A Short History of Latin Teaching Methods

By Fr. William G. Most

N.B. This essay—providing a helpful potted history of Latin teaching methods—is not mine. I have excerpted it from a book now in the public domain and available in a reprint from Mediatrix Press. It has not received the attention it deserves locked in a .pdf on internet archives. I thus reprint it here to help Latin students and teachers understand and choose the best method for learning and understanding Latin in Latin as Latin. My own comments interrupt Fr. Most’s texts in red.

Present Deficiencies

Most Latin teachers will readily admit that Latin is not taught with very great success today. Even after as much as eight years of Latin, students often find it quite an effort to translate fifty lines of Cicero in an hour and even then, they will not always get the sense.

Things were not always thus: for about a thousand years after Latin ceased to be a native language, it was taught with far greater success, so that students, even those of very ordinary intelligence, actually learned to read, write, and speak the language fluently. The methods used then were not very much like the method that has now come to be considered as “traditional”. Actually, the so-called traditional methods today go back only to about the 16th century. History shows a constant decline in the popularity of Latin and in the ability of students ever since that “traditional” method was introduced. To cite but a few figures: in 1910, 49% of the students in American High Schools took Latin. By 1934 that figure had dropped to l6% and by 1954, to 7%. Of this small group, it is estimated that about 95% drop the language after two years. (Part of the drop is probably due to the fact that formerly a much smaller percentage of students attended high school. These had less choice of subjects, and, often, more eagerness to learn, precisely because the opportunity was less common.)

Former more successful methods

During the Middle Ages, students began the study of Latin between the ages of 5 and 7. The method used was the purely direct method (we do not propose here to revive a purely direct method, for reasons to be indicated later. Rather, we would use its basic principles and advantages and combine them with additional techniques suited to the difference in the age at which students today begin Latin). Only very easy materials were used for reading, chiefly dialogues. Works like Caesar, and Cicero’s orations, even when they came to be used commonly, were not attempted until after the student had spent from 3 to 5 years on easier materials. The result was that when he finally did begin to study these works, he was in a good position to gain a real appreciation of them, for he had learned by that time to read, write, and speak Latin with fluency.

The Rejection of Medieval Latin

When in 1444, Lorenzo Valla published his Elegantiae Latini Sermonis, he called Medieval Latin barbarous, and called for imitation of ancient models. His goal was worthy; yet, as Sandys says in effect, he was really “dealing a death blow to the natural and colloquial use of the living language, and unconsciously promoting the growth of a servile Ciceronianism” (Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge, 1938, p. 850). For if his suggestion had been taken moderately, it would have been quite beneficial, but extremists came to think that only Ciceronian Latin was good: for them, every phrase and word which could not be found in Cicero had to be rejected.

A Living Language Changes

The truth that some failed to see is that a living language has to change and to grow. In so doing, it may become better or worse as a language, but the mere fact that it changes does not mean it declines. If it did, we should have to condemn Chaucer for changing the language of Beowulf, and we would also condemn Shakespeare for departing from Chaucerian rules—not to mention what judgment would be passed upon modern English, which has departed still farther. These extremists seemed to think that to change Ciceronian rules was to decay. Thus they would speak of Cicero as the center of a Golden Age—after him, came Silver Latin—and finally—shades of Nabuchodonosor’s statue!—would come the age of Iron and Clay—which is what the lexicographer Forcellini called the age of St. Augustine! We wonder what Forcellini would have said about the Italian of Dante, a further stage in the alleged decay of Latin!

Forcellini was the 18th-century lexicographer responsible for the most comprehensive Latin dictionary that had ever been produced. While it was published after his death, the entire four-volume work sought to locate in one place where the greatest authors of the language used a given word. In spite of Fr. Most’s claim, Forcellini does include Augustine as one of those authors important enough to earn citations in his Totius Latinitatis Lexicon (Dictionary of All Latinity). I could not hunt down where Forcellini claimed that Augustine’s Latin was iron or clay in its quality. If you know where to find it, leave a comment! You can access a digitally searchable version of Forcellini’s tomes here.

When is a Language a Good Language?

