By Evan Dutmer
Most language education programs have adopted the aim to teach culture in addition to language proficiency (hence, departments of “World Languages and Cultures” proliferate while departments of “Foreign Languages” have diminished). The move has been widespread, but has resulted in numerous challenges in implementation.
One of the most common issues is that language educators tend to teach what is generally called “surface” or “shallow” culture (e.g., types of clothing, food, fairytales, music, art—essentially the ‘facts’ of a culture) rather than teaching the “deep” culture of a studied group (e.g., perspectives, values, history, narratives, ideas, beliefs, and background practices that attend the ‘shallow’ practices and cultural products).
The relationship between these two aspects of culture, which have been helpfully differentiated by Luis Fernando Gómez Rodríguez, is dynamic—deep culture can influence surface culture and vice versa. But deep culture presents possibilities for students to gain a richer intercultural understanding and recognition of their own, perhaps underexamined, culture, and possibilities for teachers to learn a new pedagogy (from resources like University of Minnesota CARLA Institute’s bibliography on intercultural education). Many Latin educators face this problem: excited to introduce genuine Roman cultural practice into their classrooms, some teachers focus more on the what and how of Roman culture rather than the why and who. Recreated celebrations of ancient Roman holidays in today’s classrooms lack “deep” culture depth (though they may show an impressive degree of accuracy). Students may still wonder: Why did the Romans conduct their holiday ceremonies in the way they did? Who participated? Who didn’t?
Incorporating contemporary social history into classics, I contend, can help students and teachers access deep culture in the context of Ancient Mediterranean peoples. By thinking about and reflecting on how class, gender, race, ethnicity, and, broadly, identity functioned in the daily lives of the peoples of the classical world, students are able to i) gain a much richer understanding of their own culture—or, more precisely, cultures—and ii) better and more accurately examine Ancient Mediterranean cultural practice and knowledge. Happily, recent social history scholarship in Classical Studies can help our students achieve these aims and enhance their intercultural proficiency (see NCSSFL and ACTFL 2017). For example, I’ve incorporated selections from Andrew Johnston’s The Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spaininto discussions of Caesar’s campaigns into Gaul in Latin 2, taking seriously the aim to teach outside the perspectives of dominant Roman culture. I not only included Caesar’s ethnocentric accounts of the native Celtic peoples in the De Bello Gallico, but also worked to amplify the local constructions of indigenous identity in future Roman Gallia and Hispania developed by the tribes of those lands.
Johnston’s book analyzes the intricate, complicated cultural narratives of these colonized peoples and what he calls their “creative misappropriations” of Greco-Roman myth to connect themselves to the Roman world while subverting some of its claims at domination. In a particularly memorable example, the Northern Gallic tribe of the Remi (from modern-day Rheims) considered themselves not “grandsons of Romulus” (as Catullus 49.1 contends is the Roman national identity) but rather lost descendants of Remus, the murdered brother of Romulus. Johnston continues: “…[W]hat would seem on the surface to be the most quintessentially ‘imperial’ iconographies, symbols, or cultural forms—[for example] a triumphal arch depicting Romulus and Remus [erected in Rheims]—were actually expressions of robust local identities” (3). Paired with tiered, accessible Latin versions of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico in class, Johnston’s powerful portrayal of a conquered Gallic tribe’s recasting of history provides an opportunity for deep intercultural analysis for my Latin 2 students.
My Latin 1 students have read multiple versions of the Romulus and Remus myth in Latin. I ask them: Why do the Remi see themselves as descendants of Remus? Why would a conquered people take on the history of its conquerors? What would Romans at the imperial center think of this story? What stories do we have at “our” founding? What counts as a “misappropriation” of that story? Building on these questions, I’ve also had success incorporating secondary readings from Erik Jensen’s Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, especially “The Invention of Gaul and Germany,” for discussions on the imperial and local constructions of a “Gallic” identity, pairing this reading with Johnston’s retelling of the Remi origin story.
The 3P Model, a pedagogical framework to deepen engagement with a cultural product in classroom teaching, is a powerful tool for developing this sort of deep cultural analysis in the secondary classroom and for adapting individual classroom activities into more robust opportunities for intercultural learning. It asks that we make explicit the cultural product, practice, and perspective (the 3P’s). I recently applied this framework to teach the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Saturnalia celebrations are a common December tradition in many secondary Latin classrooms and in youth classical organizations around the world. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was regarded as the finest and happiest holiday (optimo dierum, “the best of days”, in Catullus 14.15). Festive recreations often revolve around studying the Roman god Saturn and his typical divine attributes, decorating the Latin classroom leading up to a winter break, learning the customary Saturnalia greeting—“Io! Saturnalia!”—and gift-giving and dressing-up. Some instructors incorporate more of ancient Roman cultural practice; others focus on its possible ties to modern Christian rituals in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday.
Comparatively less focus, however, is paid to Saturnalia’s complicated relationship to the institution of Greco-Roman chattel slavery. The December holiday was associated with a sort of topsy-turvy “role reversal” of masters and enslaved persons, with a number of accounts detailing a banquet provided to slaves by their masters. Enslaved persons may have also been invited to games, gambling, and poetry competitions, activities from which they were generally forbidden. This seasonal qualified freedom is encapsulated in Horace’s memorable description of Saturnalia as the libertas Decembri, “December freedom,” in Satires 2.7.4, an early rich collection of everyday philosophical musings and imagined conversations from Augustan Rome’s preeminent lyric poet. Importantly, this season of ‘good tidings’ was explicitly and brutally temporary; the return to the rigid hierarchy of master-slave returned every year by the end of Saturnalia, as memorably described by the formerly enslaved Epictetus in Discourses 4.1.58.
