What is Latin? This probably seems like a useless question as most people of a certain language have heard of “Latin.” That said, when you tell people that you teach Latin you get all kinds of perplexed looks and then an assortment of odd questions which follow: “do you speak it?”; “are you fluent?”; “are you Catholic?”; and in some cases, “isn’t that a dead language?” Sometimes people might have a little more familiarity with the language and then they assume that you teach the language so that students can get a higher SAT score or be prepared for law school or medical school. These responses seem strange when you consider that if Latin is anything it is a language. No one asks a French teacher if they can speak French. Someone might associate knowing Arabic with being Muslim, but it is generally understood that people speak Arabic (and it is not just related to a religion), whereas most people assume one does not actually speak Latin. More to the point, no one learns German or Spanish because what they really want to learn is something else like how to cook Mexican food or make beer. These ruminations raise the question, why do we think of Latin in this way, and what is it anyway?
A subfamily in the Indo-European language family, the language arose in the Latium region of Italy with its alphabet deriving from Greek and Phoenician. Early Latinate inscriptions date back to the famed, perhaps mythical, Seven Kings of Rome in roughly the mid 8th century BC. This begins to answer the question of why Latin, a language spoken by Romans, is not called Roman, which one might expect. Despite the fact that Romans spoke and wrote in Latin for the following centuries, most people learn the Latin language in the form written down by Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century BCE. The most common text to be read by early students of Latin is either the Catiline Orations of Cicero or Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Both texts come from this period celebrated throughout Western history as the Golden Age of Classical Latin. One written by a man who tried to preserve Rome’s Republic, and the other whose progeny abandoned that republic as they were overcome by the libido dominandi with the end result of a language spoken across the Mediterranean. Of course, the story of the Latin language progresses well beyond this period, but in some respects the language has been historically tethered to this period throughout its nearly 3000-year history.
After the rise of the Caesars and Rome’s military dominance of the Mediterranean, if any person wanted to trade or make peace with Rome, it was incumbent on them to learn Latin. The dominance and cultural force of Rome spread the Latin language from the straits of Gibraltar south to the sands of the Sahara and across the Middle East to Israel-Palestine and north to the Danube. From the perspective of European history, one might say that the Latin language spread to “the known world,” but that would obviously be false. Nevertheless, Latin became known across a wide swath of multiple continents in a consolidating time of world history.
From a religious-historical perspective, it is worth noting of course that the man who oversaw crucifixion of the most famous carpenter in the world spoke Latin and wrote this sentence on the titulus of the iconic cross, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (INRI, as it was shortened on depictions in religious art for centuries). Rome, the founder of the idea of a republic ruled the Mediterranean in the Latin tongue, which laid the groundwork for the flowering of the largest religious movement the world has ever known, centered on the lowly carpenter Rome killed, Jesus of Nazareth.
There would be reason enough to study Latin because it connects us to the founding of the Roman Republic and the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The story of Latin and how it came to be understood by most as a dead useless language only good for preparing to study other things requires following further beyond the first century of this era.
The generations after Cicero and Caesar taught the Latin language (in addition to Greek) as the definitive marker of culture. What it meant to be educated and cultured simply meant to know the Latin language well as it was written by a few notable authorities, in their minds Cicero, Caesar, and Vergil taking precedence. Varro, Quintilian, and Cicero himself all conceived of teaching Latin by reading certain authors and learning to write speeches, following the stories, motifs, and forms of those they found in the canonical authors. Being a noble, educated Roman, a vir bonus dicendi peritus, simply meant that one could speak the right way quoting the right people. The notion of “goodness” as described in the prior description had fallen out almost entirely by the 4th and 5th centuries annis domini. By this point, St. Augustine, the African bishop, can say that it is surprising that an educated person can even understand the language of the common folk, the vulgar Latin of the farmers and fishermen.
Ironically, it is precisely a form of this Latin which St. Jerome takes up to translate the Christian scriptures in his Sacra Biblia Vulgata. Although a slightly more polished form of the language than was found in the Vetus Itala, the Old Italian versions of the New Testament, Jerome did not aspire to write in the form of Cicero. Alas, he would have nightmares about God judging him for being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. And so it was that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman world, though the form of governance looked vastly different from what Cicero pined for and even Caesar could have imagined. The language of that empire became not precisely that of Cicero, but of Jerome’s Vulgate. This transition from the classical orations to the barbaric and bizarre locutions of a text translated into Latin was also the transition from the historical boundaries of antiquity to the middle ages.
The educated could still read the writings of the classical canon, but most of the public speaking became preaching rather than orating in the law courts. The preachers, less educated than the lawyers of Cicero’s day, spoke to common audiences explaining the translated text scriptures of a Hebrew and Greek speaking culture from far across the Mediterranean. Edward Gibbon would have his readers believe that this “fall” of the Roman Empire could be attributed to the predominance of Christianity and its rejection of its classical past. On the other hand, one could say that the pagan Romans could not conquer the Teutons, but the Christianity of Rome did. Thus, the language of the Middle Ages in Europe was not German or Greek, but Latin. Though of course Constantinople would stand for another century proudly bearing the label of Romioi, though in the Greek language.
