It Starts with Homer: Writing a Classics Curriculum

Sam Anderson

One of the reasons I fell in love with the subject of Classics is its infinite breadth. In no other school subject could I experience the satisfaction of dissecting a complex Latin sentence (ablative absolute embedded inside an indirect statement that somehow led to a result clause via a connecting relative); the beauty of that onion-skin simile in Odyssey 19; the drama of a Ciceronian attack on an isolated Catiline; the headache of those principal parts of φέρω and fero, and my realisation after reading Euripides’ Bacchae that my teenage emotions just needed some catharsis. Now, over a decade later, when I make time for it, still nothing can quite compete with sitting down to a coffee and copy of Hippolytus to lose myself in its timeless agony and exploration of human nature.

It is perhaps unsurprising that attempting to incorporate over two thousand years of history, culture and literature, including two languages, should create such an all-encompassing subject as Classics. This does not even touch upon the importance of Latin in medieval and religious history, nor Greek in science. And what of the enormous richness of the modern interpretations and adaptations of Classical literature that have been hitting our shelves over the past few years? How long until a university dissertation will analyse the way Natalie Haynes created her polyphonic masterpiece A Thousand Ships using the great epics and myths of the Classical age?

I now know that there is a cost to the wondrous complexity and scale of our subject. When writing a secondary school Classics and Latin curriculum, where on earth do you start and how do you decide what to include? In the inevitably small amount of lesson time granted to Classics teachers around the country, with the pressures of exams and the constant need to encourage and sufficiently challenge pupils learning languages that are undoubtedly hard, you are never going to be able to teach it all. And yet, you feel like you should. Your aim is to give all those children in front of you a chance to have Classics as their guide, their reference and their teacher throughout the incredible pace of the modern world. How are you going to get that eleven-year-old, who has not even heard of a minotaur, to turn to Latin love elegy when they are a love-struck university student?

There is plenty of writing out there about the introduction and success of Latin at state schools, both primary and secondary. Fantastic work is being done by organisations like Classics for All and there are now outreach efforts from a number of independent schools to ensure that our subject is available to children who have unfortunately not always been perceived as future Classicists. There are fantastic new textbooks available, like the incredibly detailed Suburani, to complement the traditional Cambridge Latin Course. There has been much debate around the correct technique to teach Latin (see contributions in Antigone here, here and here) and allowing variety in approaches is key for the future success of Classics. For Greek, there is John Taylor’s ever reliable Greek to GCSE textbook. Any curriculum has to have at its heart a detailed and rigorous language course in order for students to reach the level required for GCSE and A Level.

Suburani Book 1 (a piece introducing this exciting course will appear on Antigone very soon!).

It is crucial to consider what our aim is when setting out a Classics curriculum. For me this has to be to get students to read and enjoy literature in its original language and with an understanding of its historical context. By doing so we will necessarily include an ability to translate Latin (and Greek), cover at least parts of that vast expanse of history mentioned above, and of course foster a love of literature that stretches far beyond ancient Greece and Rome. Such an approach covers all that Classics has to offer and allows our students to do with these skills what they want, whether that be learning the Latin names of flora and fauna across the natural world, or writing a new novel on the contradictory character of Helen, or simply to realise the wonderful etymology of words like manuscript (that 4th-declension ablative preserved for all eternity).

Why is it, therefore, that many Classics curricula withhold great works of literature until much later, especially until the subject is no longer compulsory? Why do some of us insist on thinking that Caecilius in his hortus is more interesting than Achilles’ raw grief at the death of his dear Patroclus? Why do we think that the Odes of Horace are too difficult for a young Classicist to tackle and appreciate? I was fortunate enough to have a young and brilliant Classics teacher at school who took me beyond the blandness of the atrium and tablinum and opened my eyes to Virgil’s simile of Carthage being built by a colony of bees in Aeneid 1. I remember the first Homeric Greek I encountered in Odyssey 9, utterly bewitched by the image of a monstrous cyclops carefully milking his sheep and collecting the whey to make cheese. More broadly, learning about the role that epic poetry has had in all literature, I was able to start making links between these 3,000-year-old texts and the copy of The Lord of the Rings that lay next to my bed.

