Why The Romans Counted Backwards

Jun 18, 2014

I never did well accepting the nasally comments by professors about the flaws in great books. For some reason, and I think that reason is the amount of time my family and church directed by attention to the Bible, I started out liking glib answers but came in pretty rapid order to dislike them. 

Here's an example: I've heard from quite a few books and recordings that Aeneas is a flat character in the Aeneid. I'd like to know who first proposed the idea and how it came to permeate classrooms. The trouble with an idea like that is at least twofold. First, it makes the book less interesting to the student, who, naturally, wants more fully realized characters. Second, it contributes to the arrogance of people judging books not by reading them but by reading about them. 

I'd be happy to entertain the question in a group discussion or classroom setting. But I don't have any reason to assert it as a self-evident dogma. I see a character whose knees are trembling the first time we meet him, who has to learn through brutal, soul-shaking challenges to govern himself in order to carry the burden of his vocation, and who to the very end of the book has to deal with questions that make the things that stress most of us out look like a game of duck duck goose. 

If you are teaching the Aeneid, don't assume the study guides know what they are talking about. They do when it comes to facts, or people wouldn't look at them. But they don't have inspired opinions. When you read one, wrestle with it. Make the author prove it. It will help you read better and it will give you access to the text. But don't take the guides as divinely inspired. 

Here are some suggestions for those of you who get to read the Aeneid:

Take time to invite your students into the story. Before they pick it up, ask some questions like these:

  • Have you ever had to do something extraordinarily difficult over a long period of time? Did you reach your goal? Did you quit? What kept you going? What stopped you?
  • What kind of woman/man would like to marry? What are you looking for in a spouse? (After they've done a quick read, I'd ask: would you rather marry Dido or Camilla?)
  • What are some of the hardest decisions you've ever had to make? How did you make them? Did it work out? 
  • What do you know about Roman history? (break it into periods if you can: what do you know about the monarchy? republic? Punic wars? civil war? empire? etc.)
  • What do you know about the Iliad? The Odyssey? Homer?

To clarify, those "what do you know" questions are better asked when you can break them down into categories, like epochs. 

Let the students read The Aeneid quickly without worrying about understanding it. Take two weeks. During this time, discuss the foregoing questions and any others that come to your mind. 

After they've read it, there are three questions I find very helpful:

  1. Should Aeneid have left Dido? 
  2. Should the golden bough have released? 
  3. Should Aeneid have killed Turnus? 

Now I should point out that these are big huge questions, but they aren't necessary to get the students into the text. It was fun last week at the CSI retreat to ask the group for minor actions by minor actors and to use them for a discussion. They came up with "Should the houseboys have refilled the finger bowls?" That led to all sorts of interesting, and often very light-hearted, discussions. Plus it made a connection for me between The Aeneid and Harry Potter that I had never before considered. 

Also, the Dido question is such a big deal that you can play around with your class. Tell them they only have five minutes to explore it and then watch them go crazy. Against their will, they will both read Aeneid more closely and grow in wisdom. But you have to trust them and you have to trust the questions.

To drive the discussion forward, I collect reasons for and against on a white board: A for Affirmative; N for Negative. Then I collect "indeterminate" or "interesting" or something under an I column. 

To keep the discussion going, I keep five or six "topics of invention" accessible so that whenever there is a lull I draw on one of these:

Definition (what do you mean by leave? Who is Dido? Who is Aeneas? What is D? A? What kind of thing is leaving? Dido? Aeneas?)

Comparison (How is Dido like Aeneas? How is Aeneas like Odysseus? How is Aeneas leaving Dido like Jesus ascending to heaven? How is anything involved in this story like anything involved in any other story? - be profligate here)

Circumstances: What was happening in the city when he left her?  In Latium? In Tyre? On the sea? On Olympus? On Mars? Anywhere?

Relation: What happened before he left (antecedent)? What happened after? What caused him to leave? What were the effects of his leaving? 

Authority: What does an expert or witness have to say about it? (Jupiter? Mercury? Dido's sister? Aeneas' crew? Vergil? Scholars?)

As you can see, you'll be able to talk forever about any story this way. The real bonus is that when you do this, they will read with a great deal more interest and will read more closely and will learn all the analytical tools in a meaningful way. 

On the matter of quizzing, I don't ever like asking kids to prove to me that they have read something, which is what quizzing is too often used for. I trust them. But if they don't read, they aren't allowed to participate in the discussion. 

But if you have to give a quiz, here are the sorts of questions I like: 

  1. Golden Bough: Mistletoe or Middletoe?
  2. "Even here they know the tears of things." Why does this put you to sleep?
  3. Solve Aeneas' problem.
  4. How were any of the following different from any other:
    1. Ascanius
    2. Iulus
  5. How would you confuse
    1. Dido and her sister
    2. Pallas with Pallas
    3. The Underworld with a shield, as Vergil did. 
    4. Your classmates.
  6. Boldly declaim on the sundry ways the rise of Aeneas caused the fall of Czar Nicholas II and especially his bride Alexandra. Hesitate after each third thought. 

For each question over which they laugh, they get one point and thus prove that they have read. If they ROFLOL they get bonus points for those questions for being sycophantic, which is the main thing we learn from school, so we should honor it. 

More profitably, the fact is that you could discuss the Aeneid for a year on any of those questions and it would be a lot of fun. I don't know how to convince your boss, but if you could, everybody would be happier in the long run. 

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

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