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Engraving of a senior classroom at a prominent public school c.1890-1900. From 'Great Public Schools' p.209 Latin 'construe' Demonstration


Note: the word 'construe' was the term often used during our period for the exercise of translating from Latin or Greek into English.

Please note that it is some time since I did Latin!  I think my translation is reasonably accurate, but this is not my main purpose.  Rather I want to show just how laborious a task the Classics could be by performing a translation myself under pre-1914 constraints (e.g. no use of 'Penguin Classics' etc to check up).

This will almost certainly mean I have made mistakes (not, I hope, too many!).  It shows the stages from literal word-by-word rendering to (reasonably) intelligible English.  By letting readers follow the process blow-by-blow I hope to give a feeling for how this very sweated labour would leave an indelible mark (for good or ill) on the pupils' lives.

Meanwhile, as you follow my thought-processes you might like to visualise yourselves seated at a hard desk and using a quill or fountain pen, with the cane probably awaiting you should your work fail to come up to scratch.  The room you're in might resemble the one shown above or perhaps be even more Spartan (this was a senior boys' classroom).

It will probably be cold and draughty with faint but disagreeable odours drifting in from the kitchens and elsewhere making up that distinctive school smell.  After dark it would be lit by a faintly hissing gaslight or perhaps an oil lamp.  In some schools you might also be extremely hungry.  A A Milne (quoted by Honey p.215), says of Westminster which he entered in 1893: '...one was left with an inordinate craving for food.  I lay awake every night thinking about food... in all my years at Westminster I never ceased to be hungry.'

If you were good at games you'd probably be spending a lot of the time day-dreaming about tactics in the next big match: if not, you'd be awaiting said match with fear and trembling!  If you were between about 13 and 15 you and your nasty little friends would be dreaming up ways of tormenting the unfortunate master (or prefect) in charge of 'Prep', especially if they were new to the job.

The indigestible curriculum and general environment would surely leave an indelible impression on young minds, and come 1914 or 1915, with you by now in the trenches due to lead your platoon 'over the top' the next morning, such escapades and places would probably be looked back upon with affection.

In mitigation it should be stated that if you were nearer the top of the school you'd certainly be better off.  You'd have a shared or possibly individual study to work in rather than a large and draughty prep room, and a junior boy acting as a sort of personal servant (the 'fagging system').  Boys at Eton (only) had rooms to themselves from the start (and still do) complete with bed and a desk known as a 'burry'.

Some lucky senior boys in a few schools could organise their time almost as if they were university students (and get a similar standard of tuition).  Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (Public School Phenomenon p349) cites Alec Waugh at Sherborne School in Dorset, who aged sixteen and a half in 1915 had specialist history tuition and could do his reading in his study in the way undergraduates work away in their rooms or lodgings.  Experiences like this will also be remembered, and looked back on fondly.

The passage is an extract from Livy's History of Rome (anglicisation of Titus Livius, 59BC to 17AD).  This and other histories naturally give a lot of time to describing warfare as international politics in ancient times were fairly bloodthirsty.

Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars (another standard text) were more militant still as they describe his campaigns in France.  Roman history will have served therefore to reinforce other combative influences such as the team games and the militant brand of Christianity described in my father's book.  In addition there would have been a natural tendency to draw similarities between the civilising influences of the Roman and British empires.

Ancient Greek, which I have not demonstrated, is probably more difficult still! I certainly found it so at GCE 'O' Level, but that may be because I started it far later than I did Latin.

Other tasks confronting public schoolboys are listed under 'Other Exercises' at the end of this article.  In addition, the textbooks and teachings were emphatically not child- or teen-friendly, and beatings rather than sympathy would await the slower learner.

The Construe Demonstration

My demonstration passage is taken from book 1 of Livy's History, at the beginning of chapter 24.  By way of saving space, and because I am doing this for illustration only, the passage reproduced will represent only a fraction of what a pupil might be expected to plough through during 'prep'.

I have assumed help from a Latin grammar and dictionary but not from a pre-existing translation such as the Penguin Classics as this would emphatically not be allowed!  Any mistakes are therefore the consequence of performing this simulation under realistic conditions.

The original Latin text is reproduced in blue.  My translation (and stages of refinement) appear in red.

