Educational Resources on the Ancient Mediterranean World


Learning Latin or Greek at school ?
This page was written with the help of
John Hazel, retired teacher of Classics.

Historically, Latin and Greek were taught in “grammar schools” (state funded) and “public schools” (private and fee-paying). In the twentieth century, state schools were reformed and most grammar schools abolished. Classical languages are now taught in some state schools and many private schools. Until the 1960s, a pass in Latin at Ordinary level was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge universities and the best students had to study it. This is no longer so.
A new approach to Latin came into being in the early 1970s, pioneered by Cambridge School Classics Project. More than grammar teaching, it focused on reading in Latin a narrative designed to introduce the student to the realities of life in the first century AD. The translation of English to Latin was no longer required or taught, and the Cambridge Latin Course eventually became by far the most widespread course in Britain. Two other new courses, Ecce Romani (mostly used in Scotland) and the more traditional Oxford Latin Course, based on the life of Horace, brought increased emphasis on grammar-learning, and revision of the Cambridge Course had the same effect. Latin and Greek are everywhere
and sometimes even in their original form:

Album, alibi, agenda, aquarium, alinea, a priori…
et cetera !
Today, Classics teaching in England and Wales is mostly done by the independent (i.e. private) schools, especially the best ones, and the fact that they teach Classics is in accordance with the excellent education offered by the best independent schools. Many comprehensive schools manage to teach some Latin (not Greek) but usually in the lunch break or after school in "twilight time". Many of the remaining grammar schools also teach Latin and even Greek. Nationally about 1000 candidates sit the A level examination each year in Latin. Greek is rarely taught, with only about 200 candidates taking the A Level examination nationally each year.

Mythology lives among us
Do you think of it when
seeing these trademarks?



So it is a lottery whether a pupil at an English school has the chance to study any Latin. Few have the chance to study Greek. But it is possible to start Latin and Greek too at some universities.
Scotland has a rather different system, and about 250 pupils sit Higher Latin. Greek is rarely taught. Little Latin is taught in Wales because of competition from the Welsh language.

Why learn Latin or Greek?

Teachers of classical studies, who teach ancient Greek and Latin, regularly put forward all the advantages:
  • They are an invaluable introduction to cultures that are the bases of modern Europe.
  • From the linguistic point of view, they provide a better understanding and control of the structures and vocabulary of one’s native language, by exploring their mechanisms and their origin. They give an invaluable basis to the approach to other European languages, and not only Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). Latin and Greek are highly inflected (convey meaning by varying the endings of words) like Russian. Scientific vocabulary is also largely based on the classical languages.
  • Above all, to those who persist, it opens the door to the study of the literature of the ancient world, wonderful works like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Greek tragedies, Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ Histories, Plato’s philosophical writings, the comedies of Aristophanes, and much more. In Latin again there is a fine literature, including the works of Virgil and Cicero, the poems of Catullus and Ovid, the historical works of Livy and Tacitus.
Moreover, this teaching, through the study of major ancient historical or literary texts, allows one to have a better understanding of chronology in the context of 2500 years of development of beliefs, daily life and art. It thus allows us to become responsible citizens and tolerant human beings.
How many times, while visiting Pompeii, Athens and other ancient sites, I have heard visitors to the remains remarking on the originality and modernity of the buildings. Just so for the beliefs and actions of the ancient peoples ! Nadia Pla develops these aspects in her blog "Chemins antiques" and quotes this text by Robert Fernand: : ""The great thing that only classical studies provide is the habit, acquired from the younger years and for all your life, to think not only that everything has been said, but also that everything has already been felt, experienced, and that nothing happens in our soul that did not already happen in other souls, since there have been men who think and feel. What we need more than anything else, in our moral life, is never to feel ourselves as unique and alone. You are not a humanist if you say: "This is how I am, and you have to take me as I am". Our first impulse is to please ourselves and go our own way; but all training in behaviour and in social living is aimed at curing us of this impulse".

