My neighbour Pat has recently given me her Latin textbook, a 1950s reprint of a beautiful 1930s classic, which may actually have been the forerunner of a revolution in Latin textbooks. First published in 1936, it is titled Septimus, not because it is the seventh book in a series, but for its main character, a young British schoolboy named Septimus. When I first received the book, it was wrapped in the kind of thin brown paper that old parcels used to be covered in. I suspected that the greasy, battered brown paper was hiding something beautiful underneath, and on removing the paper I was not disappointed. As you can see above, the original cover design is perfectly preserved in yellow, green and red.
But before I can get into why this textbook was groundbreaking, I need to explain the differences between today’s Latin textbooks.
If you ever spend your free time reading the reviews of Latin textbooks on Amazon, Goodreads and the like, you’ll realise quite quickly that the reviewing crowd is divided roughly into two opposing camps. For lack of better terms, we’ll call these groups the “conservatives” and “progressives.” Generally, the “conservative” textbook supporters follow a grammar-first method. Students are told to hunt for the main verb and subject first, and then piece the rest of the sentence together like a jigsaw puzzle. At the other end of the spectrum, “progressive” fanciers emphasise natural language acquisition and try to get the students used to Latin by supplying large amount of low level made-up Latin, or “baby prose,” and reviving oral elements in Latin teaching.
These methods are not mutually exclusive, and in practice most schools and universities which teach beginner’s Latin classes use elements of both systems. It is only very rarely that I see Latin taught exactly the same as a living language, or completely dryly out of a single grammar book. I was raised on the Cambridge Latin course, one of the more “progressive” textbooks by most standards. It was a colourful series of books full of funny cartoons and made-up Latin stories, and we sometimes acted out the parts of dialogues in Latin. But all the same, our teachers taught us a large amount of grammatical terminology and encouraged us to hunt for the verb first. Studying Latin was more grammar-heavy than learning French or Chinese, but at the same time it was still livened up with re-enactments and other fun activities.
It is not necessarily a bad thing that Latin is taught differently from other languages. Many students are drawn to Latin precisely because it gives them the thrill of “decoding” a sentence. At the same time, many of the same Latin-lovers find it fun and engaging to speak and declaim in the language of Cicero, and wish they could be more natural and fluent at reading Latin off the page. As a Latin tutor I find both the “conservative” and “progressive” schools of thought useful in their own ways, especially as each school attempts to address the shortcomings of the other.
What makes Septimus so important is that it is perhaps the earliest modern Latin introductory reader that figures some definite features of the “progressive” style of textbooks. The most striking example of this is its use of gorgeous 1930’s-era cartoon illustrations.
This is the first page of Latin in Septimus, and it is utterly charming. The book follows a single running storyline about a British schoolboy, Septimus, who steps through a magic door and gets transported back in time to the reign of the cruel and unpredictable Emperor Nero. The prologue is written in English, but as soon as the boy enters the portal everything is narrated in Latin and the boy somehow speaks naturally with perfect Latin grammar. Septimus is an impatient and rather irreverent young boy, and he’s never above telling another character, festinā! (“hurry up!”). The story moves along quickly and is actually very well written, thanks to Chambers’ and Robinson’s vivid descriptions and playful dialogue. All of this made me want to read Septimus from cover to cover like a regular novel, which is much more than can be said for a lot of Latin textbooks, even today.
By contrast, the first page of the Latin readings in Albert Harkness’s 1879 A New Latin Reader looked like this:
As a side note, I’m very glad we stopped titling our Latin textbooks some variation of the phrase, “A New Latin Textbook.” The title of Harkness’s A New Latin Reader (1879) strongly reminds me of Woodcock’s A New Latin Syntax (1959), which, by the time I studied it in university, was very much dated and unwieldy and in need of better formatting.
In any case, it doesn’t take much looking to notice that Harkness’s A New Latin Reader is bare of pictures. It also starts with very short passages of unconnected fables and anecdotes. This is quite a contrast to the approach taken in Septimus of presenting the student with a full, connected story in made-up Latin accompanied with a scattering of delightful pictures.
These illustrations – thirty-four in total, spread over eighty-nine pages – were executed by a Mr. C. J. McCall, who unfortunately has almost the same name as an American country pop singer who gets way more search traffic. McCall worked closely with the publishers Oliver & Boyd, and together with various writers they produced not only Septimus and a couple other readers for the Latin school text market (Caesariana and Orbis Terrarum for the intermediate and senior Latin students), but also other illustrated children’s educational books including The Happy Venture Readers.
Septimus made Oliver & Boyd the first publisher to combine Latin stories with reader-friendly illustrations. These days, we tend to take for granted that Latin books should have cheesy little pictures in them, but in the 1930s this idea was so new that the publishers felt they had to excuse themselves in the preface:
Mr McCall’s illustrations… are an innovation in this type of book, but the Authors believe that the artist has admirably performed his task; and his spirited interpretations will win him the gratitude of those who use this book.
