How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can't Read Latin Yet: Books

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How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can't Read Latin Yet. By William Fitzgerald. Oxford University Press. 288pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9780199657865. Published 21 February 2013

About 40 years ago, faced with declining numbers of students and charges of elitism in an educational climate where the 11-plus was beginning to have to fight for its survival, Classics departments in most UK universities began to introduce Classical studies courses and degrees. Having little Latin and less Greek was no longer a barrier to the study of Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus and the rest of antiquity's great writers, because Classical studies degrees offered the texts in translation. The ancient languages would remain available, but by providing programmes in translation as well, Classics could shed its crusty image and open its doors to everyone. In translation, reading lists could grow, demanding that students read huge swathes of text and develop panoramic views of ancient literary culture. No Greek and Latin required; no elitism; no problem.

But there was a problem. While Classical studies has evolved into a rich and popular degree, combining the history, literature, art, myth, politics and philosophy of Greece and Rome, and like many other humanities programmes sends out plenty of graduates into the workplace, few of them can pursue a career in secondary education; fewer still in the tertiary sector. If you can't read a Latin poem in Latin, what you can think, say, write and teach about a Latin poem in translation is restricted. In literary criticism in particular, Classical studies has a glass ceiling. The profession knows this, and has tried various means to keep Latin alive in UK education since the 1970s: the Cambridge Latin Course (not rigorous enough), the Oxford Latin Course (too hard), Minimus (just right, if you catch the pupil young enough), and intensive beginners' courses in sixth forms and degree programmes, as well as summer schools to cater for all abilities. …