This is the second installment in a five-part series on world-language textbooks used by students inside and outside of school.
Here’s a sentence from the “Ecce Romani” series of Latin textbooks: “Postquam hoc fecit, corpus meum in plaustro posuit et stercus supra coniecit.”
This means, “After this was done, my body was placed in the wagon and feces (or its more vulgar alternative) was thrown on top of it.”
This is one of Latin teacher Jane Batarseh’s favorite sentences from the series, which she teaches to her Latin I-III classes.
The first two books in the series follow the Cornelius family, a patrician family with money and power, and their day-to-day life in ancient Rome.
The family includes Gaius, a wealthy senator and head of the family; his wife Aurelia; their children Marcus and Cornelia; and Sextus, a family friend who is living with the Corneliuses.
Batarseh said that the Corneliuses support the needs of the common people in Rome, which is unusual as historically most of the wealthy class simply ignored the lower classes.
The family owns a working villa in southern Italy and hundreds of slaves, making the villa self-sustaining.
Gaius’s position in society is important enough that in the first book he is called back to Rome to advise the emperor, Titus. Thus the first book follows the Corneliuses as they return to Rome from their villa.
The second book in the “Ecce Romani” series details the everyday life of the family in Rome.
After the first two books, the family story ends, as the third book uses actual Latin texts instead of made-up passages.
Batarseh said that she loves the series but believes that the writers had a little too much fun in naming the characters.
The series was originally published in 1971 by Oliver & Boyd of Edinburgh, Scotland. It was republished in 2005 by Prentice Hall with a slightly different story line.
“I am always a little bit suspicious of these old Scottish gents in the way that they named the characters, she said.
“Sometimes I feel like they are having a joke at our expense. Sextus is named Sextus (meaning Sixth) but could as easily have been named Tertius (meaning Third), and Cornelia’s best friend is named Flavia,” Batarseh said.
“Most Latin scholars know that Flavia means Blondie!”
Despite the fun names, Batarseh said some of the stories in the series can begin to drag.
“Some are, as one scholar put it, ‘boring enough to kill you if you don’t have auxiliary material,’” she said.
“In chapter 10 or 11 of the first book, when the Corneliuses are traveling to Rome, the whole story is just boring. Nothing happens at all. The characters are making only 20 miles a day in a Roman ‘raeda’ (carriage).
“This journey kills students’ interest; I basically have to stand on my head through these chapters to keep the students engaged,” she said.
Some Latin teachers do rewrite the stories to make them more interesting, according to Batarseh.
“I try to treat the stories with respect, but I know that some of my colleagues write parodies of the stories,” she said.
“At times, the stories can be melodramatic, awkward and simply the basis for a good joke.”
Batarseh said that she used to write parodies but found that the plot of these parodies distracted from the Latin.
“I haven’t rewritten the stories because once I looked at them, I saw how carefully they had been constructed to reach the pedagogical aims of the author,” she said.
That’s because the grammatical approach is as excellent as the stories are boring, Batarseh said.
“When the authors wrote these stories, they did their best to repeat vocabulary, introduce new syntax and, more importantly, introduce constructions that one would find when they start to read real Latin literature,” she said.
Instead of writing parodies, Batarseh uses many strategies in her classes to focus on the grammar of the stories instead of the plot.
“I keep most of the jokes to myself, cut the readings in half and go straight to the grammar,” she said.
“I then leave time for real Roman history, which is more absurd and strange than a story could ever be.”
Another aspect of the “Ecce Romani” series that Batarseh said she particularly enjoys is its historical accuracy.
“I spent two summers in Campania, Italy, visiting the villa on which the early chapters of book one are situated,” Batarseh said.
“I found the depiction of the Italian countryside, the rural architecture and the feel of the land to be completely accurate.”
However, Batarseh said the portrayal of Rome is flawed.
“Once (the Corneliuses) return to Rome, I found their depiction of Rome to be naive on one hand or too violent on the other,” she said.
Batarseh added that the series struggles with over-violence as a whole.
“For example, in one story, Eucleides, one of the Corneliuses’ slaves, comes in very beaten, but there is nothing in the story to indicate that this (should have) happened,” she said.
Batarseh said that her favorite story from the series is in chapter 5 of the first book.
“The girls are wandering in the woods and a wolf attacks them,” she said.