The Romans were renowned for their roads, constructed for the effective conveyance of military might. Paved with smooth, flat stones that afforded the soldiers an efficient marching pace along straight paths, these roads became a symbol of the strength and reach of the Empire. Roman law mandated the maintenance of roads, so Roman engineers developed a method for road construction that resulted in durable roads that could be used for nearly a century before repaving was necessary. The foundational construction of these roads was so strong that several are still in use today.
The soldiers began by digging into the soil and tamping it down to form a compacted trench. In the trench they placed rocks, then filled in the spaces between the rocks with gravel and sand to create a firm foundation. Atop this foundation they laid smooth, flat paving stones to finish off the road. The Romans were strategic, systematic, and efficient in their approach to the world, which is reflected in their language as well as in their engineering practices.
In Latin, a trivium is a crossroads, literally the place where “three roads” meet. In classical education, the trivium is comprised of the three liberal arts pertaining to the mind: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Like a Roman road, each stage of the trivium contains building blocks that, when laid carefully, provide for the effective conveyance of ideas. In order for Latin to be learned and used well, the knowledge of Latin must be built systematically, beginning with the grammar of the subject, progressing to the logical components of the language, and finally paved with the persuasive eloquence of rhetoric.
According to Sister Miriam Joseph in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, grammar is the art of inventing and combining symbols and is concerned with the thing as it is symbolized. In Latin, these symbols are primarily the forms of words and inflections. Therefore, during the grammar stage of a student’s Latin education, he ought to be learning primarily vocabulary and endings, and some of how these endings apply to the vocabulary he has learned. This grammar education is best done during the elementary years, which Dorothy Sayers terms the “poll-parrot” stage. At this point in a child’s development, he is generally pleasantly disposed to the chanting of rhymes and the memorization of endings. Learning vocabulary is relatively easy for the young student who is still in the process of language acquisition in his native tongue.
(Read part two of this two-part series on Latin at Petra Academy here.)