Siena, Genoa and St George

Hanging up on my childhood bedroom wall for a longish period, alongside a multicoloured map of the world, and a small, framed picture of a red Lamborghini, was a rather more obscure decoration: a Tartuca (tortoise) flag from the Italian city of Siena. This flag represented a southern district of the city which I (aged 6) had for some reason decided to adopt as my own when, on a family holiday, we paid it a visit near the time of its famous annual Palio (horse race). This horse race takes place each year in a grand, medieval square in the centre of Siena. Each horse in the race represents a district of the city and competes in the colours of that district’s flag: something of the excitement of this year’s race is tangible here.

I remember the yellow and blue flag I took away with me that summer – and Siena – vividly, even though I haven’t since been back to the city. My abiding memories are of the city’s grand and spectacular architecture and of its many flags – bright, striking and vibrant flags – which adorned the walls of the hotel and restaurants I saw, among other places. (Alas I have no memories of the horserace itself which, for reasons of safety, my parents didn’t allow me or my brother to attend). Of my flag, I have no clue as to its eventual fate: by the time I was a teenager, after a couple of house moves, it had disappeared from my wall.

Last week, the topic of Italian flags was thrust upon me from a different and unexpected direction in the context of a year 9 Latin lesson. I had just finished delivering a carefully crafted 2 minute speech to my class of 13 year olds on the ways contemporary textbooks can present a mollified, incomplete and deficient picture of the lives and experiences of ancient slaves. The sheer physical brutality and cruelty to which so many slaves were often subjected, in lots of different ways, is rather skimmed over by school-level treatments of the topic of ancient slavery. This, I suggested, is something a good pupil would do well to remember and reflect upon.

It was an important point (well made, I had thought) and the class was now quiet. Pleasingly, a hand went up from the back row. Good: someone had got the message. In teaching, however, there are times when, in spite of your best efforts to hold their attention, pupils’ minds drift to different and faraway places. Here was one such case. Giving the appearance of deep perplexity, with quizzical tone and furrowed brow, this pupil asked: ‘Sir, why does Genoa use the St George’s flag? My family was in Italy over the summer and we saw it everywhere there’.

Not exactly on topic, to be sure, but here was a good question – and one (to my slight embarrassment) I couldn’t answer. I had a pre-existing sense that there was something funny and particular about Genoa and its flag(s), but absolutely no clear idea of what was going on here. So I promised to try to find out the answer and moved on.

The answer I discovered was, in essence, that the pupil’s question was wrongly formulated: we ought rather to ask how it is that the English came to adopt the flag of the medieval city of Genoa. I will leave readers to research this for themselves – there is a recent Guardian article which touches on the subject here (though if there is a particularly good treatment of the subject available to read free online, I am yet myself to find it!). Meanwhile, I cannot resist remarking on an irony: that, in an age when the red and white flag of St George is sometimes used to symbolise the essential separateness of the English from other peoples, including those living on the continent (and throughout the EU), the ‘English’ flag’s own origins lie precisely in mainland Europe.

A Tragic Sequel

DfurTsKXcAIQiElSchool holidays during the lead-up to summer exams are an interesting time for British teenagers. For the canny teenager, these holidays are a chance to stay productive and focussed on exam revision while enjoying a break away from school. Even for pupils without onerous GCSE or A-level exams to face, the task of putting in good performances in the summer exam room, either with a view to impressing universities they intend to apply to later on, or simply in order to consolidate a year’s work ahead of their GCSEs, tends to be seen as a vital one.

This being the case, I did not expect much interest when I advertised a trip to see the performance of two Greek plays during the June half-term break last term. Maybe, however, I had underestimated two significant factors. First, the Greek plays in question were going to be staged in a very special location: beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford University, outdoors in the beautiful gardens of one of its colleges. Second, the headline character of one of the plays – Oedipus, as depicted by one of Greek theatre’s most brilliant playwrights (Sophocles), is among the most famous and fascinating characters in all Greek tragedy. Perhaps, though, another factor more elegantly explains the attractiveness of the trip: the tickets were refreshingly affordable!

At any rate, as you can see above, there was sufficient interest in the trip for it to go ahead, and what an evening’s entertainment we enjoyed. The encounter with Oedipus – in the lesser known sequel to Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus – was striking and memorable, played as he was by a talented North American student actor who was supported by an excellent cast. The idiosyncratic historian Robin Lane Fox has an interesting review of the play’s performance here, in which (among other things) he wonders how the lead character of the play could ‘strike a chord with readers of the Financial Times’. This was not, I have to say, a question I had in my own mind as I watched, and reflected on, the play…

Closer to my own thoughts was the happy knowledge that for all the pupils who came on the trip, it was their first taste of Greek tragedy in the flesh, and their first (though hopefully not their last) encounter with the story of Oedipus. As a new school year is about to begin, and the cycle toward a fresh batch of summer exams begins to churn into motion, I am struck by the feeling that, although their summer exam performance would probably not have stood to benefit whatsoever by going on this trip, the ‘real’ education of the students who came really did benefit in a way no day spent revising could ever have paralleled.

Armenian Apricots

Perhaps the most enjoyable moments in the classroom are those when everyone in the room (teacher included) learns something new. This in turn can set off a chain of new and interesting questions and thoughts. This first blog post is about how learning about the uncertainties around Roman apricots did this for me and some year 7 pupils a few months ago.

It doesn’t seem to take the 11 and 12 year olds I teach each year long to work out that their Latin teacher doesn’t know *every* word of the Latin language. A favourite question of 11 year olds studying Latin for the first time is ‘What is the Latin word for…?’  They ask this question while they’re acclimatising themselves to the finding that much of the English language itself derives from Latin. I don’t tend to fare too badly in the spontaneous vocabulary tests that ensue, but sooner or later a gap in my knowledge tends to emerge and I have to reach for the dictionary (cue, usually, much amusement from squealing 11 year olds).

Last academic year, the moment that provoked this reaction was when I was asked what the Latin word for ‘apricot’ was. I had no idea, I said, and wondered straight away if apricots even featured in the Roman diet. The basic Collins dictionary I consulted first gave a simple answer: the Latin for ‘apricot’ was ‘armeniacum’, it suggested – so, presumably, they did. Better dictionaries later clarified that there is evidence also of ‘malum armeniacum’ (i.e. Armenian apple) and ‘prunum armeniacum’ (Armenian prune). Later that day, I searched around a little further.

The name armeniacum, as you might expect, has a geographical connotation: the Latin language associated apricots with Armenia, a territory on the Roman empire’s eastern boundaries, parts of which were controlled by Rome and Constantinople in the first to fifth centuries AD. The term armeniacum was certainly used in the 1st century AD: Pliny the Elder uses it more than once in his Natural History. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to assess the evidence, but I encountered various claims that the apricot’s more ancient origins lie further east than Armenia, in (perhaps) India or China. I did, however, come across a fascinating blogpost on the OUP website detailing outlines of the etymological development of ‘armeniacum’ into ‘apricot’. To any readers out there, please do comment with any further interesting info on the topic!

Back to the 11 year olds, to whom I reported some of these findings in their next lesson. I think some of them left the classroom that day having learnt that fruit and veg in the ancient world could be imported from far and wide, from across the empire (and beyond). Some may also, perhaps, have established a connection between apricots and Armenia. More still, probably, will remember the experience of finding a question their teacher couldn’t answer, and the patchwork-like nature of the information that I presented to them by way of response: perhaps that, rather than the detail of my research, provided the best lesson of all.