Friday, January 25, 2013

A novel to learn about the classics

Not so long ago, while I was talking to some grade 12's in school, they showed me some of the readings they were doing in ELA. One was The Allegory of the Cave by the Greek philosopher, Plato. Again I asked them how they felt about reading such an "old" text. The general answer was that they find it hard to understand but at the same time they were surprised by the "modernity" of the ideas reflected in the text. They highly valued the fact that over 2,000 years ago, people in a corner of the world were already asking themselves such deep questions.

I thought it would be a good idea to identify a resource for grade 12 in the bilingual program that could shed some light about the classical age of western culture.  At first, I thought about Spanish translations of texts by Plato or another classical author. I also thought about a film set in the Greek or Roman periods which could reflect the life and ideas of that time.

Then a novel fell on my lap and I believe it can be a good resource to learn more about the Roman Empire. Even if it is not used as a classroom text, it could be recommended as an extra reading. The book is Continúan los Crimenes en Roma, by Emilio Calderón (Anaya). The author holds a degree in history and worked for the Archaeological National Museum of Spain. He has written several thrillers for young adults, all of them with references to historical facts (Egypt, Rome, London at the time of Jack the Ripper). More information about his works is on his website:

In this particular thriller, Manio Manlio Escévola, the son of a rich and powerful senator in Rome, returns home after two years of fighting against Parthia, now known as Turkey. Manio's father prepares to celebrate his son's return. Both watch a gladiators' combat at the Coliseum as father and son. Unfortunately, Manio's father gets killed on the way home. Manio is devastated; moreover, he soon discovers that he is to go on trial for parricide as the main suspect. Only his girlfriend, Claudia, believes his innocence and helps him to find the real murderer.

Once I took the time to breakdown the potential topics that students can learn about from this novel, I was surprised at how long the list was! (See below.)

Aspects of Roman life:

a) slave system    b) judiciary system   c) roles of politicians, the Senate and the Emperor
d) funerary traditions   e) culinary recipes f) norms and customs   g) role of culture and education

Higher level students in the bilingual and IB programs should be able to comprehend the novel with little trouble. Although the language is complex at times, with its continuous references to specific Roman terms. To clarify these terms, the writer supplies footnotes for his readers. Students can be taught to use this tool to increase comprehension of the novel. The narrative rhythm is agile, thanks to the numerous dialogues in the text.
The author skillfully weaves fictional text with factual information. He uses fictional characters to introduce readers to historical figures like the Emperor Tiberius. Interestingly, he author actually uses a primary source to describe Tiberius written by Roman historian, Suetonius, from his book The Twelve Ceasars.  
If you are looking for a book which can enlighten students about the founders of Western civilization, this novel is for you! This novel is also ideal for interdisciplinary teaching.

Click on the book cover below to read the publisher's suggested teaching activities:
Note: I'd like to thank my resident editor (my fiancée, Annie) for her help with reviewing my blog entries.