Review by: Scott Hadley, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico - January 28, 2012
This latest book by Rose Williams consists of 34 biographical readings in Latin of the heroes of Roman history arranged in chronological order from Aeneas to Boethius. These readings are for students of second level Latin that should already know the five declensions, all of the tenses of the four conjugations, verbals, comparison of adjectives, the most frequently used pronouns and the most common uses of the subjunctive. All the readings are followed by comprehension questions and a vocabulary list useful for that particular reading. All of the words are grouped together in a glossary at the end of the book and the teacher's edition comes with a translation in English of the reading. There is even an outline of Roman history that makes the book an easy reference work as well as a reader.
Up to this point it seems like a rather traditionally organized Latin reader but here its similarity to other textbooks comes to an end. The really remarkable qualities of the book lie in the fact that it provides a reading of Roman history from the point of view of the Romans. Rose Williams realizes that she is flying in the face of today's more "cynical" scholars who dismiss these stories as mere ancient legends. She argues that irregardless of the veracity of these stories, they show the qualities and values that the Romans most admired. She goes on to say that they are also an example of the ideal that Quintilian proposes for true intelligence:
The modern world tends to think of intelligence as the ability to comprehend and analyze many facts and tendencies simultaneously and draw conclusions from them. Quintilian would add to this the ability to analyze these data and add to them historical facts, and from all this to predicate the probable outcome of certain courses of action. Thus, he said, the truly intelligent man will not do evil, because he can clearly picture the effect of his acts on others and upon himself. (p.iv).
This is what the author believes to be a good catalyst for discussion and what I would want to believe is the true reason for studying history.
Another remarkable feature of the book is that it is hard for me to keep in mind that these readings are actually adaptations and not authentic texts. Along with the truly Roman point of view expressed in these readings is the very ingenious way that the author includes authentic quotes in the body of the texts. In the following textual example the author introduces Julius Caesar's outstanding act of clemency with his enemies the supporters of Pompey at the city of Corfinium with a quote from Cicero's Ad Atticum:
Caesar propter mortem Pompei et aliorum Romanorum doluit; misericordiam omnium monstravit. De Caesare Cicero scripsit, "Cum eius clementiam Corfiniensem per litteras laudavissem, rescripsit: 'Recte auguraris de me - bene enim tibi cognitus sum - nihil a me abesse longius crudelitate. Neque illud me movet, quod ei qui a me dimissi sunt discessisse dicuntur ut mihi rursus bellum inferrent. Nihil enim malo quam et me mei similem esse et illum sui.' "
(Caesar grieved for the death of Pompey and of other Romans; he showed pity to all. About Caesar Cicero wrote, "When I had praised in letters his clemency at Corfinium, he replied, 'You surmise rightly about me - I am well known to you - nothing is farther from me than cruelty. It does not disturb me (the fact that) those who are set free by me are said to have gone out so that they might make war on me again. For I desire (prefer) nothing other than that I be like myself and the other man like himself ' ") (pp. 66, 68 author's translation)
In the text about Boethius we find his own moving words written in prison after being falsely accused of conspiring against Theodoric, the Gothic king of Rome, for defending Albinus who was accused of the same act:
Ibi De Consolatione Philosophiae scripsit, in quo libro sunt verba:
"Quid tantum miseri saevos tyrannos
Mirantur sine viribus furentes?
Nec speres aliquid nec extimescas
Exarmaveris impotentis iram."
Sic magnitudo Romae paulatim imminuebatur, et vigor eius redigebatur ad "aliqui neque spes neque timor." Boethio necato, Theordoricus vetus ob eum doluit.
(There he wrote About the Consolation of Philosophy, in which were the words:
"Why do miserable men gape at the savage tyrants
Raging without strength?
If you will neither hope nor dread anything
You will disarm their helpless wrath."
So the greatness of Rome was slowly being diminished, and her vigor reduced to "neither fear nor hope for anything."
After Boethius had been killed, the aged Theodoric grieved for him.) (pp. 125, 126 author's translation)
With these quotes and many others from a variety of classical sources, Rose Williams provides the Latin student with an enriching experience of reading Roman history as it is supposed to be read: in its own words whenever possible. Her practice of creating an adapted text by closely following the grammatical structure of Latin without forcing it to more English syntax makes the transition between her text and the quotes seem very smooth.
Another important topic of discussion that this book brings out is the concept of the hero. It would seem that even though some of the stories may be hard to believe, there is a certain ideology that comes through that is not too far from our modern concept of what a national hero should be. The protagonists of this book had a strong sense of justice, honor and discipline and many of them came from humble backgrounds. Upon reading these texts, it is easy to recognize many of these qualities in what is admired in the Founding Fathers of American history, for example, and this brings us to the question of the ideological intentions of historical discourse in general. It is for all of the above reasons that I believe that this book is a true testimonial of how the teaching of foreign languages and cultural perspectives could and should be intricately woven together for a very rich and fruitful learning experience.