Harry Mount in the NY Times puts in a good word for Latin

This piece for the NY Times is aimed, naturally, at American readers, but parts of it could be useful classroom wall stuff in the UK.

AT first glance, it doesn’t seem tragic that our leaders don’t study
Latin anymore. But it is no coincidence that the professionalization of
politics — which encourages budding politicians to think of education
as mere career preparation — has occurred during an age of weak
rhetoric, shifting moral values, clumsy grammar and a terror of
historical references and eternal values that the Romans could teach us
a thing or two about. As they themselves might have said, “Roma urbs
aeterna; Latina lingua aeterna.”*

None of the leading
presidential candidates majored in Latin. Hillary Clinton studied
political science at Wellesley, as did Barack Obama at Columbia. Rudy
Giuliani had a minor brush with the language during four years of
theology at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn when he
toyed with becoming a priest. But then he went on to major in guess
what? Political science.

How things have changed since the founding fathers.

the 7,000 books originally in Thomas Jefferson’s library, only a couple
of dozen are still at Monticello. The rest were sold off by his
descendants, and eventually bought back by the Library of Congress. The
best-thumbed of those remaining — on a glassed-in shelf in Jefferson’s
study — is a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

Jefferson started learning Latin and Greek at age 9 at a school in
Virginia run by a Scottish clergyman. When he was at the College of
William and Mary in Williamsburg, a Greek grammar book was always by
his side. Tacitus and Homer were his favorites.

High school,
Jefferson thought, should center on Latin, Greek and French, with
grammar and reading exercises, translations into English and the
memorizing of famous passages. In 1819, when Jefferson opened the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville (built according to classical
rules of architecture), he employed only classically trained professors
to teach Greek and Roman history.

This pattern of Latin learning
continued for more than 150 years. Of the 40 presidents since
Jefferson, 31 have studied Latin, many at a high level. James Polk
graduated from the University of North Carolina, in 1818, with top
honors in math and classics. James Garfield taught Greek and Latin from
1856 to 1857 at what is now Hiram College in Ohio. Teddy Roosevelt
studied classics at Harvard.

John F. Kennedy had Latin
instruction at not one, but three prep schools. Richard Nixon showed a
great aptitude for the language, coming second in the subject at
Whittier High School in California in 1930. And George H. W. Bush, a
Latin student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., was a member of
the fraternity Auctoritas, Unitas, Veritas (Authority, Unity, Truth).

particular favorite for Bill Clinton during his four years of Latin at
Hot Springs High School in Arkansas was Caesar’s “Gallic War.”

in his father’s footsteps, George W. Bush studied Latin at Phillips
Academy (the school’s mottoes: “Non Sibi” or not for self, and “Finis
Origine Pendet,” the end depends on the beginning).

But then
President Bush was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the American
classical tradition. Soon after he left Andover in 1964, the study of
Latin in America collapsed. In 1905, 56 percent of American high school
students studied Latin. By 1977, a mere 6,000 students took the
National Latin Exam.

Recently there have been signs of a revival.
The number taking the National Latin Exam in 2005, for instance, shot
up to 134,873.

Why is this a good thing? Not all Romans were
models of virtue — Caligula’s Latin was pretty good. And not all
134,873 of those Latin students are going to turn into Jeffersons.

what they gain is a glimpse into the past that provides a fuller,
richer view of the present. Know Latin and you discern the Roman layer
that lies beneath the skin of the Western world. And you open up 500
years of Western literature (plus an additional thousand years of Latin
prose and poetry).

Why not just study all this in English? What
do you get from reading the “Aeneid” in the original that you wouldn’t
get from Robert Fagles’s fine translation, which came out just last

Well, no translation, however fine, can ever sound the way Latin was
written to sound. To hear Latin poetry spoken smoothly and quickly is
to hear a mellifluous, rat-a-tat-tat language, the rich, distilled,
romantic, pure, heady blueprint of its close descendant, Italian.

But also, learning to translate Latin into English and vice versa is
a tremendous way to train the mind. I think of translating concise,
precise Latin into more expansive, discursive English as like opening
up a concertina; you are allowed to inject all sorts of original
thought and interpretation.

