Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent. And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a traditional Roman festival and Latin poetry to a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse. And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up. Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place. And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread I am connected, to my mother, of course, at whose knee I learned to bake bread, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took many years ago of his bakery, and I have another photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I had painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mill and oven. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples. He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles. We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta. The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge. As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay. He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist. I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .


Tibullus’ First Elegy

Below is a translation of the first elegy of Tibullus I made partly in Watford, England in the summer of 1983 and partly at home some point thereafter.   The first part of the poem I translated was a passage near the end, which I scrawled that summer on the rear fly-leaf of the Loeb edition I had just bought in Cambridge:


A few days ago (October, 2013) I retouched a few youthful oversights.  I submitted the earlier version to a short-lived 1980s Edmonton literary journal which had published two other poems of mine.  Unfortunately, that journal ceased publication around the time of my submission.   So, this translation has been pretty much unseen since its creation thirty years ago, rattling about first as scraps of paper and then copied from one hard drive to another.

Recently I have returned to translating the Elegies of Tibullus as a bit of a recreational break from the ongoing labour of translating the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records.

Another man may store up gold
as comfort to himself
and he may hold some many yards
of cultivated soil:
that man is scared and labour’s hard
with enemies nearby–
and from that man all sleep will flee
when Martial horns are blown.
But may my poorness carry me
along the lazy road
while yet a bright and warming fire
glows on my humble hearth
and may I be a rustic true
and plant young vines for wine
and large fruit trees with careful hands
at just the proper time.
And may hope not abandon me
but always give to me
a heap of crops and vats of must,
aging into wine.
In fields at stumps I say my prayers
or at a flower wrapped stone;
whatever fruits the new year brings
I place for rural gods.
O Yellow Ceres, may the wreath
of grains of our farmland
which hangs before your temple’s doors
always hang for you
and may the guardian of our fruit
be placed out in the field
that he might frighten stealing birds,
Priapus with his hook.
And you, too, Lares, take your gifts,
you guardians of this field
wealthy once but now quite poor
without fertility.
Then a heifer sacrificed
a thousand bullocks paid;
a small lamb now is victim for
a narrow patch of soil.
For you a lamb is now cut down
and ’round it rustic youths
sing out “give harvests and good wine”
and bravely cheer with joy.
And now for me it I might be
content to live with less
and not to always be forced out
to labour on long roads;
t’avoid the summer rising of
the dog-star’s scorching heat
beneath the shade of leafy trees
beside a river’s flow.
And meantime it is no disgrace
to hold a two-toothed hoe
or goad the tardy mooing cows
back to their tiny pens
nor to hold up to my breast
a lamb or baby goat
forgotten and deserted by
the doe and take it home.
And spare, you wolves and crafty thieves
these thinning herds of mine;
go seek your prey from bigger herds
of richer men than I.
From this small herd and from my field
I’m used to sacrifice
and sprinkle milk once every year
to calm fair Pales’ heart.
Be with me gods and do not spurn
gifts from a table poor
nor from plain pots of earthen-ware
made in ancient time.
Of earthen-ware in ancient times
country men first made
themselves such cups of simple clay
without a wheel or kiln.
I do not need my father’s wealth
which stored-up harvest brought
to my grandsire so long ago;
a small field is enough.
Enough it is to rest my limbs
when I have got the time
upon my couch and sleep again
on my familiar cot.
How fine it is to hear the winds
as I lie in my bed
my mistress held in gentle clasp
close to my happy heart
or, when the wind from out the south
lets go the winter showers,
to seek untroubled happy sleep,
the rain my lullaby.
This be my lot.  Let him be rich
if he can bear the sea
with all it’s rage; deservedly
if he can bear the rains.
I wish that just as much of gold,
as many emeralds green
would perish, as fair maidens weep
if I should travel wide.
For you Massalla war is good,
by land as well by sea,
that you might hang some foriegn spoils
on th’front door of your home.
But I am held by a lovely girl
I’m wrapped up in her chains
and so I sit, a door keeper
outside this cruel gate.
I do not care, my Delia
to win myself some praise;
If I’m with you I would be called
a lazy sluggish man.
That I might see at my last hour
you, looking down at me
and hold you close as I sink down
in final dying clasp!
You will mourn, my Delia
When I lie on my bier
and give me kisses that are mixed
with bitter tears of grief.
You will mourn:  your breast’s not bound
with bands of iron strong
nor does cold flint lie stubbornly
within your tender heart.
Dry-eyed no youth or girl can come
home from that funeral day.
Don’t wound my ghost.  But little rip
young hair and cheeks, Delia.
Meantime, while fates let us do so
let’s join ourselves in love:
soon Death will come, take us away
his head in darkened cowl;
soon idle age will creep to us
and love will not look good,
and grey-haired talk of love
does not become a man.
Light Venus now must be pursued,
when breaking down of doors
and having fun will bring no shame
and fighting in the streets.
Thus do I well the part of duke
and that of man of war;
you trumps and standards go away
and take those wounds with you
and give them to those men of greed
and take to them riches:
I’ll be secure with harvest heaped,
Hate famine just like wealth.

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Tibullus’ First Elegy (translation) by John Richardson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.