Forte in duobus tum exercitibus erant trigemini fratres nec aetate nec viribus dispares. Horatios Curiatiosque fuisse satis constat, nec ferme res antiqua alia est nobilier; tamen in re tam clara nominum error manet, utrius populi Horatii, utrius Curiatii fuerint. Auctores utroque trahunt: plures tamen invenio qui Romanos Horatios vocent; hos ut sequar inclinat animus. Cum trigeminis agunt reges ut pro sua quisque patria dimicent ferro: ibi imperium fore unde victoria fuerit. Nihil recusatur; tempus et locus convenit.  Priusquam dimicarent, foedus ictum inter Romanos et Albanos est his legibus, ut, cuiusque populi cives eo certamine vicissent, is alteri populo cum bona pace imperitaret.

Faced with the above the pupil would first skim through it to get some sort of general sense.  He would probably gather that the stage is being set for some sort of combat, the outcome of which will determine which nation (the 'Albans' (Albanos) or the Romans) governs which.  If he is doing Livy as a set book, previous work will be of great help.

Having ascertained that, he will begin the translation proper.  The immediate difficulty with Latin is the word order which I will demonstrate with a literal word-by-word rendering of the first sentence (a comparatively straightforward one) as far as 'dispares' (meaning 'unequal'):

By chance in two then armies there were triplet (trigemini) brothers not in age or in strength unequal.

Our pupil is lucky so far.  The general sense is that each army had a set of triplets serving in it, so it is not difficult to shuffle the words around to produce this for the next stage of refinement:

There were by chance in each of the two armies 3 brothers who were triplets, not unequal in either age and strength.

Though strictly accurate, this does sound a bit odd.  Here's a final rendering:

By chance there were in each army a set of triplet brothers equal in age and strength.

The next sentence is longer and more difficult.  I found Livy's use of the word 'constat' puzzling: when I looked up the word in the dictionary there were two or three columns about it!  However I then look more closely at the words 'fuisse', 'Horatios' and 'Curiatosque', and the phrase 'indirect speech' springs to mind.

'Indirect speech' is the technical term for something like: 'He said that the children were hungry' (direct speech: 'The children are hungry').  Although it's usually introduced in Latin by some form of 'dicere' (meaning 'say'), you can use other words.  And behold, in the dictionary one of the meanings of 'constat' is 'It is established that...' or 'it is true that...'  It makes even more sense when we remember that Livy was a historian, and would therefore be more likely to talk like this.

So this gives us:

It is well (satis) established that these were the Horatii and Curiatii

In the next part, I was unfamiliar with 'ferme' and looked it up: the first meaning given is 'almost', but an alternative meaning when combined with a word like 'nec' (a negative meaning something like 'neither' or 'nor') is 'scarcely'. Indeed by a stroke of luck the dictionary actually quotes the passage I'm trying to translate to illustrate this meaning.  This is very helpful, and gives as far as 'nobilior' meaning 'more well-known':

And scarcely any other ancient tradition is more well-known

The rest of the sentence ('tamen' to 'fuerint') now falls into place.  This part of the sentence is a good example of Latin translation as an exercise in logic.  It is tempting on first reading to put 'clara' with 'error' (e.g. 'clear mistake' or 'obvious mistake'; the word 'error' is the same in both English and Latin! The meaning is also more or less unchanged).  Unfortunately 'error' is masculine gender, 'clara' feminine.  So that reading's impossible.  However 're' ('thing' or 'matter') is feminine gender, which eventually gives the rendering below:

However (tamen) in a matter otherwise so clear an uncertainty (error) over names remains as to whether the people will have been Horatii or Curiatii.

Which makes more sense when joined with the next sentence which translates:

Authors deduce (trahunt) either: however I find (invenio) that more people call the Romans 'Horatii', my mind inclines itself to follow them.

The literal meaning of  'hos ut sequar inclinat animus' is 'my mind inclines so that (ut) I follow them'.  This sounds really rather strange, hence my final version - but even this may still strike some readers as slightly odd.  Admittedly it could probably be refined further, yet making it sound more natural in English might cause the student to drift too far from the original.  What seems natural to a Latin speaker will more than likely sound strange to an English one, and if you wander too far from the original you will lose the way in which the Roman author was thinking.  However, such oddness has a habit of sowing uncertainty, thus compounding the difficulty of the task.

The rest of the passage translates as follows:

The kings discussed with the triplets about the weapon with which each would fight respectively for their country: here was the power from whence victory would come. No objection was made: both the place and time suited.  Before they fought, an agreement was struck betweeen the Romans and the Albans according to these rules: that the citizens of whichever (cuiusque) people won in that contest could rule in peace and security over the other people.

