I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

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Disco et Doceo–Classical Wisdom in the Australian Classroom

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Classical Languages Teachers Association conference in Sydney.  Its guiding words were ‘Disco et Doceo: Classical Wisdom K012 and Beyond.’  (For non-Australian readers, K-12 means from kindergarten to year 12, or throughout the years of primary and secondary school).

There, I spoke about the Our Mythical Childhood project to a dynamic and dedicated (and very well-dressed) group of classics teachers from around Australia, and beyond.  The CLTA is the leading body of school classics educators, and there were well over 60 teachers in attendance, including representatives from most States of Australia, and visitors from New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Eureka!  An introduction to Classical Greek for young Australians

Dr Emily Matters, who heads the Association, organised the conference, and put together a program of presentations about aspects of classics, and aspects of classics teaching. Emily is the brains behind the Eureka! Greek textbook, which may be unique in the world in uniting the study of Ancient Greek with the mythology and customs of Indigenous Australians.

Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag
Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag

ACARA, Pro Archia, and Rhetorical Flair

Dr Tracey McAllister from ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, shared the story of the development of the Australian Classical Languages Curriculum.  While its initial focus was on Classical Greek and Latin, significantly, it was set as a framework to assist the development of other Classical Languages–perhaps a world first in any educational authority.  Tracey is a convert to the cause of Classical Languages and stated that she believes all students would benefit from the study.

Other speakers included A/Prof Kathryn Welch (University of Sydney), fresh off a plane from Italy,  who talked about the background to Pro Archia, and Dr Alexander Bril (Sydney Grammar School), who took us through our rhetorical paces and shed light on some important Ciceronian dates.  And Dr Anne Rogerson, (University of Sydney) spoke about the Aeneid’s Book I, inspiring me to think more about the ways that classical narrative patterns map onto aspects of children’s literature storytelling. Do stories lead us homewards, or Romewards?  It depends, in children’s and classical literature alike.

Classicum–Contributions Welcome

Anne Rogerson is the incoming editor of Classicum, the journal of the CLTA and the Classical Association of New South Wales. She writes:

We welcome articles of various lengths on Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history, philosophy, archaeology and their reception, as well as essays on the teaching of Classical languages or other topics relating to ancient Greece and Rome, and reflective pieces from practitioners on performances and other artistic productions that present or respond to Classical material. We also publish review essays on books, exhibitions, performances and other art that relate explicitly or implicitly to the ancient world. Our aim is to make the Classical past and our modern engagements with it accessible to a broad audience while also publishing work of use and interest to scholars and teachers of the Classical world.

To read Classicum, or to be in touch with Anne, check out the link, here.

Classical Swag

Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey's pottery reconstructions
Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey’s pottery reconstructions

Those of us who received conference bags were lucky enough to take home one of Dorothy Healey’s wonderful recreations of Ancient Greek pottery, as well as other less ‘authentic’ goodies, including a gingerbread Roman Legionary duck (made by the Central Coast’s best bakery. ) And Anthony Gibbins of Legonium fame (and Sydney Grammar School) kindly donated a hard copy of his Latin lessons, and ‘Jessica,’ one of the minifigures who stars in the series.

Legionary Duck at Conference Dinner . . .
Disco et Ducky-o: Legionary Gingerbread at Conference Dinner . . .

 

Classical Inspirations

I went home, clutching my swag, but more importantly inspired, and educated, by the creativity and dedication of the teachers I met and heard from.  It may not yet be compulsory for students to study classics or classical languages in Australian high schools, but judging by the energy in the room, that day may well be on the way.  It was a privilege to be involved in this gathering of the people who introduce such wonderful material to the next generation of classical scholars.

–Liz Hale

 

 

 

 

Learning Latin through Lego: Legonium

How better to learn Latin than through a series of Lego-based adventures?  Anthony Gibbins, Latin Master at Sydney Grammar, is taking the internet by storm with his terrific Legonium site, which provides simple story-based approaches to Latin, and featuring the adventures of different lego characters.  It’s a superb example of the kinds of creative work that classics teachers are doing to communicate the delights of Latin to new generations.  

I was curious about how he came to have such a great idea, and admiring of the dedication and creativity that goes into maintaining it.  Anthony also has a very lively Twitter feed at @tutubuslatinus and so I’m thrilled that he was able to take the time to answer a few questions. It looks like there’s many more fascinating episodes ahead, so Latin-learners have some great things ahead of them.

Where did your ideas come from?  Why Lego?

The scope of Legonium has grown over time, and will hopefully continue to grow. The first aspect of Legonium was the fabulae.

I enjoy writing stories in Latin, but have always wanted these stories to be illustrated. An early example is the Gilbo series that can be found at the Tar Heel Reader website. A few years ago I was reflecting on the many wonderful novellas that were then being published in Latin and feeling that I was missing out. I began to think once more about how I could illustrate a story book.

