Eight Tools for the Language Learner

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Eight Tools for the Language Learner

Note: This blog was originally shared on March 21, 2013, but updated today, August 11, 2016

In a blog post three years ago, I shared some of the things that I love about learning Italian. I've come a long way since then and even though I still have a long way to go, I feel confident about the language in a way that I hadn't in the past. When we were in Italy last fall I was able to carry on a conversation without switching to English. Apparently I was so good that another American that was staying at our hotel overheard me on the phone making a reservation at a restaurant in Florence and she came over to commend me on my language skills! I used to be so nervous on the phone and I still am a bit, but I can power through and that's so exciting for me, to be at that point on my journey. 

Learning a language isn't easy. If you are serous about learning another language, perhaps you too might benefit from some of these tools that have helped me to study, memorize and move further along the path toward fluency (and yes, it's a long path). Note that all these services offer the ability to learn languages other than Italian.

1. Take a class or find a tutor.

While there are a million tools out there to help you learn, there is no substitution for talking to someone regularly. I've been meeting with a tutor or a tutored group every week for the last seven years and it's one of the main things that has helped to keep me engaged and always learning.  There are also a bunch of Italian tutors who will teach over Skype or through the Net on italki, so that could be a possibility for you.

2. Byki

Byki is an amazing flashcard system that allows you to practice both the verbal and written aspects of the language. Byki is free for the flashcard portion only, and there is a deluxe version for $69.95  that comes with enhanced features, vocabulary lists and games to help you learn. I have Byki Deluxe but what I primarily use is the portion that is actually free, the flashcards. What I love is that you can create your own lists or you can use their community to download lists that others have created. Hands down this is the tool that has helped me the most when learning Italian on my own. It employs a great refresher system too that I love.

byki
byki

3. WordReference

One of the best online language dictionaries on the Net, WordReference also has forums that enable language learners to ask questions and find answers. The forums are fantastic and are excellent for helping you understand idioms or things like how to write a formal letter, or how to translate a certain phrase. What I love about the dictionary is that it gives examples, and helps you determine which version of the word you want. For example, here is a section for the word "vado" which means in its most simple form, "I go."  You can choose the WordReference dictionary or the Collins. I've chosen Collins in this example:

vado
vado

4. Forvo

Forvo is a site for pronunciation, which may seem a bit odd, but when you are trying to learn a language and are practicing on your own, it's common to run across words that you aren't sure how they sound. That's where Forvo comes in. Search the database for a word and voila, you can click a button to listen, and if you want to know more about the dialect or region the speaker is from you can click through to see.  For example:

forvo
forvo

You can also vote Forvo pronunciations as good or bad. If you can't find a pronunciation, you can add it into the Forvo database and usually within 24 hours someone will have pronounced it for you. You can also choose to help pronounce words in your own language and add to the database. I've found this tool incredibly useful, especially as I was just getting started and trying to understand the nuances of how the language is pronounced.

5. Online tools to learn Italian: Duolingo, Memrise and Live Mocha

Memrise is a free, fun site that lets you to plant the "seeds" of learning and then "water" them to refresh and grow your understanding.  The site toys with using memory triggers to help you remember a word (see image below). You can use other mems that users create or you can easily create your own. On Memrise you can also connect with Facebook and see which of your friends are learning too. There are courses that you can choose from--the one I'm working on is 501 verbs. It employs a similar approach to Byki when it comes to refreshing your understanding of what you are learning. I'm also starting their "Hacking Italian" course, which uses some interesting techniques from lifehacker master Tim Ferris.  I love Memrises's simple approach and easy way of learning.

mostrare
mostrare

Duolingo has risen in popularity over the last couple of years because of its fun, slick interface and easy way of learning. It tests and retests you on particular items and you can earn "lingots" for completing learning streaks, translating text and helping others. I also really love their mobile app. And yes, I know that my translation below is incorrect (off by one letter)! It's definitely a beginner's site, however, and it wouldn't take more than a couple of months to reach what they call "fluency."  You can purchase lingots if you aren't earning them fast enough. Lingots help you buy new courses and freeze your progress so you don't lose learning streaks.

