Suburani: Writing a New Latin Reading Course

Laila Tims

At dawn in the Subura, in AD 64, a teenage girl looks out of a top-floor window of an apartment building. Below her, the streets are filled with people going about their lives – selling livestock (and arguing over the price), transporting vegetables, fruit, building materials; gutting a fish; sewing a pair of sandals; grabbing a bite or a drink at the popina. The Subura is noisy, messy, smelly, and crowded. Sabina’s aunt runs the bar, while her father, the landlord of the apartment block, is painting over the bad review a disgruntled tenant left on the wall of the insula (we can just make out ‘Faustus est fur’ – ‘Faustus is a thief’).

The following stories introduce Quartilla, an enslaved woman working in the bar, and her young son Currax, who is out in the city each day to drum up business; Lucrio, enslaved in the household of Faustus; Manius, a beggar in the Subura; Gisco, a veteran soldier, his British wife Catia, and their young son; also Lucilius, a young equestrian who moves in circles close to Nero. They move through the city of Rome, working, visiting temples, baths, and the chariot races, running into one another as their storylines converge.

This is the world of Suburani, a new Latin reading course for 11 to 16 year olds. In 32 chapters spanning two books, it takes students to GCSE (UK) and covers Latin I and II (US). The course was developed in response to the needs of current teachers and students: for fresh and engaging stories that provide an honest view of the ancient world based on the latest evidence, while giving students a strong grasp of the language to prepare them for the transition to reading unadapted literature, and (particularly in the UK) to prepare them for exams.

Why a new Latin course?

In early 2017, Will Griffiths, Hannah Smith, Tony Smith, and I set up a new not-for-profit company to support Classics teaching in schools: Hands Up Education. We had been collaborators for a number of years, developing teaching materials, delivering teacher training, and supporting schools to introduce and expand their Latin and Classics teaching. I had taught in schools in the Netherlands and the UK, and worked with a wide range of student abilities and a varied set of resources, before moving on to train and support non-specialist teachers to deliver Latin at primary and secondary levels.

Over the years, we had all, in our interactions with teachers and through our own experiences in the classroom, come to the opinion that there was a growing need for a new Latin course, feeling increasingly that the existing Latin courses presented too simplified a narrative of life in the Roman world: focusing on the wealthiest individuals, giving a sanitised view of the experience of enslaved people, failing to reflect the diversity of the population, and underrepresenting women and girls, as well as being a poor match for the demands of the GCSE assessments. We came together with the wish to create a course that immersed students in narratives that would resonate with them, and that reflected life in the Roman Empire as it was for its ordinary people, with sensitivity to issues that are now so important to students and teachers: enslavement, imperialism, diversity, gender, sexuality, to name just a few.

We also felt strongly that the profits generated from the materials we created should go back fully to supporting Classics teachers. With this vision, the skills of Tony (who developed all the learning software) and Hannah (who in addition to a passion for the subject is an amazingly talented illustrator), and the support of dozens of enthusiastic teachers in the UK and US, we set out to create a course that would both transform people’s classroom experience and safeguard a strong future for our subject in schools.

Arepo, the Wordle-style game for Latin, hosted by Hands Up Education.

An honest look at the ancient world

A key mission of Suburani is to give students a more accurate experience of life in the Roman Empire, focusing not just on the wealthiest individuals but on people from a full cross-section of society. Through talking to teachers and students in the planning stages it became clear this was a priority, particularly for students: they wanted to learn about the real Romans, and read stories about people they could identify with.

This immediately raised issues when it came to writing the Latin stories. For one thing, the people we wanted to write about (the poor, women, children, enslaved people, and people living at the edge of the Empire) were those for whom there was generally the least direct evidence. Telling the stories of these people faithfully, while keeping the storyline engaging, presented another set of challenges. We wanted enslaved people to play a key role in the Latin stories, for instance, but we did not want them to have an unrealistic amount of personal freedom and a carefree existence, or to present their enslavers as ‘good owners’. However, neither did we want the stories about enslaved people to be totally bleak and boring (“Quartilla works a long and hard day at the bar – again!”).