Let us approach the problem carefully: How shall we judge the merits of these periods, or the works written in them? There are two very different questions to be asked, and the answers may differ.

Is it a good means of communication?

First of all, we ought to ask: Is the language of a given period better or worse as a means of communication? The chief purpose of a language is to convey thought. It ought to do this with ease, accuracy, beauty, and so on. In the measure in which it does this, it is a good means of communication; in the measure in which it fails, it is poor as a language. If we compare Late Latin, the language of St. Augustine, with the Latin of Cicero, what do we find? We find that Late Latin is not “just as good ” as Ciceronian: it is actually superior! For if a language as such ought to convey thought with ease and accuracy, who could fail to see that the language of St. Augustine, with its more abundant and freer constructions, its much richer vocabulary and clarity gained by increased use of prepositions, provides a means of conveying thought that is much easier to use, and more accurate at the same time ?

The vocabulary of Ciceronian Latin is very noticeably smaller than that of Late Latin. This is particularly true of abstract nouns. The result is that Cicero often finds it necessary to de vise a phrase or relative clause, where Late Latin (or Greek, or modern English) would express the idea with one word. Not infrequently, the one word would be clearer than the circumlocution.

Furthermore, the constructions used in Late Latin were often much more logical. For example, Early Latin (the period before Cicero) used the indicative in indirect questions (as
Greek also does). There is no logical or historical reason why such a clause, which deals with
a question of fact should have to have subjunctive (the subjunctive, historically, deals with ideas of will). Cicero’s age made the subjunctive the rule, quite illogically. Late Latin returned to a notable extent to the more logical indicative of Early Latin, and Greek. Again, Late Latin uses freely the dico quod indirect statement, a perfectly logical structure, in contrast to the objective-infinitive, in which, contrary to all logic, the objective is made to be the case of the subject. The quod type was in use in everyday conversational Latin (and a parallel structure in Classical Greek) long before the age of Late Latin. It appeared occasionally in literature at a very early date, e.g., Plautus (Asin. 52) wrote this line: “scio iam, filius quod amet meus istanc meretricem“, using the quod structure. The reason why Plautus did so is very interesting: in this example (as in so many other instances) the objective-infinitive structure would be ambiguous, while the quod structure is entirely clear!

Cicero’s age made wide use of cases alone, without prepositions. The genitive and dative are not particularly difficult to follow. Some ablatives without prepositions are easy enough to understand. But some ablatives are quite vague, lacking in precision. In general, the English prepositions that could be supplied to translate an ablative without a preposition are: “in, by, with, from, because, of, in accordance with.” Of course, the context makes clear (sometimes only after reflection) which is the correct meaning. But would we not have a clearer and more accurate means of communication if we added prepositions to show precisely which sense is meant? Late Latin uses far more prepositions than Ciceronian Latin, and thereby gains an unmistakable advantage.

The fact is, that Cicero and most of the “Classical” authors were using a somewhat affected form of the language, quite different from that employed in everyday speech. Hence,
G. Showerman spoke of Classical Latin as “never the facile language of the people” and added that during the Late period the older literary Latin was “a resisting medium that was foreign to the general run of men” (Horace and His Influence, Boston, 1922. p. 90). And the ancient rhetorician Quintilian warns his budding orators not to employ the artificially compressed style of Sallust (Sallustiana brevitas) when trying to persuade a court (Institutiones Oratoriae X.I.32)

We conclude, therefore, that as an instrument of communication, the language of the Late period is not only equal, but superior to that of Cicero.

Are works of artistic beauty written in it?

The second question to be asked is this: What is the artistic merit of works produced in the various periods of the history of Latin? Here we freely concede that in both the “Classical” and in the Late period, we find quite a variety: both periods produced works that are excellent artistically—and both periods produced works of little or no artistic merit. In judging the merit of these works, one must take care to avoid the worship of Sacred Cows: not everything ancient, not everything by a Father of the Church is fine literature. But, if we compare individual works with individual works, we must say that there are creations of towering beauty from both pagan and patristic pens. To mention but a few: the Aeneid of Vergil and the Odes of Horace certainly deserve a place among the masterpieces of all ages—but so do the Confessions and City of God of St. Augustine, and many of the works of St. Cyprian.