'Peace and security' is a bit free: literally this translates as 'with good peace', but again it sounds very odd to English readers.  The editors of my text suggest 'peace and quiet' but in accordance with the restraints on this exercise I've left my version in - notes pre-1914 would be less directly helpful to translation!

Translation exercises frequently throw up issues like this one and the others I've mentioned.  The underlying rationale for resolving them will be familiar to modern language specialists and will not be gone into here: my purpose is simply to point out the challenging nature of the classical curriculum.

Here by way of conclusion is the whole passage:

By chance there were in each army a set of triplet brothers equal in age and strength.  It is well (satis) established that these were the Horatii and Curiatii.  And scarcely any other ancient tradition is more well-known.  However in a matter otherwise so clear an uncertainty over names remains as to whether the people will have been Horatii or Curiatii.  Authorities deduce either: however I find that more people call the Romans 'Horatii', my mind inclines itself to follow them.  The kings discussed with the triplets about the weapon with which each would fight respectively for their country: here was the power from whence victory would come.  No objection was made: both the place and time suited.  Before they fought, an agreement was struck betweeen the Romans and the Albans according to these rules: that the citizens of whichever people won in that contest could rule in peace over the others.

Even now the prose style of the translation will probably strike you as slightly odd.  In any translation a balance has to be struck between naturalness in the English version and closeness to the original, and in a language like Latin, which is quite distant from English, this would be more difficult.  If I were less out of practice and knew more about Livy's individual prose style and idiosyncrasies, I would have found it easier to fuse English and Latin idiom.

In fairness it should be added that some pupils would have been bright enough to become capable of reading and writing the ancient languages almost as easily as they did English.  They were very fortunate not only in saving a lot of drudgery but also in being set free to appreciate the achievements of Classical culture and civilisation which are considerable.

By no means all writers were obsessed with fighting, and it is still the case that much of Western philosophy, for instance, derives from the ancient Greeks.  Classical ideals, as well as the accounts of warfare all distilled from the harsh school curriculum, were undoubtedly part of the inspiration for military service in 1914 (and on a smaller scale, 1899 for the Boer War), discussed in more detail in the main article.

Other Exercises

Probably familiar to any language student except item 4!): 

1. Unseen translation where pupils are confronted with an unknown passage and are expected to translate without help of dictionaries etc

2. Prose composition: translation of English passage into Latin or Greek

3. Verse composition: translation or perhaps creation as well of Latin or Greek verse

4. Learning by heart of large chunks of Greek or Latin poetry - thousands of lines by the time pupils left school

Non-Classics Subjects

The Classics, and the ethos derived from them, remained dominant in the Public Schools up to 1914, and for a while afterwards, but it should be stated that not all class time was taken up with them.  In fact as the 19th century became the 20, the curriculum did begin to diversify.

Schools would for instance start 'Modern Sides' to give more time to English, History, Modern Languages, mathematics and so on.  Clifton College in Bristol (home of Henry Newbolt of Vitai Lampada fame and high temple of the games cult) were very pleased with themselves over 'the adoption of a systematic teaching of parts of Natural Science throughout the school' (Great Public Schools p207).  A number of schools also opened 'Military Sides' in addition to Classics and Modern.

The slump of the 1930's encouraged some innovation and diversification.  Some of the less attractive features of the public school system such as compulsory games and harsh discipline lingered in some places until the social upheavals of the 1960's, although the academic side broadened considerably, especially after the Second World War (Gathorne-Hardy pp369-392).  Whatever else may be said about the 1960's, that period seems to have done our leading schools a power of good by delivering a thorough shake-up.


1. The Passage Itself

Text: Livy Book 1 edited Gould H E and Whitely J J, Bristol Classical Press 1987 edition

Grammar: Thompson J V and Penn Llewellyn M: New Junior Latin Course, Universal Tutorial Press 1957 (15th impression)

Dictionary: E A Andrews Copious and Critical Latin-English Lexicon, Sampson Low publishers, Fleet St., London, 1852.  Given its early date, probably one of the sources which would have been used at the time!

2. Other Sources:

1. Gathorne-Hardy J (1977): The Public School Phenomenon, Hodder and Stoughton

2. Honey, J R de S (1977) Tom Brown's Universe: The Development of the Public School in the 19th Century, Millington Books Ltd., 109 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH

3. Various authors (no date but probably about 1890-1900): Great Public Schools, Edward Arnold 

Picture Credit:

Photograph of senior classroom from Great Public Schools p.209.

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Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

A Greyback was a British Army shirt.

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Minor Powers