In their final form, the stories feature the real struggles of enslaved people, such as Quartilla’s fear of being separated from her son Currax by being sold to another owner, or the desperate bid for freedom made by Thellus and Gallio, who stoke fires at the baths. Some stories now make for uncomfortable reading: Sabina’s love interest Alexander is referred to as beating his slaves. Characters who the students like and identify with are not shown as particularly caring masters. And to allow our stories to keep students gripped by the narrative and see more of the Empire, our cast of ordinary people end up having some extraordinary adventures: Sabina from the Subura ends up travelling to Gaul, Lusitania and North Africa, and Gisco will play a role in the downfall of Nero.

Supporting different pedagogies

The world of Latin teaching has always been diverse, and perhaps it is increasingly so of late. The pedagogies embraced by today’s teachers range from more traditional “grammar-translation” approaches, to using spoken Latin in the classroom. When we started work on Suburani, it was clear that whatever we created needed to work in a range of environments. No one textbook can be everything to all people, but we focused on making a course that was adaptable to different pedagogies. We did this, for instance, by including the first three persons of the verb in Chapter 1, so that those speaking Latin with their students could immediately start small dialogues. We have provided a wealth of ancillary resources online that includes expanded language notes, English into Latin translation exercises, etymology activities, English and Latin comprehension questions, and many more. A ‘community resources’ area hosts an ever-increasing range of materials created by an international team of teachers who supplement the course. These provide a rich set of resources for teachers to explore a variety of approaches to covering the book.

Transitioning to original Latin

All school textbooks aim to give students the skills they need to move on to reading unadapted Latin. Making this transition happen smoothly can be a challenge; inevitably the first forays into original literature expose students to new language patterns, a different vocabulary and a distinct writing style, as well as a new historical and literary context. We aimed to make this transition as easy as possible for students using Suburani. Based upon the latest available software for analysing Latin texts, we built the stories to match the most frequently found patterns in word order and vocabulary use, thus avoiding the trap of reading “textbook Latin”.

The stories of Book 2 start featuring phrases and excerpts of original texts, and students move on to reading adapted Latin in some of the final stories. To align Suburani’s use of language closely with that of ancient authors, and to ensure frequent repetition of key vocabulary and forms (taken from both the Dickinson College Latin core vocabulary, and the GCSE defined vocabulary lists), we created our own software to track the incidence of headwords and specific forms in detail.

Preparing for exams

In the UK, teaching in the 11–16 age bracket is heavily influenced by the pressures of preparing students for GCSE exams. Schools prepare their students for these exams in quite different circumstances: some teach the top end of the ability range, some teach a wide range of abilities; some start Latin in Year 7, some in Year 9; and the amount of teaching time allocated to Latin within those years differs hugely between schools. In such a varied teaching environment, Latin resources need to be highly adaptable.

Suburani’s linguistic map was crafted with these varied pressures in mind, in consultation with dozens of teachers from a wide variety of schools, to cover the GCSE syllabus efficiently, while offering plenty of opportunities for differentiation and extension through online ancillary materials. Digital resources fill the gap in meeting the needs of individual students, with interactive activities giving direct feedback to students, allowing them to identify gaps in their knowledge. Tracking functionality also makes it easy for teachers to adapt their teaching effectively to the class’s progress.

Laila Tims studied Classics at Cambridge, before training as a teacher in the Netherlands. She worked for the Cambridge School Classics Project on the KS4 curriculum, and now contributes to the International Baccalaureate’s Classical Languages programme as a curriculum review team member and examiner. As a founding director of Hands Up Education, she is the co-author of its free online Primary Latin Course and its secondary Latin course Suburani. You can try the first two chapters of Suburani, and order a free school copy, here.