There is, however, one consideration that is often overlooked in this matter: true art aims at producing beauty. And all beauty is but a reflection of some bit of the infinite Beauty of God. Now is it at all likely that a man such as Vergil, whose highest “ideal” is the adulterous and lying Jupiter, is it likely that a man who knows nothing greater than such a “god” could reflect the real beauty of God as well as a Saint Augustine whose great soul had contemplated the transcendent splendor of true Divinity? It is not strange that lists of the world’s greatest literature invariably praise his Confessions—and are equally apt to pass by in silence, the wars of Caesar, which are well written indeed, but reveal no more literary genius than do the memoirs of Churchill, which are equally well written.

The beginning of the grammar-analysis method

But let us return to those who went to extremes in their imitation of Cicero. They, not understanding these facts, ridiculed Medieval Latin, preferring instead an extreme imitation of Cicero. Their numbers increased. There were a few who protested, such as Erasmus, who, in 1528, satirized the pedantic style of Bembo, Latin secretary to Pope Leo X. But soon Erasmus found himself attacked, by a man bearing the very anachronistic (and un-Christian) name of Julius Caesar Scaliger, who in 1531 published an oration claiming that Cicero was absolutely perfect.

Schoolmasters finally went over to the position defended by Scaliger, with the result that the grammar-analysis method, the “traditional” method of teaching Latin was introduced, with its minute imitation of Cicero, having as its chief objective, to translate and parse a certain number of lines of Latin per day. It is not strange that the effectiveness of Latin teaching declined, and that the language, being forbidden to use any non-Ciceronian words, was unable to express the new concepts and to describe the new things that appeared as civilization matched on.

Formerly Latin had been a necessary tool for any man who aspired to advance himself, not only in the Church, but in any secular field whatsoever, for the lectures in the Universities, the debates in the parliaments, and the learned books even on natural science, were all written in Latin. But now that Latin had been made difficult by a too rigid adherence to Ciceronian details, and was no longer allowed to develop and keep pace with new developments, practical men turned to the vernaculars.

Change in Objectives of Latin Teaching

Latin teachers, finding one of the chief motives for studying Latin removed, had to find new objectives to uphold. It was about this time that John Locke proposed the theory that schools were primarily for mental discipline, rather than for conveying a content of knowledge to the pupils. The vague implication was that somehow the pupil would acquire the knowledge after graduation: his schooling would be merely an exercise, a mental discipline. (For a very fine study of the historical matter, cf. George E. Ganss S.J. St. Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University, Marquette U. Press, 2nd ed. 1956, pp. 2l8-58).

The Classical Investigation and Mental Discipline

Mental discipline is still the goal of most textbooks used in today’s teaching of Latin. In 1924, the Classical Investigation proposed 19 objectives, but did not include the ability to speak Latin, and rated the ability to read Latin at sight in the lowest place. The result was that the real goals aimed at by the “traditional” method are now two: l. mental discipline, 2. cultural values.

The noted grammarian C. Bennett loudly acclaims mental discipline. Speaking of the ability to read Latin without translating (the way in which a native would read it, the only way in which it can be read with ease), Bennett said:

“Those, now, who insist so strenuously on the importance of the direct subjective interpretation of Latin [the ability to read freely without translating] at the very outset of the study seem to me to advocate the acquisition of something which … if attained, is not likely to be of any greater educational utility then the capacity to understand colloquial French or German which an American lad might acquire by a moderate period of foreign residence…. Would not the chief usefulness of Latin as an instrument of intellectual discipline vanish the moment the mind of the pupil passed from its objective to its subjective contemplation? So soon as such a transition was effected, all need of translation would at once disappear, and with it those minute and searching mental processes which constitute the most important functions of the study, and which give it its superior title to a place in the curriculum. . . “

(Emphasis added. Cited from D. White, The Teaching of Latin. Chicago, 1941, pp. 132-33)

and, a bit further on Bennett adds: “. . . after thirty years of continuous study of Latin I am still bound to confess that I think it hard, very hard.”

