Friday, April 21, 2006

From Humble Beginnings

April 21st has arrived and provides us with the opportunity to reread Livy and revisit the founding of Rome:
Ita Numitori Albana re permissa Romulum Remumque cupido cepit in iis locis ubi expositi ubique educati erant urbis condendae. (Livy's Ab Urbe Condita,

Further down the passage we read (in a nice chiastic relationship, Palatium Romulus Remus Aventinum) that Romulus prefers the Palatine Hill for his bird-watching and, later, his city-founding.

Anyone who has ever climbed the path up the Palatine is immediately rewarded for his efforts by the appearance of tall trees and green grass, a welcome change to the usually hot and dusty Roman Forum through which the hill is reached. There is also the splendor of a Renaissance villa and the jumble of Imperial, Republican, and even Regal ruins. This hodge-podge is quickly overwhelming to the eye and causes many a tourist to snap a few, quick, panoramic photos of brick walls and marble floors and hustle back down the hill.

The gems of the place, available to anyone willing to spend the time and effort to sort out the rubble, include the marble flooring and other architectural details from the numerous palaces of the Roman emperors, the impressive frescoes in the House of Livia, the postholes from the Hut of Romulus, and spectacular vistas of the Roman Forum and the rest of the City.

My favorite place on this sparkling list is the one which looks the least impressive to most visitors but is very inspiring to me: the Hut of Romulus. Several postholes, outlining the circumference of a small hut, can be seen in the natural bedrock. Nearby there are other postholes and the remains of a rustic wall and cistern. When I show this site to students and others, they are immediately struck by the small size and lack of grandeur. They often reply, "That's it? This is the actual hut? Did Romulus really lay there on a grass mat and plot the rape of the Sabine women? How do we really know?" Then they usually snap a quick pic and ask if they can head down the hill.

Of course the site is unimpressive. The importance comes in its symbolic meaning. The Romans believed that this was the site of Romulus' hut and that's good enough for me. Even if the scanty remains are those of Romulus' annoying neighbor who always allowed his dog to do his duty in everyone else's yard, it doesn't matter. What I find important is that this site is the most direct link we have to that April day so very long ago and that this hut, or one so very like it, gave rise to the massive and sprawling palaces that surround it.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Of Olives, Figs, Dates, and Grapes

In Latin II we have been discussing Roman food and dining habits. Of course we covered reclining in the triclinium, garum, olive oil, and the undying myth of the vomitorium.

I always like to teach about the food and dining of the typical Roman on a typical day. We do talk about the banquets and the drinking parties, but it is the everyday element I like to stress. With that in mind we have a food-tasting day in which students bring in and sample different types of crusty, whole-grained, rustic breads, flatbreads, different varieties of cheeses, green and black olives (with pits in situ, soaking in jars, not tinny-tasting cans), figs, dates, grapes, a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, honey, and grape juice.

I am always amazed at the students who have never tasted an olive or honey or even cheese that doesn't come wrapped in its individual plastic sleeve and think that figs only exist in a newton. I encourage them to keep an open mind and try at least something new. Some really do expand their palate.

What is popular with my students in recent years, due largely to the practice in some of our local Italian restaurants, is dipping (or even soaking!) crusty bread in olive oil. Now if I could just get them to rub some garlic on it first!

I have, of course, done the Roman banquet thing in the past and have found that it is not worth the time and expense of having students (and their parents) whip up a "real Roman dish" and then have students refuse to taste it. Keeping it simple is always a plus!

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

It has been too long since I posted a picture so I offer this image of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:

I took this photograph in July 2004 - I use it as the background screen of my computer.

I'll Do It Tomorrow...

The poet Martial writes in Epigram V.58:

Cras te victurum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando venit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami vel Nestoris annos.
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras vives? Hodie iam vivere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, vixit heri.
And I offer this translation:

You always say that you will live tomorrow, Postumus, tomorrow!
Tell me, that tomorrow of yours, Postumus, when does it come?
How far away that tomorrow is! Where is it? Where must we look for it?
Does it hide out among the Parthians and Armenians?
That tomorrow of yours is already as old as Priam or Nestor.
Tell me, how much will that tomorrow of yours cost?
Will you live tomorrow? Postumus, it is already too late to live today:
He is wise whoever lived yesterday, Postumus!

This poem has come up in class at a very interesting time. It is the end of the marking period and I have just spent a very unpleasant weekend grading papers, tests, essays, and make-up work. When I say that I spent the weekend, I mean, literally, the whole weekend.

The first part of the problem comes from my own procrastination. I let the papers pile up and then they become a chore. When they become a chore, they are avoided. When they are avoided, they hang over my head and make me more anxious than any sword of Damocles.

The second part of the problem I attribute to overextending myself and saying "yes" to far too many things when I am already taxed. We moved to block scheduling this year and that means three 90-minute shows a day, each show different, interesting, and, I hope, productive.

Finally, I am beginning to realize that the third part of the problem is that I am requiring too much graded work from my students. There are quizzes on vocabulary, grammar, syntax, translations, culture, history, mythology, and then tests, benchmark tests, and exams. I also require prepared translations and exercises and even the occasional poster or project. Those who are marginal students are quickly overwhelmed and become discouraged. In frustration they come to hate the study of Latin, regret their decision of taking it, and refuse to go on.

My realization, some twenty years after I started teaching: not everything requires work, not all work requires a grade, and not every grade needs to be recorded. As a young teacher fresh out of college I would have considered this blasphemy. Now, as an experienced teacher in the middle of my career, I realize that this is the approach that will allow me to see the wisdom of Martial's words.