Latin is a powerful key to unlocking English vocabulary, and trains the mind in analytical thinking. Although our everyday speech is largely inherited from Old English (a Germanic language), technical fields like law and medicine abound with Latinate words. For example, whereas 27% of words in a typical article from The Sun come from Latin, that figure rises to 43% in the Financial Times, and 64% in both the British Medical Journal and the Harvard Law Review.
Only 1 in 74 children nationally take Latin to GCSE, predominately at elite schools, but at St Mary’s we are strongly committed, in keeping with the educational mission of Edmund Rice, to offering this superlative intellectual training to children from a wide variety of backgrounds
We enthuse our pupils using the Cambridge Latin Course, which follows a family from ancient Pompeii through the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius, and out to adventures in Egypt, Britain, and eventually in the city of Rome itself.
Alongside their language learning, pupils are challenged to think about a civilization very different from the one in which they live. We make regular trips to sites such as Hadrian’s Wall and Bath, putting the children face to face with the enduring mark that the Romans have left on this island.
All St Mary’s pupils study Latin in Year 7; they have the opportunity to continue it throughout Years 8 and 9.
Latin GCSE consists of four one-hour papers: two on language, one literature paper, and one on Roman civilization.
We complete the Cambridge Latin Course before turning to some short selections from Latin authors. In recent years we have read Pliny, Livy, and Suetonius on ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well as the orator Cicero on the crimes and cruelties of a corrupt Roman governor, and the patriotic historian Livy on the exploits of a hero and a heroine from Rome’s mythical past.
Where students are also studying French, Spanish, or German, Dr Thorne helps them to make links with their modern language, so that both subjects bolster each other.
Field trips to Mediterranean sites (most recently, to Pompeii, Sicily and western Turkey) bring the subject even more to life, and prompt many an interesting discussion back in the classroom.
At A Level we read actual Latin authors, with the aim of developing students’ appreciation of the texts as masterpieces of world literature. ‘Literature’ here includes political and forensic speeches (Cicero), history (Caesar, Tacitus, and Livy), and biography (Suetonius), as well as poetry, from the epic (Vergil), to the personal (Catullus) to the genre-bending (Ovid).
Current texts for study are:
- On the command of Gnaeus Pompeius, a speech delivered in 66BC, in which Cicero deploys all the arts of oratorical persuasion to urge the Roman people to vote sweeping military powers to Pompey.
- Metamorphoses (Book 3), in which Ovid retells the Greek myth of Pentheus, king of Thebes, his confrontation with the new cult of Bacchus, god of wine, his pride – and his grisly death at the hands of his kinswomen.
- Pliny the Younger, Letters (selection). The musings of a Roman gentleman in the reign of Trajan.
- Annals (Book 4). Tacitus’ biting account of the final years of the emperor Tiberius: intrigue, murder and mayhem.
- Aeneid (Book 6). Composed under Augustus, Virgil’s tale tells how Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, travelled to the underworld to receive a prophecy of Rome’s future greatness.
- Carmina (selection). Catullus, a young poet in the Rome of Caesar and Pompey writes to, and about, his friends and enemies, and about his infatuation and then disillusion with a mysterious lover. By turns coarse, tender, erudite, savage, witty, and mournful.
Dr Thorne, a published Roman historian, is particularly well placed to put all of these texts into their social and historical context, and really to bring them to life.
Outside the classroom, we have made several trips in recent years, notably to Pompeii, where we were able to enjoy reading many Latin inscriptions in situ, for example in the Pompeian forum and at Herculaneum.