Photo by Luca Tosoni
Artillery Row

Classic mistake

Is Latin a dead language?

Back in the depths of antiquity, I obtained a B in my Latin GCSE. This came as a mild disappointment, as I had expected an A. Clearly, I was not as good at the subject as I had believed I was, and this was the first of the many blows and knocks to my increasingly fragile academic ego that would beset me over the years.

One of the reasons why I had thought I was good at Latin was that it had been a central part of my education since I was young. The classics masters (and, if this is the mot juste, mistresses) who taught me were a mixture of the stern and the inspiring, Crocker-Harris reborn. I still remember the classroom, ministered by a stern Irishman, where mirth was always occasioned by the words “PADDY BLOWS GOATS” written on the outward-facing side of a Latin dictionary. 

I often wished that I had spent more time declining gerunds and less time declining to learn them

Anyone who has attended a fee-paying or selective grammar school over the past however many decades will have an almost Proustian number of associations with the study of the subject. Teacher-baiting interludes in dog Latin (“Quintus aderat forte/Caesar adsum iam/Craccus sed cives sum/Horace sed ubet”); the Wilding Latin grammar, invariably amended to the “Wilding eating grammar”; endless declensions of “amo amas amat” and “mensa mensa mensam”; and, when the sun broke through the clouds, the opportunity to appreciate some of the greatest literature ever written in its original form, rather than through the prism of a subjective translation. 

I was never a classicist. I had, like Shakespeare, “small Latin and less Greek”. But I respected those peers of mine who were adept at it, and often wished that I had spent more time declining gerunds and less time declining to learn them. It is no wonder that Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History revolves around a gang of amoral but brilliant classics students at a New England liberal arts college. There is a glamour and intrigue attached to the subject, and its practitioners, that can seldom be matched by others. Certainly, if Tartt had written about a gang of homicidal historians, or murderous mathematicians, it is unlikely to have acquired the popularity and acclaim that it has enjoyed over the past three decades.

Therefore, Gavin Williamson’s recent announcement that Latin will be taught in 40 state schools, as a pilot scheme, was an unusually welcome piece of good sense from Old Poker. Williamson commented, “We know Latin has a reputation as an elitist subject which is only reserved for the privileged few. But the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to put an end to that divide.” Noting its benefits across a “broad, ambitious curriculum”, Williamson stated that Latin would no longer be something offered only at expensive private schools, but would, if the scheme was successful, ensure its return to mainstream teaching. 

The announcement was more controversial than might have been anticipated. Although Mary Beard, the Cambridge professor and somewhat unlikely doyenne of populist classics, professed herself “absolutely delighted…[that] this extraordinarily enriching subject” would be made available to students, and thatstudying the ancient world helps us look at ourselves, and our own problems, afresh and with clearer eyes”, the usual angry commentators were swift to denounce Williamson, the government and our classicist Prime Minister as concentrating on anachronistic subjects at the expense of the contemporary. 

Understanding Latin and classical literature is not simply an indulgence aimed at the wealthy

Many of these writers stated that the study of classics was essentially irrelevant to the 21st century, and that much-needed resources should instead be invested in the study of sciences and technology. Inadvertently, this argument chimed with one of the more backward-facing that Williamson had previously made, namely that STEM was the all-mighty deity that education funding should now be channelled towards, and that the arts such as English literature should simply be regarded as luxury degrees. The increasingly swift closure of many departments has indicated how decidedly unluxurious such a decision has been. 

For my part, I cannot help but agree with the state school-educated writer who made the pithy observation that education should not simply be a Gradgrindian exercise in learning and understanding facts, but should instead offer a wider and more liberal basis on which to approach the world. It is terribly easy to think of the study of a subject as a utilitarian means to an end and this end is now paid employment, rather than knowledge for its own sake but understanding Latin and classical literature is not simply some kind of indulgence aimed at the wealthy, but should be a building block in any kind of education, whether it be state, private or something appropriately wild and Dionysian. 

Perhaps it would be seen as infra dig for Latin pedagogues to teach the subject with vine leaves in their hair, to the ecstatic sound of wild Bacchanalian piping, but the continued popularity of books that deal with classical subjects, from Robert Harris’s Conclave to Elodie Harper’s recent bestseller The Wolf Den, suggests a fascination with the ancient world that stretches far beyond the privately educated. Bath, and its Roman baths, remains one of Britain’s most perennially popular tourist destinations. The success of Professor Beard’s broadcasting career rests almost entirely on her skill at making her subject seem accessible and fun, rather than dusty and obscure. When Hollywood dips its quill into antiquity, the results can either be Oscar-winning (as with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator) or more slyly insidious. I shall never forget Alan Rickman’s antagonist in Die Hard, as he watched his evil scheme unfold successfully, commenting (in lines apparently ad libbed by Rickman), “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domains, he wept, for there were no more worlds left to conquer. The benefits of a classical education.”

It is to this government’s rare credit that they are offering an opportunity for many more nascent Grubers-in-training if the study of Latin is successfully rolled out throughout the secondary school system, rather than restricted to a few grant-maintained grammar schools. Naysayers will carp, and many will use this as yet another opportunity to attack the country’s most prominent classics graduate. Yet I would urge the sceptical to remember the wise words of a recent correspondent to Private Eye, John Bothwell. Dr Bothwell wrote, “It’s unkind to use a classics degree as shorthand for the ‘bluster, lies and deceit’ that characterise the current government…the sciences can and will save lives, especially in the face of climate change and current and future pandemics, but classics and the other humanities are going to be what make those worth living afterwards.” 

It was, however, Dr Bothwell’s sign-off that remains one for the ages. In classical terms, it is a fine example of antithesis; in layman’s terms, it is simply a great line. Dr Bothwell wrote, “the problem with Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic isn’t that he studied classics; it’s that he’s a twat.” O tempora! O mores! 

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