Professor Horace Caesar Roger Vella was born in 1952. He received his education at the Sliema government primary school, St Alphonsus School in Sliema, the Seminary in Floriana, Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton, England, Beckford Salesian College in Thewkesbury, also in England and at the Universities of Malta and Thessaloniki.
His interests are varied and he has published papers about genealogy, epigraphy and his particular area of expertise – enjambment in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. He is also heavily involved in pastoral work is his home town of Kirkop and is responsible for the group Emmaus which is the most frequented group made solely of men in Malta.
At the moment, together with Prof. Stanley Fiorini and Dr Joseph Busuttil he is in the process of publishing a work about a poem written in Gozo, in the 12th century, in Greek.
His first wife was Mary Rose née Farrugia from Kirkop who sadly passed away. He is now married to Vivienne née Caruana from Zejtun. They have one son, Jerome.
Professor Vella, when did you start studying the Classics?
I started studying the Classics, Latin and Ancient Greek when I was eleven years old and I started attending the Seminary in Floriana. I remember the first time I fetched my books from the school, my mother had gone to run an errand so I had to wait for her outside the front door of what is now the Curia. I was so enthusiastic that I took out my Greek grammar book and learnt the Greek alphabet.
What were the reasons?
The study of the Classics was compulsory at the Seminary, however it was true love which made me devote my life to the pursuit of Classics. I have a rather mathematical frame of mind and this seems to run in the family as most of my cousins studied scientific subjects. Latin and Greek are languages based on logic, structures and exactitudes. My character matches this subject perfectly. I have never looked back.
Did someone in particular inspire you to study the Classics?
No, it was pure coincidence that drove me to the Classics. When I entered the Seminary I did not even know that Latin and Greek were compulsory subjects. In addition, I am the first person in my family to have attended University. Like Cicero, I am a novus homo.
How did you spend your early years?
After I finished my O. levels, I went to Bolton, England where I studied for my A. levels in Latin and Ancient Greek. The school had 650 students however I was the only one who chose to study Ancient Greek. This did not deter the school administration from providing me with a teacher. The situation was similar with Latin – it was just one other student and I who followed the course. Returning to Malta, I entered University. I also studied at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Before I graduated PhD I was already a full time lecturer at the University of Rhodesia, which eventually became known as the University of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia and finally as the University of Zimbabwe. I taught there for 10 and a half years, from April 1979 to September 1989. For one term I also taught at the University of Malawi, for which I also served as an external examiner.
I have many memories of my time in Zimbabwe. For example, my aeroplane had to land in Salisbury, now Harare, and unfortunately rockets were being fired at the aeroplane by terrorists. Therefore the pilot had to switch off the engines and lights and perform a spiral descent. A month later my residence was shaken because of the firing of rockets aimed at the residence of the Greek Orthodox Bishop who was mistaken for the Bishop, then Prime Minister Musurewa.
The study of the Classics at the University of Zimbabwe was by far greater than Malta. We used to teach four subjects – Latin, Ancient Greek, Classical Culture and Africa in Antiquity; therefore the workload was much heavier.
Statistics show that the Study of Latin, Ancient Greek and Classical Culture & Civilisation is decreasing. Why do you think there are so few candidates? (See table below)
The reasons for this are varied. Primarily, the study of Latin or Ancient Greek is not encouraged. When a student is interested in studying at least Latin, she or he faces huge hurdles. Schools often insist on a minimum intake of twelve students, which makes it impossible to learn Latin in most schools. I know of students who had opted to study Latin but they were not allowed to follow their dream. Another reason why students do not opt to study Latin is that here there are few jobs. This situation could be restored if would-be lawyers, as an example, are asked to get an O. level in Latin before they can study Law at University. This would provide jobs for people studying Classics. In addition, the government does not encourage jobs for educationists. Furthermore, people working in the media, who present programmes about Classical Civilisation, are generally not Classicists. What’s more, the Systems of Knowledge course, which used to have a heavy Classical Civilisation component often used to have these sections taught by teachers who were not qualified in Classics, but rather in History. Today this classical component has sadly dwindled to nothing. Students coming to University have hardly any knowledge of the Classical world, except the little they learned during their primary school years.
How can this situation be reversed?
Classics at school should be taught by first offering two years of Classical Culture and Civilisation. In From 3, when the students choose what subjects they wish to study at O. level, the idea of studying Latin and Ancient Greek is not totally alien to them as they have already been motivated after hearing all about Classical Antiquity. This project is based on a 2+3 year programme. The first two years are devoted to the study of Classical Culture and Civilisation, while the second three years to the study of the language and literature per se. It is important, that in the first two years some very basic elements of Latin and Ancient Greek have already been presented to the students, such as the Greek alphabet and Latin maxims. Obviously, the teachers of these subjects need to be qualified in Classics, and not in History. It would be interesting if this Classical Culture and Civilisation component also included exposure to Arabic culture. In the same way bread and water are necessary for our daily life so is culture. It’s unfortunate that all aspects of education are becoming geared towards getting a job rather than towards knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Sadly, the Department of Education has never consulted me about anything that has to do with the study of the Classics in schools.
What do you think about the teaching of Latin and possibly Ancient Greek at a primary level?
It should be noted that most of our friends in the European Union teach Latin from a primary level. It must be emphasised that whether one teaches Latin or Ancient Greek, the methodology must be friendly and adapted to the students’ age. These subjects cannot be taught in the 1960s fashion. The languages have to be taught in a way that not only explains the structures but also the way the mind of the Greeks and Romans worked. In this way, the learning process is based on comprehension rather than on parrot-like repetition. Particularly at a primary level, teaching cannot be exam-orientated but rather the promotion of love for a subject.
Lately some books have been translated into Latin and Ancient Greek. For example there now is Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, its Ancient Greek equivalent and Alicia in Terra Mirabili; while the website Nuntii Latini presents current news in Latin. Do you think these publications help garner more publicity and interest?
In particular for younger students, these books are very inviting and encourage children to study Latin further. I would also like to see more books in school libraries that deal with mythology and Classical History, in Maltese or in English. These books can be about daily life in Roman times or the eruption of the Vesuvius. Anybody who teaches Classics in Maltese is a pioneer. Personally I have translated into Maltese and I am working on a list of proper names from the Classical World and their equivalent in Maltese.
Is there any figure from the Classical World who really inspires you?
Virgil and not much less Homer. In a recent published paper of mine, Europe’s Pax Romana – a tribute to Virgil and Augustus I write how I feel that Virgil is the great European writer who can serve as a unifying factor. All countries can be inspired and motivated by Virgil. Virgil and Homer both wrote for eternity and not for a specific purpose or period of time. Their writings are spiritual books for all time, the literary equivalents of the Mona Lisa. Society would suffer if they were not part of our lives.
My last point is that sadly Malta is considered a very poor nation culture wise. We are buried in history and culture yet many Maltese do not know about their heritage. Tourism is one of Malta’s biggest income generators, so if the people are educated more about their heritage they can interact better with the tourists offering information about sites rather than only offering quizzical looks.