This is more of a rant than a “tip of the week”.
Every year I take students through Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
Every year I ask myself, “Why am I doing this to these poor students? And, Why am I doing this to myself?”
I personally am quite interested in Caesar’s romp through France, Belgium, and Britain. But, then again, I grew up in this part of the world and have always been fascinated by European history. To me, Caesar’s report is an interesting glimpse into ancient Europe.
However, if you are just starting to read in Latin, is this really the best place to start? Congratulations, kid. You just finished learning the complicated grammar of an ancient language. Now, here are the war journals of a Roman general. Have fun!
Can you imagine the outcry if we were to do the same thing to ESL learners? Congratulations. You just learned the complicated English grammar. Time to start reading Pentagon reports! I will help you get started. Here’s the a government report on stability and security in Afganistan: https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jul/01/2002348001/-1/-1/1/ENHANCING_SECURITY_AND_STABILITY_IN_AFGHANISTAN.PDF
How in the world did we end up here? Who decided that Caesar’s Gallic Wars was the first Latin book we should hand to young learners? We don’t do this to students of French, German, Italian, or Spanish.
Oddly enough, in America, we may have decided to use Caesar’s propaganda to reinforce our own propaganda. Just as Caesar had “barbarians” in the path of Roman “progress”, some early Americans felt that there were “barbarians” in the path of American progress. This is the argument of the late William Harris in his powerful, short essay on Caesar’s famous book: http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/LatinAuthors/Caesar.html.
The war against Native Americans is over. Thank goodness. That particular episode of American history was rather embarrassing. But, we are still stuck with Caesar. To pass the AP Latin exam, you had better know Caesar’s writings. To score well on the National Latin Exam, you had better spend some time in Caesar’s writings. Sigh.
There is a better way. Years ago, Dorothy Sayers (a good friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein) showed us the way. If there is a “tip of the week” in here, this is it:
After learning Latin grammar, read the Latin Vulgate. It’ easier. The gospels are written in simple, straightforward Latin. They were written for the people. They were written for the masses. In fact, the word Vulgate comes from the Latin word vulgus, meaning, the common people.
I doubt seriously that Caesar was writing for the common people.
Whether he was or not, the fact remains. The Vulgate is easier to read. It just makes sense to spend some time there before moving on to Caesar’s book.
I plugged chapter 2 of the gospel of Matthew and chapter 2 of Caesar’s book into a readability test. Here are the results:
The Gospel of Matthew
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 11.9
Flesch Reading Ease score: 66.7
Flesch Reading Ease scored your text: standard / average.
Grade level: Twelfth Grade.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 19.8
Flesch Reading Ease score: 31
Flesch Reading Ease scored your text: difficult to read.
Grade level: College Graduate and above.
While the tradition is to go from the basics into the highly stylized, elite, polished writing of the most educated Romans, Sayers takes an opposite approach. Why not start with the easier, more accessible Latin of the Vulgate and the Medievals and work back toward the more difficult Latin?
“After all”, and here I am quoting Sayers, “that is the natural way of learning any language – to begin with the more modern and go back to the more ancient, even if the ancient is the more noble. It is true that many people, if started upon the Medievals, would, in this hurried century, never have time to go further. Even so, would half a loaf not be better that no bread? Their training in the Vulgate would not enable them to write like Cicero; but it would enable them to write Vulgate Latin. After all, few of us actually ever succeed in writing like Milton or Dr. Johnson; but to write like Conan Doyle or Elanor Farjeron is better than never learning to write at all.”
If you are learning Latin to pass tests and to get into college, you don’t have much of a choice. Read Caesar.
If you are learning Latin because you want to be able to read in Latin, there is a better place to start. Read the Vulgate.
Oh, and by the way. Here is the Vulgate as a dramatized audio book… for free: http://www.bible.is/LTNNVV/Matt/1 .
Good luck finding such an audio book from the people telling you that you have to start with Caesar.
By the way, I realize nothing is going to change. I will still be teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars next year. I am fully aware that, like Halo Friendlies, it’s me against the world, and the world is winning.
But, sometimes… it feels good to take a swing at the hornet’s nest.
Have a happy Saturday!
Dwane Thomas, April 23, 2016