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Columbus Day Reading: Integrating History, Language, and Science

Each October my 9th grade students enjoy reading selections from the Latin Letter of Columbus. Columbus addressed his to the monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and thus he originally wrote the letter in Spanish. The monarchs were delighted by the discovery and immediately wanted to share news of this new world with all of Europe. Therefore, in 1493 they  published Columbus’ letter in Latin, and sent it throughout all of Europe. At that time Latin was the lingua franca of the day, and every well-educated man, woman, and child would be able to read these great tidings. This leaves us a wonderful sample of Renaissance Latin about historical places and events on our side of the pond.  While the letter opens with celebratory language on the discovery and thanks to God for His provision and protection in the voyage, it eventually turns to a detailed description of the islands Columbus and his men have found. There are wonderful passages describing in detail the flora and fauna of the new world.

Sunt praeterea in dicta insula Iohanna septem vel octo palmarum genera.  Quæ proceritate et pulchritudine (quaemadmodum ceterae omnes arbores, herbae fructusque) nostras facile exuperant. Sunt et mirabiles pinus, agri et prata vastissima, variae aves, varia mella variaque metalla, ferro excepto. In ea, autem, quam Hispanam supra diximus nuncupari, maximi sunt montes ac pulchri, vasta rura, nemora, campi feracissimi seri pascuisque et condendis edificiis aptissimi.


After reading selections such as these I enjoy taking my students on a Latin nature hike around our beautiful campus. Conversations start simple such as naming general types of plants:

Ecce, arbores altae!


They can progress to simple discussions on the different kinds of trees, shrubs, and flowers. The Latin names for these are often still imbedded in the current scientific name the students might learn in a botany class.


Haec arbor est quercus. Illa arbor est ulmus.

Quale arbor est hac?

Describe flores “asteraceae”.

Asteraceae sunt saepe flavae. Alii formam similem soli et eius radiis habent. Alii similes astriis apparent. 


Following the nature hike I then ask the students to compose their own short description of the school campus (or a nearby park, or their backyard, or their favorite camping ground) in Latin as an explorer in the mode of Columbus. This is typically accomplished by sitting outside a couple days for class, taking in the scenery, the fresh air, the sunshine, so as to be inspired while we write. This has produced wonderful original Latin pieces that capture a special moment in time and space in the lives of these Latinists. It also helps them to connect to another place and time when our world looked and sounded a bit different.


The text for the Latin Letter of Columbus may be found in its entirety at these two sites:

The Latin Library produced by Ad Fontes Academy

The Latin Letter of Columbus on google books.

Latin Alive Reader: From Cicero to Newton provides reading selections with vocabulary, notes, and exercises for Columbus’ letter.

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