Review of The Oxford Latin Course, 4th September 2001

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment

published on the Internet
Issue Number 55
4th September 2001

Oxford Latin Course
Maurice Balme and James Morwood
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, 175pp, £11.00 (pbk)
(ISBN 0 19 9122261)
Reviewed by Sean Gabb

At the beginning of the 21st century, I suppose it is necessary to explain why Latin is still a language that anyone but a rather specialised scholar should think worth learning. It is arguably now both dead and useless. A thousand years ago, it was the only educated language of Europe. When even the most polished vernacular languages were still semi-barbarous and wholly local dialects, Latin was the natural mode of expression for religion and philosophy, for law and administration. Five hundred years ago, with the rediscovery of classical antiquity, it was the means of entry into a more enlightened world of secular reason. Three hundred years ago, it was still the universal language of debate on religion, philosophy and the natural sciences, with Locke and Newton publishing at least some of their more important works in Latin. Today, it is of no practical importance.

English is the new universal language. It has a literature that in range and power is probably inferior only to Greek. Its scientific literature is superior to any that has ever so far existed. For hundreds of millions who will never visit England, English is now the language that enables escape into a world of light and science. Latin has vacated that position. Indeed, where once translations from Latin once required the coining of new words in the modern languages, any translation into Latin now requires the coining of so many new words that the result would be utterly foreign to Cicero. What is the Latin for electric light? For compact disc? For laser printer? For windscreen wiper? Who would even wish to know? As said, for anyone who wants directly to understand the history and culture of Europe before about 1700, Latin remains essential. For anyone else, however, it is at best an affectation and at worst a use of time that would be better spent on learning how to build and maintain personal computers. To this argument, I can raise three answers.

The first is that the Romans produced a literature that is intrinsically beautiful. It is also beautiful in a special way. For while both Classical Greek and English in all its stages are naturally beautiful languages, and are easily fitted to the creation of a great literature, Latin was until quite late in its development a rough and unexpressive language. The literature that the Romans developed purely by themselves was most emphatically not beautiful. Their earliest law code, the Twelve Tables, and the scraps of poetry that have come down to us show a serious turn of mind that explains much of their future greatness, but have nothing else to recommend them. However, from about the fourth century before Christ, they came into close contact with the Greeks, and had the good sense to recognise—to an extent unmatched by any other Mediterranean people—a higher civilisation. The Jews took over Greek logic, and used the Greek language as a means of communication. Individuals from other nations dropped their own ways and made themselves so far as they could into Greeks. But the Romans alone decided to keep their national manners while reshaping them to Greek standards. Of course, they did not take over every Greek standard. They retained, or acquired, a taste in public entertainments that revolted many Greeks—and that vanished from their Empire only when Greek civilisation, reinforced by the Christian faith, was able to triumph in the fifth century.

Nor did they ever show much enthusiasm for Greek philosophy. They appreciated the Stoic school, as it gave a rational underpinning to their own sense of duty; and it had a large influence on the development and humanisation of their law. But they never shared the Greek passion for abstract reason. One of their earliest encounters with Platonism was when Carneades, the great sceptic, visited Rome on an embassy in the third century before Christ. He fell into a sewer and broke his leg, and had to stay longer than he expected. To amuse himself while recovering, he gave a series of lectures. In one of these, he demonstrated, with what seemed irrefutable logic, that there was a natural law governing the universe and all human relationships. A day later, he gave another lecture, demonstrating, on what seemed equally strong grounds, that there was no natural law. The Romans were so shocked by this apparent disregard for the truth, that they banished all the philosophers from Rome. They let them back, but never themselves excelled in philosophy. It was only in the later middle ages, with writers like Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, that Latin acquired the vocabulary for a competent philosophical discourse.