6. Video

I blogged all about Yabla last year, so head here to find out more. I love Yabla! I wish I could Yabla-ize all my television shows!

7. Audio

I love being able to learn Italian on my commute and News In Slow Italian is a wonderful audio way to learn the language. It's not inexpensive but it's such a great way to really hear the language at a pace that is understandable. The online site and mobile app serve as a companion to the audio and I love turning to it after I've listened to the week's news to figure out the words I didn't know. 

8. Dual Language Resources

In Other Words
By Jhumpa Lahiri

I try to read primarily in Italian and use the dictionary to figure out words I don't know (if you read Italian books on Kindle you can buy an Italian dictionary and load that to look up words as you read!). But every once in awhile it's nice to try and read material side by side to understand a translation. ITALY magazine has a great dual language section. Bilinguis has a couple classics such as Alice in Wonderland and the Hound of the Baskervilles. 

I also greatly loved Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book which details her decision to move to Italy and write a book. She wrote the book in Italian and had a translator render it back into English, which you can read side by side. 


Having all these tools at your fingertips is really only the tip of the iceberg though. Not a single one of these sites will help you unless you first make the time to practice. Fifteen minutes a day will go far toward helping you absorb as much of the language as you can. Watching Italian movies or television and  reading Italian magazines and newspapers are great additions to the above tools. But again, it goes back to taking the time to practice. Make it a priority and be prepared to make it a priority for years to come, unless you have the extreme fortune of living for a time in the place of the language you are learning to speak--then it may come a bit faster!

 

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Summer Faves

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Summer Faves

So far it's been a perfect summer in Boston. Temps in the high 70s to mid-80s, no humidity, cool nights. Gorgeous, gorgeous. I wish that I had more time off to enjoy these beautiful days! 

I don't, however, so I have to pack it all in where I can. To me, summer means:

Aperol Spritzes!  
This is pretty much the official drink of Italy. And the recipe for it is quite simple, 3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part club soda.  

One of my absolute favorite things in the world is to sit on a piazza on a hot evening, sipping a spritz and people watching. 

Ice cream/gelato
This goes without saying, I realize. In my world if I could have ice cream once a day I would be over the moon but alas they don't make calorieless confections (that fit my high standards) just yet. I also love to make gelato and ice cream. I highly recommend David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop. Every single recipe in that book has turned out amazing. I'm also trying my hand at Morgan Morano's recipes in The Art of Gelato which is a bit more technical and forced me to buy a digital scale, which has been on my list to do anyway. 

Day tripping
Getting out and about and away from the normal routine is something that my husband and I are trying to do more often. This summer we threw a dart on a map and ended up at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, just outside Providence, Rhode Island, which we didn't even know existed! It turns out that it's the best zoo in New England and is one of the oldest in the country.  They have an incredible array of rare animals and many of the large ones that you may not expect to find in a regional zoo. Elephants, giraffes, snow leopards, red pandas, sun bears and many more. There was a bird exhibit we especially loved that let us feed the birds. Parrots, parakeets and the like would land on your arms and shoulders to take the seed from you. It was really fun. And no, there were no accidents!

This weekend we convinced a friend to go with us down to the Westport Rivers Winery in Westport, MA in the south of the state, almost in Rhode Island. It was a gorgeous trip through bucolic countrysides. We've had Westport's sparkling wine before but they have a pretty wide variety of styles, so we did a tasting. Mmmm, love love the new fizzy rose that they have. The best part about the winery, though, is the long green field of grass that leads down to the vineyards. You can buy glasses of wine and sit in chairs under the trees while you relax and look at the view. You can also bring your own picnic lunch or buy some cheese from the gift store, or hit up the food truck that comes to the site. And if you are so inclined, there is even cornhole!