For a more recent example of scholars who believe it impossible to learn to use Latin as a medium of communication, see this blog article about Mary Beard’s comments, which include:

People often imagine that if you ‘know Latin’ you can read more or less any bit of the language that is put in front of you (much like what you can do if you ‘know French’). It isn’t really like that at all. 

Mary Beard, The Times Literary Supplement “What Does the Latin Actually Say?”

Latin for Cultural Values

As for attaining cultural values, we need to face the issue realistically. Even in English, where there is no language barrier, it is difficult to convey true literary appreciation to young students. In Latin, the difficulty is increased, whatever the method of teaching used. The difficulty is especially great, however, if we make mental discipline the chief goal of Latin teaching, at the expense of what Bennett calls the “direct subjective interpretation”, that is, the ability to read freely without translating.


The goal chosen will determine the means to be taken. If one wishes to make Latin primarily a means of mental discipline, then he should choose the “traditional” method. If, however, one makes it his goal to teach students to read, write, and speak the language with fluency, then he will need to return to the basic principles of the method by which for literally a thousand years students were given that ability. The words of Professor Bossing relative to the teaching of modern languages apply equally well to the teaching of Latin:

For example modern languages in high school and university are at once the poorest and possibly the best taught subjects in the curriculum, depending upon the purpose one attributes to the teaching. If knowledge of grammatical form or an etymological study of language has been the prime purpose of linguistic study, then it would seem necessary to concede that modern-language teaching has been exceedingly well done. If, on the other hand, the main objective of modern-language teaching has been to give to the student easy facility in reading or speaking the language, then the conclusion is unavoidable that no subject in the curriculum has been more atrociously taught or studied. This has been because teachers have not forced themselves and their students to square their methods critically with a clear-cut purpose. Language teaching with primary emphasis upon grammar can result only in mastery of the niceties of grammatical forms. Ease in reading and speaking are psychologically inhibited by the method. Not inapplicable is the homely story of the centipede who managed his many legs very efficiently until asked how he performed such a feat; whereupon he landed paralyzed in a ditch beside the road, unable, consciously, to get his legs to act in easy coordination. There is only one royal road to a speaking use of a language and that is to speak it, just as the only sure route to an easy reading knowledge of a language is to read it. Attention to grammar should be incidental, if not omitted entirely, until facility in speaking or reading the language has been acquired.”

Bossing, Nelson, Teaching in Secondary Schools (3rd ed. Boston: 1952) pp. 201-202.

2 thoughts on “A Short History of Latin Teaching Methods”

  1. Interesting argument. I had never situated the grammatical vs. natural method debate as a historical debate between Ciceronians and medievalists. Perhaps he assumes his reader will know, but he never describes the method he is endorsing. He says that we “will need to return to the basic principles of the method by which for literally a thousand years students were given that ability” but doesn’t say what that method is. Does he describe it elsewhere? Are we just supposed to know?

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting! He does describe his method (which I’m working on for a future post), but it’s a much longer essay (8000 words or so) and I want to be sure I represent his ideas well and look up and supplement some of his claims before I share his ideas here.

      I’d basically describe the Natural Method as close to the method Orberg employs in Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. That is, an emphasis on reading and an attempt (less strict than many modern Obergian/Krashen-influenced teachers) to stay in the Target Language (Latin) as much as possible. He insists on translation work, though, something most “acquisition” schools of thought avoid entirely, wanting to understand Latin in Latin through Latin as much as possible.

      So the primary focus of his method is a middle of the road that emphasizes that 1) students be presented with interesting texts they can successfully read and understand (even if it requires multiple re-reads for them to get there) and 2) an emphasis on acquiring the habits of the language because every language is different (i.e. Latin’s word order is quite foreign to the English-trained mind and that’s what we must train our students to listen and read for rather than just cutting the sentence into bits and finding the meaty parts of the SOV). Anyway, stick around and sometime in August I’ll publish the longer part of the essay. I’m also hoping to use this book in my classroom this year, so I can report back next summer with one year of actual experience. If you can’t wait to find out, grab the .pdf and keep reading starting around p. 4.


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