weight: whether one who obeys a slave is an underslave, as the custom of your class names him, or a fellow-slave, what am I in respect of you? Why, you, who lord it over me, are the wretched slave of another master, and you are moved like a wooden puppet by wires that others pull. Who then is free? The wise man, who is lord over himself, whom neither poverty nor death nor bonds affright, who bravely defies his passions, and scorns ambition, who in himself is a whole, smoothed and rounded, so that nothing from outside can rest on the polished surface, and against whom Fortune in her onset is ever maimed. Of these traits can you recognize any one as your own? A woman asks of you five talents, worries you, shuts her door in your face, drenches you in cold water, then -- calls you back. Rescue your neck from the yoke of shame; come, say, "I am free, am free." You cannot; for you have a master, and no gentle one, plaguing your soul, pricking your weary side with the sharp spur, and driving you on against your will. Or when, madman, you stand dazed before a picture of Pausias, how do you offend less than I, when I marvel at the contests of Fulvius, Rutuba, or Pacideianus, with their straining legs, drawn in red chalk or charcoal, just as lifelike as if the heroes were really waving their weapons, and fighting, striking, and parrying? Davus is a "rascal and dawdler," but you are called a "fine and expert critic of antiques." If I'm tempted by a smoking pasty, I'm a good-for- naught: but you -- does your heroic virtue and spirit defy rich suppers? Why is it more ruinous for me to obey the stomach's call? My back, to be sure, pays for it. But how do you escape punishment more than I, when you hanker for those dainties which cannot be bought at small cost? Why, that feasting, endlessly indulged, turns to gall, and the feet you've duped refuse to bear up your sickly body. Is the slave guilty, who at fall of night swaps for grapes the flesh-brush he has stolen? Is there nothing of the slave about one who sells his estates at his belly's bidding? And again, you cannot yourself bear to be in your own company, you cannot employ your leisure aright, you shun yourself, a runaway and vagabond, seeking now with wine, and now with sleep, to baffle Care. In vain: that black consort dogs and follows your flight.

HOR Where can I find a stone?

DAVUS. What's it for?

HOR. Or where arrows?

DAVUS. The man's raving, or else verse-making.

HOR. If you don't take yourself off in a jiffy, you'll make the ninth labourer on my Sabine farm.