The sweet, neglected pastures of Latin

A Latin inscription from the canticle Benedicite in St Paul’s Cathedral, London (Getty)

Long Live Latin
by Nicola Gardini,
Profile, 256pp, £14.99/$26

Is Latin still alive? Yes, there are some intellectuals like Benedict XVI who can speak Latin. He gave his resignation statement in Latin in 2013 – mirabile dictu! The Vatican now has a marvellous news programme in Latin, too.

But these are some of the last vestiges of Latin as once spoken across much of Europe. Otherwise, it’s fair to say that spoken Latin is in its death throes.

Written Latin, though, is as vivid and alive as ever – to that admittedly shrinking band of people who can understand the world’s most influential language. As Nicola Gardini says in this highly enjoyable, erudite book, to learn Latin is to bridge the centuries; to connect your mind with the best that has been thought and said.

Gardini quickly – and correctly – dispenses with the idea of Latin as a sort of intellectual boot camp. Next we’ll be going to the Louvre to sharpen our vision or La Scala to improve our hearing. That’s not the point of Latin, he convincingly argues.

The fundamental reason for learning it is because it’s the language of Western civilisation; because, inscribed in Latin, lie the secrets of our deepest cultural memory.

Latin has inspired the creation of later literature, too. There would have been no Renaissance without Latin. Dante would never have composed his Divine Comedy without Latin. There would have been no Milton, Machiavelli or Shakespeare, as we read them today, without Latin.

Gardini knows his Latin inside out. He taught it at the New School in New York and at schools in Italy, and he now teaches Renaissance literature at Oxford. And, boy, does he love the subject. As he says of his childhood studies of Latin, he wielded his knowledge like an amulet or magic shield.

With a knowledge of Latin and Greek, two thirds of English words suddenly develop a double meaning – or even a triple or quadruple meaning.

Take “laundry”. It derives from Old French, which in turn comes from the Latin gerundive, lavandus – meaning “needing to be washed”. The same root is found in lavatory and lavish, from the Old French lavasse, meaning “a deluge of rain” – thus the idea of abundance. Today we forget the connection between water, banquets and toilets. But the link is there. Know Latin and you can see the underground roots between them all.

Along the way, Gardini gives a useful sketch of the journey of Latin from its early origins. To begin with, Latin had to fight against a host of rival languages: Etruscan, Oscan, Umbrian, Faliscan, Messapian and Venetic among them – what wonderful names! In its victory over those languages, Latin carved out its pre-eminence in the Western mind.

Gardini is no prude. He goes right into the rude language used by Catullus in a terrifically juicy rundown of his sexual vocabulary: voro (to devour) and scortum (slut) are the least shocking terms. As he explains in direct, unembarrassed terms, homosexuality wasn’t recognised in Rome. If a man had sexual relations with another man, it was a demonstration of power and superiority; something you did to slaves and the young – your subordinates.

Gardini shows his love of Latin through chapters devoted to different authors. Seneca is the writer who taught him most about living. Virgil moved him. Tacitus left him aghast at Roman cruelty. Lucretius sends him whirling with delight. Cicero has him dreaming of perfection in Latin thought, speech and behaviour. And Seneca, most importantly, teaches him happiness.

In his study of these authors, he is always alive to their use of words, and what they really mean. I didn’t know that “nausea” comes from the Greek word naus, meaning “ship”; and so it originally meant seasickness.

He is alive, too, to the immense power of Latin to move the reader. In 2003, his journalist friend died in Iraq, aged 33. He gave his grieving partner a copy of Seneca’s Consolatio ad Marciam – consolation for Marcia, a Roman woman who’d lost her father and son. Who couldn’t be moved by these words: “They have now been released into the free and vast spaces of eternity; no dividing seas stand between them. The path before them now is level, and they move swiftly and without obstacle in a reciprocal coexistence with the stars.”

And then there’s the heart-stopping simplicity of the Propertius line, “Solus ero, quoniam non licet esse tuum” – “I’ll be alone if I cannot be yours.”

This isn’t a book for a Latin beginner; more for a clever A-level student or an old Latinist returning to sweet, neglected pastures. As Gardini cheerfully admits, learning Latin is difficult. But all art is difficult – it’s difficult to paint like Picasso or compose like Mozart. But, by reason of its difficulty, learning Latin is all the more satisfying. As he puts it in his fine peroration, “Through studying, reading, writing and loving Latin, we step into the river of history and there we find a deeper understanding of where we began and where we want to go.”

Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That