As much as opening the concertina
enlarges your imagination, squeezing it shut — translating English into
Latin — sharpens your prose. Because Latin is a dead language, not in a
constant state of flux as living languages are, there’s no wriggle room
in translating. If you haven’t understood exactly what a particular
word means or how a grammatical rule works, you are likely to be, not
off, but just plain wrong. There’s nothing like this challenge to teach
you how to navigate the reefs and whirlpools of English prose.

With a little Roman history and Latin under your belt, you end up
seeing more everywhere, not only in literature and language, but in the
classical roots of Federal architecture; the spread of Christianity
throughout Western Europe and, in turn, America; and in the American
system of senatorial government. The novelist Alan Hollinghurst
describes people who know history’s turning points as being able to
look at the world as a sequence of rooms: Greece gives way to Rome,
Rome to the Byzantine Empire, to the Renaissance, to the British
Empire, to America.

You can gain this advantage at any age.
Alfred the Great, the ninth-century king of England, who knew how
crucial it was to learn Latin to become a civilized leader, took it up
in his 30s. Here’s hoping that a new generation of students — and
presidents — will likewise recognize that *“if Rome is the eternal
city, Latin is the eternal language.”

Another version of the Evening Standard story on Lorna Robinson

From This is London

Latin is making a comeback in inner-city schools, it has emerged.

Twenty primaries and secondaries in some of London's toughest areas have introduced lessons to improve pupils' literacy.

Teachers say the classes are already helping youngsters who are non-native English speakers.

The Iris Project, named after the messenger-goddess in Roman
mythology, was so successful in trials at two of the capital's primary
schools last year that it has been extended to 18 more.

scheme – which will benefit 750 pupils this year – is the brainchild of
Dr Lorna Robinson, a former teacher at the public school Wellington

She set it up in “frustration” that state schools were being denied the chance to benefit from Latin lessons.

Her experiment began at Benthal Primary in Hackney, where she has been teaching for the past year, and a primary in Kilburn.

“Latin is perceived as being just for the privileged,” Dr Robinson said.

“In fact, you can look at the roots of Latin words and see how English words have been made.

“It really helps pupils struggling to learn English and spelling.”

Children learn the language – which was in use more than 2,000 years ago – through activities such as word cards.

Latin was sidelined on state school timetables following the
introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988. In that year, more
than 16,000 pupils took the subject at GCSE..

Among comments on this article is:

Latin was on the curriculam [sic] (a Latin word!) when I was at school from
1969-74. I dropped it (even though it was one of my best subjects!) as
I thought it would be of little use to me unless I was to become a
doctor, lawyer, chemist or a Latin teacher! I never realised how
important dropping it would be. We have chosen to live in France now
and I'm sure that to have kept it up would have improved my ability to
speak French. I wasn't given enough advice when I was at my grammer
school. Goodness knows how much advice the children get now.

– Paul Bradford, Monflanquin, France

Associated Press review of Harry Mount (US version)

This AP review by Andrew Welsh-Huggins has been published by various newspapers, with optimistic or pessimistic headlines according to sub-editor's choice.:

The Latin language, on life support for decades, got a brief
reprieve when the world of Harry Potter introduced such words as
“expelliaramus” – a spell to disarm an enemy – and Latin-sounding names
like Remus and Albus.

But this kind of pop-culture exposure does little to paper over the
bad news: The ancient tongue once common to most of the civilized
world, not to mention the language of the Roman Catholic Mass until
about 50 years ago, is fading fast.

In 1960, as Harry Mount relates in his book “Carpe Diem: Put a
Little Latin in Your Life” (Hyperion, 259 pages, $19.95), 60,000
British schoolchildren did Latin O levels – the basic exam for British
16-year-olds. Today, only 10,000 do a much more basic replacement. Even
fewer go on to take Latin in upper levels of schools.

The picture is a little brighter in the United States, Mount says,
where the number of children taking the National Latin Exam has soared
in recent years. But the language still has migrated largely to
universities and a small group of die-hard classics majors.

