In my third year of high school Latin, when we were supposed to have mastered the grammar, we were given a one-page story to translate each week. These were more interesting than the excerpts from Caesar’s invasion of Britain – although I was riveted by the bit where the legions square up to a horde of Britons hurtling down the hill in their chariots, faces woad-blue and fearsome – and most terrifying of all, women tooling their vehicles, women marked blue with warlike woad hurling spears with deadly accuracy. Even as I struggled through the thicket of Caesar’s Latin, my hair stood on end with excitement.
These one-page stories. We had to translate one every Friday afternoon during our Latin double period. I had not mastered the grammar. I was a lazy student. My chief concern during Latin class was the silence, which allowed the squirting and grumbling of my stomach to be heard by all. Miss Benton was small, red-haired, elegant in her pants suit which nevertheless covered her like a nun’s habit. She could silence an unruly girl with one glance from her green eyes. I used to wonder how this woman had such power over us, far more power than her larger, louder colleagues. No other teacher came close to possessing the authority that characterised Miss Benton, an authority that had something of eternity about it.
First story: Procrustes Bed: Procrustes was a bandit who used to rope his victims to a bed. If the victim was longer than the bed, Procrustes lopped off his feet. If he was shorter than the bed, Procrustes stretched him to fit.
Voting by potsherd. The Roman Senate used to vote by potsherd, a piece of broken pottery. When a new leader of the Senate was required, each senator wrote his own name first on the potsherd and the name of the most respected of the senators next. This senator thus won by second votes.
The Tarpeian Rock – Rome was under siege by the Sabines. It locked its gates against the army ranked outside the walls. But Tarpeia let the Sabines in, expecting a rich reward. They hurled her from the cliffs for her treachery, and the place of her execution was thereafter known as the Tarpeian Rock.
Horatius at the Bridge.Rome was under threat by the Etruscans. To stop the invaders crossing the Tiber and reaching the city, the Romans knocked down all the bridges. But one remained to be destroyed when the Etruscans, realising their way was being cut off, rushed to get to it. Horatius tried to convince his friends to help him guard the bridge until it had been knocked down. It was a death sentence and his friends refused. So Horatius guarded it alone, facing the Etruscan army alone with his sword. As the bridge fell behind him he dived into the Tiber and swam for safety to the other side. Pure Hollywood.
I did a bit of research as I retold these stories. Tarpeia was a Vestal and a general in the Roman army. She let in the Sabines, intending that the Romans would overpower and kill them, but they were disgusted by what they saw as her treachery and flung her from the rock. Each of the stories we translated for Latin was a moral lesson, apart from the one about Procrustes, obviously an early psychopath. The lesson of Tarpeia is that women not try to do a man’s job. No matter how noble their intentions, they’ll be executed.