Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin defends the beauty and foundational importance of Latin and encourages its study. His book offers a solid introduction to the major Latin writers, describes their strengths as prose stylists, and places them in an historical context. His engaging and witty writing often describes how he first stumbled onto a particular writer and or why he likes his style.
Gardini argues that Latin is the basis of Western culture; its beauty is a bonus. He derides the notion that Latin is merely an “exercise gym” for training future lawyers or other professionals. “The study of Latin,” he argues, “must not be treated like a cognition boot camp.” We don’t visit museums to sharpen our vision or listen to classical music to improve our hearing, he counters.
Among such superstars as Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Juvenal, Horace, and Virgil, he also praises lesser-known writers like Tacitus and Catullus.
Catullus has a reputation for his descriptions of sexual acts and positions as well as his profanity. In fact, Gardini claims that he used profanity as a form of social protest that appealed to emotions: “profanity flows from a pious mouth.” Catullus would probably have millions of Twitter followers in 2019.
From his essay on Catullus I learned that the Romans had no specific notion of homosexuality. For them, sex was an act of power, regardless of the partner or the other person:
“To enter a man’s mouth or ass does not in fact imply homosexuality. . . but is a demonstration of power and superiority; it carries a sociopolitical meaning. It was something you did to slaves and to the young, your subordinates… or something you threatened to do to your personal enemies. Any free adult male who assumes a passive role in sex… is disgraceful, an image of utter humiliation, a man unworthy of his freedom.”
The Roman sexual ethos explains a lot about the current patriarchal views that millions worldwide are dismantling.
Some of my most indelible memories of Latin are from Monty Python sketches and films, especially in Life of Brian where a Roman police officer corrects the grammar in a protester’s graffiti. In grad school, I took a year of Latin because it satisfied both foreign language and medieval literature requirements. I remember memorising the six declension cases; I list them to trigger nightmares: nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative. No test.
So many Latin phrases continue to resonate in daily communication, especially in political discourse. As I type this sentence, quid pro quo is the primary focus in the Trump impeachment hearings, and Prince Andy has joined the burgeoning ranks of the persona non grata due to an inability to reject grossly inappropriate sexual behaviours.
Any Cop?: Here’s my Latin aphorism for Prof. Gardini’s final exam. Sampling Nietzsche: “Lecitito ergo sum.”