Books! Books! More Books!
One thing that I do love in the summer is reading as many books as I possibly can. Give me a beach or a chaise lounge in a breezy spot and a book and I'll be happy. My husband isn't one to lay about so I don't get quite as much time as I would like to read, but it is a summer love of mine. This year I went with one of my writing partners to the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale. I can't believe that I hadn't ever done that before. I made out like a bandit with several books that I hope will prove useful for my research on my second book. I also picked up some of Italo Calvino's books, ones that I already have read but do not own, including The Complete Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities. Both of those books rank up there as two of my faves. I wish I had realized how much of a deal I was going to be getting--I would have bought more books very happily. I'm definitely hitting up the book sale next year! 

And while I'm at it, here is the list of other things that I love about summer:

  • Playing canasta on the porch (with a glass of rosé or a spritz!). 
  • The smell of rain on hot pavement after a sudden thunderstorm.
  • Looking for the perfect shell on the beach.
  • Making a summer playlist
  • The it's-too-hot-to-cook dinner of cheese, grapes, bread and wine.
  • Going to the farmer's market and to SOWA and the new South End Open Market.
  • The Clam Box.
  • Hot cats. 

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A Readable Feast - Summer Book Giveaway

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A Readable Feast - Summer Book Giveaway

I'm pleased to announce that I'm doing the first of several giveaways over the coming months! Entering is easy, just sign up for my email newsletter. This time, the theme is deliciously wonderful food books, three novels and a memoir. 

    • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
    • The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick
    • Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner
    • Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent

The giveaway is open to US residents 18 and older and ends on July 10th at 12:00 noon ET. Full rules are found at the bottom of the sign up form on the next page.

By entering the contest and signing up for Crystal King's infrequent email newsletter you'll also receive updates, recipes, interesting links, free reads, book reviews & more giveaways.  You can unsubscribe at any time.

For your chance to win, just click the button! 

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52 in 52: Books Read in April & May

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52 in 52: Books Read in April & May

28. Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keefe by Dawn Tripp  - I'm not sure I would have called myself a fan of O'Keefe before I read this novel. I liked particular paintings (mostly her flowers) but I never got worked up about her art. Now, I have a whole new perspective on the life of the artist, in a way that has given me a new understanding of her process and motivations. Tripp is a fantastic artist herself, painting scenes that have left distinct impressions, long after I finished reading this novel. 

27. The Birthgrave  (Birthgrave Trilogy book 1) by Tanith Lee - I love Tanith Lee. I love every beautiful drip of each word she writes. According to her Wikipedia article, "Critics describe her style as weird, lush, vibrant, exotic, erotic, rich, elegant, perverse, and darkly beautiful."  Yes. Yes. Exactly. I have read a lot by Lee, but she was so prolific that I thought I should revisit and read something I had not yet read. I decided to start at the beginning, with this book which was the first adult book she published, in 1975. It's such a strange book, about a woman with incredible powers who does not know who she is and is traveling the world in order to discover her identity and purpose. Her sentences are gorgeous, poetic and evocative. If you love language and a bit of the fantastical, she's a must read. 

26. For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser - This book isn't available in the states until later this year, but you can pick up UK copies from third party sellers on Amazon. Which I recommend if you can't wait to read a wonderful novel about the women of the Trojan War. The familiar myths are all there; a quarrel of the goddesses resulting in a choice marked by a golden apple, the stories of Agamemnon and Hector, of Helen of Troy and Paris, Achilles and his tender heel. The myths are woven into the larger tale, told from the perspectives of the women of Troy. It's historical fiction but within this novel the gods have agency. They are participatory in the lives of their believers. I loved every second of this book and can't wait till the second book in the series comes out!

25. The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell - VERY weird. So weird but so fun! The Devil shows up on novelist Billy's couch one morning, with craft coffee in hand. He wants Billy to get back a Lucky Cat that will eventually destroy the world. Warlocks, Starbucks within evil castles, sex werewolves...and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Funny, and definitely weird. I devoured this book. 

24. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - This is a surreal and wonderful story about a girl, Rose, age 9, who can tell the emotions of everyone that had anything to do with the foods she eats. It is a strange talent that threatens so much of her life as her ability unravels secrets all around her. On top of it all her brother has been disappearing. Actually disappearing. The book is about food but not in the way one might expect. Food is not often a joy to Rose. It is a chore, a struggle. It's not a book for everyone. If you aren't sure about having fantastical elements woven into the fabric of your literary tales, then maybe give one of the other books I suggest here a go. 

23. The Queen of Night by Alexander Chee - Long, lush, gorgeous prose sparkles in this beautiful story about a 19th century opera singer. Lillet Berene is a rags to riches character that takes us all on a crazy ride through the ups and downs of Paris in a time of great change. Chee is masterful in his telling. The amount of research (15 years worth!) he did on the novel is astounding. I listened to a talk he gave at Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace 2016 in which he halted publication on the book once he found out some new crucial details on the character. It was worth it. 

22. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker - I read this book awhile back but I had the great fortune to attend a gathering at his house earlier this year and felt inspired to revisit this wonderful book about the craft of writing. He shares why Strunk & White isn't the end all, be all anymore. It's not a how-to book, but more of a treatise on writing in general. If you are an author and have not yet read this book, remedy that asap!

21. The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick - Warlick's novel about a young M.F.K. Fisher is an ambitious undertaking. It's similar to Georgia, described above, in that Warlick decides to focus on the early years of the food writer and the relationships that are important in her life. Fisher has been an extraordinary influence on me and my writing, so reading this book was somewhat strange for me as I already knew so much about Fisher's life. I feel conflicted about this book but it has nothing to do with Warlick's wonderful writing (oh the food she really nailed!) and more of how I am processing the new ideas about who Fisher might have been as a person. Funny enough, a posthumous novel of Fisher's (The Theoretical Foot) surfaced about the same time as this book and I attempted to read it but it couldn't hold a candle to her non-fiction works and memoirs. I devoured The Arrangement but couldn't get through five chapters of Theoretical Foot! 

20. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa  - I moved away from Seattle three years before the WTO riots happened and I remember being very emotionally impacted by the news coming from one of my favorite cities. It was strange to revisit that time frame in this book.  Told from the point of view of activists, a cop, his son, a diplomat, the novel presents several views into what was a complicated and highly charged scenario. It ends in a surprising way and one that I'm still trying to determine if I'm satisfied with or not, because it's not entirely wrapped up in a neat bow. Or maybe it is. I also had the chance to meet Sunil at the Muse & the Marketplace earlier this year. He's a fantastic speaker. If you ever have the chance to hear him, definitely do so!

 

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52 in 52: Books Read in March

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52 in 52: Books Read in March

Woohoo! I'm well-ahead on working toward my goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. This year I really wanted to try for 75 books and I think that if I can keep up this pace I'll do it. I'm already two books down in April (having the flu will do that to me). I have a massive TBR pile, however, that only seems to get bigger and bigger! So many books, so little time.

14. Bottomland by Michelle Hoover -  A fellow Grub Street writer, Hoover's sophomoric novel is one that gripped me from the very first page when two girls go missing from a farmhouse in the mid-west after WWI. It's a mysterious and complex plot about a family torn apart by xenophobia in the US over a century ago. It's getting rave reviews right now and for good reason. 

15. Zoli by Colum McCann - McCann is the keynote at this year's Grub Street Muse & the Marketplace conference, which I attend every year (and this go-round I'm teaching two sessions). I hadn't read anything by him yet so I wanted to remedy that. I plan on buying his new book at the show and hopefully having him sign it, so I turned to a book he wrote awhile back, Zoli. It's not a book I would normally have been drawn to, about a gypsy poet in Czechoslovakia during WWII who was exiled for attempting to help her people but inadvertently betraying them instead. It's loosely based on a real Romanian poet and knowing that made it feel all the more moving for me. It's a story of family, love, music and endurance. I'm really looking forward to hearing him speak!

16. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood - This is a book that I came across on some obscure list of books about food. I'm surprised I had not seen it mentioned before as I think any list that talks about food related books needs to be including this one.  Grimwood takes us on a trip of the culinary senses, starting with live stag beetles but going through every possible edible substance you can imagine (and many that you can't), deftly woven into the story of a young orphaned noble growing up in the age of Enlightenment, hurtling toward the French Revolution. I loved that he included Apicius's flamingo tongues in the book! 

17. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab - With the second book in a series that began with A Darker Shade of Magic, Schwab has solidly established herself as one of the best voices in fantasy right now. Set in a world with four Londons (really!), the characters of Kell and Delilah have returned, and are every bit as enthralling. Schwab is a beautiful writer and she has a gift for helping the reader envision a world that is very different (but sometimes the same) as our own. 

18. What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi - I don't normally go for short story collections but this was part of the Harvard Bookstore First Edition Club which has often exposed me to all sorts of books that I wouldn't have otherwise read. You might be more familiar with her very popular novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, which I have not yet read but I want to now! Oyeyemi is a master of the written word. Every sentence is a joy to read. These short stories are all about keys and the things that they unlock, or rather, the people that they unlock. Gorgeous.

19.  Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink  ed. by David Remnick - What a wonderful collection of essays from the last century of the New Yorker! Articles by M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, A. J. Liebling and more. Plus there are many dozens of fantastic New Yorker cartoons about food that adorn the pages. If you are a culinary enthusiast, a food geek or just love reading about food, this is a must have book. It's a massive tome, though, coming in at 600 pages or so, but well worth adding to your collection. 

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Palazzo Farnese: The most imposing Italian palace of the 16th century

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Palazzo Farnese: The most imposing Italian palace of the 16th century

As part of my research for my book, The Secret Chef, I'm trying to learn as much as I can about the various palazzos of Rome. I want to understand everything I can about them, from the families that built them and lived in them, to how the rooms were structured, where the servants might have lived and how they worked within the palazzo. When I return to Rome later this year, I'm looking forward to finally seeing the Palazzo Farnese, one of the most magnificent palaces of that era. It's now the French Embassy so access is limited. Currently, they only have one tour in English each week, on Wednesdays at 5PM. I'm hoping I can find a docent or historian to speak with when I'm there to give me a deeper understanding of the workings of that palazzo, but possibly others in the area, such as the Barberini, Medici, Farnese, and Colonna. For a peek of what I hope to see up close on the Farnese tour, check out the video below.

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52 in 52: February Books Read

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52 in 52: February Books Read

I am really rocking my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge so far this year! I'd love to get to 75 books vs. 52 and I'm definitely on track. This month's reads include Jessica Chiarella, Phyllis T. Smith, Christopher Castellani and Jumpha Lahiri, to name a few. 

Click on the post title to find out what books I devoured this month!

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Beauty in Ancient Rome

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Beauty in Ancient Rome

Women have been using makeup for thousands of years and beauty in Ancient Rome was just as important as it is today. Just as we do, they even had books that helped women stay on top of beauty trends. Many of you might be familiar with the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Amores but I would bet you’ve not heard of his Medicamina Faciei Femineae or Women’s Facial Cosmetics, sometimes seen as The Art of Beauty. The fragment we have from this book (see the link above) is fascinating, offering up three and a half beauty tips for Roman women. The first is a lengthy and messy recipe on how to make your skin whiter. The second recipe on getting rid of pimples would, as we know now, kill you slowly over time. I imagine that many women paid such a high price to be beautiful:

Then make haste and bake pale lupins and windy beans. Of these take six pounds each and grind the whole in the mill. Add thereto white lead and the scum of ruddy nitre and Illyrian iris, which must be kneaded by young and sturdy arms. And when they are duly bruised, an ounce should be the proper weight. If you add the glutinous matter wherewith the Halcyon cements its nest, you will have a certain cure for spots and pimples. As for the dose, one ounce applied in two equal portions is what I prescribe. To bind the mixture and to make it easy of application, add some honey from the honeycombs of Attica.

