At the beginning of the last century, A.E. Housman, that cantankerous giant of classical scholarship, was already complaining about “an age which is out of touch with Latinity.” Around that time, philistines were excising classics from the popular curriculum, and the subsequent 100 years have hardly improved Latin’s apparent relevance in Western society. Classicists may tout the fact that Advanced Placement enrollment in Latin doubled between 1997 and 2007, but this mini-surge brought the number of upper-level high school Latinists to a minuscule 8,654— literally 1 percent of the number of secondary school Latinists in the mid-1930s. Like its nouns, Latin continues to decline.
In the face of these grim prospects, I boarded a plane to Rome this summer to join the small network of scholars dedicated to preserving the language by actually speaking it. I found myself in the company of 16 other twentysomethings, puttering about the center of the ancient world chattering not in English or in Italian but —ecce!—in Latin.
I can assure you that the enterprise was even stranger than it sounds. The Paideia Institute’s “Living Latin” program is an immersive, spoken-Latin summer course based in Rome. The mornings are spent at the St. John’s University campus reading poetry and prose and commenting on the texts in Latin; the afternoons are spent doing the same thing at various sites of literary or archaeological significance. If you vacationed in Italy this June, you might have seen us standing around the Ara Pacis on a scorcher, offering competing Latin orations on the pax Augustana. Other exercises were more modern: using hip-hop beats to memorize Alcaic meter, say.
The class comprised undergraduate and graduate scholars with advanced reading knowledge of Latin but little to no spoken experience; not even the Catholics among us had used the language of Cicero to comment on the vicissitudes of Vespa-dodging, or to describe the phenomenon of the “pimp coat” (tunica lenonis). The latinitas was often exhausting—try rendering a future-less-vivid conditional in proper tense and mood with 32 eyes boring into you and the carabinieri hollering obscenities just outside the window. Most humbling was the constant juggling of stressed and unstressed syllables; a language that had existed too long only on paper was coming fitfully to life, demanding as a newborn. Students, operating in good faith, even did their best to make dinner plans in Latin, though pizza sounds a lot less appetizing in its Latin form: placenta.
While Paideia’s “Living Latin” is technically a new program, it derives from Aestiva Latinitas Romae (“summer Latinity in Rome”), an iconic course taught for over 20 years by Friar Reginald Foster. Described by the American Scholar as “a kind of one-man Audubon Society for the Latin language,” Foster is known as “Reginaldus” to his students—or, rather, to his acolytes; something approaching a cult of personality has sprung up around the Friar. An American Carmelite monk, Reginaldus served for more than 40 years as the Vatican’s secretary of briefs to princes. More simply, he was the Pope’s chief of Latin letters, a role that found him translating papal bulls into Latin while overseeing the Vatican’s Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis, which offers helpful neologic Latin for such items as popcorn (maizae grana tosta) and pornography (pellicula cinematographica obscena). Reginaldus’ eight-week summer Latin course, meanwhile, achieved legendary status among classicists, early modernists, archaeologists, and any number of other scholar-types. A decade ago, a high school Latin teacher described the course to me: “I learned Latin in school, but I did not know it until I met Reginaldus.”
Foster has retired to his home state of Wisconsin. (He now runs an eight-week summer course there.) But it is still on the force of Foster’s personality that the Paideia program in Rome fuels itself. Paideia’s founders, Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, were Reginaldus protégés: When the Friar took ill in the summer of 2008, Pedicone and Hewett led the remaining month and a half of the Aestiva Latinitas course. The two are unswerving evangelists for spoken Latin, the type of guys who converse in Latin with precision and ease, though not with the same accent: Hewett, a devout Catholic who lives in Rome and moves in that city’s arcane circle of ecclesiastical scholars, speaks the soft g’s and hard v’s of Medieval Latin, while Pedicone seems to prefer the reconstructed pronunciation of the Empire. (Both are finishing their dissertations, Pedicone on Latin meter at Princeton, and Hewett on Rabanus Maurus at the University of Salerno.)
In Latin, or the Empire of a Sign, Françoise Waquet describes Renaissance classrooms in which Latin was the only permissible language, and schoolboy informants known as “foxes” (vulpes) would snitch on those who slipped into the vernacular. The regime at Paideia was not so unforgiving and, unlike various modern-language immersion programs, did not involve a “language pledge.” Nonetheless, even while we spent hours each day on scansion, supines, past-tense contrafactual conditionals, and other staples of by-the-book Latin, the thrust of the course was the revivification of an oft-obituarized language. Such a thrust necessarily involves a fair bit of cheerleading, the result being that the class felt less like school and something more like summer camp.
We descended into the Sybil’s cave at Cumae to reel off the pertinent hundred lines of Virgil. We drew stares in the Forum as we declaimed latine (adv.: “in Latin”) on the various points of interest. (One elderly Italian gentleman, several sheets to the wind, stuck with us for some time, offering applause and exclamations of “bravi” whenever he thought appropriate.) We stooped into the Catacombs of Priscilla or the bowels of the Basilica San Clemente, where a troupe of friendly Bulgarians listened to our Latinisms on the subject of Saint Cyril. (Cyril invented and gave his name to the Slavic alphabet—Cyrillic—and his tomb remains a pilgrimage destination for Slavs.) On an unusually foggy Friday, we tramped to the peak of Mount Vesuvius and read Pliny Jr.’s letters to Tacitus recounting the volcano’s eruption in 79 A.D. A curly-haired Italian high-schooler fell in with us; he offered a sensitive Italian translation and was far less bemused with our manner of speech than one might have imagined.
Frivolous stuff, the haters will say—a fantasy camp for bookish types, an arcane and indulgent pursuit (largely funded by university fellowships) that does nothing to tamp down the national debt or carbon emissions. I’m inclined to say, somnium (“nonsense”). Thanks to a summer of speaking Latin, I can tear through hexameters like Caesar through Gauls. The summer was perhaps not strictly “useful”; summer, after all, is characterized by otium (“leisure”), the lexical antithesis to negotium, or “business.” (Graduate students are of course notorious for mixing the two.) Latin immersion offers other, similarly unquantifiable benefits. Knowing one’s history is an intrinsic good, and in this sense, the summer’s archaeological-literary one-two punch was anything but frivolous: As Nicholas Ostler says in his engaging biography of the language, “the history of Latin is the history of the development of western Europe.”
Sadly, latter-day history teaches us that, despite our best efforts, Latin remains on the ropes, dying even among the clergy. “I’m not optimistic about Latin,” Foster has said. “The young priests and bishops are not studying it”—a Housman-like complaint that earned the Friar no points among those fellow clerics who had dozed off during Latin class. There is, at last, a comfort in these complaints: Each mini-generation of cantankerous purists will beget another, surmounting the stale calculus of Latin translation to speak it among themselves, in a conversation that has been going for a very long time.