Teaching Latin Poetry

Although I have taught Latin for quite a few years, This past year (2016-17) was the first year that I feel like I helped students to really connect with the verses, as well as the content, of a few poems of Catullus. My success was due to at least two intentional practices: 1) approaching the meter from the perspective of drumming, or “rhythmic fluency,” reinforced by exposure to recorded performances of the poems; and 2) the use of a variety of CI reading and writing strategies (including embedded reading) to help students not only understand, but to interact in Latin (speech and writing) with the poems. My goal is to move away from the traditional practice of decoding the poem with the end-goal being comprehension (followed by discussion and analysis of the poem in English). Rather, I want students to understand first what the poem is saying in Latin, and use that as a starting point for our Latin work, instead of the end goal.

Recently I have found that short engaging poems are a great way to introduce students to authentic Classical Latin literature, as long as it is done gradually, gently, with a view to the content rather than the mechanics of the poetry or the language  (there’s plenty of time for that later). Because the content of Catullus’s poetry is so naturally engaging, I find that students can tolerate more unknown words, and still understand and enjoy the poem, during which process they fill in the gaps.

Here I will outline how I introduce a poem via simplified descriptions, online listening resources, and writing / drawing activities. There are quizlets, too.

Whichever reading/writing activities you choose, it is important not to lose sight of your GOAL (my goal, at least), which is not the busywork, but the ability to read and enjoy the poem in Latin, and then to demonstrate one’s understanding of and interaction with the poem by speaking and/or writing about that poem in Latin. I am not opposed to having students practice translating literally, in speech or writing, and I will employ this as one activity or assessment among others (see my description of a spot-check translation), but this is not the end, just one step on the way to fluent (=no hesitation) comprehension, and interaction with the poem and with others, in spoken and written Latin.

Poem Handouts, containing original text, simplified version, prose version and vocabulary (which will include link to quizlet set)

Catullus 1

Catullus 3

Catullus 5 (for this poem I used the Legamus edition of Catullus from Bolchazy Carducci)

Catullus 13

Catullus 51

Horace 2.10

Ovid, Daedalus and Icarus (Metamorphoses, book 8)
again, I used the chapter from the Legamus edition of Ovid, for the reading of the poetry itself. Simplified versions were taken and adapted from Latin for Americans and Oerberg’s Lingua Latina (ch. 26).

Introducing the Author:
There are many ways to teach students about Catullus (or any author). Because author study work usually happens in English, I prefer to have students do more independent work, in the form of open ended online research (all must gather the basic info). Most students come up with pretty much the same information, but they also encounter some interesting details that they are excited to share with me and their classmates. The research can happen in class, in a tech lab, or as homework.

This year, because Catullus will be the author I focus on most in year 3, and because I recently discovered a resource,  I will be adapting the biographical narrative of Catullus written in (relatively) simple Latin in the first edition of the Oxford Latin Course book 3. It is only this way in the first edition, as Oxford abandoned the Latin biographical information in subsequent editions. Look for a green cover.

Presenting the poem content.
I like to start with a very simple retelling of a poem, either in “Verse” to match the lines, or in prose. Either way, having short lines helps the reader to understand, almost like presenting in bullet points. You can intruduce this as you would any story or information. Ask  simple questions in Latin, as students to relate their own experiences to the poem, etc. You can also ask questions in English.

Next Level up, tier 2
For an intermediate level reading experience, give students a slightly more difficult version, perhaps with vocabulary (below, or glossed in parentheses). Have students read aloud in English in groups. You might want to give a few more content-related questions (in English or Latin) so you can follow up. At this point, I also like to have students complete a 2-column story summary sheet, where they have to summarize x number of events (you decide) in English on the left, and on the right they include Latin words or phrases which support their interpretation. (Students will return to these later and use them for an all-Latin activity.)