That pesky lead. Unfortunately, it was a main additive to cosmetics for centuries. Romans used it in many things, including as a sweetener for wine, which is considered by some to be the cause of dementia that affected many Roman emperors.

There is also a recipe to get rid of blackheads and this little tidbit which is fragmented:

I have seen a woman pound up poppies soaked in cold water and rub her cheeks with them. . . .

Wonder what the poppies did? Did they smooth the skin or just act as rouge? I also wonder why Ovid decided to concern himself so much with beauty concoctions that he would write a book for the ladies to use. Perhaps he was a little bit entrepreneurial? Or just looking for love?

In 2003 archaeologists found Roman face cream at a site near London. They were able to recreate the cream which apparently gives women a white, smooth, powdery texture to their skin. It was a mixture of animal fat, lead and resins, probably similar to what Ovid describes above!

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Ancient Rome – Podcast Style

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Ancient Rome – Podcast Style

Podcasts are all the rage these days, which in some ways surprises me as I used to write columns on mobile marketing ten years ago when “podvertising” was a new way to promote. When the stellar podcast, Serial, came along in 2014 everyone jumped back on the bandwagon. Fortunately, podcasting has come a long way and there are some fantastic, well-produced gems out there to set your ears upon. Also, if you need a better way to organize your podcasts, check out Overcast.

If you are interested in history and Ancient Rome (as I am), let me round up a few great ones to add to your repertoire:

The History of Rome
This is one of the most comprehensive and award-winning podcasts out there, now no longer being produced but that’s only because they reached the point, 179 podcasts later, when Rome fell. The podcaster, Mike Duncan, is already on to other historical things in his new podcast, Revolutions.  Wikipedia describes it thus: “THoR covers the time period from the origin of the Roman Kingdom to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, focusing on the most accepted chain of events according to historical consensus. The show is renowned for its concise style, historical depth, wit, and consistency.”  I’m winding my way through the episodes in the period where FEAST OF SORROW is set and I’m loving it.

History Extra
This podcast, produced in association with BBC History Magazine, isn’t just about ancient Rome. It covers all sorts of time periods across history, but you can still find a smattering of seriously excellent episodes about Caput Mundi.

When in Rome
An extremely well-done, newish podcast, Aussie Matt Smith interviews historians about the world of ancient Rome. Some of the topics covered so far have been fascinating looks at the Arch of Titus, the Colosseum and the Catholic Church, gladiators, the Temple of Peace and the garbage dump heap that is the Monte Testaccio.

Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
Paul Vincent has been delivering this fantastic podcast for the last three years, taking listenings deep into the intersection of history and mythology. It’s been downloaded over one million times, so I think that Vincent’s success speaks for itself.

Impetuous Windmills – the Rome podcasts
This podcast, created by “two guys who like to argue about nerdy things but never manage to disagree,” Sagramore and Deprava, ended in July 2015 but there are still 50 excellent episodes for Rome lovers to enjoy.

Emperors of Rome
Rhiannon Evans, a lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University, is the creator of this podcast, which has topped iTunes University charts in the US and the UK. Matt Smith, mentioned above as the creator of the When in Rome podcast, is the producer and host. I’ve not yet listened to this but they spend some good time on Augustus and Tiberius, so I’m excited to dig in!

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Robot Romans

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Robot Romans

I’m a big They Might Be Giants fan. They always have fantastic videos and this one is one of my favorites. Robots+Romans culminating in the Ides of March.


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