Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Calming Rattle

On August 23, 2011, at 1:51 p.m., a very rare thing happened. There was a rumble, a small rattle, and then the earth shook for what seemed like 30 seconds. A 5.8 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in Virginia since 1897, was felt from Georgia to Canada. This was such a thrilling, exciting, and frightening event because "we don't get earthquakes like this on the East Coast." The epicenter was located about thirty miles to the southwest near a very small town named Mineral in Louisa County. I understand that folks in California and elsewhere around the planet are laughing at us for our reactions, but we can deal with that.

It was the day before students were to report for school, and I was sitting at my desk and working on a Powerpoint presentation when things began to rumble. At first I (and others) thought that students were running down the hall, an activity that sometimes happens during inclement weather and the cross country team needs to practice (this didn't make sense since it was a bright, sunny day outside). When the rumble continued and worsened, I realized that this was actually an earthquake. Wow! So that's what one feels like! I counted it as an experience.

I poked my head out my classroom door and confirmed with others that what had just happened had been real. After making a few calls on my cell phone (Surprisingly I was able to get through to most of my destinations), I turned on the TV for news and sat back down to work. A short while later the principal came over the intercom and announced that school was to be closed and we had to leave the building. The structure needed to be checked for damages, so this move made sense.

The first day of school was canceled the next day because some buildings, including our own, had suffered light damage, mostly cosmetic, and needed to be reinspected and repaired. Teachers were allowed to report the next day, and since I still had work to do before the students arrived, I took advantage of this opportunity. The only disturbance to my classroom was a sun catcher nick-knack that had fallen out of the window and cracked. It IS a depiction of a Roman ruin after all, so just some character added to the image there. Some books that had been tilted to the right in my bookshelves were now leaning to the left. The most interesting devastation, though, shown in the photograph above, is the toppling of the Golden Bubo on the shelf next my desk. The trinket is the image of owl, the bird sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The Romans would probably consider this an omen. Imagine it! The representation of wisdom falling on its face the day before the start of school! What to do? How to react? After contemplation, I've decided to take matters into my own hands and stand the statuette back on its foundation. This is an easy enough task, to be sure, but I have noticed that the image of the owl is top-heavy, with a supporting base smaller than it could be. After some contemplation, though, I think this is appropriate. The foundation of wisdom may be small, but the embodiment of wisdom is full and well wrought. How fitting that we are called upon from time to time to pick up our wisdom, dust it off, and put it back into place!

What is the outcome of all this excitement at the beginning of the school year? The normal butterflies experienced by this teacher (who, by the way, is entering his 25th year and still gets opening-day jitters) flitted away. The shaking of the earth, causing a fright to millions on the Eastern seaboard, puts everything into perspective. The ground may move, but the school remains and is safe. Come inside, boys and girls, and let's dust off some of our wisdom.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Latin? What are you going to do with that?

My daughter Sarah is heading off to college in a couple weeks. She will be a freshman at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, and she has already decided that she wants to major in Latin and, following in her old man's footsteps, become a Latin teacher. She's excited; her mother's excited; and, of course, I'm excited. All too predictable, though, is the reaction of people when she tells them what she plans to study and then what she plans to due after she graduates. Most are surprised, some are confused, and a couple are even amused. She comes to me with stories of recent conversations with both friends and acquaintances who mean well, but just don't know how to react when someone says that they are pursuing the liberal arts. It is almost as if they are disappointed that my daughter isn't going to be contributing member of society who is out to make a million dollars.

I have had a discussion with my daughter that she will need to harden herself to these types of responses and to get her spiel ready and polished. I was also careful to tell her that she does not need to offer apologies to anyone. She is choosing a course of study which appeals to her and will make her a happy and educated individual. After all, she is going to college in order to receive an education, not to prepare for a job.

Colleges should not be seen as expensive vocational centers training the work-force for the 21st century. What present (and future) employers need are individuals who can think, plan, organize, be creative, collaborate, and communicate. Anyone with these abilities can easily be trained by employers to do what is required in any job and to be a contributing member to society. The world cannot benefit from narrowly-educated, close-minded individuals who are merely out to make money.

We, as educators, need to support and encourage students to pursue whatever field they wish after they leave our classrooms. If a students wishes to go on to college and study math, economics, engineering, and the like, so be it. Likewise, if a student wishes to major in art history, English literature, classical music, or Latin, these are completely valid choices as well. Student who go off to get a degree in the liberal arts should not have to defend or explain themselves. One should never have to apologize for her education.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Down the Roman Road: Part IV

Question #4: Why are the sidewalks in Pompeiian streets so high?

