Certamen (quiz bowl)

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College students compete in the World Series of Certamen at the 2013 NJCL Convention.

Certamen (Classical Latin: [kɛrˈtaːmɛn]), Latin for "competition", is a quiz bowl-style competition with classics-themed questions. The reference invokes the brief ancient Greek account of the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi. The questions are on topics ranging from the minutiae of Latin grammar and vocabulary, Latin-based etymology, Roman history and culture, Latin authors, and classical mythology. Certamen competitions are organized by classics organizations, usually chapters of the Junior Classical League and are held at local high schools, state forums or conventions, and the National Junior Classical League national convention.[1]


Certamen was created by Tony Ruffa, who taught in Richmond, Virginia in the 1960s and 70s. He invited all Virginia schools — both secondary and collegiate — offering Latin courses to come to Richmond for the first tournament. This single-elimination event had local schools play on Thursday afternoon and out-of-towners on Friday; the winners of each division faced off the next week on taped public television.

The first two championship teams, in 1971 and 1972, were from Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, and were coached by Latin teacher Susan S. Schearer. Schearer, Virginia state chair at the time and in charge of the 1972 NJCL convention at Virginia Tech, introduced the game to NJCL. There was only one level. Intermediate, then called Lower, was added two years later, and Novice in 1987. Tennessee won the first two national championships.

Virginia has won the most national certamen titles, with 38; Florida is second with 28, and Texas is third with 17. When an anonymous donor first gave $500 to the winning Advanced Level team, a Virginia team won and spent it on the Maureen O'Donnell traveling trophy, which spends the year in the state of the winning Advanced Level team.

The 2009 Advanced championship team from Florida used its $500 to create the Susan Schearer trophy for the National Novice division winner.

Certamen at National Junior Classical League conventions[edit]

The certamen matches played at the National Junior Classical League Conventions (Nationals) are the most competitive and prestigious. There are three levels of competition: Novice (for students in Latin 1/2 or 1), Intermediate (for students in Latin 2), and Advanced (for students in Latin 3 and beyond). Students may play in a higher level than their completed Latin, but never in a lower level. Each team may only consist of students from the same state, and each state may only have one team for each level. Since three teams play against each other each round, the draws are composed of multiples of threes. Wild Card teams may be formed to balance out the draw.


Moderator reading questions

A certamen match at Nationals has twenty toss-up questions which any player may buzz in on at any point of the question to try to answer. However, players may not at any time during a toss-up communicate with other players. If a player gets a toss-up correct, his/her team receives 10 points. Then the whole team of that player is given two bonus questions to answer. The team now gets to talk among themselves to answer the bonus questions. Only the designated captain is allowed to answer bonus questions on behalf of the team, although he is permitted to defer to another player. The bonus questions are each worth five points. No penalties are given for wrong answers. Scores are read out loud after questions number five, ten, fifteen, nineteen, and after the round.

In a typical Nationals-level certamen match, three certamen teams each composed of four members play against each other. The teams are seated in chairs or desks in a semicircular fashion. The moderator reads the questions. A spotter announces which player buzzed in first to answer a question. This is done with a certamen machine, which is a buzzer system with a lock-out mechanism that registers a beep and displays the buzzer number of the first player to buzz in. A time keeper times the 15 seconds allotted for bonus questions. The time keeper and the spotter may be the same person. There is also a scorekeeper who records the scores of the teams.

Tournament setup[edit]

Moderator and scorekeeper of the Harvard Certamen tournament, showing a more traditional seating for finals events

Three preliminary rounds of certamen are played with each team playing two other teams each round. The top nine teams based on the total scores in the preliminaries advance into the semifinals. Each team receives a seed based on the amount of points it received during the three preliminary rounds. The matchups in the three semifinal games are seeds 1-6-7, 2-5-8, and 3-4-9. The victor of each of the three semifinal rounds (regardless of previous scores or seeds) advances into the finals. The victor in the finals then captures first place. Unlike the three preliminary rounds, semifinals and finals are single-elimination matches.

Prior to each round, the moderator reads a set passage of Latin text as an example of how he or she pronounces each sound in Latin. The passage is "Aurelia, cui urbs placebat, erat in Aegypto cum familia sua ingenti et equo suo. Tredecim ludos magnos Iovis in amphitheatro Alexandriae spectabat. Tandem, equus iratus domum recurrere coepit. Eheu!" The translation is "Aurelia, to whom the city was pleasing, was in Egypt with her huge family and her horse. She watched thirteen great games of Jupiter in the amphitheater of Alexandria. At last, the angry horse began to return home. Alas!"


At national competitions, novice and intermediate questions are:

  • 50% language skills, which may include grammar, vocabulary, translation, and derivatives
  • 25% mythology
  • 25% history and culture

On the advanced level, literature is added to the topics since the players are now assumed to be reading real Roman writings.