What the Romans did uncritically take from Greek civilisation, though, was its literature. It is one of the strangest facts in history that a people so practical in their ways could have fallen so absolutely in love with the sound of words. Yet they did. “Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit ” said Horace— “Greece, though conquered, led its fierce conquerors in chains”. For all they affected to despise the softness of the Greeks and the lack of team spirit that had led so easily to their fall, the Romans wanted their own place in the sun of Greek civilisation. Much of this project involved giving themselves a literature that reproduced Greek styles of composition in their own language. This was a much harder task than it sounds. For while Greek and Latin are grammatically similar—so similar that learning one language today is a good introduction to the other—there were at first what must have seemed insuperable difficulties to writing Greek poetry in Latin. The first of these difficulties is the different sound of the languages. Latin has always had a stress accent like English. That is, its natural poetry is made up of patterns of syllables spoken with varying degrees of force. Take these lines from Dryden:

Of these the false Achitophel was first,
A name to all succeeding ages cursed.
In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state….

The metre is rhymed iambic pentameter. Each line consists of five groups—or feet—of two syllables with a stress on each second syllable. So far as I can tell, that is how early Latin poetry was written. For example, take this line translated from Homer by Livius Andronicus around 250BC:

Virum mihi Camena, insece uersutum
(Tell me, o Muse, about the cunning man (this being Ulysses))

It is also how much Latin poetry was often written after the fall of the Western Empire—for example, these lines from the Carmina Burana, which are in stressed trochaic senarius, the third foot hypermetric and followed by a strong hiatus:

Meum est propositam in taberna mori,
Ut sint vina proxima morientis ori.
Tunc cantabunt laetius angelorum chori:
‘Sit Deus propius huic potatori’

(I want to die in a tavern
With wines near my dying mouth.
Then choirs of angels will happily sing:
‘Let God be closer to this drunk’)

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In Classical Greek, however, there was no stress accent. There was instead a tonic accent, which was heard by a trilling of the voice. This evolved during the middle ages the stress accent of modern Greek. But while it gave a musicality to Greek poetry that we can no longer appreciate, it had no discernable effect on the metre, which was based on patterns of long and short syllables. The most famous of these metres is the dactylic hexameter, which consists of six feet that can be either dactyls (-) or spondees (–). This was the metre used by Homer and by every other epic poet, and it was considered the natural metre for any serious poem. It is true that Latin has the same distinction between long and short syllables, but this seems not to have been heard as obviously as stressed and unstressed syllables. Therefore, it was necessary for the Romans to try their best to hear length rather than stress in the poetry they composed. The result was lines like:

Cum tantum sciat esse basiorum
(When he knows how many kisses there are—Catullus)

This is a Phalaecean hendecasyllable, scanning –|-uu|-u|-u|–. It is spoken, however, as -`|-`-|`-|`-|`-, which must have presented difficulties to any reader or listener who had not received a careful education. (1) Often, Roman poets would make some concessions to their listeners by allowing stress and quantity to coincide. I am not learned enough to discuss all of these, but the most obvious is at the end of hexameter lines, where the last two feet generally are made to sound as they are scanned—f for example: “morte quievit”, or “fictor Ulixes”, where the scansion |-uu|–(u) sounds like `-|`-. This, however, solved only one problem. There was also the second to be overcome.

This is the lack of naturally short syllables in Latin. The Greeks appear to have developed their metres for their own language, and so they are perfectly adapted to its peculiarities. (2) When the Romans took over these metres, they had to strain their language to breaking point to write in them. This explains the convoluted order of words in their poetry. Take this from Virgil:

Infandum Regina iubes renouare dolorem
(You command me, o Queen, to recall the unspeakable sadness)

Translated literally, this reads: “The unspeakable o Queen you command to recall sadness”. Now, Latin is a heavily inflected language, and it does not require the fixed order of words needed to make sense in English. The words quoted above make sense because their relationship is shown in the terminations—because “infandum” and “dolorem” are both words in the accusative case, we can know that the adjective qualifies the noun. But while Greek also is inflected, its poetry is not on the whole so convoluted. Take this couplet written by Simonides on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae:

  • Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
         κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

(Go, stranger, tell the Spartans
That, obedient to their will, here dead we lie) (3)

These lines follow an unforced order of words. So it is with most other Greek poetry. Any complexity here is in the grammar, of which Greek has far more than English or even Latin. In order to fit Latin words into Greek metrical patterns, the Romans had largely to abandon simplicity of arrangement. They also had to introduce a regular elision into their poetry which I do not think they carried into prose. This allowed words to go into a line of poetry that would not otherwise have fitted. Take this from Virgil:

