Transitioning from Textbook Latin to Ancient Latin: Cicero, In Catilinam 1

This semester, I had the pleasure of reading excerpts from Cicero’s First Catilinarian Oration with my Intensive Latin class after we had finished going through the grammar in the textbook.  It was a great text to read because there are lots of materials available for it and because it is a great text to review Latin grammar.  The speech reviews lots of different uses of the subjunctive mood and it uses the same type of construction repeatedly within a paragraph, so one day reviewed indirect questions and another reviewed hortatory subjunctives.  It also helps students adjust to longer sentences more characteristic of Latin than many of the sentences in our textbook.  When we were coming to the end of our textbook, I realized that the students would have to adjust to a different type of material and a different class structure for the speech (and for future classes in a Latin sequence) and I wanted them to get as much out of this Cicero unit as possible.  Therefore, I took the following steps to ease the transition for my students and to help them appreciate it as much as possible:

Provide continuity in instruction methods.  Before the Cicero unit, I used a lot of group work in class but we reviewed homework as a class, usually going over certain sentences on the chalkboard.  During the Cicero unit, I had students go over difficult sentences in groups a few days and then we went over the entire reading as a class.  We eventually cut out this group work element since later classes in the Latin sequence will not have it as frequently.  When we went over the sentences, I used an overhead projector to display a copy of Cicero’s text at the front of the room so that I could mark it up while we went over it in much detail.  I chose to go over the text in great detail because they were introductory students.

Provide continuity in material.  During the Cicero unit, students will, of course, still be reading Latin.  But I knew that I would be reading Cicero with them so I assigned more textbook sentences based on Cicero’s thoughts or style so that they could have an easier transition to “ancient Latin.”  Additionally, I did not shy away from assigning slightly altered passages of Latin well before the Cicero unit.  If the goal is to get students to read ancient Latin, why not expose students to it early?

Provide continuity in evaluation.  I knew that I would be testing the Cicero unit by having them translate passages that they had already seen in class.  Therefore, I made sure to include passages that they had already seen on earlier tests.  The test for the Cicero unit just had more passages that they had seen rather than a single passage on a test with other sections, but the students were familiar with this method of testing their knowledge.  I also made sure to give them a weekly quiz to test how well they were understanding Cicero’s Latin and to prepare them for a test with no vocabulary help.

Introduce new resources.  At the beginning of the unit, I made sure to give students a list of dictionaries–both ones for quick reference and more scholarly ones so they would know about them for future classes.  I also made sure to provide a very good commentary–Susan Shapiro’s O Tempora! O Mores!–for the students and to explain how commentaries (and the numbering of paragraphs) work.  I also told them about a few Latin grammar books in addition to their textbook where they could go to understand confusing passages.  During class, I made sure to provide a photocopy of an explanation of a use of the genitive from one of these grammar books so that they had exposure to these book’s format.  Finally, I mentioned a few series of books–Penguin Books, the Loeb Classical Library–that provide translations of the text, but I did not emphasize these much so that students did not rely on someone else’s translation to read Cicero.  I figured it was better to guide them towards better translations than to hope they never realized translations of Cicero’s speech had been published before.

Formally introduce/review reading strategies.  When we had gone over textbook sentences on the board, I had chunked word groups (noun-adjective pairs, prepositional phrases, etc.) and drew arrows to show modifiers and the dependent clauses or words.  So, when we started the Cicero unit, I formally told them to do this same chunking activity.  Many students found this incredibly useful and did it even when I did not require it, even though one student found the word “chunking” distasteful.

More importantly for future good habits, I required my students to record the vocabulary and grammar that they did not know so that they could use it when they reread the speech–essentially to make themselves a personalized commentary.  I stressed the importance of this by telling them that they should be rereading what we went over in class each day.  I encouraged them to stop writing out translations of their homework and I checked that they had taken these notes.  In retrospect, I should have been asking them to take these notes much earlier than the Cicero unit.

Assign reasonably long assignments. When we started reading Cicero, I did not know how much Latin to assign each night but I knew I did not want to overwhelm the students.  Therefore, for the first Cicero assignment, I asked them to read Latin for an hour.  On the following class, I asked how far they had gotten.  Based on an approximate average of these answers and on the divisions within the text itself, I think I kept the assignments to a reasonable length for most students.

Help the students understand the historical context of the text.  Cicero gave his First Oration Against Catiline in response to certain historical and social actions.  I tried to help students understand these factors through a YouTube video about Catiline’s conspiracy (for how I made the video, see this post) and then we discussed this information in class before we began reading the speech.  I also helped clarify things whenever any specific reference to the historical situation occurred.  For example, in the first paragraph, Cicero refers to nocturnum praesidium Palati, “night-time guards on the Palatine Hill,” and the power of this statement is much clearer when students learn that many senators live on that hill and are in the audience.  If students understand the historical context of the speech, they can understand why the speech mattered historically.

Help the students understand the text as a speech.  Not only did I want students to know the speech’s historical context, but I wanted students to consider its genre.  It was a speech to the Senate whose opinions Cicero could sense as he read the speech and who he was attempting to persuade to do certain things.  Therefore, I briefly told them about procedures in the Senate.  Based on the advice of Christopher P. Craig’s 1993 Classical Journal article, “Three Simple Questions for Teaching Cicero’s ‘First Catilinarian’“, I frequently asked my students to consider three questions: (1) Why does Cicero deliver this speech? (2) What is Cicero trying to persuade his hearers to feel or to do? and (3) What problems stand in the way of achieving Cicero’s persuasive goals?  Since the answers to these questions change throughout the speech, I asked my students to answer this for each excerpt we read.

Secondly, it was a speech that was delivered in real life, not written and distributed to be read.  A more experienced Latin reader can sense that Cicero was speaking incredibly emotionally, but my students probably could not tease that out as some of them were struggling to understand the meaning of each sentence.  Fortunately, there are several dramatic recordings of people reading Cicero’s speech.  I provided links to two of the best ones (best and second best) and asked students to write about how the emotion of the delivery helped them better understand the speech, how the emotion of the delivery could have helped Cicero persuade his audience.

While I did not try this specific strategy, I considered having my students do a Reacting to the Past game that is under production by Bret Mulligan.  The game would have asked students to deliver speeches as if they were in the Roman Senate and then vote on what to do about Catiline and his conspiracy.

Help the students understand the text as a continuous piece of prose.  Even though we read excerpts, we still read long bits of continuous prose from this speech and the speech was meant to be a continuous piece of prose.  Therefore, I began each class by asking what Cicero said in the previous reading(s).  Not only did this encourage students to be continually reviewing the text at home, but it reacquainted them with the text so that they had a better understanding of the text as we reviewed it in class.

Help students see how this text is relevant today. Again, my choice of Cicero’s First Catilinarian was fortuitous because it has been a frequently quoted and invoked text.  Recently, Senator Ted Cruz had parodied this speech, so I asked students to write a response to this parody: compare and contrast the original to Sen. Cruz’s speech, does it matter how faithful Sen. Cruz’s speech was to Cicero’s original? What does our understanding of Cicero’s speech help add to our understanding of Sen. Cruz’s speech?  Students had great responses to this prompt that showed not only a memory of the text of Cicero’s speech but also a great understanding and ability to offer interpretations of the ideas behind that text and Sen. Cruz’s speech.

The goal behind all these activities was not only to help the students translate and understand the Latin but also to understand why this Latin has value and why they should study it.  I wanted to help prepare them to move onto the next level of Latin instruction and to help them make important connections.

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