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3 — Eyewitness accounts of life in ancient Rome

Pliny the Younger narrating his account to a woman taking notes with a view through an archway and over water of smoking Mount Vesuvius

Above: The Younger Pliny Reproved, colourised copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann, public domain image, no copyright

This sequence uses translations of surviving eyewitness accounts written by ancient Roman authors to lead students in an exploration of how eyewitness accounts can add extra information that artefacts alone cannot reveal. The texts used vary in complexity and challenge and can be selected according to the reading abilities of your students. If necessary, explicitly teach new vocabulary and concepts to support students in decoding and comprehending the texts before they begin reading.

This sequence is the third and last in a short series, which aims to build student understanding of the range of sources authors can use when researching an ancient past. It enables students to see events in ancient Rome from a contemporary perspective and to ascertain the viewpoint of the writer (and therefore any bias associated with the account) in order to consider its use as a historical artefact. By the end of this sequence, a solid context should be established from which students can progress to explore how authors have used surviving artefacts and eyewitness accounts to produce a range of factual texts.

Introduction: What information can an eyewitness account give about the destruction of Pompeii?

Inform the students that in addition to ancient Roman artefacts, some eyewitness accounts have survived. Visit the ‘Eyewitness to History’ website and use an interactive whiteboard to view Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (alternatively, students can be given a printout and read it independently). Ask the students what information this eyewitness account of the Pompeii’s destruction provides which cannot be gathered from the archaeological evidence. ACELT1619

Activity 1: What can an eyewitness account tell us about the city and the viewpoint of the writer?

The students should read Pliny the Elder’s account of the ‘Grandeur of Rome’ closely, highlighting any unknown words or phrases. Jointly create a dictionary of the words and phrases on an interactive whiteboard or board to aid basic student comprehension. Discuss what the text reveals about life in ancient Rome and jointly create a list of facts and information derived from the text. Ask the students what they think the writer’s viewpoint of ancient Rome is. Which aspects of the text reveal this viewpoint? Does this viewpoint affect the text’s use as a historical artefact? Why, or why not?

Jointly go through the sample text highlighting Evaluative language in The Grandeur of Ancient Rome. Then, in small groups, students can re-read the entire text, underlining the grammatical features that Pliny uses to persuade his readers about the impressive features of Rome. Discuss which, if reading the text orally, you would emphasise with your voice and why. Still in small groups, share and discuss the underlined phrases and sentences, and ask the students to take turns to practise reading aloud with emphasis. Groups can then give feedback to the whole class. ACELT1619,  ACELT1621ACELY1721ACELY1722ACELY1723

Activity 2: What else can we learn about the world of ancient Rome from eyewitness writers?

Divide the students into groups so the class can read a number of other eyewitness accounts (suggestions from the Eyewitness to History website include: How to Keep a Slave, The Burning of Rome, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Nero Persecutes the Christians and Gladiators). Students then carry out the same sequence of activities as detailed in Activity 1. ACELT1619,  ACELT1621

For students who are not able to read this level of text, either as part of a group or independently, move straight to Activity 3 where they will perform the Grandeur of Rome which has already been scaffolded as a whole class activity. For students working beyond this level, they will not need the support of a group and can work independently on some of the more challenging texts, such as The Burning of Rome and The Assassination of Julius Caesar, both of which are available in the Ancient World section of the Eyewitness to History website.

Activity 3: How would an ancient Roman writer have presented their work?

Inform the students that in ancient Rome, the art of oratory (public speaking) was very popular. It had a number of conventions, one of which was the gestures orators used. Show the Roman gestures sheet (from the ‘Roman Mysteries’ website) on an interactive whiteboard or print it out for the students to share. Model the gestures to the students, which they can then practise themselves.

In groups, the students divide the text into sections then practise (using oratory gestures) to perform a Reader’s Theatre. The students should use the sections they underlined in the reading to help guide them with cues for verbal and visual emphasis using gestures. The students then perform their Reader’s Theatre for the class. If possible, provide old bed sheets and a wreath so they are able to dress in character. Film and play back the Reader’s Theatre performances for student analysis. ACELA1529ACELY1804

Student reflective journal

Students should spend 5–10 minutes responding to the reflection questions for this sequence, either in written form or orally, and then assess their responses against the success criteria using the rubric provided.