Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ancient Efficiency Expert Speaks to Modern Students

Oath of the Horatii, David, 1784, oil-on-canvas

It was a two-hour snow delay, so we did not have much time in each class.  Yet as our Latin II classes began their reading of the Roman historian Livy, I could not help taking some time to explore a life lesson.

Livy wrote of an event during the reign of Tullus Hostilius, who ruled as Rome's third king between 673 and 642 B.C.  Rome was at war with Alba Longa, and as there was a set of triplet brothers in each army, the kings decided to allow the two sets of triplets to fight, with the winning side declaring victory in the war.

Right away two of the Roman triplets were killed, and all three of the Albans sustained wounds.  The one surviving Roman, who was unhurt, now faced a choice.  These are Livy's words.

Ut universis solus nequaqum par, sic adversus singulos ferox.  (Livy, I.25)  "Just as alone he was in no way equal to all of them, so against them individually he was fierce."

On a day when we really did not have time for a digression, we digressed.  We discussed the insanely busy lives of American students, who take a heavy load of classes that are followed by extra-curricular activities, sports, jobs, and home responsibilities, to say nothing of emotional and relational challenges common to their age and often the physical challenges of poverty that should be common to none.  I pointed out that, similar to the Roman hero of the story, they were not equal to all the tasks of their lives at once, but that against them individually, they could be fierce.  We talked about the overwhelming sensation of facing a mountain of homework, but that setting a time limit for each assignment and working only on that, taking a short break, and moving on to the next was a better way to approach the whole.

We continued our reading to see that the Roman, Horatius, turned from his three wounded enemies and began to run.  The Romans thought he was fleeing, but as Horatius looked over his shoulder, he saw that the three wounded Albans were pursuing him at great intervals, with the most severely wounded bringing up the rear.  Suddenly, he turned and attacked the one who was closest to him.

We digressed again.

What was the condition of the Alban in closest pursuit to the Roman?  The students easily observed that he would have been the least wounded.  As Horatius fought each of the three Albans, which fight would have been the most difficult?  Again, they quickly noted that the first would have been most challenging, as that opponent was the least wounded and therefore the strongest of his brothers.

We then talked about the value of approaching the most difficult assignments first.  It is natural to want to put those off to the end, but far better to approach those first when minds are fresh, leaving shorter or easier assignments to the end.


How do you help students connect what they study directly with their lives?


  1. Thanks for your comments, gentlemen! They mean a lot coming from people I respect as I do the two of you.


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