“Latin is a dead language, and it’s killing me,” said Dan to Father O’Dea after stumbling through translation of a paragraph in the second week of Latin I at St. Charles. We all turned to our teacher to see how he would respond.
“Not an original thought, young man. I’ve heard that from students every year for twenty-nine years. It’s not only trite, it’s untrue. Latin lives—it lives in your native tongue, French, Spanish, and other Romance languages. It lives in medicine, law, science, theology, literature, and other professions and disciplines. It’s not dead, and I can assure you that no one has expired studying Latin,” said Father with his eyes trained on the freshman.
Father turned to the day’s new vocabulary words and the peculiar notion of gender for inanimate objects. In the following weeks, we progressed to all five declensions and conjugation of verbs. We struggled with Latin’s unfamiliar sentence structure and the nominative, accusative, and ablative cases.
Every night Father’s homework assignment required us to use all of this in translating simple stories reminiscent of our reading primers from the first grade. We memorized new words and the rules of Latin grammar. Father drilled us as a group and quizzed random students at the beginning of each class.
I did well with Latin grammar, probably because Sister Miriam had spent so much time with us on diagramming sentences at St. Gabriel Elementary. We spread compound and complex sentences with dependent phrases and prepositional phrases all over the chalk board. To be sure that we knew which words were prepositions, Sister required that we memorize and recite aloud all 200 or so prepositions. I only remember that the list began “about, above, across,…”
I quickly grasped that the sentence’s subject was in the nominative case and the object was in the accusative. I aced Father O’Dea’s pop quizzes and usually had the answer when he pointed his long finger at me and asked for the meaning of a word like “puer” or “nautes”. When I said “boy” or “sailor”, his faint smile was brief, but gratifying. His stern face returned as he scanned the room for the next unlucky student. My early success encouraged my resolve to work at this subject. After all, there were four years of the language, dead or not.
* * *
On Sundays, a white linen tablecloth and our best, and only, china graced our dining room table. Both were gifts from Grandmother, our frequent guest. Usually a roast, but sometimes a ham, was on a platter in front of Dad who sliced the meat with bone-handled cutlery, once Grandmother’s. My younger brothers and sisters passed their plates for a portion of meat and a dollop of mashed potatoes, salad, and a vegetable, usually creamed corn. My brothers, sisters and I under strict orders to mind our manners.
At a Sunday dinner in September, Grandmother inquired in her best diction, “Michael, please tell us, what is your favorite subject at St. Charles?” The room was quiet as everyone turned to me.
I chewed my meat longer than necessary as possible answers occurred to me. I could not be faulted for not talking with my mouth full. After finally swallowing, I said “Latin,” and affirmed choice with a nod.
“Grand! That’s grand,” said Grandmother. “Most of our words come from Latin, and it evolved into French, Spanish, and other Romance languages. I studied Latin. I remember that “amo,amas, amat” means “I love, you love, and he loves,” she said with a wave of her hand and a little blush.
“We already learned that. It’s a first conjugation verb, and “amat” means “he or she loves,” I said proudly.
“I am so pleased. You’ll learn how Julius Caesar conquered the French and the British when they were tribes of savages, and then he civilized them as part of the Roman Empire,” said Grandmother.
Dad asked Grandmother, “Didn’t the Romans also feed the Christians to the lions in the Coliseum?”
“Well, yes, but later Constantine converted and spread the Catholic faith,” she replied. “The Romans were not just great soldiers, they were builders, too. Roads, aqueducts, domed buildings and grand architecture.”
Dad, who did not enjoy being in Italy during World War II, tried again to discredit the Romans. “The Roman legions just conquered the Greeks who really invented democracy, philosophy and everything else,” he said to Grandmother.
“You’re right. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were Greeks, but the Romans spread their ideas and built on their foundation. Cicero, Virgil, and Lucretius were Romans, and their concepts on government, literature, and science influenced thinkers since the Renaissance. Our Declaration of Independance and the Constitution are based on Roman and Greek concepts.”
“Would anyone like more potatoes?” Mom said before Dad could respond.
