The Renaissance of Latin

Why a dead language is becoming popular.

Harry Mount's Carpe Diem.

Last year, a surprise best seller hit the British book market: a romp through Latin grammar, by a London journalist called Harry Mount. In Britain, the book was called Amo, Amas, Amat … and All That, after the first verb (to love) encountered in elementary Latin class. But in the American edition, the title has become Carpe Diem. The phrase was coined by Horace in Odes 1. 11, a poem that recommends instant kicks (bad strained wine, quickie sex), since time is fleeting and the future unknowable. In American culture, however, the phrase has taken on a life of its own; in Robin Williams’ famous speech from Dead Poets Society, seizing the day has something to do with self-fulfilment and the realization of the American dream.

The change of title tells us a lot about the different cultural positions of Latin in British and American society. Most educated British people can, it seems, be expected to know a smattering of “school-boy” Latin. The term is revealing, since under the British educational system, those who know Latin usually learned the language at an expensive school (often all-male). State schools in Britain rarely offer Latin. Unsurprisingly, then, knowing Latin in Britain is closely associated with being posh—a situation Mount’s book sets out to remedy, or at least modify. The time has come, it seems, to liberate the study of Latin from issues of social class.

For Mount, the main danger in learning Latin is that it may earn those who master it the derogatory label of wankers from ordinary blokes—”prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own,” as Kingsley Amis put it. British upper-class philistinism involves feeling embarrassed about knowing anything, especially any esoteric knowledge or knowledge that may have taken some effort to acquire. (At the Oxford college I attended as an undergraduate, the motto was “effortless superiority”: You should never seem too hard-working or too interested in your studies, unless you want to seem like a “swot,” a “wanker,” or a “girl.”) * Mount, like any self-respecting member of the new British upper classes, hopes to evade the old class system by replacing knowledge with leisure. He wants to make learning Latin “fun”—the equivalent of “a pistachio ice cream and a glass of prosecco”—as opposed to the Blue Guide version of a trip round Venice: “four million Tintorettos,” in his words.

The odd thing about the book—which perhaps reveals that the New Britain is less new than we might think or hope—is that Mount, who is in his 30s, does an excellent imitation of a British public-school teacher in about 1960, or even 1930. An outline of basic Latin morphology is interspersed with an enjoyable collection of school-masterly anecdotes and digressions, on Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse, the difference between Doric and Ionic columns, and Mount’s own Latin teachers from prep school and Winchester. The occasional digressions into current affairs or more recent sources (Camilla Parker-Bowles’ love life, Donna Tartt’s Secret History, or the Latin tattoos of “Beckham” and “Miss Jolie,” as Mount rather archaically refers to them) are delivered with cultivated pomposity. The pleasure of Latin always seems to recall those jolly times back in the Upper Fifth—not exactly fussy, but still pretty fusty.

In America, the cultural place of Latin is very different. It’s true that in the United States, as in Britain, some expensive high schools teach Latin. But so do Catholic high schools, which may be inexpensive or free. Moreover, a surprising number of American undergraduates begin the language from scratch in college, of their own free will. In this context, knowing Latin is not a marker of membership in a cultural elite, or no more so than any kind of college education. Some of those who voluntarily struggle through the conjugations and declensions of a long-dead language may be hoping for an easy way to fulfill a language requirement; after all, in Latin class, you generally don’t have to worry about perfecting your accent, and you don’t have to put in time at the language lab. But many choose to learn Latin because they are genuinely interested in learning how the Romans imagined the world. To describe American Latin students, we need to substitute the much more attractive category of “geeks” for Amis’ “wankers.”

A Roman Bust
Roman sculpture

There are good reasons for Americans to be interested in the ancient world. Over the last few years, there has been a deluge of American movies, television series, and novels based on antiquity: 300, Alexander, Troy, and Rome on HBO. It’s easy to see why these simplified versions of ancient history and classical mythology strike a chord in contemporary America. For obvious reasons, we are interested in stories about the growth and collapse of a great and greedy empire, or about a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations. We are fascinated by tales of war, especially those that present it as glorious, tragic, and a long time ago. Ancient history is always popular when people feel close to an apocalypse: It allows us to face, obliquely, the knowledge that our own culture too will end.

But culture is never independent of language. If you want to understand ancient Greece and Rome in more depth than you can get from 300, you need, ideally, to learn Latin and Greek. Although these languages are hard to learn well, it’s fairly easy to get a smattering of Latin, especially if you already know Spanish or Italian.And to know even a little bit of Latin helps you understand how European vernacular languages emerged from the language of the Romans—and hence, how the societies of modern Europe and America emerged from antiquity. Linguistics specialist Nicholas Ostler, author of Empires of the Word, provides an impressively detailed account of how Latin has dominated later cultures and languages. His book, called Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, does not aim to teach Latin, as Mount’s does, but instead traces the whole history of Latin from its origins down to the present day—imparting some vocabulary along the way.  

Ostler provides a wonderfully geekish account of the intimate relationship between the empire and language of the Romans, and reminds us that there may be lessons for the English-speaking world in the history of the Latin language. He quotes Livy’s analysis of the value of ancient history: inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu foedum exitu quod vites (“From it you can find examples for yourself and your country to follow, and it also gives you examples of bad enterprises with bad outcomes for you to avoid”). His book shows us that Latin is not just a set of rules and conjugations, but a guiding force in the cultural construction of Europe and America. “Languages create worlds to live in, not just in the minds of their speakers, but in their lives and in their descendants’ lives, where those ideas become real.”

Yet cultural imperialism is only partly a linguistic phenomenon. Ostler’s claim that Latin was “the glue that held the empire’s people in place” for more than 2,000 years seems less plausible when we remember that for a long period, most educated Romans were bilingual (in Latin and Greek), and in the first and second centuries A.D., many intellectual Greek writers under the empire—such as Plutarch—had only a sketchy knowledge of Latin, or none at all. (The place of Spanish in modern America provides an interesting counterpart to Greek under Rome.) But, of course, the Romans had many other instruments by which to spread Romanitas through the world. Tacitus’ account of the Roman conquest of Britain, in his Agricola (a passage quoted by Mount), provides a useful reminder of how language and education could be combined with other means of cultural domination or seduction: Roman religion, law, art, and architecture were visible signs of the empire even without the Latin language. As Tacitus remarks of the Britons, “They even adopted our fashion of dress, and started wearing the toga; little by little they were drawn to touches of vice, such as colonnades, baths, and fancy conversations. Because they didn’t know better, they called it ‘civilization,’ when it was part of their slavery” (idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset). The analogy with the modern world is not hard to draw: the “Americanization” of China, Russia, and Europe has as much to do with the spread of Nike, Coca-Cola, and modern big-business capitalism as with the spread of the English language.

Still, the long history and slow death of Latin have plenty to teach us about what might happen to our own culture. Ostler argues that the Latin language led its people to think of Rome as the center of the universe, “the fixed point of reference for its world.” He suggests that this should in itself act as an inspiration, “but also a warning,” for speakers of modern English. It is a warning against trying to achieve global unification or universality of any kind, linguistic or cultural. We are better off, Ostler implies, accepting that no single culture can or should be infinite. Not all roads lead to Rome, and not all roads lead to London or Washington, either.

Correction, Dec. 19, 2007: Emily Wilson originally misspelled the word “swot” as “swat.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)