Playing with Classics

In May I’ll be going to Warsaw, to be part of the Present Meets the Past Workshops at the University of Warsaw.  It’s a joyous occasion, in which the Panoply animations of some important Greek vases at the National Museum of Poland will be launched, and there will be discussions from all the Our Mythical Childhood team on how our different projects are going.

I’m going to talk about ‘playing with classics.’  This is my very short abstract.

In this presentation I will talk about what it might mean to play with classics. Looking at examples from children’s literature, games, toys, and the web, I’ll discuss the power of play in uncovering serious truths, and the power of classics to adapt to the joy and humour of playful moments.

Theorising Play

In a waiting room in Dunedin last year, I happened upon a copy of New Zealand Memories, a magazine dedicated to New Zealand heritage.  As I browsed through it, I came upon an article about Brian Sutton-Smith.  Smith was New Zealand’s (and perhaps the world’s) foremost theorist of play.  He gathered the songs and stories and jokes of New Zealand children, and wrote about them in scholarship and in stories.  He spent many years in the United States as a professor, advancing the field of play studies, and consulting for museums and television programs.

Reading about him, and following up and reading some of his works, I was reminded not only of the naughty jokes of my own childhood, but of the energy and concentration of play.  Sutton Smith’s work argues for the profundity of play, as a learning activity and as a way of finding out about the world.  I was inspired to see that he was also interested in children’s folklore: the songs, stories, and lore of children, that happen in playgrounds and beyond.  As a child I liked reading my father’s tattered copy of Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, thinking about the similarities and differences between my schoolyard songs, and others.

Folklore, Play and the Latin Classroom

What does this have to do with classical antiquity?  A lot, especially given that so many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century children were forced to learn Latin.  Children’s jokes reflect a shared experience. In my post on Frederic Farrar’s nineteenth-century school novels, I quoted one of the little doggerels that was popular at the time:

Latin is a language, dead as dead can be.

It killed the Ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.

It appears in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, with a couple of variants, further evidence of what Christopher Stray identifies in his curious and wonderful book, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England 1830-1960, namely an influential culture of learning in British (and Colonial) society, where the learning of Latin was a shared joy, and sometimes a shared misery.  Jokes were one way of surviving a time of trial; there were also darker rituals (such as biting down on the Latin grammar book during a caning) that hinted at other types of educational misery).  And there were some really elaborate curiosities, such as the 1845 Eureka machine, which composed Latin hexameters for any occasion.

Cicero sic in at

I’m also fascinated by little Latin rhymes, from generations of schoolkids, perhaps forced to learn the language, or loving Latin so much they wanted to play with it.

Caesar adsum iam forte

Cicero aderat

Caesar sic in omnibus

Cicero sic inat

Read it out loud, and you should get the joke (if not, I’ll put it at the end of this post).

This is what they call ‘dog Latin,’ or ‘cod Latin.’  In some versions it’s Cicero, in other versions it’s Brutus.  The price of fame is that you live on in harmless classroom jokes like these.   Not unlike my absolute favourite joke of all time:

Q: Where did Napoleon keep his armies?

A: In his sleevies!

If jokes like these send up anything, it’s the strangeness of what the education system decides we should be taught.  Playful moments like these expose that strangeness, and work with it, in creative directions that to my mind are as, if not more, meaningful than the facts or factoids that can be delivered in the form of learning.

With apologies to Cicero, Caesar, Napoleon . . .
With apologies to Cicero, Caesar, Napoleon . . .

Playing with Classics

The classical tradition is so serious, and yet it opens up so much in the world of play as well.  In Warsaw, I’ll talk about how some of my Australian colleagues (Legonium, Lego Pompeii, The Brickman, Lego Classicisists) have been doing amazing work with Lego, using playful means to expose students to classical antiquity.  At the University of New England, where I work, the students of the UNECA Classics Association have board game nights, where they recapture games of the past, and play classics-inspired games too.

Gaudium bono est

Dr Seuss said ‘Fun is good,’ and I think that statement extends to play as well.  The Romans didn’t spend all their time learning Latin, and nor should we.  And when we play with classics, just think what we can learn.

–Elizabeth Hale

*Caesar had some jam for tea.  Cicero had a rat. Caesar sick in omnibus.  Cicero sick in hat.

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