The truth about Rome may be too brutal for the young to handle

Some 50 years after its original publication, it has suddenly occurred to writers of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), which depicts happy slaves singing and dancing their way through life, that slavery is a bad thing. As a result, the course is going to be rewritten to ensure that pupils understand that slavery is a bad thing too.

I’m all for teaching children the reality about Roman society. In fact, that’s probably the best way of interesting them in the study of Latin, Greek and the ancient world. The question is: how will CLC handle the topic?

It will be a delicate task. Although it might be horrifying to modern minds, perhaps the CLC could begin by reflecting that, in Roman society, slaves effectively had the status of a tool. They were bought for a purpose – everything from, worst of all, working down the mines, to doctors, architects, jewellers or professors, who were purchased at great expense and expected to use their skills to the household’s advantage.

And then there were the masters. There were those who understood about human relationships and how to get the best out of people. Uniquely in the ancient world, Roman slaves who did good service to their masters stood the chance of being freed. In that case they and their children would become citizens (and at once buy slaves themselves). There are thousands of monuments and inscriptions set up by such “freedmen”, announcing their pride in their achievements.

Equally there were very bad masters. Life for their slaves would have been intolerable. And since one can assume that this is the picture CLC wishes to paint, for fear that innocent children will otherwise come away with the impression the slavery was wonderful, this raises a problem. How are they going to turn Caecilius, the male “lead” of the course, currently a good master, into a bad master?

The point here is that we live in a world of trigger warnings, and the trigger warnings that the ancient world sets off will probably burst our sensitive pupils’ ear drums. For starters, the ancients had no concept of human rights. They had no belief even in the right to life.

In such a situation, the treatment which bad masters meted out to their slaves is not fit for human consumption by anyone of any age, let alone under 16. Male and female slaves could be raped at will by the master and his sons, hired out as prostitutes, sold off to fight to the death as gladiators, or for almost any other purpose that human wickedness could devise.

The CLC is right to want its pupils to have as accurate a picture of the Roman world as possible. But good luck to them on achieving that end on a subject as complex and, if we are to believe what we are told about the young, as traumatising as slavery.

And once they have dealt with slavery, what about all the other no-go areas – colonialism (and its violence against men and women), violence in general, racism, sexism, gender, class and mental health. If that is enough to cancel Jane Austen, where does it leave the study of the ancient world?

Some of us, however, would say that is exactly why the ancients demand to be studied. But perhaps humans cannot bear so much (different) reality.


Peter Jones is an author and co-founder of the charity Classics for All

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