Homer never nods: Roman bust of 2nd cent. AD, copying a lost Hellenistic original (British Museum, London).

Classics (and Latin) at East London Science School is compulsory to all year 7 and 8s (ages 11–13), whatever their background or prior attainment. My curriculum, written and developed over the past five years, starts with Homer (alongside Latin), where students read Iliad 1, 6, 9, 16, 18, 22 and 24 in English. They get hooked on the Homeric question; they learn the epithets by heart; they witness the mēnis of Achilles and Agamemnon and the objectification of Briseis; they love the drama and gore of an aristeia and the power of the hawk and dove simile, before sometimes shedding their own tears at Priam’s supplication of Achilles. They gain all the benefits of reading challenging texts and learning vocabulary they can use in English lessons. Similarly, by completing essays on topics such as “What does the Iliad teach us about war?” and “Is Odysseus a hero?”, they can develop those all-important writing skills.

Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus, Gavin Hamilton, 1760-3 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh).

Just as Latin gives a linguistic base for modern languages and English, so Classical literature does for any book that children will encounter at school. In fact, how can we even think to deny them the richness that we know is there and the advantages they will have when tackling Shakespeare in their GCSE years? Most simply put, the stories are just too good not to share. As adults, as Classicists, we know this and yet for some reason many of us are reluctant to start teaching Homer before Year 10 (ages 14–15). As part of my teacher training, I spent four months at a successful independent school in London, where Latin was compulsory for the first three years. At the end of what must have been over 100 hours of lessons, 75 percent of the year group left Classics without knowing the tragedy of Aeneas and Dido or the horror of Oedipus’ crimes. The minority who opted for Latin, Ancient Greek or Classical Civilisation GCSE would get this experience in due course, but I felt saddened that most would not.

Oedipus played by Louis Bouwmeester (Amsterdam, c. 1896).

The other benefit of introducing Classical literature from the beginning of a curriculum is that the historical context must be taught alongside it. The archaeological evidence for Troy, for example, or the propaganda of Augustus and the complexities of the Julio-Claudian family. In London this can easily be complemented by trips to the British Museum, Wallace Collection or Sir John Soane’s Museum, to name but a few. Students can see the drama of the Trojan war played out on Attic vases, the power of the gods in a statue of Venus or the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses embossed in gold leaf on furniture. The more they read, the more they want to read, appreciating as they go the inextricable links between Roman and Greek authors and culture.

After two terms on Homer, our students move on to Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius’ Argonautica, in order for them to see how the ancients both paid homage and innovated in the genre of epic. Greek tragedy follows, with Oedipus, Ajax and the Bacchae taking centre stage. The variety creates interest and allows for an in-depth exploration of Classical Athens, along with its architecture and democratic ideology. For the GCSE course, Aristotle and Plato are compared and further authors include Horace, Lucan, Cicero and Apuleius. None of these will be in their GCSE exam, which will contain small sections of two works of literature, studied in the original Latin. However, by introducing parts of authors like Cicero in Latin, you can soon teach the basics of stylistic technique. It is often far easier to spot a tricolon or use of the second-person pronoun in the Latin than in its English translation.

Jason and the Golden Fleece, Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1803 (Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark).

Founded as a knowledge-based school, it is our principles of subject expertise and teacher autonomy that have allowed my curriculum to exist and I must acknowledge the support given by the school leaders to whatever and however I have wanted to teach. At East London Science School, we aim to ensure that we spend just as much time focused on what we teach as how we teach it. The love a teacher has for their subject can inspire children far beyond fretting over the correct pen colour for giving feedback. We believe that we should not be afraid to stand at the front and talk to children about the wonders of our subject.

Of course, every school has different priorities and pressures and I would never argue in favour of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching or writing a curriculum. However, it is only by teaching the parts of Classics that we love that we can hope to encourage a similar desire in our students to continue its healthy survival for generations to come. It might just also make us fall in love with the subject all over again.

Sam Anderson is Head of Classics at East London Science School, a state school in Bromley-by-Bow, East London. His aim is to give every child he teaches the opportunity to become a modern Classicist, whatever form that might take.