The Other Ten Percent


Kate Cooper, Penny Goodman, Caroline Lawrence

Volcanoes were on our minds in Manchester today during a confabulation of Greek geeks and Romanophiles. The Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT) hosted a lively discussion of how things Greek and Latin can reach a wide community, both in schools and in the twitter-sphere.  Novelist Caroline Lawrence talked about her work on the immensely popular Roman Mysteries series for young adults, describing the books as an attempt to cross Mary Renault and Robert Graves with Nancy Drew.  Lawrence also shared how she tries to set each story into a different corner of Roman life. Recently, she has been wrestling with Roman medicine, and had some alarming details about how Roman doctors treated various maladies.  Most people in the ancient world were just like us – almost – she told us. But if they were 90% just-what-we-expect and 10% utterly, magnificently unlike what we can imagine –  the problem is we can never be sure which 10% to worry about.  I wouldn’t trust this statement for accurate statistics, but it was a perfect accompaniment to the weird and wonderful details of Roman medical practice.

Virgins, Vampires and Volcanoes - cover imageMy own talk, Virgins, Vampires, and Volcanoes: The Strangely Modern World of Ancient Heroes and Heroines  tried to get at how differently we see ancient heroes and heroines than our parents did, and how illuminating and disturbing these fresh readings can be. Some of the ideas and images from this talk can be found in my Virgins and Vampires post, and I will be posting about some of the most interesting cases in the weeks to come.

I also spoke about the ‘Conflicting Identities’ project we have been running in Manchester, which encourages secondary school pupils to see ancient history as a ‘safe space’ to explore modern identity issues and conflicts. We watched Katie Bladgen’s moving short film about the project, I Died in Hawara, which tracks a group of lively Burnley teen-agers as the try to imagine the tensions of ordinary families in Roman Egypt.


Stamps issued by Mussolini to commemorate the bimllenium of Augustus’ birth, at the same time as Mussolini’s re-erection of the Ara Pacis, from Penny Goodman’s talk on Augustan Anniversaries.

Penelope Goodman from the University of Leeds talked us through how anniversaries focus the social mind, beginning with ancient Romans celebrating the festival of the city’s founding in 751 BC and ending with the 2000th anniversary of the death of Augustus, the occurence of which in 2014 will rival the beginning of World War I as an anniversary to conjure with.

Perhaps the most interesting discussions, though, were those from the floor – reports from teachers who are working with pupils of every ability level in schools of every type, finding ways to bring the ancient world alive, and to shed light on the modern world by noticing parallels with the ancient one.

A short presentation by Mark Payne, who is head of teacher training in Modern Foreign Languages at the University of Sheffield, reviewed the work he has been doing to help French and Spanish teachers who want to introduce Latin into schools where there is no funding for the teaching of Greek and Latin. He offered an eminently tweetable summary of what it’s all about:

‘Aims of Latin teaching: literature as a route to understanding culture, understanding culture as a route to understanding oneself.’

* * *

POSTSCRIPT. Caroline has posted a blog version of her talk, The Four Humours and Classical Networking. For more on Penny’s project, with links, see her post, Counting down to Augustus’ bimillennium.

The computer-generated image of Pompei’s eruption from my title page above can be found here.



  1. Hi Kate! Thanks for the write-up. It was a really great day. Even better for people wanting to know more about my project is the main project website, which is at

  2. Thanks for posting, Kate! The 90% is not so much how much they were LIKE us as how much we have intelligently guessed THEIR WORLD would be like. And the elusive 10% is what would knock our socks off if we could indeed go back in time…

  3. Thanks for this! Such great talks. Will re-word the 90% phrasing to make it clearer. And thanks for the link to Augustus 2014. I have to tell you that an artist friend wrote to me about those Augustus stamps – he said the image is like a stained glass window from a medieval cathedral – I agree!

  4. What a great meeting with Caroline Lawrence in attendance! Caroline, her husband Richard and her sister were among my first houseguests in our Leesburg home back in 2010! My students NEVER tire of Caroline’s Roman Mysteries.

  5. […] more a conference than an AGM really, and which one of the other participants, Prof. Kate Cooper, has blogged in full here. It included a fantastic keynote speech from the JACT president, Caroline Lawrence, about her […]

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