What I Learnt From Britain’s Favourite Latin Textbooks: A Review of the Cambridge Latin Course
Al M. Wakeman | University of Leeds
Part One – A Review of the Cambridge Latin Course
‘Arma viruque cano.‘ No? What about: ‘In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram’? Given they’re written in a dead language, it’s unlikely that you recognise either of these Latin phrases. In fact, I’d bet it’s significantly more likely that you recognise the phrase ‘Caecilius est in horto’. The first two are the opening lines of The Aeneid and the Vulgate Bible, the third is the opening line of the Cambridge Latin Course. Somehow, a series of secondary school textbooks has found itself being compared to one of the greatest works of literature ever created and the holy book of the world’s largest religion. I may be a little late to contribute any groundbreaking commentary on these two works, but I can claim to be somewhat novel by reviewing the CLC.
The main reason these books are so well known is that they have stood unchallenged as almost the sole textbooks used to teach Latin in UK schools for over half a century. Since their creation in 1970, almost every Latin student in the country has come to associate Latin (and whatever other pains and joys they associate with the language) with the bright red cover of the first volume. Being a common factor amongst so many students has led to ‘Caecilius est in horo’ becoming part meme, part greeting, part secret club codeword shared between fellow Latin students long after they leave school.
On several occasions, I myself have been able to bond with a fellow Latin speaker (and occasionally, for better or worse, be falsely identified as an ex-public schoolboy) with the simple utterance of those four words; though I used to feel like a bit of a fraud when I did so. Although I did study Latin until I was 16, I was a pretty awful student, who’d made up his mind that he hated Latin, Latin teachers, Latin classes, and Latin textbooks, the result of this decision was that I’d learnt almost no Latin by the time I left school. During the spring of 2020, I happened to find myself sitting at home with some government-mandated spare time and used some of it to challenge myself to give Latin another go, having grown and changed in the years since school. Knowing of no other way to learn Latin, I ordered all 5 volumes of the Cambridge Latin Course and began working through them. This experience not only converted me to the joys of Latin but also to the brilliance of the Cambridge Latin Course. Having been refined over 50 years, being designed to engage and teach teenagers, and being focused not on drilling vocabulary and grammatical rules, but instead on natural language acquisition through stories, not only do I believe these books are perhaps the easiest (and cheapest) way for anyone to begin learning Latin, but I also think they are worth a read to any history buff, with an interest in learning about ancient Rome in a completely unique way that no other book, film, lecture, or other media could provide.
The Cambridge Latin Course may be some of the only textbooks that have a story. I don’t mean a loose plot that gets forgotten every few chapters; the entire five-volume series follows the interwoven lives of dozens of characters throughout Imperial Rome. Not only the legendary Caecilius but a huge and varied cast, including a grumpy cook, a British King, a suspicious soothsayer, and a pair of bumbling soldiers. With these characters and others, we travel across the empire, from Pompeii to Alexandria, from Bath to Rome itself, eventually even incorporating fictionalised versions of Emperor Domitian, General Agricola, and the poet Martial, who by the final book will be reciting to us his actual Latin poetry (and maybe we’ll even understand some of it!). The mundanity of the opening chapter (‘Caecilius is in the garden’ is followed by the almost as thrilling ‘Caecilius is sitting in the garden’) is quickly abandoned and we soon find ourselves concerned with a suspiciously angry mountain outside of Pompeii, getting involved with a murder plot in Britain, standing up to gangsters and hunting hippos in Egypt, withstanding a Roman siege in Jerusalem and following the secret affair of the emperor’s wife. There are untimely deaths and brutal murders, weddings and heartbreak, cruel masters, freed slaves, mass suicides, military conquests, extravagant feasts, and seedy, urban underbellies. If you’re finding yourself uninspired by the current offerings of televised history or fantasy, perhaps your salvation can be found in the Cambridge Latin Course. I could tell you about the common heartbreak Latin students share surrounding the death of a character at the end of chapter XII but that would be a spoiler – the Cambridge Latin Course is a series of textbooks that has spoilers.
The story acts as the basis for a rhythm of learning that becomes almost comfortable by the end of the course. Every single chapter has the same layout: a page or two of quick Latin sentences; a few pages of long-form Latin text; an English section explaining a new language feature that has been introduced in the text; some practice questions; and (also in English) a few pages on Roman History, literature, business, military, etc. relating to what has just happened in the story. The familiarity of the layout of each chapter prevents potentially terrifying new grammatical structures and language concepts from instilling much fear, especially when reading at your own pace, instead of at school. Only a little new Latin is introduced at a time and is padded heavily with English language discussions of Roman culture, so each new chapter never feels too intimidating and just as they become challenging there is never the hopeless feeling that the end is nowhere in sight. Even better, is the relatively new (and free) online resources that allow you to read every Latin section online, and hover over difficult words to get a quick reminder of its translation or the grammar that might be confusing you in a particular sentence.
Having been used by almost all the UK’s Latin students for decades and having changed very little in that time, the Cambridge Latin Course is no ordinary series of textbooks, they have become historical artifacts in their own right. They are monuments to how an entire country has taught itself Latin for over 50 years. They do not only contain information on ancient Rome but on modern Britain, on the significant focus given to Roman Britain over many areas far more important to the empire, on the depiction of slaves and women, on British humour and Western traditions of storytelling.