* * *
On Monday morning, after Father O’Dea left the classroom and the sound of his footsteps in the hall faded, Rob exclaimed, “Latin’s a waste of time!”
“Hell, yeah,” said Mike Finn. “No country in the world speaks Latin anymore.”
“Four years of Latin. Two would be bad enough, said Rob. “My cousin goes to Bishop Watterson High , and they don’t have to take any language. She’s taking French, but at least she’ll be able to communicate in Paris. Where can you go to speak Latin?”
“Nowhere! I hate Latin,” I joined in. “At least, we get to take French or Spanish in our sophomore and junior years.”
“Yeah! But that’s in addition to Latin. I think it should be either Latin or a modern language. Four years of Latin makes no sense,” said Dan.
“They think we’re all going to graduate, go to the seminary next door, and become priests” said Rob. “Not me!”
“Let Tom, Justin, and the others who want to become priests take Latin. They can take Greek, too, if they want, but let the rest of us prepare for college,” said Dan. “They quit requiring Greek two years ago, and now they need to make Latin optional.”
“On our first day, O’Dea said half of our class won’t graduate. O’Dea thinks the ones who leave can’t make it academically, but a lot of guys just don’t want to hassle with Latin for four years,” said Rob. “Latin plus two years of French or Spanish drives them away.”
“Not to mention no girls! I’m already tired of looking at you ugly guys all day. Girls in class are supposed to be a distraction, but I’d like that kind of distraction,” Rob said
“We also get four years of daily religion classes. We need to prepare for college. Most of us are not going to the seminary,” I added. “Something else—I don’t need to go to Mass every day of the week and Sundays, too.”
“Yeah, I agree. Hey, we’ve got to get to chapel. It’s almost time for Mass,” said Mike.
During Mass, the patter of Latin from the priest and the altar boys receded. Grandmother’s word “grand” came back to me. It was one of her favorites. She used it to describe a spectacular sunset, St. Joseph Cathedral downtown, the print of a Madonna by Raphael in her living room, an Irish tenor, and the revered FDR.
At dinner she said Latin was “grand.” Of course, she meant the science, philosophy, and literature passed down through the centuries from the Greeks and Romans, the foundation and first building blocks of our entire civilization. A classical education was a window on the insights of the great thinkers, the perspective of the most knowledgeable individuals in Europe and America for centuries. Maybe Grandmother was right. There was something “grand” about a classical education.
“Ite in pace” said the priest in benediction, Latin for “Go in peace.” Mass was over and my classmates clambered out of the pews. A place at the beginning of the cafeteria line allowed more time for lunch and intramural games of touch football. Everyone had to play for their home room once or twice each week. We had already learned that muros was the Latin word for the walls that Caesar’s men built around every campus or military base in Gaul. Hence, intramural games, mural paintings in the chapel, etc.—itself an abbreviation for et cetera or “and others.” “Kinda cool,” I said aloud as I watched students who were right not to go out for football try hard.
As freshman year progressed, we began to understand Caesar’s narrative about his superior strategy and tactics against the barbaria, the Roman term for all who were not Roman or Greek. (In Greek, the word meant all who were not Greek.) Father pointed out the Romans’ prejudice as well as Caesar’s ambition and self-serving account of his military prowess. Of course, he related how Caesar later ignored the warning, “Beware the Ides of March, and uttered his final words, “Et tu, Brutus?” as his betrayer and assassin wielded his knife. In fact, Father acted out each of their roles in front of our class—not great drama, but memorable.
My classmates were unimpressed or, at least, feigned boredom. I kept a straight face and slouched at my desk along with everyone else, but I was inwardly pleased to know these classical stories that educated people had shared and passed along for centuries.
Latin II was devoted to Marcus Tullius Cicero. Father Luchi, who did graduate work in Rome after seminary and regaled us with tales of his visits to the Forum where the great orator spoke eloquently for return of the republic during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Father told us repeatedly, “If you understand Cicero’s speeches in the Roman Senate, you’ll understand what Jefferson, Madison, and our founding fathers were striving to accomplish.” He often elaborated on Cicero’s influence on the American government. Test questions required essays on the relevance of a paragraph as well as the translation. Some classic examples of the lost discipline of rhetoric were also among our test questions.
