A popular Latin course used to teach generations of British schoolchildren has undergone its biggest overhaul in 50 years to include more prominent female characters and better reflect ethnic diversity in the Roman world.

A fifth edition of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), a mainstay of mainly private schools since the 1970s, is being released later this month, in response to concerns from teachers, scholars and students about the representation of women, minorities and slaves in previous versions.

Girls studying the course, which is story-based, complained that there were not enough female roles and those included were passive and underdeveloped. There were also criticisms that the Roman world was incorrectly depicted as predominantly white, and objections to how slaves and slavery were portrayed.

The course, which has sold over 4 million copies and was last updated over 20 years ago, has achieved cult status in the decades since its introduction, inspiring even an appearance in Doctor Who. There has been a growing consensus that it needs to be updated for 21st century students and modern sensibilities, although publishers fear being accused of ‘undoing’ certain aspects of the original. .

The first book, set in Pompeii in the first century AD, focuses on the family of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, his wife Metella, his son Quintus, the cook Grumio and the faithful dog Cerberus. In the new version, a girl called Lucia—whom her father told he intended to marry off to an older man—is introduced to allow for greater exploration of the experiences of young women.

Another new female character, Clara, is hired by Caecilius to paint a mural in his house in the new edition, while Barbillus, a prosperous Greek-Syrian merchant who appeared in book two of previous editions, is given a role. more important and is now clearly a person of color. Previously this was not clear from the line drawings.

Slavery, meanwhile, is portrayed through the eyes of its victims, revealing the harsh reality of their life in the Roman Empire. An infamous episode from the original 1970s edition, in which a young slave girl named Melissa is lasciviously inspected by the men of the house, prompting a jealous response from Metella, has been edited.

“Students today are much more aware of power dynamics and misogyny, not to mention issues of consent and sexual assault,” said Caroline Bristow, director of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, which delivers the course at the University of Cambridge.

The editors also removed the “loyal”, “happy”, “hardworking”, and “lazy” slave tropes that existed in previous editions. “The goal has always been to introduce students to the complexity of the Roman world and get them to think critically about it while learning Latin,” Bristow said. “It prepares them to engage more deeply with authentic classical sources. The feedback we received indicates that we were not doing enough in this regard.

Bristow braces for accusations from traditionalists that she is trying to “cancel” Caecilius. “What seems to irritate our detractors is that we don’t present Rome solely as a civilizing culture. The reason is that we teach children to be classics. We don’t teach them to be Romans.

There are even changes to the way gladiatorial combat is portrayed, in line with recent research, which found it was not purely bloodthirsty, but reflected contemporary values ​​such as martial prowess.

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Steven Hunt, a Latin specialist at the University of Cambridge who has taught Latin for 35 years and now trains teachers, supports the changes. “Every textbook needs a revamp from time to time. CLC stands out among textbooks as something that has been around since the 1970s.”

Around 10,000 students enroll for GCSE Latin each year and most of these are in private schools despite government attempts to boost numbers in the public sector. According to a recent survey by the British Council, Latin is taught in less than 3% of public schools, compared to 49% of independent schools.

Jasmine Elmer, a classic whose work focuses on trying to expand access to the ancient world, said: “We tended to take an all-white view of an empire that was clearly not white. If you’re a person of color, it’s natural to wonder if people like you were even there. This is a catastrophic failure of our subject and needs to be rectified.

“The new course seems to be braver on these issues. He does not shy away from complicated subjects; that makes them teaching points.