Challenging history lessons

  • Challenging history lessons

If you wrote a diary entry for a Roman soldier, would you really know what he had for breakfast? If not, perhaps your history lessons should involve developing more authentic expertise, suggests Hugh Moore...

If you wrote a diary entry for a Roman soldier, would you really know what he had for breakfast? If not, perhaps your history lessons should involve developing more authentic expertise, suggests Hugh Moore…

Students often suggest that an effective way of empathising with people from the past is to write a diary entry, imagining it to be from the daily life of a World War Two evacuee, for example. This may relate to a misreading of the Knowledge and Understanding of events outlined in the National Curriculum (DfEE/QCA 1999) stating that pupils should be taught about beliefs, attitudes and experiences of men, women and children. Historians, however, know that it is very difficult to understand the motivations of people who lived in the past; why did so many people believe Hitler and why did so many Victorian women believe that their place was in the home, for instance? It is also difficult to have sufficiently deep subject knowledge to be effective at such a task; if we were writing a diary entry for a Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall, would we know what he ate for breakfast, what his children were called, where he came from, what unit he was attached to or what his duties were? Could we indeed write a diary entry without knowing such things?

Another approach, which is often suggested in a similar manner, is for pupils to write their names in Egyptian hieroglyphics, but again we must consider what are the pupils learning by doing that? They are learning about what hieroglyphics looked like, but not the fact that such script was widely used for sacred purposes and that the Egyptians often used another cursive script for what we might call ‘normal’ purposes. Nor do we find out about the individual lives of Egyptians, which are sometimes portrayed in their tombs, for example we do not find out about the biography of Seti I (whose tomb is in the the Valley of the Kings).

In writing a diary entry or creating hieroglyphics we are inventing a written source but perhaps it is better to reverse this process and ask what was written down in the past and what can we find out from it, because in doing so we are beginning to act as historians ourselves.

Decoding a Roman coin

On the face of it, decoding a Roman coin is daunting from many angles and may be perceived as an activity which is probably best left to an expert; it is not only written in abbreviated Latin but the numbers and letters are the same and they are often worn and degraded. Yet to decode a coin is an authentic and satisfying process and is core to that intensely historical question, ‘how do we know that?’ It is also far simpler than many would believe, as the Romans were systematic people who used upper-case letters on their coins and the activity is well supported on many internet sites ( and reference books (Klawans 1995). The current focus on phonics is also relevant because this task is about systematically blending word elements and sounds (I’d hesitate to call them phonemes but the principle is similar), and associating them with meaning as well as being able to understand (at a high level) that the roots of English lie within other languages.

Another perceived barrier to this task would be the difficultly of getting hold of a Roman coin but again they are easy to access in museums - Lancaster, Ribchester, Lancashire Museum Services, Kendal, Tullie House in Carlisle, Senhouse – or by buying replicas ( Alternatively, for between £5 and £100, you can buy perfectly good originals from places such as Coin Craft (

This activity was based on a sestertius issued during the reign of Domitian. The coin was chosen because it is large and most of the writing (but not all) is legible. The coin was photographed and enlarged, printed and laminated so that a group was able to work with it. Tip: to photograph a coin successfully and clearly ensure your camera has a macro setting (often indicated by the image of a flower) as this allows for close-up pictures. It is also best to photograph the coin on a plain but well-lit background using a raking light – this is simply a light shone across the coin to enhance the features by creating contrast between light and shade. Photographing the coin is of course an excellent and purposeful cross- curricula challenge for a
group of children.

The enquiry

The enquiry challenge for the children was as follows. Could they identify the exact year the coin was made? This is an important tool for archaeologists as they find many coins on Roman sites and these provide great dating evidence.

During the first part of this challenge children were asked to look closely at the coin and then make a large sketch of it copying carefully any groups of letters they could see. In this case IMPCAESDOMITAVGGE**COSXVI CENSPERPP were relatively easy to see. Once the children had identified these they had to separate the letters into groups that looked as if they belonged to each other thus:

AVG = AUG (In the Roman alphabet V=U or W)

Then the groups were asked to guess what any of the words meant. In this case most correctly thought:

IMP = Emperor (with prompting) CAES = Caesar
XVI = a Roman number, in this case 16

It was explained to the groups that many of the abbreviations related to titles given to an emperor so, even though this emperor was not Julius Caesar, they were still given the title Caesar to recall that link. Then they were able to access,, ml via tablet computers to see if they could find out what any of the other abbreviations meant:

AVG = Augustus, another title given to most emperors to recall the first emperor Augustus
DOMIT = This emperor’s name is Domitian and he ruled from AD 81-96 (CE)
GERM = Indicated that Domitian was also the ruler of the Germans.

Thus we have found out that this coin represent the period of the early Roman occupation of Britain and was made during the first century. The more advanced information was also tackled by some groups:

COS = Indicated that Domitian was Consul, a position in charge of the Roman senate – a bit like our parliament
XVI = Indicates that Domitian has served as Consul for the sixteenth time so this coin is likely to have been made very late in his reign
CENS PER = He was censor of the senate in perpetuity (forever); thus he had power to choose who was allowed to be a senator and represent the people.
PP = Pater Patriae is Latin for Father of the Country and is a title awarded to emperors later in their reign

So it is OK for a source to be challenging and often they are seen as an artefact, which can stimulate a sense of awe (Blyth and Hughes 1997). Hoodless (2004: 25) too sees that sources with difficult language can be a ‘novelty’ and provide opportunities for problem- solving and creativity. Marwick (1989) notes that some documents are difficult for even the skilled historian to decipher because they were written for another purpose.

Blyth and Hughes (1997) believe primary source documents can help children to develop reading comprehension skills, such as selection and organisation of ideas, before voicing them.

Pie Corbett