When Dan periodically repeated his line about Latin as a dead language that was killing him, he always got some snickers and set off a round of grumbling about four years of Latin. I nodded and affirmed how awful it was, but I took secret delight in Latin.
“Arma virumque cano,” were Father Lenhart’s first words in Latin III delivered with a great flourish. As we looked blankly at him, he continued, or rather repeated, “I sing of arms and man.” With unflagging enthusiasm, he led us through Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem of Rome. Father tried hard to battle our unmasked boredom with the romantic rivalry over Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” He described the bloody fights in gory detail and dramatic suspense.
Father insisted that Laocoon’s famous warning about the Trojan Horse was erroneously translated since ancient times. Word by word, we analyzed Laocoon’s admonition to determine that he meant, “I fear Greeks, especially when bearing gifts” and not merely, “I fear Greeks bearing gifts.” Whatever he said, I vividly recall the illustration in our book showing the giant serpents sent by Greek gods entwined about him, and I still wince when I see portrayals of poor Laocoon.
In our senior year, Father Lenhart continued as our Latin teacher. Our text was Dante’s “Inferno”. Father explained that Dante was exiled from Florence and his revenge was to populate Hell with his enemies, catalogue their sins, and describe their punishment. He asked us to silently decide which circle of hell we would put people we didn’t like. Then we understood the exiled Dante’s motivation.
In the spring, we translated passages from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura about atoms and science. Our last assignments were from Ovid. “There are some juicy poems on love, but you’ll have to do them on your own,” said Father.
* * *
During freshman orientation at Ohio State, I registered for a proficiency test in Latin in hope of satisfying the language requirement. I found the large room in the venerable Arps Hall and joined a handful of students. A young teaching assistant set forth the rules and distributed a mimeographed form with booklets he called “blue books.”
I was delighted that translation of a passage from Ovid was on the exam. It was on “Rumor,” a dramatic personification of an evil monster that casts falsehoods to the winds from a mountain top on swirling winds to spread falsehoods far and wide. With scraps of memory and inferences from context, I was able to translate the entire passage and passed the proficiency exam.
Release from the language requirement was rewarding, but the larger reward has been the cultural and personal lessons learned in the course of translating classical writers such as Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Dante, Lucretius, and Ovid. As Grandmother said, Latin was “grand.”
Every year on March 15th, I am sure to be wary on the Ides of March.
For Further Reading: Ovid on the House of Rumor and Laocoon’s Fate
Ovid: Bk XII:39-63 The House of Rumour
There is a place at the centre of the World, between the zones of earth, sea, and sky, at the boundary of the three worlds. From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away, and every voice reaches listening ears. Rumour lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit, adding innumerable entrances, a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard. There is no peace within: no silence anywhere. Yet there is no clamour, only the subdued murmur of voices, like the waves of the sea, if you hear them far off, or like the sound of distant thunder when Jupiter makes the dark clouds rumble.
Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes, and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumours wander, and confused words circulate. Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales, and the author adds something new to what is heard. Here is Credulity, here is rash Error, empty Delight, and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin. Rumour herself sees everything that happens in the heavens, throughout the ocean, and on land, and inquires about everything on earth.
Ovid’s personification of “Rumor”
After many years have slipped by, the leaders of the Greeks,
opposed by the Fates, and damaged by the war,
build a horse of mountainous size, through Pallas’s divine art,
and weave planks of fir over its ribs:
they pretend it’s a votive offering: this rumour spreads.
They secretly hide a picked body of men, chosen by lot,
there, in the dark body, filling the belly and the huge
cavernous insides with armed warriors. […]
Then Laocoön rushes down eagerly from the heights of the citadel, to confront them all, a large crowd with him, and shouts from far off: “O unhappy citizens, what madness? Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation? Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood, or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls, or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above, or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse. Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.”