I’m very glad that the publishers chose to run with these illustrations. McCall’s drawings really make the story “pop” out at you. When you turn a page and see a new picture, you get a taste of what’s going to happen in the immediate future if you could just keep reading a little more. I particularly love the way McCall pictured the scene in which Septimus descends to the underworld à la Aeneas and orders Charon, the ferryman, to take him across the Styx.
It isn’t just the illustrations which make Septimus an entertaining read. This book likes to slip in references to famous Latin sayings, often jokingly. When Septimus, on being summoned, arrives in front of Nero, he says, “vēnī, ō domine.” To which Nero replies, “et vīdistī, ō scelerāte, sed nondum vīcistī” (“I have come, master…” “and you have seen, rascal, but you have not yet conquered”). That sounds lame, but when you’re reading the story and you’re taken by surprise it is actually hilarious. It is also much more fun than sitting down with a long list of collected sayings and translating them each in turn.
Another feature of this reader which strongly reminded me of the much later Cambridge Latin Course was the use of the dialogue format. Passages of prose alternated with passages of dialogue, which helped with the pacing of the story and allowed students to dramatise the scenes. In the preface, the authors pointed out that getting students to act out the parts would enliven Latin classes and “[encourage] fluency in speech and thought.”
These are, by modern standards, “progressive” ideas; but even as Septimus prefigures a lot of the features of the progressive movement of Latin textbooks, it also has a “conservative” tilt in that the “Aids to Translation” section at the back of the book strongly recommends students to look for the main verb and the subject of the sentence first before looking up words in the vocabulary at the back. Septimus thus becomes an interesting blend of both conservative and progressive schools of thought in Latin textbooks.
Throughout the work, Chambers and Robinson have prided themselves on keeping the story flowing. In the mean time, you learn a lot of background facts about Roman history and famous works of Latin literature. But you don’t mind, because you’re too busy trying to work out what happens next. The authors have a strong commitment to telling a good story, and for that they should be commended.
Now to the pressing question: can Septimus be used as a Latin reader today? Let us first leave aside the problem of finding a copy. The book has been out of print for at least a few decades, but a few copies here and there might still be floating around in second-hand book market if you’re determined to find one for yourself. How would this fare in a classroom? The authors suggested that it should be introduced some time during the first year of Latin instruction, even as early as the first term, and that it would take about three terms to complete (there are three terms per year in the British system). It has conveniently been divided into 31 fairly evenly sized passages, so that if the students translated one section per week it would indeed take roughly a year of classes.
I would actually be a bit hesitant to revive Septimus as a classroom text, mainly because today it would have to compete with the Cambridge Latin Course which I find does many of the same things as Septimus, but in a longer and more comprehensive format. What worries me is its vocabulary. The authors didn’t want to write a dull book that kept repeating all the same words over and over, so they used vivid and varied word choices that brightened up the story but potentially consigned a lot of first year Latin students to looking up many new words in each chapter. And since there are no weekly vocab lists, it’s not as if the student can prepare in advance for these words. Within just a few pages, in sections 14 and 15, no less than four words for “cave” are used: caverna, spēlunca, specus, antrum. Thankfully, the book comes with its own vocab list at the back which makes it quick to look up unfamiliar words. However part of the goal of Latin readers is to help reinforce the vocabulary already learnt, as well as introduce new and relevant vocab. I find that Septimus may be asking a little much from the first year Latin reader, but then maybe times have grown soft and Latin students were just better back in the day.
The other criticism I might have is that a couple illustrations in the book may be a little less than PC. Did the slaves whom Nero sent to kidnap Septimus really need to be black? When you’re a mature student with an appreciation of history, there’s no harm in owning and reading an old book which might have some un-politically-correct characters in it. But teaching from this book in a school setting – even if those couple drawings took up a very small part of the book – would probably raise objections. Was this the reason Septimus declined in circulation after the 1960s, I wonder?
Nevertheless, most of these shortcomings can be remedied simply by recommending the book for a slightly older audience than it was originally intended. If you have studied Latin for perhaps a year or more, and you want to practice your Latin, improve your reading speed, or simply relax and enjoy a good Latin novella, I would highly recommend you hunt down one of the few remaining copies of Septimus and give the book some love. The vocab might surprise you for a moment, but it doesn’t take long to look up the words and they do actually add to the appeal of the story. You might encounter a dated stereotype or two, but these do not harm the narrative and even the “cruel wife who hen-pecks her husband” character turned out to be deeper and more likeable than she appeared at first.
Septimus is a beautifully illustrated and elegantly written miniature novel in Latin. Since I couldn’t put it down and I had a weekend to read it, the book took me about three days to complete, or about the same time as a children’s novel. If you love Latin, you might have done what I did and bought books like Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis or Ursus Nomine Paddington. Those translations are fun to read, but if you’ve read the works in English already then you’ve lost the suspense of the narrative. Septimus reads just like a good fiction, the only difference being that it happens to be in Latin. I won’t spoil the ending for you, because I want you to enjoy the British schoolboy’s bumbling misadventures through the overworld and underworld of Ancient Rome. If you’re ever lucky enough to snag a copy, go get one. You won’t regret it.