The New Editions of Caesar’s English

by Dr Thomas M. Kemnitz, Publisher

Michael Clay Thompson and I had been discussing our desire for a new edition of Caesar’s English for two years, improving its graphics and its intellectual heft.

A new Caesar’s English had to be built on a sharper and broader base of images than those available to Michael when he first wrote the book. So I upgraded the Royal Fireworks camera equipment and in early September went to London, where I spent a day photographing the Greek and Roman antiquities in the British Museum. It was there—photographing the Elgin Marbles in that fabulous room devoted solely to the Parthenon—that I saw clearly how to retool the entire vocabulary strand, from Building Language through The Word Within the Word III. That led to an excited call to Michael, and within minutes Michael too saw the possibilities, was similarly inspired, and began to elaborate on the plan. I came away from the British Museum with 1,250 photographs, wishing that I had more time to spend there. I also stretched my trip to include a visit to Fishbourne, a Roman villa found in Sussex in the 1960s, in the hope that there I would find floor mosaics that would be useful.

Late in September I went to Rome, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Naples, where the National Archaeological Museum is a treasure. In seven days I took 6,100 photographs, walking 70 miles in the process. I photographed everything from Roman roof tiles to building foundations, from wall paintings to wall construction, from the Coliseum to the drain pipes in Herculaneum, from marble columns to brick floors, and from brick columns to marble floors.

I was fascinated by the Roman use of brick and mortar, by the efficient and cost-effective Roman building techniques, by their road construction and the durability of those roads, particularly because so many of the roads leading to Royal Fireworks Press in New York had just been washed away by Hurricane Irene. There were clever touches like the Roman arrangement for dealing with horses so that their streets were not impeded by hitching posts. I was enthralled by the mosaics and the wall paintings, by the decorative flourishes on common household items, and by the elegance and economy of interior courtyards.

Now Michael has all the images, and he has been inspired to begin thinking about the new Caesar’s English I. He already has produced a new cover for the book. Insofar as you can judge a book by its cover, this truly will be a new edition of CE1. The cover image is the oculus of the Pantheon. An oculus (Latin for eye) was what the Romans called the opening in the roof they used to light large spaces during the day. The Pantheon in Rome was originally built to honor all the Roman gods; it was converted to a Christian church in the seventh century. It stands today as the most complete and intact Roman building that most people will ever see. Note the clever means the Romans used to reduce the weight of the ceiling by insetting the concrete in steps to give an interesting design, as well as to reduce the load on the structure. Repeatedly in Roman structures still intact—including arches—one sees the same coffered ceiling used to reduce the load. The upper right image is from one of the Severan buildings on the Capitoline forum overlooking the Coliseum. Sometimes the same function was achieved by more ornate ceiling decorations, as in the lower image from the forum.

There was so much about this enterprise that was enjoyable. I photographed busts of Plato and Socrates, Augustus and Trajan, and so many other Greeks and Romans whose countenances might or might not be accurately portrayed. It was exciting to see people whom I have known all my adult life without ever being able to put a face with the names.

It was engaging to look at many of the details of Roman life. Roman roofs were tiled, and the Romans had a simple system. They made a tile that was broad and flat, except that it had raised sides. The two sides were then covered by a semi-circular tile. That was all they needed to tile a roof—two different tiles. They could hold them in place with mortar, and the result would last for thousands of years—through volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and world wars. And because the large tile was rigid and broad, the sub-roof was remarkably easy to build, light, and inexpensive. It just took a few well-placed rafters.

The two tiles also served effectively at the bottom of the structure as part of a drainage system; turn the half pipe over, and it carried water to the broad tile, which served to direct the flow away from the building.

Often I found myself engaged in details that had escaped my notice in earlier trips. Previously I had paid attention to the orders of the columns that are a ubiquitous feature of the Roman cityscape: Doric, Ionian, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite. On this trip I found myself engaged in the columns themselves and understanding more of what the Romans were doing. While the arch provided support for the massive architecture of the Roman world, the column allowed more air and light and still held the roof aloft.

The Romans did many things with the column; on the right is one of a pair of interior columns decorated with mosaic tiles.

One of the broadening aspects of the new Caesar’s English I is using the images we now have to convey to students some of the rich diversity and ingenuity of Roman architecture, as well as the resulting beauty and elegance.

In November 2011 I went to Athens and Delphi; you can read about this on our News page.

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