Classical Education

The Great Books

When I was a young Classicist, it was my ambition to produce one of those works of staggering seminal significance which are identified just by the author's surname (equivalent to a rock star being just a nickname, like the Edge). "Get out your North & Hillards". What a fine way to start a lesson. How splendid to be a Kennedy or a Bury: or even a Roget, or a Brewer or a Fowler or, (greatest of them all) a Lemprière . But now, surveying the fragments of my career from a position of (comparative) tranquillity, I realise that it was never going to happen (it's utterly fanciful to imagine future generations of web-users being told to "look it up on Wilson", even if the Classics pages do go marching on!).

So, as my thoughts strayed to those happy few residents on this exclusive Olympus, I became increasingly struck by the sheer euphony, and metrical felicity of those familiar old names - especially those who came in pairs. Just how important was their scansion to their success? Just as the greatest comedic double acts have been either a choriamb (Morecambe & Wise) or the final two feet of a hexameter (Laurel & Hardy), so with the Classical pantheon (Ant and Dec are a cretic - enough said):

Choriambs: (apparently the metre for lexicographers, as well as comedians)


Ionicus a minore:



If you have used, or can identify, all the old greats, you are probably at least as old as I am! tales non iam faciunt (they don't make 'em like that anymore). Drop me an email if you think anyone else should be included. I'd be especially delighted to receive a picture of the front cover of one of those old Kennedies, where "Latin Primer" had inexorably become "Eating Primer". I've been unable to find anyone as uncompromisingly iambic as Shakespeare's "Dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern"

. Abbott and Mansfield


S.M. (to whom I'm indebted for some important additions above) writes:“The book I started to learn from at school was The (or was it A? memory fails me) New Latin Course, which naturally became A Newt's Eating Coursets. Nothing remarkable there but it did mean that I was unable to take seriously for a while one of my first lecturers at University - F.R. Newte. At first I was too young and ignorant to see what a great scholar he was but it was later brought home to me when he was dissecting my weekly Latin offering. He opened his Lewis and Short and, on looking up a word, said he did not agree with their meaning of it. I could see copious marginalia in his spidery hand. The secure foundations of my little world shook but it taught me an important lesson - have the courage to be sceptical even in the face of accepted authority.”

J.M. writes: “I have a few unburnt books from the era of Classicist
pomposity: e.g. 'The Public School Latin Primer' [- I
pronounce this word like the paint stuff, but was corrected
once to saying it as 'prim': -as in prissy]. This useful little
book comes 'Edited with the Sanction of the Head masters
of the Public Schools included in Her Majesty's [Victoria, of
course] Commission.' no less. The preface says, rather
unnecessarily, that it 'was not put forth by its compilers as
a First Book for children…”

PS If you don't know what a choriamb is, you are far too young to be reading this!

Death of Sir James Cobban
The former Headmaster of Abingdon School has died at the age of 88. Many Classicists who are as old as I am will have been introduced to Latin through his reader Civis Romanus, which he wrote with a colleague as a young teacher at Dulwich College (my old school - though he'd already moved on by the time I went there in 1950). In 1986 a party was held to celebrate 50 years of continuous publication - during which nearly half a million copies had been sold. The Cambridge Latin Course - a much more ambitious venture, of course, has sold over a million since the early 70s). But I was weaned on "Civis" and "Mentor" - in less than a week they had me addicted to Latin for life. [The Independent on Sunday - article and pictures - Sunday April 25 1999]