Woke* Grumio

*Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.

After joining Twitter earlier this year, I have enjoyed reading the blogs and felt the benefits of the writings of so many teachers, heads, and people working in education, so much so that it easily ranks as the best CPD I have experienced (emphasis on the continuing, I need more self-control with Twitter…).

A blog seemed like a brilliant way to order one’s thoughts on the what and how of teaching, both at subject level and pedagogy generally. It also seemed like a luxury (time) and rather arrogant (nobody wants to read it!). So what has changed? The realisation, gleaned from my Twitter elders, more experienced and better informed than me, that the clearer the bigger picture (long term plan and aims of the curriculum) the less time you spend on the small stuff. The realisation that if nobody reads it then that is fine (I would punctuate here with ‘shout out to my mum’- but she wouldn’t indulge me by reading this.). Selfishly, I wanted someone else to write about teaching Classics and Latin in the UK, so I could be nosy about what was going on in other schools, read about it and comment. I haven’t found that person, so I will have to be her. And I am starting with the much-loved Latin textbook, Cambridge Latin Course.


If a child at secondary school learns Latin in Key Stage 3 at a U.K. secondary school, it is likely that they do so from this textbook. Others are available: The Oxford Latin Course; newer courses such as Imperium; Wheelock’s Reading Latin (old school); Ecce Romani (the Enid Blyton of the Latin textbook world). If your students are launching straight into GCSE you will probably start with John Taylor’s Latin to GCSE.

There are many reasons to love the CLC. The Cambridge Latin Course is the most highly resourced of the courses, with an e-learning resource, graded affiliated tests, worksheets, and a vocabulary very closely aligned to the GCSE specification. It has unintentionally hilarious videos of many of its stories on the e-learning resource. It covers a variety of geographical areas in Book I and II: Pompeii, Roman Britain and Roman Egypt. It shows perspectives of different people in Roman society: slaves (domestic and agricultural); provincials; the ‘business’ and political class; liberti, although it perhaps focuses too much on the extremes- we don’t see much of the average insulae-dwelling plebeian, or free native Briton/ Egyptian. It builds up the complexity of language in its stories in a way that I am only just beginning to appreciate in my five years of teaching it, and links the narrative and Roman social cultural aspects to the language in a considered and clear way, making the message clear that the language is a means of gaining access to the culture and literature, and not an end in itself. The collection of books represents a great deal of thought and work, and has been instrumental in the continuation of Latin in (state) schools.

Do you sense that this is where I present the issue with this course? Well, like a favourite elderly aunt, the CLC can at times come across as rather politically incorrect. I hear you, of course the ancient world is not PC! Slavery, imperialism, gladiators, the amphitheatre, the bottom half of Caecilius’ herm: learning about these challenging topics (not the herm,

Caecilius’ herm. A surprising addition down below, not included in the textbook

never the herm: (see picture right and this link :  http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2013/07/caecilius-willy.html for more)  in the context of the ancient world, with the distance it provides to critically examine this society and use this to inform views of our own society, is one of the joys of teaching Latin. I am not talking about the political incorrectness of the ancient world per se, but the political incorrectness of the way certain topics are presented, and missed opportunities for useful discussion which may result from this. There are some aspects of the stories and cultural/ social material which always leave me disappointed in myself in how I have taught them. Expecting a rewrite of the textbook is not an option- I would be the first in line to complain that my school can’t afford to buy a new set! So some of my blog posts, including this one, will focus on how I can ensure that my teaching of the Cambridge Latin Course encourages my students to look critically at Roman society, and then, compare it with their own.


Let’s take the character Grumio. Grumio is the household cook and all-round joker. He is a slave, but this is not alluded to (Grumio est coquus). He sleeps in the culina, the canis steals his food, he gets attacked by a different canis, and he perves over all the ancillae and manages to slip out and visit an ancilla from a different villa when the familia are all in theatro. In the tradition of Roman Comedy, he is the slave who provides us with comic relief. What can we hypothesise of his life apart from this? There is nothing online that I can find on the name Grumio pre-Shakespeare (not past all the Plebs references and CLC fan pages anyway), so it is not immediately clear if he is meant to be a foreign-born or native slave. As a skilled and domestic slave, he certainly enjoys a better quality of life than agricultural slaves owned by the state, and can expect to live longer. He seems to get on well with the rest of the household. But it is undeniable that Grumio is a man who is the property of another man (Caecilius) and must do as he is told. Perhaps he grew up in Caecilius’ household, his parents may have been slaves too, of Caecilius’ or Metella’s parents. He has no family of which we are aware. Perhaps he was captured in war, possibly in Judea (66-73 AD). It is likely that he sleeps on the floor in the kitchen (It is unlikely that Pompeian houses had upper stories and there is no evidence of slave quarters). He might be optimistic about his future (Felix was a slave freed by Caecilius- but only because he saved Caecilius’ son Quintus’ life, in exceptional circumstances). Does he live in hope that he has the chance to save a citizen’s life, much like a migrant from a developing country living in Europe might do? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-44275776  Or does he worry that when he is no longer useful, he will be given his freedom (much like I might give a knackered kettle its freedom from the kitchen by chucking it in the bin) because he is no longer worth the upkeep?

Typical meme from fans of the much-loved Grumio

So I have taken all of the fun out of the character Grumio: but what does this look like in the classroom? Well, when I teach Stage 1 of the course to Year 7 next year, instead of waiting until Stage 6 to ‘do’ slavery (each Stage has its own cultural/ social topic), I will make space for discussion on slavery at the start of the course: what it looked like in the ancient world; ancient theories of slavery; and discussion on how this compares with other periods of slavery (dependent on student knowledge e.g. of transatlantic slave-trade) and modern slavery. This will be in the form of some class discussion and some reading and questions to do at home. When discussing the characters throughout the year, reference can be made to this. That way, when we arrive at the apotheosis of CLC’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery (Stage 6, model sentence 11, servi erant laeti: the slaves were happy), we will have built up towards a meaningful discussion: can the servi be laeti? Perhaps they could be, but this time the students will not take this for granted. Instead of being encouraged to see slavery as a normalised institution, they will have learned about its legal and social context, and empathised with these characters, considered to what extent our attitudes towards slavery have changed (it isn’t socially acceptable but it is still there, and closer to home than we like to think https://www.antislavery.org/slavery-today/slavery-uk/ ).



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amo amas amat

Lead Practitioner of Latin and Classics at a comprehensive state school in East London.

One thought on “Woke* Grumio”

  1. Really interesting read. I certainly think I am guilty of keeping Grumio as a source of humour and a hook to keep the students entertained. I like the idea of exploring slavery at a much earlier stage in the course. For us, we only really get to the background of Stage 6 at the end of Year 7, and so (after trips and enrichment days in the last half term) we often have to gloss over many of the more taxing and challenging issues.

    I don’t know if you do any P4C teaching as part of your course, but slavery is a topic which can provide some real interesting debates for the class. Again, it often gives the less able linguists a chance to shine and plants the seeds of interest for Classical Civilisation.

    Good luck with the blog – I look forward to reading more!


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