Even if, some years later, you do not feel yourself able to read a Latin text fluently, those marks at least will remain for ever.
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
I fear the Greeks even if they bring gifts.
Latin and Greek : is it difficult?

Learning a language, whatever it is, is both easy (a 4 years old child can do it) and difficult, when it is a "foreign" language. But only the first foreign language you learn seems very difficult: a good reason to start as soon as possible. The more languages you learn, the more you find benchmarks to help you. That is why some people can speak 4, 6 or more languages.

Parents (or grandparents today...) who studied ancient languages, often keep a somewhat painful memory of it, though not without some pride: our ancestors struggled with declensions and conjugations and Latin and Greek translations... Though ancient languages have not become easier over time, teaching them has evolved and learnng has been made more enjoyable with the help of ICT, beautifully illustrated textbooks, and information about ancient life, technology and history. Ancient languages and new technologies are not incompatible!
Nevertheless, beyond the school trip to Rome or the fascinating mysteries of archeology, an ancient language remains a “school subject”, which involves several lessons per week and some homework too.

Of course some students get discouraged or lose interest, and there are plenty of other interests to tempt them away. Others however become passionate, and enthusiastically go in for literary, historical and cultural careers. Here as elsewhere, the personality of the teacher can play a major role, and some remember with nostalgia or boredom the "teacher" as much as his/her lessons.
Alea jacta est
The die has been cast
(Julius Caesar)
But what will this all bring me ?
Some time ago, the answer was almost self-evident: Latin was almost inevitable if you wanted to be well-educated, and knowing Greek was a mark of social quality: an intellectual had to study classics. To common people, Latin was a mark of social advancement: it was the education followed by notables, doctors knew Latin, lawyers spoke Latin, scientists and men of learning such as Linnaeus always communicated in Latin.

But nowadays the question of turning young people into "well educated men", notables, has fallen into the background: they have first to find a job, and a well-paid position! What are now Latin and Greek good for ? Are they not a relic of ancient days?

In the minds of some parents "Latinists" and "Hellenists" remain an elite among which they would like to see their children: this is the field of the best. Are they better because they learn ancient languages, or did they choose them because they already were attracted by learning? This is a good question...

It must be said that most of the agitation in favour of classics are initiated by Latin and Greek teachers. Aren’t they just fighting to defend their profession? Are Latin and Greek useful or not? And finally, who is able to decide what is useful or not?
Ad hoc
For this

Nunc est bibendum
Now is the time for drinking.
Horace, relating the battle of Actium.
Cave canem
Beware of the dog
One thing is sure: nothing is ever useful for everyone: if all young people followed the same pathways, the same teachings, the world would quickly become desperately boring, since it just needs various people. To distinguish yourself by your knowledge as well as by your talent is always an asset.

Yet no one doubts the usefulness of mathematics; but - and this is my own experience - although I worked as an engineer and spent over 40 years in a technical career, I don’t remember, since graduating from high school, that I had to study only once the variations of a function 3x2 +2x-5, or even to calculate a cube root. Conversely, the memory of apparently useless things was often much more useful to me. After all, who knows what is useful or not ?

What is useful for one person will not be for another, any rare knowledge is invaluable (I remember how much the European Community was ready to pay for a Greek-Finnish interpreter!).

In short, even if you don’t consider the cultural point of view and adopt a purely materialistic one, it is often better to have a small but rare talent that a big common one.

And why not hieroglyphics, while you're there?

And indeed, after all, why not? We need Egyptologists, and I know specialists who read cuneiform inscriptions like a newspaper, and do their job with great passion. More seriously, Latin and ancient Greek have a particular property. Though they are no longer spoken today, those languages which are said to be "dead" are not really: they still live throughout our western civilization.

Let’s pay tribute to teachers who struggle today to prevent the death, not of Latin or Greek (the language is already considered as "dead"), but of the teaching of those languages. Like a tree, a civilization which lets its roots die may endanger its future.A people without memory is a people without a future.

Fiat lux, et lux fuit
Let there be light
and there was light