Stepping stones crossing a street in Pompeii from elevated sidewalks.
Photograph taken by Emily Gilmore, June 2011.

Again, I have read conflicting reports. Most say that the streets are deep in order to contain the mud, muck, and sewage. Others report that the deep streets are for directing and tracking wheeled traffic and keeping it safely away from pedestrians. Concerning the latter there are suggestions that the stepping stones and even the ruts for the wheels are all part of the effort to contain traffic. I have even read that the stepping stones were meant to be speed-bumps, slowing down traffic as it has to negotiate the obstacles.

I believe (like in an earlier post) that some combination of the two suggestions makes sense. I do lean, though, toward the notion that the street itself was an open ditch and that the raised sidewalks and stepping stones are for the convenience of pedestrians.

Bonus question: Are the stepping stones across the streets in Pompeii unique? I wouldn't think that they would be, but I haven't been able to find evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Down the Roman Road: Part III

Question #3: How in the world did traffic navigate those stepping stones in Pompeii?

In my last posting I considered the ruts between those stepping stones in Pompeii and pretty much came to the conclusion that they were deliberately carved in order to direct the carts and wagons between the stones and elsewhere along the route. My question above is directed not at the vehicles themselves but to the mules, donkeys, horses, oxen, and humans that propelled them. Yes, the wheels slip nicely into the ruts but how did one donkey (let's say), bound to the front of a wagon, avoid the stones? He couldn't step around them with the wagon "in the groove" nor could he step over them. Even if he were to step around the stone, how did he not damage his hooves, feet, or legs walking in or over the groove itself? This question tends to give my notion some credence that the grooves were filled with sand or other substance. The same question becomes even more interesting if the wagon was pulled by two oxen. They must have walked been trained to walk between the stones AND avoid the ruts. Furthermore, a cart pulled or pushed by a human would have the same difficulties. Any enlightenment anyone could give me would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Down the Roman Road: Part II

Question #2: Why are there obvious ruts in Roman roads?

Ruts between the stepping stones in Pompeii
The quick answer is that these ruts are obvious signs of wear and tear. Not so fast, though. Often the quick answer is not the correct one. I have come across conflicting information about those ruts found in the ancient roads in Rome and Pompeii. Some sources do say that they were worn by the continuous passage of wheeled traffic. Even the more sensational sources like to say that they were left by chariots! (Chariots? Hah! That will have to be another post.) These sources claim that the ruts became prominent particularly as traffic edged between those large stepping stones which allowed pedestrians to cross from one side of the street to the other without stepping in something unpleasant. Other sources say that the ruts were carved deliberately in order to guide the traffic more easily between the stones or around certain curves or other obstacles.

Which answer is true? Probably some combination of the two. The problem is that I can't seem to find a definitive source for any of the claims. I would appreciate anyone who can point me in the right direction on this issue.

Something else to consider is that the ruts can be found elsewhere in the roads than between the stepping stones. I believe that they are intentional and that they helped to guide the carts and wagons along the road without incident. While the ruts, or let's call them "tracks" (like a railroad), are useful for wheeled traffic, they do make the road more difficult and dangerous for the humans and animals which pulled/pushed these carts and wagons.

Down the Roman Road: Part I

I have been thinking about those ancient roads that run through parts of the Roman Forum, the Appian Way, and Pompeii, and have come up with a few questions. I have often walked along or across these roads, paying particular attention not to turn an ankle or fall on my face. All the while I think that the roads must certainly have been more pedestrian-friendly in the ancient world. I have searched for answers by wandering through the tangle of information that is the internet, and I have also been so bold as to post my queries and thoughts on the LatinTeach list and the budding Google+ network. Either it is summer and many who would contribute or comment are lounging at the beach, or more likely my questions interest only me. In any case, I have decided to place my efforts for storage and future consideration.

The Via Sacra in Rome

Question #1: Why are these roads so rough?

While some weathering has certainly occurred over the centuries to round off these stones, I doubt that they could have changed all that much. The roads paved over in large blocks of basalt in the city of Rome are very similar, if not identical, to those which have been unearhted in Pompeii over the past few centuries. I think that it is possible or even probable that sand, gravel, concrete, or other aggregate was certainly added to fill in the gaps betrween the stones, level off the surface, and create a smooth pavement. This filler would certainly have been weathered away on the exposed, paved roads of Rome and the Appian Way. Also, any loose surface material could have been innocently swept away when the streets of Pompeii were being excavated. As archaeologists in Pompeii continue to make their way down a buried street, perhaps they should pause as they get down to the paving stones and see whether something besides ash or volcanic debris can be found on the surface.

