Figs of the imagination

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Although studies show that Latin helps develop mental ability in children - particularly logic and language skills - I often have to convince parents as well as pupils that there's a point to learning this dead language. Parents are usually mollified by a handout I have written called "Why Learn Latin?" Children are best convinced in another way. Long ago, I realised that every child's head can be reached through his or her stomach, so I start each school year with a Latin banquet.

We spend one or two lessons discussing what food the ancient Romans or Pompeiians would - or would not - have eaten. This immediately engages the children; food is something every child has an opinion about. Once we have eliminated chocolate, bananas and potatoes, I ask each child to volunteer to bring a "Roman" food. Each child also designs an invitation or menu, as if they were an ancient Roman inviting their friends round for a cena.

On the day, we spread out a large sheet to catch all the crumbs and lay out our food on ceramic plates in the middle. If time allows, we wear tunics and garlands, and a couple of children volunteer to be slaves. We serve red and white "wine" - grape juice in jugs. Then we all recline on our left side, (to leave the right hand free), and tuck in with our fingers.

Starters might consist of hard-boiled eggs with rock salt, black olives, pomegranates and pistachio nuts. The main course would be smoked fish, cold roast chicken, pitta bread and hummus. (Waitrose doesn't do stuffed dormice and roasted peacock.) The Romans ate healthy sweets - no E-additives. We have grapes, figs and honeycomb. I also try to find halva - a Middle Eastern sweet made of sesame flour and honey. It is something most children have not tried and just different enough to be exotic.

The banquet is a great leveller and ice-breaker, especially as the teacher sits on the floor too. Many questions ensue, such as "Is it easier to digest food sitting up or lying down?", "How did the Romans clean their teeth?", "Where did the slaves come from?" We take turns reciting a poem or telling a story. Aesop's Fables serve well for younger classes. Sadly, I haven't found any tapes of ancient Roman music to play. However, the shop Past Times produces a fair replica of Roman dice and a card game of famous Latin sayings called Dictum.

Our feast is a feeble imitation of a Roman banquet, but at least we can imagine what one might have been like. The children clamour for a Roman banquet each week after that, but I forestall them with a promise of an end-of-term party.

That's when I show "Roman" films on video: Spartacus, Hercules, or that superb classic, based heavily on Plautus (and my personal all-time favourite) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

"Oh, Mother," grumbled my 16-year-old son in disgust the other day, "You really shouldn't throw Latin banquets and show films; you'll give those poor kids the idea that Latin is fun."

Caroline Lawrence teaches Latin and Art at Dolphin School, an independent Christian primary school in Battersea, south London

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