Di quibus imperium est animarum umbraeque silentes
(O gods to whom are both the empire of souls and silent ghosts)

This becomes an hexameter by eliding the words to:

Di quibus imperium’st animar’ umbraeque silentes

What I have said for poetry applies broadly the same to prose. That also had to be tamed so it could stand comparison with Greek. It is not surprising that it took the Romans about three hundred years to force their language into the shape they desired. It took ages of experimenting to discover when and when not to make accent coincide with quantity, and what ordering of words could be made to sound poetic, and what elisions were acceptable and what ugly. They also had to coin thousands of new words—either taken directly from Greek or developed from their own language. But in the end, they got what they wanted. In the two centuries around the birth of Christ, there was a flowering of literary genius at Rome. Catullus finally adapted the lyric metres of Greek poetry to Latin, and his works can still burn their way off the printed page two thousand years later. Virgil completed the adaption of Latin and the hexameter to each other to create rhythmical sonorities quite different from anything in Greek, but which have shaped the western mind perhaps more profoundly than any other literature. For Tennyson, he was

Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the lips of man.

And there are many other writers of both prose and poetry whose genius is beyond translation and can only be appreciated in the original. The Greeks, with their usual—and often justified—vanity, never appreciated Roman literature. They seldom learned Latin, except for purely utilitarian purposes—as when they took up the study of law. In one of his letters, written in the second century after Christ, the younger Pliny boasts that some Greeks had told him they were learning Latin so they could read his poetry. If they were not joking, he must have done them a considerable service—especially since he was not much of a poet. In the eighth century, when the Western Empire had fallen, and the eastern provinces that remained had reverted to Greek for their language of law and administration, an Emperor in Constantinople could assert without challenge that Latin was a language of the barbarians. Even in the fifteenth century, the Byzantine scholars who took asylum in Italy after the fall of their empire to the Turks continued to swap contemptuous epigrams about Cicero and Virgil. But they were wrong. The Romans had created a great literature.

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As said, is was not a natural growth. Its beauty is like that of a garden planted on sand, and made to bloom only with endless attention and training. It was never understood outside the educated classes. It must have sounded to an ordinary Roman like the poetry of Milton does to an uneducated English reader. On this point, I recall a story told I think about Augustine of Hippo. He was preaching one day to his congregation in the simple Latin of the people, when a friend came suddenly into the church. Immediately, Augustine switched into the classical language, and lost his audience in the resulting stream of oratio obliqua. But, while unnatural, it is a beautiful literature; and far more than their conquests and the buildings they constructed throughout their empire, it shows the strength of the Roman will. They wanted a classical literature, and by sheer hard work over many generations, they got one. The achievement of the English writers of the 16th and 17th centuries is nothing by comparison. They started with a language that was already beautiful, and the French and Italian models they imitated were in languages not so radically different. It would be a shame if this singular achievement were now to perish simply because hardly anyone can take the trouble to learn how to understand and appreciate it.

So much for the intrinsic beauty of Roman literature. I turn now to the second argument in favour of learning Latin. This is the nature of how it survived. It is often believed that the Roman Empire—or at least its western provinces—collapsed under the twin assaults of barbarism and Christianity. The cities were pillaged, the libraries burnt, and Europe settled into a thousand years of darkness, until some Italians dug out the remaining manuscripts that had lain unregarded in various monasteries, and civilisation could begin again. This is an entirely false picture of what happened.

Books in the ancient world were all copied by hand. Until about the fourth century after Christ, they were copied onto sheets of papyrus which were then glued into scrolls about 20 feet long. Obviously, copying by hand was a slow and difficult business. Worse, papyrus was both expensive and delicate compared with paper. It is said that, even in Egypt, one sheet of papyrus, about 10 by 15 inches in size, would have cost about £50 in our purchasing power. Outside the dry climate of Egypt, a book might last a hundred years at most before it fell to pieces and had to be replaced. These facts meant that, with few exceptions, books never existed in large editions; and even the works of the best writers were often in danger of perishing. If a writer went seriously out of fashion, his works would certainly perish. In the late fourth century, for example, the Emperor Julian exulted in one of his letters that the works of the sceptical and Epicurean philosophers had already disappeared. So far as there were enough of these in Latin versions for Augustine to read a generation later, he was exaggerating. But their cool rationalism was against the spirit of the age, and they were mostly not preserved. None of the 300 books that Epicurus wrote has come down to us. The best account of his philosophy is contained in the Latin poem written by Lucretius. For the sceptics, we have only those philosophical works of Cicero that survived for their style and a dry summary made by an Athenian doctor called Sextus Empiricus.