I had recently began collecting Lego kits. I started with Star Wars, then crossed to the Modular Series, the large detailed buildings that make up Legonium. It suddenly occurred to me that I could very easily create detailed illustrations by setting up and photographing scenes with these Lego sets. The idea was born from there. I set up a website and began posting daily blogs, which I promoted with Twitter. I had only a rough idea where the story was going, and as I bought new buildings the story continued to develop.

 

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.17.02

Totally by chance, one of the characters, Claudia, had been identified as having an interest in ancient history early in the story.

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.16.48

 It occurred to me that perhaps she could visit Pompeii. I contacted the Nicholson Museum, (which houses an elaborate Lego reproduction of Pompeii) and they were very enthusiastic about the model being used for such a project. So that is how Claudia managed to get to Pompeii in episode 7 of series 1.  It later occurred to me that it would be a good place to finish the first story too. Fortunately, the museum allowed me to return, and the climactic final showdown was set in the ancient city as well.

I am now working on the second series of the fabulae, which is more of a love story. It is proving to be a much slower process, but I have 3 episodes completed (http://www.legonium.com/tertia-decima/) and an entire 12 ‘episode’ series planned out. It is really just a matter of me writing and photographing the stories. Perhaps in the next holidays…

Roll on the holidays!  Why did you use modern Lego, rather than ancient?  Did this shape your storytelling?  

Legonium itself – the buildings available in the Modular series – dictated that the stories be set is something like the modern world – you may notice that no one has a mobile phone. I was happy with this restriction, as I have spent quite a lot of time in Latin immersion environments, and this gave me an opportunity to write stories about the types of things I was discussing in my conversations; tall buildings, busses, aeroplanes, suitcases et cetera. However, on Twitter I do take the opportunity to engage with the ancient world. I regularly post announcements of Roman festivals and religious holidays (http://www.legonium.com/ianuarius/) . There are also posts of quotes from ancient authors, illustrated of course with Lego. Much of this can now be found on the website.

Screenshot 2018-09-12 21.17.19
http://www.legonium.com/

 Do you use Legonium in your own classroom?

I do use it in my own classroom, but not as much as some other teachers I have heard of. But when there is time, I might read through parts of stories with Year 9, 10 and 11 classes. I am currently working on a grammar reference series, beginning with the uses of the cases. I can certainly see myself using this with classes once it is complete.

 What made you use the Harry Potter figures and stories? 

I worked very very hard to be able to read Harrius Potter. It is not simple Latin, and there was a lot on unfamiliar vocabulary within. But now that I can pick it up (the first book at least) and read any given page, I am glad that I put in the work. I decided that a series of Tweets on Harrius Potter would allow other people to read it a little bit faster than I could (http://www.legonium.com/harrius-150/). I also secretly hoped that it might catch the attention of J.K. Rowling, although that did not happen. Harry Potter gave a lot of my earliest students a genuine curiosity for Latin, and I think the subject owes a great deal to their author. When I got to the end of the first chapter, there was little enthusiasm from the Twitter audience to continue, so I decided to hang it up there. I could always go back to it at some time – I would probably skip a few chapters and sink my teeth into something towards the end.

Maybe J. K. Rowling is a secret fan!  How concerned are you with ‘accuracy’ (i.e. fidelity to ancient Roman culture, fidelity to smaller nuances of language)?

I am very concerned with accuracy. I do make occasional mistakes but I make every effort not to. If I don’t know how to say something, I will try to find out – I figure that’s a hole in my knowledge that I can fill. I have a good selection of books to help me, as well as a an extremely knowledgeable and generous department at the school where I teach. If I can’t figure it out, I won’t guess at it. I just think of something else to say. I don’t want to be responsible for spreading bad Latin. I do, however, still make mistakes. The Latin community is very gentle in their corrections, and I appreciate it that people are looking out for errors.

The one exception I make is for issues of gender. The word poeta – for example – is a masculine noun. But I have no qualms using it to describe a woman, and pairing it with a feminine adjective. I do get a little pushback on that, but not a lot.

What other projects are you working on that you’re willing to share with us?

I’m currently working on two other projects. I am building a Roman villa out of Lego, which I will upload to Lego Ideas. Lego Ideas is a great platform, which allows Lego fans to propose Lego kits. If the Roman villa can gain ‘support’ from 10,000 people, Lego will consider producing it as a kit. Supporters only have to click on a button on the ideas website and answer three questions, but they do have to have a Lego web-account.

 The second project is a card game called Bellum Sacrum. This is a battle-royal between two teams of Roman gods and goddesses. The game is working very well and we are currently working on card layout. I hope to have it ready to playtest more broadly soon.

–Anthony Gibbins in conversation with Liz Hale