My only concern with the use of sand or dirt as a "smoothing agent" is that they would be easily washed away by the rain or waste water which would flow through the thoroughfares.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Imagine That: Roman Litter (the garbage kind)

I am starting an occasional series titled Imagine That, in which I imagine how things would have been in the ancient Roman world. I welcome all serious contributors!

Imagine that you are walking down a street in ancient Rome. What kind of natural and man-made litter, garbage, etc. do you see in and along the road?

  • mud and dirt (goes without saying but I said it anyway)
  • puddles of water
  • feces and urine from animals and humans
  • small, dead animals: dogs, cats, rats, birds
  • bones and other parts/entrails from food: fish, pigs, goats, sheep, chicken, duck, goose
  • fruit skins and rinds, olive pits, vegetable skins and seeds, spoiled food
  • broken pottery and sherds
  • old clothes, rags, and shreds
  • scraps of parchment, papyrus, vellum (probably not much of this)
  • sticks (but should have been used as fuel for fire), parts from old brooms
  • bits of block, brick, stone, terra cotta
  • broken toys, dolls, small statues/lares
  • rarely, cool stuff like coins, stylus, glass vial or bottle, knife
  • what am I missing?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wrapping It All Up: Translating Into Latin

At this year's American Classical League Institute in Minneapolis, I attended a session on the Cambridge Latin Course. Having taught for years from the Ecce Romani series, I was well aware of the reading approach to learning (and teaching) language, but I was very surprised to hear the speaker make the emphatic statement that the Cambridge series is not designed to teach the student to translate into Latin, only to read Latin as quickly as possible.

I can think of no better way to review all aspects of learning Latin, vocabulary, grammar, than by having the students translate into the language. To me, a parallel example would be to have a math student solve a word problem by applying all he has learned in map. Moreover, translating into Latin also allows the student to add creativity and test the effects of emphasis and logic by word choice and word order.

Translating into Latin should be handled in two different ways. The first exercise is to have the student take a set English sentence and then turning that sentence into something a Roman would understand. There is a limited range of expected vocabulary and constructions to be used and useful comparisons can be made between examples. The second exercise, and this one is more important, is to have the student generate an original sentence in Latin. The freedom of vocabulary and constructions allows the student to work at his or her own comfort level and in a way that promotes interest.

Different exercises allowing for original writing can include displaying a picture and having the student describe what is happening. This approach lends some focus as the student should limit vocabulkary choice to the subject matter of the picture. Another activity, completely wide open, is to have the student create a comic strip in Latin. Create a handout with four, six, or even eight blocks, and the have the student create whatever comes to mind. The results can be fun, amusing, and sometimes a little strange. This is also a great opportunity for artistic expression, and don't let the student fret if she thinks she cannot draw, tell her that stick figures are certainly acceptable!

The one thing to remember about translating into Latin, particularly if the student is generating something original, is the rule that simple is always best.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Continuing Adventures of M. Didius Falco

I finished reading Lindsey Davis' The Jupiter Myth this morning. I began re-reading this series in March and have completed the fourteenth novel; there are six more to go. I have enjoyed reading these books in (relatively) quick succession, but it provides a continuity and context not available when having to wait a year or more between publications. I would always anticipate the release dates for the next installment and must admit that I often ordered the books from I do remember making this confession to Ginny Lindzey, Lindey Davis' outstanding webmistress, who berated me for not supporting the American market for publication. Alas, I was weak and hooked and could not delay my gratification by reading more about Rome's favorite informer.

By reading these novels together, I am pleased by how they seem to flow together, continuing threads and story lines developed earlier. I don't think I noticed this as much the first go around, and I still appreciate the little reminders Davis faithfully includes about important characters and events.

I am amazed at how well Davis has developed her lead character, Marcus Didius Falco. We are introduced to his charmingly cynical attitude early on, as well as his feelings, relationships, fears, and hopes. He is attractive to the reader and believable as a character. I also appreciate the author's images and descriptions of Vespasian's Rome and Empire. It is obvious that Davis has done her research and labors to include it within the texts without being pedantic or intrusive. I particularly liked her descriptions, and Falco's feelings, about early Londinium, and I was picturing her smirking as she was revealing to her own countrymen and the world her images of the origins of London.

I do think that many of these stories are particularly suited for the big screen or even a television series. Perhaps one day we will see Falco & Partner(s) in action!

Now, back to reading!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Arch of Titus

One of my favorite sites in the Roman Forum. I remember giving an oral report on this monument when I was a student at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome in the Fall 1985. This photograph was taken by my daughter in July 2007.