The economy of these books (it makes little sense for an individual to buy them new) and their almost exclusive source being secondary schools means that if you acquire and read your own copies of the Cambridge Latin Course, they really will feel like your unique copies. One of mine came from ‘Warwick School’ and informs me that “The boy to whom this is lent is responsible for keeping it in good condition”. There are only two names written beneath this warning: A boy who appears to be called Phillip Lcccg, who received the book new in 2006, and another with a far more legible name who had the book handed down to him in ‘B’ condition. I can’t help but wonder which one of them drew the giant spliff in Strythio the soldier’s mouth on page 56. Few subjects have been studied for so long yet have remained as unchanged as Classical Languages. To learn Latin, to any extent, is to be aware of a community of students millennia old and to feel yourself becoming part of that community.
Part Two – A Guide to Reading the Cambridge Latin Course
If I have sold you on reading this quintology, then I have some good news – these could be the cheapest textbooks you will ever buy. As a result of the books being both ubiquitous and perennial, there is an abundance of second-hand copies – and even if you had the spare cash for brand new copies, I think you’d lose a little bit of the magic of learning Latin with a copy that’s dog-eared and crudely graffitied; if your Latin books smell like fresh ink and not mild damp, you’re doing it wrong. The first four textbooks can easily be picked up from somewhere like eBay for a total of less than £20. Whilst the fifth and final entry, perhaps less commonly reached in the school curriculum, can come to £20 by itself, totaling £40 for the entire set. I’m aware that many readers of EPOCH are young scholars, for whom £40 may still sound quite steep. If this is the case, the library at your institution may well have copies of the books and if not, there is usually a procedure for requesting the library order a copy. Sections of the contents of the course are available for free online, however, I would strongly recommend acquiring physical copies, as the online resources are more of an accompaniment than a replacement.
Once you have acquired your copies, it is of course completely up to you how you read them – I highly doubt you’re reading an academic history magazine without having developed some sort of comprehension skill. However, my guess is that if you’ve gone this far then you are likely to be reading these books for one of two reasons:
You’re interested in learning more about Roman history through the language they spoke and you’re nerdy enough to think it’d be pretty cool to be able to read even a little Latin (I don’t use the word derisively; I am of course sat here writing a review of a set of textbooks)
You’re interested in learning to read Latin to reasonable fluency (whatever that vague linguistic marker means for you)
In my opinion, you should approach these books slightly differently depending on which of these categories you fall into. Below I offer some advice on these different approaches for you to utilise or disregard at your leisure.
Latin-to-English v English-to-Latin
If you’re interested in fluency, the best way to practice vocabulary is by translating English words into Latin. You may not remember the words for world, or horse, or eye, but it’s not too hard to figure out what mundus, equus, or oculus might mean and kid yourself into thinking you’ve remembered something you’ve actually forgotten.
If, however, your interests align more with the first of the above scenarios, then instead focus on translation from Latin to English. Unless you’re planning on sitting an exam, you’re unlikely to ever be asked to translate the English language into Latin, whereas in the real world (however applicable Latin is to that) you’ll only ever need to translate Latin (such as from an inscription, a motto, an epitaph) into modern English.
Single read v Re-read
This might sound like overkill, but if you’re interested in fluency, once you finish a book you might want to consider re-reading the Latin passages in the previous books in the course; for instance, upon finishing Book III, go back and re-read the Latin in Books I and II. This may sound like a pointless amount of work (turning essentially 5 books into 15), but it is nowhere near as much as it sounds. Partly because only a relatively small amount of each chapter is actually made up of Latin texts (the rest being illustrations, English sections on history, literature, etc. and exercises) and partly because of how easy you’ll suddenly find them. Book I eases you in with very simple sentences, but by the end of its 12th and final chapter you're likely to be feeling seriously challenged. It is very encouraging to go back a few weeks later and find that something you once found quite tricky now reads with ease. If you finish reading Book V, I guarantee you’ll be able to return and read through the entirety of Book I in less than an hour, rather than the month it will likely take you on the first reading.
If your goal is to be able to read real Latin texts, then you should aim to understand all the grammar introduced in the course. Whilst it doesn’t cover all Latin grammar, it does cover a large, useful chunk of it. In fact, some would argue that if you thoroughly understood all the grammar, you could read a decent amount of Latin having never studied the vocab, being able to figure out meaning from similarities to vocab from modern English and other European languages. Understanding grammar is even more essential in Latin than in most other languages, as Latin uses a system of endings, not only to denote verb tense, gender, and number but also the role of a noun in a sentence. If you remember and understand every piece of grammar introduced in these books, you’ll be in a very strong position to begin reading real Latin texts.
If you aren’t as interested in fluency, you still can’t get away with learning no grammar, but you can probably scrape by just learning the noun endings for all cases and declensions and the most common verb endings (including irregular and deponent verbs).
Alex Wakeman is a PhD student at the University of Leeds' Centre for Plant Sciences, researching the development of shoot architecture. He is an editor for the interdisciplinary student journal, Leeds Postgraduate Review.