Next level, tier 3 and/or actual poem.

part A interlinear translation
Many students will want to do this anyways, so I have them all do it, for reference, and to get it out of the way, so they are not doing this in subsequent activities, which I want to be focused on the Latin, not their English translations.  I provide a copy of the actual poem, or a slightly adapted version (see the “making sense of it” version in the Legamus readers) with spacing to write a translation below. although this may fall under the heading of “deciphering/decoding” I’m okay with that in this limited context. These poems are HARD, and we need to establish meaning before we can move on.

part B: commentary –no translation

Again, I am indebted to the Legamus reader formatting for this. When those books introduce the poem unadapted “as it was,” they include helpful and more advanced commentary on the facing page, focusing on references, literary devices, and more complicated matters of syntax and usage, etc.  For this phase, students are required to write their own commentary in the margin (I provide a wide margin, about half the page (use landscape format for more space, especially with shorter poems). Students are not allowed to translate whole lines (that’s what the previous work is for), but now they need to transfer helpful information ABOUT the poem from the commentary, which will help them understand what is happening in the poem when they come back to it, e.g. when reviewing for the AP or IB tests. I may require a minimum number of comments. They can still translate difficult phrases in the margin, or provide a Latin equivalent.

Last phase, writing a simple Latin translation.

Now students will draw on their previous readings and Latin writings, and produce a parallel simple Latin version, side by side with Ovid’s original. I ask students to imagine that they are teaching Roman elementary students about Ovid, and much like Shakespeare in high school, they need to provide an easy Latin “translation.” Students can write this from scratch, or “paste” passages from the simplified versions we read, or combine these approaches, as long as they provide simple Latin retellings for all the major episodes in the reading. I can recycle the large-margin version of the Ovid handout that students used for the commentary phase. For the structure, I can

Introducing Latin poetry (meter and quantity):
Haiku “translations” of prose are a helpful  way to transition students to the appreciation of poetry in Latin. It cultivates a sense of syllable quantity, and is a great time to introduce elision.


Video explanations (in Latin and English) to reinforce the classwork, and help absent students.

Forum Romanum Latin Newscast, episode on Catullus.
Toward the end of our Catullus unit, I like to give students the script (download from the video description), beforehand. Once we have spent some time making sure everyone understands it, we watch the episode.
Finish up with a discussion: “quid tibi maxime placuit?” and perhaps a freewrite.


Tiered versions of the Caesar and Vergil selections for the AP exam

Carmina Amoris, a tiered reader containing all of the IB love poetry selections, by Robert Amstutz. Read my review of this book on Amazon for more information.

Recorded performances of the poems by Tyrtarion.
Tyrtarion is a vocal and instrumental group associated with Luigi Miraglia’s Vivarium Novum school in Rome. They have recorded high quality performances of Greek and Latin poems. Last year, I made sure that (almost) every Catullus poem I read with my students had a Tyrtarion recording. We practiced singing along with the poem, and I would put it on repeat when students were doing an activity like matching and ordering lines using cards printed from Quizlet, writing Latin summaries, or reviewing for a test. Here is the Tyrtarion playlist on Youtube

Here is the Vivarium Novum collection of online Ad Usum Delphini texts Most poetry volumes contain summaries and commentary in Latin. Note: these resources are more for teachers’ use, and need significant adaptation in order to be useful in the classroom. But they provide a template and a starting point for simpler adaptations.

My explicationes Latinae (simple Latin explanations of Latin literature) on YouTube Channel

Lance Piantaggini’s tutorials and examples of rhythmic fluency. This has revolutionized the way I and my students experience and enjoy Latin meter, especially hendecasyllable (which I recommend that teachers and students begin with).

Quizlet sets. You can find my own Quizlet sets on my “magisterpiaz” user name. Many teachers have posted vocabulary sets from a variety of approaches. Do some searching before you make your own. Here is my discussion of how and why I use Quizlet

Bolchazy-Carducci’s Legamus series. Easy to use treatments of poems, or sections of larger poems. commentary and exercises on grammar, vocabulary, and adapted/simplified versions included in each section. Catullus, Horace, Ovid, and Vergil are among the authors included in this series.