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Puella est Pulchra: Misogyny, Slavery, and Modern Stereotypes in Latin Learning Resources

Alison John

Ghent University

Education is at the heart of society. What we choose to teach our children not only reflects our priorities and ideals, but also our prejudices. Most people’s knowledge of history is predicated on what they learned at school, so the way that history is presented to children and teenagers is a powerful tool in shaping how a population understands itself and its past.

This paper will explore how the ancient world is presented to children in Latin learning materials. As we become more inclusive in society and in our approaches to education, how are our changing social values being reflected in learning materials, and how does this in turn affect our understanding of the ancient world? Examining textbooks such as Wheelock’s Latin, The Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), and So You Really Want to Learn Latin, this paper will consider how charged issues such as gender roles, patriarchy, and slavery are approached in our textbooks. How do these resources reveal our own changing values and cultural consensus? To what extent does the narrative they tell reflect the realities of the ancient world?

In my teaching career it has been heartening to observe that contemporary conversations and social concerns have already made it into textbooks. It is now widely taught that the Roman empire was a multi-ethnic environment, with emperors coming from all parts of the Mediterranean. Ancient slavery is also an important topic in our curriculums about the ancient Romans. In the CLC (4th edition, 2002), slavery is front and centre in the stories and exercises. Slaves are some of the main characters, and one of the cultural units focuses on slavery (pages 78-81). The authors are surprisingly nuanced in their presentation of ancient slavery, explaining slaves’ central role in Roman households, but at the same time not shying away from the harsh realities of slavery: “…The law, in fact, did not regard them as human beings, but as things that could be bought and sold, treated well or treated badly, according to the whim of their master” (p. 78).

At the same time, however, our textbooks have not yet found a balanced way to teach issues such as gender roles and sexual assault. The CLC emphasizes the importance of women in running ancient households, but it is silent about the limited opportunities and freedoms of ancient girls and women. Even more problematic is the depiction of rape in So you really want to Learn Latin, which ultimately presents the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ as a simple kidnapping that was eventually happily resolved.

This paper will argue that continued tensions in presenting ancient women to modern students is rooted in our own enduring gender stereotypes – ideas that allow textbooks to continue to use example sentences like ‘puella est pulchra’, instead of ‘puella est docta.’ The paper will ask how we can balance our attempts to include women in the story of Rome, while remaining accurate in our depiction of the female lived experience in what was a deeply patriarchal society.

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