The question, of course, is, who cares? With few exceptions, Latin
hasn't been a spoken language for centuries. A basic grounding is
helpful for science, law and spelling – and tracking the Hogwarts gang
– but it's hard to dispute the idea that schools' scarce resources
should be spent on teaching languages more relevant to today: Arabic,
say, or Chinese.

Still, Mount makes a strong case for the study of Latin as a window into cultural, literary and archaeological history.

He mixes humor and multiple pop-culture references with heavier reflections on Latin and its legacy in his book.

Who knew, for example, that soccer megastar David Beckham and
actress Angelina Jolie share in common a penchant for Latin tattoos?
Jolie gets a mention for a Latin phrase on her pregnant belly, “Quod me
nutrit me destruit” (“What nurtures me destroys me”).

Of Beckham's nine tattoos, Mount reports, three are in Latin,
including the phrase “Ut Amem et Foveam,” or, “That I might love and
cherish,” on his left forearm.

Along the way, we get a history of the appearance of togas on
college campuses thanks to the 1978 movie “Animal House” and the toga
popularized by Bluto Blutarsky, the character played by John Belushi.

Mount also manages to squeeze in references to “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Star Trek” and novelist Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter.

There's also a brief stop by Monty Python, remembered for the scene
in “Life of Brian” where a Roman centurion, played by John Cleese,
corrects the poor Latin of graffiti-writing Brian. We also learn of the
popularity of Ista, a German hip-hop band that raps in Latin.

Keeping it relevant to real life, Mount recalls the phrase “annus
horribilis,” or horrible year, coined by Queen Elizabeth to describe
her 1992, “a bloody terrible year, when Windsor Castle burned down, and
the marriages of Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne fell

Dominoes, it emerges, come from the word “dominus,” or master, and
the dark cloaks these medieval lords wore with holes cut into them for
eyes. Hence, the dark blocks with white dots. Neat.

As jokey as Mount likes to be, he doesn't skirt the rigor required
to learn Latin. And he does his best to drive home his argument that
Latin does matter, even now.

“Knowing a bit of Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the
building, with a view down the corridor to all the succeeding ages,” he

London in the later Roman Empire

A background piece in the Telegraph (to go with the tableware find story) may be useful to those studying town life in Roman Britain:

Life in the Roman city of Londinium
By Gary Cleland

Last Updated: 2:53am GMT 07/12/2007

Roman city of Londinium in the first half of the fourth century was not
a pleasant place to live – and in fact increasing numbers of people
were choosing to live elsewhere.

Inhabitants were deserting the city in droves, preferring to live a quieter life outside its walls.

The city had become an administrative centre of the
Roman Empire but, rather like the City of London today, people deserted
it when they were not at work.

It was under constant attack from tribes hailing from Ireland, Scotland and Germany.

have previously discovered a letter written by one inhabitant which
read simply: “Londoners are overwhelmed by hardship”.

Jenny Hall, curator of Roman London at the Museum of London, said: “The whole of Britain was overrun.

Wall was overrun. The morale of the army was very low at that time and
soldiers were deserting left, right and centre.”

To tackle this, Emperor Valentinian (364-78AD) sent a top soldier, General Theodosius, to sort out the problems in Britain.

Theodosius based himself in London and was largely successful in calming the situation and repelling the fractious tribes.

By 369AD London had returned to a period of relative peace, but it was not to last.

Irish, Scottish and German tribes were not cowed for long and
succeeding Roman Emperors grew increasingly tired at having to divert
troops to the furthest reaches of the Empire to help out.

In 410AD, Emperor Homorius finally had enough and refused to send support to the British Romans.

The Roman Empire’s conquest of Britain had come to an end.

