A discursive lesson


One parent suggested that his son enjoyed lessons in our department because of ‘the discursive and serendipitous mode of teaching.’ A girl pupil described it as ‘picking flowers beside the road.’

Mindful of this, on a sweltering hot day, with the air full of sleep, in a class of 14-year olds, it seemed good to read a piece from Dale’s Latin passages*, based apparently on a chapter in Josephus.

In a generous hour, there were several discursions started by teacher, or pupils, or a combination. Some got a mention, some an airing.

Herod Agrippa is disgraced by the emperor Tiberius, but in happier times demonstrates by his actions that he always rewards a kindness.

Agrippa, quod Tiberium imperatorem vituperaverat, ante portas palatii in vinculis detentus est. sol iam in medio caelo erat et eum ita opprimebat, ut crederet se siti moriturum esse, nisi aqua sibi daretur. subito servum, Thaumastum nomine, qui urnam aqua plenam ferebat, conspexit. igitur eum rogavit num se bibere permitteret. servus statim aquam ei dedit: cui Agrippa ‘numquam’ inquit ‘benevolentiae tuae immemor ero.’
cum Tiberius mortuus esset Agrippa non modo a Caligula liberatus est, sed etiam rex Iudaeorum factus est. postquam ad hunc honorem attigit, Agrippa non tam turpis erat ut Thaumastum neglegeret. itaque eum vilicum suum creavit.


Herod Agrippa—his identity—better portrayed by Josephus than by St Luke.

Tiberium—his parentage—whether Augustus’s first choice for successor—reasons why so feared and disliked—enigmatic behaviour­—non-verbal communication his development area—the delatores—rehabilitation of the crime of maiestas—the island of Capri—Sejanus.

imperatorem—not an Anglicism—first title given on coins.

vituperaverat—words becoming treasonable under Tiberius—whether there was ever free speech in Rome.

palatii—the name of the hill, but after Augustus also the name of the emperor’s residence: see earlier post http://teacherofclassics.com/?p=331

detentus est—etymology of the English word detain—Old French detenir.

in medio caelo—season of the year—heat—sundials—Roman knowledge of cosmology.

opprimebat—compounds of premo and their derivatives.

daretur—reason for the subjunctive.

Thaumastum—meaning of the name—Thaumastus apparently a Greek slave of Caligula’s—not the same name as Thomas, Hebrew, meaning ‘twin’.

urnam—how the citizens of Rome got fresh water—obtaining it a woman’s job in Greece—and in Judaea—respect for women in Rome—aqueducts.

Caligula—ecstatic reaction to his accession—reasons for it—Germanicus and Agrippina—process of his downfall—manner of his death—theories about his behaviour—name of his successor.

rex Iudaeorum—client kings—relations between kings of Judaea and emperors.

attigit —etymology of the English word attain—other derivatives—bills of attainder—forbidden in US constitution—Henry VIII.

vilicum—two deceptively different meanings of the word bailiff—Bailiff on the island of Guernsey—Bailiwick—English suffix -wick (see OED)—word wyke obsolete by 1400.


One colleague loves reading Shakespeare in the Arden edition because it has the notes at the bottom of the page. The same attractive layout is found in Jebb’s editions of Sophocles—and the question arises: what is the point of having notes at the back?

Perhaps there could be a word for a lover of footnotes.


*C. M. Dale, Latin passages for translation and comprehension, CUP 1981.