Understanding the Greek

One of my favourite things about teaching Classics is the Sixth Form literature.

This year I’m teaching Cicero, In Verrem and Ovid, Amores in Latin (the latter of which has proved rather hard to get students to warm to, given the creepy nature of the character he plays in the first of the prescribed poems…) and Homer, Iliad 24, Xenophon, Anabasis and Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus in Greek.

Now, I could go into why I think the three Greek texts and the two Latin texts are good demonstrations of one of the reasons I prefer teaching Greek to teaching Latin. But perhaps that is for another post.

What I want to remark on here is the difficulty, and importance, of getting Sixth Form students, who comprise a mixture of truly dedicated Classicists and those who took the subject as a fourth choice (mostly in Latin rather than Greek), to grasp the true reason for reading the texts in the original language.

It sounds so obvious to say it, but it is not always so obvious to students who just want to get good grades:
1. There is no such thing as a ‘correct translation’.
2. The English version isn’t the same as ‘what the Latin (or Greek) means’.
3. Scanning the metre of Ovid, Vergil or Homer isn’t just a clever game. It’s integral to understanding the feel and hence meaning of the text.
4. Most of the time, commentators’ insights into rhetorical features in the text are not ‘made up’. They’re based on an in-depth knowledge of the text, work and author. They might be wrong, of course, but the reason for sometimes just telling you to trust me about them and write them down is because there just isn’t time to wait for you to know the text and author well enough to spot things like that yourself.
5. If an author writes something, that doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks that. Especially if he’s Ovid…

There is something magical about working with people meeting The Iliad for the first time, though, and of course, to alter slightly an old cliche, it’s not the first impressions that count; it’s the journey…


2 thoughts on “Understanding the Greek

  1. Interestingly I have a different experience with the Ovid. The pupils ‘get’ the artifice and playful aspects and feel empowered by the notion of reception theory. Teaching the Cicero however can be like walking through treacle…….


    1. Yes, I found that towards the end of the year with Ovid. I found the ‘Murder in Rome’ (Pro Roscio) YouTube video enormously useful in giving students something to get their teeth into with Cicero. It’s a strange selection, however, as Ingo Gildenhard himself points out…


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