Horace’s Satires 2.7 contains a powerful speech delivered by Davus, a supposed slave of Horace, who uses the license granted to him on the holiday to challenge Horace’s dominion and supposed freedom. He outlines ways in which Horace is in fact servile to his aesthetic tastes and desire for money and riches:
tu, mihi qui imperitas, aliis servis miser atque
duceris ut nervis alienis mobile lignum.
quisnam igitur liber? sapiens sibi qui imperiosus,
quem neque pauperies neque mors neque vincula terrent,
responsare cupidinibus, contemnere honores
fortis, et in se ipso totus…
You who command me are a subject to other things, and are led around like a puppet movable by others’ strings. Who then is free? The wise man who is in command of himself, whom neither poverty nor death nor chains frighten; courageous in checking his desires and in looking down on honors, and perfect in himself…(Horace, Satires 2.7.80-85, my translation)
Using the 3P model, I’ve crafted a lesson plan around both the Satires text (another Latin text describing Saturnalia could be used) and a piece of secondary academic literature, in this case, Fanny Dolansky’s “Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life” in A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Dolansky’s piece contains an excellent, thorough, and accessible introduction to the domestic and family dynamics of the Saturnalia festival (familia in the Roman sense included the complex interplay between free and enslaved persons living in the same familial property).
In this lesson plan (found here), I chart the product, practice, and perspectives of Saturnalia through Horace’s Satires 2.7. The ‘product’ in this case is Satires 2.7; the ‘practice’ is the ‘free speech’ or ‘December liberty’ (libertas Decembri) wherein enslaved persons acted out masters’ roles in planned banquets and ceremonies; the ‘perspectives’ are views surrounding the practice as enumerated in masters’ and enslaved persons’ opinions found in Satires 2.7 and Epictetus’s Discourses. I build on this model with potential classroom activities, language support, and scaffolding and connect the lesson with broader conversations surrounding the function of holidays within a slave-owning society.
For example, an important extension of this lesson includes discussion of the similar function of the Christmas holidays in antebellum US South as a form of “social conduction.” In the referenced lesson, I compare Davus’s speech in Horace’s Satires 2.7 with Frederick Douglass’s powerful reflections on the intended social control effected on enslaved people through the celebration of Christmas of New Year’s at the end of the calendar year. He writes:
The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased…
From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it…
Douglass’s reflections make for a powerful tool of comparison in my classroom. The text helps students consider what first-person reflections of enslaved persons would have been during the “December liberty” and question who the festival was really for. It also provides us an opportunity to have rich conversations about the similarities and differences between the chattel slavery practiced by Ancient Mediterranean peoples and by modern European peoples. As one obvious point of contrast, we discuss the Transatlantic slave trade’s basis in race, absent in antiquity, while acknowledging the brutal features of the ancient system.
Consequently, at the end of the Saturnalia sequence in my courses (in this case, Latin 2), students are well-prepared to demonstrate intermediate intercultural proficiency in their spoken and written reflections on the Roman holiday. In fact, if we take a look at the official wording of the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements for the intermediate proficiency, we’ll see that students who have been exposed to the 3P framework are well on their way to demonstrating intermediate intercultural proficiency:
INVESTIGATE In my own and other cultures I can identify and compare the values expressed by the ways people celebrate holidays or festivals.
INTERACT I can adjust the way I dress to make it appropriate for a celebration or event.
(NCSSFL and ACTFL 2017)
In the case of Saturnalia, my students are able to identify and compare the values expressed by Roman celebration of Saturnalia (and Christmas in the antebellum South, besides), and, in fact, have gained a better appreciation for why they ought not to celebrate Saturnalia through the donning of traditional Roman master-slave-freedmen garments or re-enact “slaves’ banquets” and “status inversions.”
Beyond the Saturnalia case, I’ve also drawn from Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain, which offers pioneering research into the indigenous religious life of Roman Britain to illustrate religious diversity at the empire’s fringes, Jean Manco’s Blood of the Celts: The New Ancestral Storyto introduce Celtic migration before the arrival of Caesar’s armies, Edith Hall and Henry Stead’s A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 to discuss the invention of Classics as a discipline and its subsequent relation to socio-economic class, and lastly, adapted sections from Jörg Rüpke’s Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religionto acquaint students with the explicitly political dimensions of the Roman priesthood. Any of these titles (and many more currently being published) can serve to enrich and enhance the secondary Latin curriculum with judicious, learner-centered adaptation and scaffolding.
Evan Dutmer is an Instructor in Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, and Ethics at the Culver Academies, a boarding school in Northern Indiana. He holds a PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Northwestern University. He is the recipient of the 2020 Indiana Classical Conference Teacher of the Year (Rising Star) Award.
Featured Image: Depiction of the month of December from the lost Chronography of 354 (which survived in a 17th century Vatican copy; Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154). Dice and a hanging oscilla (a ceremonial mask) feature prominently, connecting it with Saturnalia traditions (and showing the durability of the holiday into Late Antiquity). Photograph via tertullian.org.