From the fourth century, there was a general switch from the papyrus roll to the parchment book. Since parchment lasts almost forever, even in damp climates, this might have prevented any further losses due to time. However, parchment was still more expensive than papyrus, and the ancient world was entering its terminal crisis. Heavy taxation, to pay for wars against both the increased weight of the northern barbarians and a revived Persian Empire, sucked wealth out of the cities where books were copied and maintained. At the same time, the malnutrition that taxes seem to have caused in the countryside led to a gradual decline of population that was hastened from time to time by epidemic diseases that also swept through the cities. This is perhaps why the western provinces—always less populous and wealthy than the eastern—fell so easily to the barbarians: they did not so much break in by force of numbers as find themselves pulled into a demographic vacuum. And it may explain why so much ancient literature was lost. There was neither the money nor the personnel to keep up the libraries.

The really great disaster seems to have come in the sixth century. Until then, the big libraries in Rome, both public and private, had probably avoided the effects of declining wealth and population seen elsewhere in the west. Though under barbarian rule since 476, life in Rome went on much as it had before—King Theodoric keeping up the old administrative machinery and even keeping the monuments in good repair. In the 540s, however, the Emperor Justinian reached out from Constantinople to regain Italy for the Empire. Though he succeeded, it was only after years of devastation. Naples and other cities were taken and destroyed. Rome itself was taken and retaken in five different sieges. At one time, the whole civilian population was invited to leave the city so it could be defended more easily. The Senatorial aristocracy that had survived the fall of the Western Empire with its wealth and status intact, was largely massacred: and those aristocrats who survived crept back to their shattered, silent palaces with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Added to war were the effects of the great plague of the 540s. We are reasonably sure that this killed a million people in Constantinople alone. It may have killed 60 per cent of the Mediterranean population. This tremendous mortality would have had different effects across society. Shortages of slaves and peasants and unskilled labourers could be handled by a change in relative prices and a selective abandonment of previously habited areas. Losses within the educated classes could not be so easily handled. It was now, I think, that Greek domination in Syria and Egypt came to an end after a thousand years, and the vacant administrative and educational positions in the cities were filled up with semites entering from the countryside, who in the next century would welcome first the Persians and then the Arabs. In the west, Latin ceased to be a living language. The texts surviving from after the plague are either in a radically degraded Latin half way to Italian and the other Romance languages, or in the untroubled purity of a dead language. It was now also that the bulk of Roman literature disappeared.

Imagine a future in which much of our classical music has been lost. There is most of J.S. Bach and Haydn, and a lot of later Mozart—though The Marriage of Figaro is known only from a fragmentary piano arrangement and the brief quotation in Don Giovanni. All of Beethoven is lost except the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and most of Schubert. All of Brahms has survived except the piano music and songs, though less of Wagner and almost nothing of Mahler. There is nothing of Italian opera, except The Barber of Seville and Aida. At the same time, the complete works of secondary composers, like Chopin and Mendelssohn, exist in multiple copies. Worst of all, the whole of Schoenberg and the second Austrian school has survived, together with the signed manuscripts of Harrison Birtwhistle. To say the least, this would leave the music lovers of that future age inconsolable at their loss. It would also give an unbalanced view of our musical heritage.

That is something like the position we are in with regard to the literature of the ancient world. We have lost at least nine tenths of what would have been known to an educated man of the fourth century; and because the west suffered worse than the east, we have lost a greater proportion of Roman than of Greek literature. Speaking only of Latin, two thirds of Livy have perished, and at least half of Tacitus. Perhaps all we have of Catullus is a brief selection made almost at random. Even substantial works by Cicero are missing. We know there was a second flowering of Roman literature in the second century after Christ. We hardly know even the names of the writers we have lost from the period.

