Saturday, October 10, 2015


WE can assume that Antinous spoke Greek as his mother tongue because he was born in Bithynia in Asia Minor ... so he probably learned Latin as a second language when he went to Rome with Hadrian.

Anyone who has studied Latin in school knows it is a labyrinth of complicated grammar ... notoriously boring to learn.

The ancients also had to face the problem. Clearly, non-Romans who wanted a career in Roman high society, the courts, civil administration or the army needed to learn Latin. 

So they did, and by the time Antinous lived, in the 2nd Century AD, the Greek essayist Plutarch was able to say that almost all men used Latin.

So how did the ancients do it?

Professor Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading in the UK) has shown in her outstanding scholarly edition of the "Colloquia" that, when it came to learning foreign languages, the ancients initially glossed over the grammar and began with upbeat bilingual stories featuring scenes and conversations from everyday life.

Professor Dickey lists 80 surviving manuscripts designed to enable Greeks such as Antinous to learn Latin. They consist of vocabulary lists (very big on food), grammars, and texts (these make up more than half the material, with Virgil and Cicero especially popular). 

These texts appear in two columns, one to three words wide, the Latin on the left, and the Greek — a word-for-word translation of the Latin — on the right.

Among these texts are the colloquia, bilingual conversational stories for beginners. 

They tell of schoolboys going to school, lawyers in court, trips to the baths and people borrowing money from a banker, summoning friends for lunch and visiting the sick. 

They are constructed in a series of easily-digested, phrase-book style utterances.

Here is one featuring a school boy perhaps not unlike Antinous:
Ante lucem — before daylight/vigilavi — I awoke/de somno — from sleep/surrexi — I got up/de lecto — from the bed/sedi — I sat down/accepi — I took/pedules — gaiters/caligas — boots/calciavi me — I booted myself/poposci — I asked for/aquam — water/ad faciem — for my face/lavo— I wash/primo manus — first my hands/deinde faciem — next my face/lavi— I washed/extersi — I dried myself/deposui dormitoriam — I took off my pyjamas/accepi tunicam — I took a tunic/ad corpus — for my body/praecinxi me — I belted myself/unxi caput meum — I anointed my head/et pectinavi — and combed [my hair]/…’

The Antinous-like school boy then leaves the bedroom with his pedagogue and nurse, greets his parents with a kiss and sets off for school. 

He greets the teacher, who kisses him and returns the greeting, takes his books (scrolls), writing tablets, styluses and ruler from his slave, rubs out the previous contents of the tablet, rules new lines, writes his work, and shows it to the teacher who corrects it and crosses it out. The teacher then orders him to read aloud. 

There is a squabble with a fellow pupil, the small kids in the class practice their Greek letters, and "Antinous" gets down to his grammar, parsing words and declining nouns. 

He goes home for lunch (white bread, olives, dried figs, cheese, nuts, water), and back to school.

These conversations are full of interest. When slaves fail to make the bed up properly, the master refuses them permission to go out for the night and says they will be in for it if he hears a single peep out of them. 

A man borrowing money at a bank asks what the rate of interest is — quibus usuris? The banker replies quibus vis — ‘Whatever you want’! 

Probably this was a polite convention: the man would not get his money if he wrote down the wrong rate. 

Likewise, the banker tells him to check that the coins he receives are not debased, and to ensure he repays the loan in equally good coin.

Two friends go the baths (towel, strigil, face-cloth, foot-cloth, balsamarium of oil, soap) and hand their clothes to the slave to guard against theft.

They exercise with a ball and wrestle for a bit (one of them is reluctant — non scio si possum — because he has not done it for a long time).

They pay the keeper and plunge in. Dried off, oiled and dressed, they buy goods at the bath-shop — chopped food, lupins and beans in vinegar — and go home.

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