  • 40% language skills
  • 20% mythology
  • 20% history and culture
  • 20% literature

Questions are sometimes worded like those of regular quiz bowl competitions, with clues becoming easier further into the question. However, some questions contain only one clue to the answer and are decided by simple anticipation and buzzer speed. The NJCL Certamen Committee also may include questions that have a listening passage in which a paragraph of Latin is read aloud twice then succeeded by a toss-up question; visual aid questions, in which teams are given a sheet of paper with images to be identified; and command questions, in which the player must complete a Latin command read by the moderator.

Preparation and strategy[edit]

Some players arrive at nationals with hundreds of hours spent in preparation for the competition. A certamen player must not only be knowledgeable, but also quick at the buzzer.

Study techniques differ widely, depending on the player's level and area of focus. Source books are often very useful; the National Junior Classical League publishes a list of sources from which all its questions are drawn. A partial list includes:

  • Language skills: Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar; a Latin dictionary, typically Lewis and Short's; and a thorough English dictionary.
  • Mythology: Mark Morford's, Edward Tripp's, and Pierre Grimal's mythology handbooks.
  • Roman history and culture: Edith Hamilton's The Roman Way, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine by M. Cary and H.H. Scullard, and A History of the Roman People, by Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo.
  • Literature: "Latin Literature: A History" by Gian Biaggio Conte; "History of Latin Literature" by Moses Hadas; "The Oxford Classical Dictionary"

Teams will often have specialized players, usually one grammarian, one historian, one mythologist, and one player versed in all-around knowledge. In National play, state teams may register up to four starters and four alternates. An alternate may be exchanged for a starter in any round, though no changes are allowed within a given round.

National championships[edit]

Fans of the World Series of Certamen

A victory at the national convention is the most prestigious achievement for a certamen player. The winning Advanced level team receives a one-year lease on the traveling Maureen O'Donnell Trophy, as well as $500 from an anonymous benefactor which is generally donated to a charity of the winning team's choice.

Those players who are on two or more winning Nationals teams are entered into the Certamen Hall of Fame.

At the 2007 NJCL Convention at the University of Tennessee, a new certamen competition was inaugurated, deemed the World Series of Certamen (WSOC). This competition, now an annual event, is open to all registered non-JCL convention attendees, and attracted twenty-one teams formed of Latin teachers, other adults, and members of the Senior Classical League. The event, which featured questions testing both the knowledge and sense of humor of the participants, proved to be very popular.

Team JAKT from Ohio won the first WSOC championship. In keeping with the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the event, they received an equally ironic award: the traveling Susan Schearer spirit cane and a case of Red Bull for each member. Teams continue to modify the Schearer Stick.


Created as a senior project by an Oak Hall student of Gainesville, Florida, it is a Greek version of certamen. It is played in the same way as certamen, except that questions about Greek language, literature, mythology, and history are asked. While Agon is currently in a developmental stage, it has had its first official tournament at the 2014 NJCL convention, where Team #DelphiBelievesThatWeWillWin won the first and only Agon national championship.

List of national champions[edit]

Below is a list of national winners:[2]

Novice Intermediate Advanced
1972 N/A N/A Tennessee
1973 N/A N/A Tennessee
1974 N/A Georgia Virginia
1975 N/A Virginia Texas
1976 N/A Tennessee Virginia
1977 N/A Tennessee Virginia
1978 N/A Virginia Tennessee
1979 N/A Tennessee Tennessee
1980 N/A Virginia Virginia
1981 N/A Virginia Virginia
1982 N/A Virginia Virginia
1983 N/A Virginia Virginia
1984 N/A Virginia Virginia
1985 N/A Texas Texas
1986 N/A Texas Virginia
1987 Virginia Tennessee Tennessee
1988 Florida Virginia Tennessee
1989 Florida Virginia Virginia
1990 Virginia Wisconsin Virginia
1991 Texas Texas Tennessee
1992 Tennessee Texas Florida
1993 Virginia Texas Florida
1994 Virginia Texas Virginia
1995 Tennessee Virginia Texas
1996 Virginia Tennessee Wisconsin
1997 Virginia Ohio Virginia
1998 Ohio Florida Virginia
1999 Florida Florida Virginia
2000 Florida Florida Florida
2001 Virginia Florida Ohio
2002 Florida Ohio Ohio
2003 Texas Florida Florida
2004 Virginia Florida Texas
2005 Massachusetts Texas Ohio
2006 Texas Texas Florida
2007 Virginia Virginia Florida
2008 Massachusetts Florida Virginia
2009 Florida Texas Florida
2010 Florida Virginia Texas
2011 Massachusetts Florida Florida
2012 Ohio Massachusetts Illinois
2013 Florida Massachusetts Massachusetts
2014 Florida Georgia Massachusetts
2015 Virginia Florida Florida
2016 Florida Virginia Wisconsin


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