What has survived, though, did not survive entirely by accident. As soon as peace returned in Rome, and the worst of the plague had run its course, the priests and monks began sifting though the rubble of the old libraries. Those books that had escaped intact were gathered up and taken into new libraries, safe inside the religious buildings. We still have some of these—for example, a fine manuscript of Virgil from the fifth century. Others were water-stained or charred. These also were gathered up and taken into safety. That is perhaps how the fragments of Tacitus came down to us. Many others may have been still written on papyrus rolls; and in the open air of Italy, they would have been as fragile as wet toilet paper. These had to be copied onto parchment before they entirely disintegrated. There would not have been the resources to rescue everything. We must imagine the painful choices that then had to be made. Some would have been gathered up and saved for the world. Perhaps many more would have been left among the rubbish.

On the whole, the Church did a good job. Though countless beauties perished, it is hard to say that we are entirely deprived. There is perhaps no Roman author of the first rank whose works have not survived in some degree. We may despair over these fragments, but enough has survived to let us appreciate what we have lost. Nor was this all. Once the first act of rescue was over, there had to be an endless copying and recopying to ensure continued survival. This again was the work of the Church. With few exceptions, our earliest manuscripts date from the eighth and ninth centuries, and from places far away from Rome. The work of transmission may largely have begun in Rome, but it was continued, from generation to generation, all over western Europe—in Germany, in the north of England, even on the west coast of Ireland. Wherever the Church established its sway, there were monasteries and schools and libraries, and a continual round of copying what had been rescued from the shipwreck of classical antiquity. It was now that the modern style of writing was developed. The ancients wrote in what we know as block capitals, and had no spaces between words, and had no punctuation. Reading could never be fast, and the end of a sentence was known only by its grammar and sometimes by prose rhythm—another subject of which I am mostly ignorant.

The Church was not a passive, let alone an ignorant, transmitter of this heritage. It saved that heritage, and kept it saved, and even improved on it in the technical sense of reproduction, until the printers of the fifteenth century could place it as far beyond loss as any human work can be. Therefore, when we take down a Roman author from the shelf and open him, we are not looking at the same kind of sterile, unassociated text that is what we have had since the invention of printing—where only the compositor and proofreader stand between us and the author. Every word of Virgil and Cicero that we have has passed to us through a multitude of copyists. Some of these, no doubt, were fat monks whose only excitement was the arrival of a few pilgrims back from Rome or the Holy Land. Many others were less fortunate. Racked by cold and illness, in permanent fear of Viking raids, believing—and not without reason—that the end of the world was at hand, the copyists carried on their slow, steady work of transmission.

Then came the work of the great scholars—of Scaliger and Bentley and Housman, among others—who identified and rid the classics of the mistakes and accretions that had inevitably crept in during a thousand years of manuscript transmission. And then there is the meaning that these works have had for centuries of readers, and the influence they have had in shaping the minds of those who shaped our own minds. The literature of classical antiquity was produced by men very different from ourselves. Their morals and religious views and even basic assumptions about the world were different from our own. But we saved that literature, and it belongs to us.

I now come to the third reason for studying Latin—and I appreciate that those readers who have stayed with me through this long and often technical review will be expecting some political message. A knowledge of Latin allows direct access to the minds of some of the greatest men who ever lived—men who are describing and commenting on and trying to hold off the death of the world’s first attempt at a liberal civilisation. The Roman Empire did not grow because the Roman people wanted it. Most of them wanted to live in peace and look after their own affairs. They were willing to fight in the army in defence of their own country, but had no settled taste for extended conquest. Rome grew partly because it was sucked into the power vacuum that followed the destruction of Carthage and the decline of the Hellenistic kingdoms. But it also grew because the Roman aristocracy acquired a taste for wealth that could only be satisfied by plundering the whole ancient world.

We can see this clearly expressed in the fourth decade of Livy’s History of Rome. By 200 BC, the Carthaginian invaders had been cleared out of Italy, and there was no danger to Rome. The people wanted peace. The aristocracy, however, wanted another war—this time with the King of Macedon. There was a long debate in the public assembly, and the Consul Publius Sulpicius Galba finally got approval for the war with a speech that will sound familiar to any modern Briton or American. Macedon was an expansive power, he explained. It had been allied with Carthage, even though it had taken little part in that war. Its present activities in Greece were surely a prelude to an invasion of Italy. Better go to war now, he concluded, than later, when Macedon would dominate the whole of Greece and be able to gain allies in the east to become overwhelmingly powerful. “Uti rogas”—”as you command”—the people cried, and Rome plunged into a round of foreign wars and conquest that would only end with Roman garrisons on the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates; and that would deprive the Roman people of their real birthright and put in its place the illusion of a world empire governed in their name.

