The moderator, who presides over the match and reads the questions, stands in the center so that the teams are mostly equidistant from him/her.
In addition to the moderator and the players, there is a spotter who is in charge of announcing which player buzzed in first to answer a question. This is done via the 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. The use of a buzzer system is required at national-level competition, and is generally preferred by both players and officials. However, where no buzzer system is available (as is often the case in a classroom setting, or in preliminary rounds of local competitions), players signal their answers by slapping-in, that is, striking the surface of their desks with the flat of one palm while simultaneously raising their other hand. In this case, the spotter and any assistant spotters identify the first player to signal. Should the spotters judge that the players have signaled at the same time, each signaling player gives his response to the question in written form. If correct, the player's team is awarded the points; if both or all signaling players are correct, all teams are awarded the points for that question.
There is also a time keeper who times the fifteen seconds allotted for bonus questions (boni). The time keeper and the spotter may be the same person. There are also one or two scorekeepers who record the scores of the teams. Depending on the size of the room, and the popularity of the players, there may or may not be an audience. Due to the importance of silence in the extremely tense race to buzz in, the audience is only allowed to make silent cheers (such as the ubiquitous spirit fingers) except when scores are read, which is after questions 5, 10, 15, 19, and 20.
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, VA state chair at the same time and in charge of the 1972 NJCL convention at Virginia Tech, introduced the game to NJCL at that time. There was only one level; Intermediate, then called Lower, was added several years later, and Novice in 1987. Tennessee went on to win the first two national championships.
Virginia has won the most national certamen titles, with 35. 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.
Virginia defeated Massachusetts and Wisconsin in the 2008 final round and now holds the Advanced trophy, with the Massachusetts team earning 2nd place after two intense rounds of tie-breaker questions against Wisconsin. The Florida Intermediate team narrowly defeated Ohio and Virginia, taking home the championship for their division, and Massachusetts defeated the Texas and Florida teams to win Novice.
On the upper level, literature is added to the topics since the players are now assumed to be reading real Roman writings. Therefore, the question breakdown is as follows:
Questions are usually worded like those of regular quiz bowl competitions. However, the NJCL Certamen Committee has slowly been phasing in new types of questions. These include:
Preparation and Strategy Players often arrive at nationals with hundreds of hours spent in preparation for the competition. A great certamen player is not only knowledgeable, but also quick; therefore, certamen preparation ought to encompass both study and buzzer practice.
Study techniques differ widely, depending on the player's level, area of focus, coach, and personal inclination. 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:
Actual certamen practice is harder to orchestrate, because of the need for buzzers and a competent moderator. Many school teams practice after school, sometimes on a daily basis. In the summer, state teams are known to take retreats, spending weekends to bond with their teammates and practice their buzzer skills. Some states, notably Virginia and Ohio, hold daily study and practice sessions known as Castra Latina ("Latin Camp").
The make-up of a team is very important to its success. Many teams, especially on the novice and intermediate levels, follow the general pattern of having one grammarian, one historian, one mythologist, and one all-around. Another popular format is to have two players for language, with one each for history and mythology. With the advent of literature questions on the upper level, this format is often tweaked to supply someone who also specializes in the history of Roman literature, either by having a player learn multiple categories or by dropping a language player in favor of literature. However, language is so important to a successful team that many teams hope that at least three players who are extremely capable in the Latin language. In addition, it is not uncommon for several players on a team to study multiple categories.
Some states divide their Nationals players into starters and alternates, with four starters and up to four alternates. An alternate may be exchanged for a starter for any round(s), though no changes are allowed within a given round.
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, which will become an annual event, is open to all registered non-JCL convention attendees, and attracted twenty-one teams formed of Latin teachers, other adults, and SCLers. The event, which featured questions testing both the knowledge and sense of humor of the participants, was a big hit among students who were both awed and highly amused.
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. At the 2008 NJCL convention, the Texas team Cornua Longa (The Longhorns) captured the WSOC title, receiving as their prize the newly modified Susan Schearer pogo-stick as well as WSOC t-shirts.