As the rhetorical schools of the Roman empire ceded their place to the monasteries conceived by the likes of St. Cassiodorus, Latin proper became the charge of the educated clergy. Slowly neo-Latin languages emerged in Spain, France, and Italy, simplified from the more complex declined language which birthed them. Yet, for some reason, at every kind of Renaissance, every several hundred years, the educated people returned to the language of the Cicero.
As St. Alcuin becomes the architect of the preservation of classical learning in the Frankish kingdom, he ensures that the texts of antiquity are learned and transcribed in the monasteries of Clovis and Charlemagne’s empires. The Latin of the Golden Age still reigned as the sought-after form. Terrence Turnberg has argued that Latin had died out as the mother tongue of most Europeans by the turn of the first millennium of the common era. Though a contemporary linguist might call Latin dead after that time, nevertheless those dry bones lived in the halls of the universities and monasteries where it was taught to young children as a language of the educated, much like it was in the time of St. Augustine many centuries before. A child, like perhaps Dante Aligheri, might have learned Italian at his mother’s breast, but also learned to speak fluent Latin at school. A finely educated person would not generally have composed works in their mother tongue because Latin was what was taught and encouraged in school. This is one reason the Divine Comedy was so earth shattering. One composes poems in Latin, not that vulgar Italian tongue!
From the standpoint of the Latin language though, it was rarely one’s first tongue. But, it was not taught merely through memorizing forms, declining paradigms, and regurgitating vocabulary. It was caught through speaking, not taught through memorization. The second great Renaissance of the Western world begins again with a return to the classical world of Cicero in the writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam. A desire to read these original texts in the Latin and Greek encouraged the uncovering of long forgotten manuscripts, including those of the Old and New Testaments. This general yearning for the ancients among the educated included a young Augustinian monk who knew German from birth but learned Latin in school. When he nails his disagreements in the form of theses to the Wittenberg door out of frustration of the abuses of the Catholic Church, he does not do so in his mother tongue, but in Latin. Once he stood and could do no other at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther drew on his education in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and began to bring the Christian Bible into the language that the majority of his parishioners spoke, German. Much like St. Jerome and Dante before him, his goal was for people to be able to understand and Latin was no longer the language that most people could understand.
The translation of the scriptures into the many languages and dialects of Europe broke the spell of Latin over the educated nobles and clergy. The next several hundred years would see the decline of the language, even in the halls of the universities. By the 18th century Latin was still taught, but many attribute the decline of Latin instruction to one philologist, Friedrich August Wolf. Though Wolf was quite fluent in Latin, he began reducing the language down to its constitutive parts to be studied under a microscope like many of the so-called Enlightened natural scientists around him. The language became a cadaver to be scrutinized, not a means of communication and a living engagement with the world. Much like modern medicine took the cadaver to be the form of the human body to be studied, the meta grammar of a language became the interest of philologists. Latin was not a language to be spoken, but a corpse to be spoken about. One could then pick apart each word like bone or tissue and describe it in a language which conveys nothing of what it is like to see the thing in action.
Latin and Greek were studied by some in more elite institutions, but it was only through extreme suffering that one could become proficient enough–so long as they had a grammar and dictionary with them–to be able to even make sense of the language. The most important thing in learning about Latin in the last 150 or 200 years is not whether you can respond to a command, “sta,” or picture Caesar making an attack in the words Caesar impetum facit, but whether you can state “sta: 2nd person singular; present, active, imperative” or “facit: 3rd person singular; present, active, indicative.” Students of Latin learn only to speak about the language rather than the thing itself.
So what is Latin and why do we study it in this modern progressive age? Studying any form of the Latin language, whether it is the Latin of Cicero or that of the Church, is studying the history of the Western world. Of course, this is not very much en vogue in certain circles right now, but if one wants to get a sense of our current culture state in places like the United States or Europe, we could do far worse than knowing this language. And by knowing, at this point, I hope it has become clear that the only way to be able to enjoy it as it was meant to be used is by speaking, writing, reading, and communicating in it. Who teaches a child how to swim on land but never jumps into the ocean? Who would ever think we could substitute describing the chemical composition of snow and think that it would suffice for the joy of building a snowman or careening down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan?
More to the point, the speaking of the language allows one to go back through the history of reflection on religion, government, politics, natural science, philosophy, and any other science worth knowing first hand, without the interference of translation. We might not be able to time travel, but living in a language allows one to come that much closer to seeing the world through the eyes of Cato, Caesar, Alcuin, Erasmus, and Luther. The res publica litterarum transcends time and in its own unique way slows down the world rushing by seeking change at every passing moment.
Latin is a language, but not just any language. It is more like the golden thread which having arisen from the ruins of the monarchy of Rome, and enshrined as the language of that celebrated Republic, stretches across the ages in the monasteries and universities of the Western world and into the contemporary age. It is that water in which all who reflect on what it means to be virtuous and human in a chaotic world swim. It is the air one breathes in common with generations who have gone before to offer a path for all those who would learn it in that most important of human quests, the quest for Veritas.