The higher classes benefited immensely from the next few centuries of aggression. They acquired power and riches beyond their dreams. They dispossessed the Roman people of their land, farming it with imported slaves, and corrupted the constitution, and tyrannised over their conquered subjects. Anyone who got in their way—the Gracchus brothers, for example—was ruthlessly stamped on.

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This is the background to Cicero’s great prosecution speeches In Verrem . In the 70s BC, Gaius Verres was made Governor of Sicily. He plundered and misgoverned his province on a massive scale. He behaved perhaps no worse than others of his kind. It was accepted that the surest way to get rich was to squeeze money from the provinces. What made Verres different was that some of his surviving victims went to Rome and appealed for justice. Their case was taken up by Cicero, then a young man recently arrived in Rome from a provincial town in Italy. Verres had many powerful friends in Rome, and he expected that they would stand by him in a pure formality of a trial. At worst, he thought he could bribe an acquittal from the jury appointed to try him. Instead, Cicero got the case into court and unleashed a flood of words that have never been equalled in their damning force. His first speech alone was enough to destroy Verres—he was abandoned by his friends and even by his defence lawyer, and went into exile to escape punishment. The second speech was never delivered, but was published, and it made Cicero into the foremost advocate of his day. In its force of language, and its piling of atrocities one on the other, it still shocks. It contributed to a new Roman view of empire. No longer an agglomeration of territories to be pillaged by those lucky enough to be set over them, the Empire was to become one—at least in theory, if not always in practice—of universal justice. The Greeks, said Virgil in the next generation, might excel in the arts and sciences; but the Roman mission was

Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
(To raise up the humble and restrain the proud)

For the rest of his life, Cicero gave himself to trying to save the dying constitution of Rome. In the words of one of his biographers—I forget which—he passed his life “holding off the future behind a palisade of words”. He failed. He was murdered in old age—the most eminent victim of the purges that finished off the Republic. But his surviving works stand among the classics of the western conservative and liberal tradition.

The Republic collapsed in a generation of civil wars, and was succeeded by the rule of one man. Augustus was a great man, and he knew how to disguise his power behind the forms of a republic. He ended many abuses, and restored the prosperity of the ancient world. In his lifetime, he was worshipped in the eastern provinces as a god. After his death, he was declared a god throughout the whole Empire. His reign and those of his immediate successors were described a century later by Tacitus. Like Suetonius, writing around the same time, he exposed the vices of the Caesars to the inspection and contempt of all succeeding ages. But his analysis goes deeper than a narration of what Tiberius did on Capri, or how Claudius was tricked into disinheriting his own son in favour of a second Caligula. He shows how the Romans of the first century found themselves living under an absolute despotism because that was all they were fitted for. A free constitution is more than a set of rules for election and the division of power. It is something that rises out of the customs and habits of mind of a people. Let the people be corrupted, so they no longer believe as their ancestors did, and what once seemed the most solid restraints on power will become but a “covenant without swords that bindeth not”.

Between Cicero and Tacitus, Rome went through the same constitutional death as we are beginning to suffer in the English-speaking world. We benefit from a study of these writers because we can see the whole process of decay from start to finish. What they described we can see as if looking out of an aeroplane window over a whole country; while what we are now living through we see as a traveller might who is walking over unfamiliar hills and valleys, unable to know for sure what is coming next. We benefit also because, unlike most of our own writers, these had no illusions about what was happening to their civilisation.

And so, I commend this book to my readers. Learning Latin, I must confess, is not an easy business. The Oxford Latin Course makes the first steps in it as attractive as it can be made, only introducing as much grammar as is essential to understanding basic Latin. After about 150 pages of careful study, a reader should be able to understand the following:

Cicero epistolas dictat scribae suo Tironi. Subito aliquis ianuam pulsat. Incurrit servus. “Domine” inquit, “nuntium valde bonum tibi fero. Terentia filiolum peperit et mater et infans valent.” Cicero “re vera” inquit, “nuntium bonum mihi portas. Tiro, servos iube equos parare. Debemus ad Terentiam festinare.” (p.142)

(Cicero is dictating letters to Tiro, his secretary. Suddenly, someone knocks on the door. A slave runs in. “Master,” he says, “I bring you very good news. Terentia [your daughter] has given birth to a daughter, and mother and child are doing well.” “Indeed,” says Cicero, “you bring me good news. Tiro, order the slaves to get horses ready. We must hurry to Terentia.”)

Sadly, this is not enough for actually reading Cicero. Though grammatical, the Latin is simple, far closer to modern French or Spanish than to the language of the great Roman authors. There are no participles or gerunds or subjunctives—no attempt at oratio obliqua or periodic sentence structure. Much more effort will be needed before Cicero can be understood. Still more effort will be needed before it is possible to write grammatical Latin. Remember, it is largely an artificial language, and was beyond the understanding of most Romans. Equally to be remembered, though, it is worth learning.

I will make one final point. The study of Latin is becoming more popular in the independent sector. Some people claim that it improves learning ability. Perhaps it does—though some very stupid people have also been very good Latinists. My own belief is that rich parents are beginning to see the classical languages again as a means of differentiating their class from the masses. Early in the last century, the wealthy classes began to differentiate themselves by their patronage of the modern movement in the arts. Because the works of Schoenberg and Picasso were beyond common understanding, they were thought to serve the same social purpose as the classical languages had—without all the sweat that learning Greek or Latin had involved. But the modern movement is now revealed as a big artistic fraud, or—perhaps worse—has been taken up by the masses.

And so there is a return to the classical languages. I think I have already explained to the best of my ability why at least Latin is worth learning in terms of its intellectual reward. But we may also be on the verge of a time when its study will again lead to positions of considerable emolument.


1. Though he makes stress and quantity coincide, we can see something of the effect this must have had by looking at these hendecasyllables written by Tennyson:

O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test a tiny poem,
All composed in a metre of Catullus.

During the 1980s, I turned my own hand to writing poetry in the classical metres. All of this was very bad, and I have destroyed it. But a few lines remain in my head. Take these from a parodic elegy I wrote in 1987:

O mourn for Liberace, who, born to the ivory keyboard,
Now to the grave is borne, though to reside in heaven.

The lines form an elegiac couplet, scanning –|-uu|-uvu|-uu|-uu|–

Read according to the stressed accent of English, they sound



As with Latin verse, there is a discord between spoken accent and quantity in the first half of the hexameter, and increasing concord in the second half. According to spoken accent, for example, the first three syllables of the word group “for Liberace” is an amphibrach (-), but are a dactyl (-) according to quantity. In the pentameter, there is a general concord, though the final syllable is light and unstressed, which gives a falling effect. Though the great Roman poets did it far better, I do produce the same kind of sound as can be heard in a Latin elegiac couplet.

For those who are interested, I tried here to apply the classical rules of quantity to English—at least as pronounced by the middle classes in southern England. A long syllable is one that contains a long vowel, or that ends with two consonants, even if the second consonant starts the next syllable. Thus, the “is” in “is borne” is short by nature, but long by position. All other syllables are short. Since quantity is harder to determine in English than in Latin, and since our grammar does not allow the same oddities of word order, I eventually gave up the effort of writing in quantitative metres, and took to rhymed iambic tetramter. Needless to say, I am a bad poet, and am unlikely to inflict any more of my poetry on a world that has already suffered a million words of my prose.

2. As an aside, I read somewhere that these words were found on a wall inside an Egyptian tomb:

Santi kapupi wayya jaja minti lalakali

and are explained by the writer as a curse in a language of “the barbarians beyond the sea.” These might be words from the unknown language of the Minoans, and they might scan as a dactylic hexameter. If so, the Greeks took more than just the Minoan alphabet for the earliest stage of their civilisation. But this is purely conjecture, and it is undeniable that they developed the more complex metres by themselves.

3. This is echoed by A.E. Housman in one of his Last Poems:

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young. 

© 2001 – 2018, seangabb.

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