Spectator blog picks up Mary Beard's attack on David Starkey

Clive Davis in the Spectator culture blog:

“I’ve long been tempted to have a regular extra blog post,
collecting together recent howlers about the ancient world presented to
an unsuspecting audience by journalists etc who should know better…” Mary Beard's
first target is “TV historian” (ouch) David Starkey, who has been
turning his sharp tongue on the Romans. Beard gives him six of the

In fact what’s puzzling about the Roman empire is
not how efficiently oppressive they were, but how they managed to run
the show with such a limited centralised bureaucracy. And the question
has always been why on earth did they end up persecuting the
Christians, when (with the partial exception of the Druids and the very
occasional, temporary bans on some eastern religions in Rome) their
religious strategy was consistently one of live and let live, not

Roman artifacts discovered in London well

There's news in the Telegraph of a find in London –

Roman artifacts discovered in London well
By Gary Cleland

Last Updated: 2:54am GMT 07/12/2007

banquetting set that once graced the table of a fine-dining Roman
family has been unearthed, remarkably preserved, from the bottom of an
excavated well.

  • Life in the Roman city of Londinium
  • Nothing
    of a similar size has ever been found before in the UK, and
    archaeologists hope it will help lift the lid on late Roman Britain.

      Roman finds
    The collection has been hailed as “unprecedented”

    The 19 metal vessels, made from copper alloy or lead alloy, date from
    between 330 and 380AD and were uncovered in central London, once the
    Roman city of Londinium.

    They would have belonged to a wealthy family, as poorer inhabitants would have made do with wooden or ceramic kitchenwear.

    Among the collection are a matching set of three bowls that nest
    together, buckets that were probably used to water down wine, a
    cauldron, jugs and a ladle.

    Despite being 1,700 years old, the swinging handles on some of the artefacts are still in working condition.

    The collection was yesterday hailed as “unprecedented”.

    was found in August by astonished archaeologist Chris Jarrett, during
    the last week of a nine month dig at Drapers’ Gardens in London.

    is thought that the set may have been hidden by a wealthy family
    preparing to leave the city, which was under constant attack at the
    time, with a view to reclaiming it on their return.


    it could have been laid as an offering to water spirits when the well
    was closed up, as was Roman custom at the time.

    Some of the items, such as shallow dishes or jugs, may have been used in religious ceremonies.

    Jarrett, who does not specialise in the Roman period, admitted: “I
    didn’t realise how important it was. It was only when I got to the pub
    afterwards and people were talking about it that I realised it was very

    “At the time I was too busy trying to get everything out.”

    supervisor Neil Hawkins said: “I realised the significance straight
    away. There were about 40 or 50 people on the site and everyone just
    stopped working to watch these things coming out.

    “First there was one, then two and eventually we uncovered the whole 19.

    “There has never been a find like this in London, or really anywhere else in the UK.

    “I could go the rest of my archaeological career and never find anything as important as this again.”

    The collection, from today on temporary display at the Museum of London,
    will early next year be studied by archaeologists hoping to glean clues
    on a period of late Roman history about which relatively little is
    known. Afterwards it is hoped it will be put on permanent display at
    the museum.

      Roman finds
    The collection has been valued at £25,000

    Museum curator Jenny Hall said: “These finds are amazing, I just couldn’t stop grinning when I first saw them.

    “In size and scale they are simply unprecedented.”

    The collection has been valued at £25,000 but Mrs Hall said: “To us they are priceless.”

    importance of the find lies in how remarkably preserved the objects
    are, a result of the watery conditions in which they were buried.

    similar items have been uncovered from the late Roman period, a time of
    increasing hardship for beleaguered London inhabitants as the fortunes
    of the Empire dwindled.

    The dig at Drapers’
    Gardens was carried out prior to the construction of a 16-floor office
    and retail block, which will be finished by 2009.

    team from Pre-Construct Archaeology also found a Roman street,
    footbridges, infant burial sites, hundreds of brooches and even the
    skull of a brown bear that probably met its demise in a local

    There's also an editorial:

    A set of 19 dishes from a Roman dining-room has been found near the ancient wall of the City of London.

    When new, they would have shone like gold between the couches and wine jars at a smart symposium.

    These beautiful artefacts have been preserved through lying in a well for 16 centuries or so.

    proud owners must have hidden them there when, it is shameful to admit,
    ancestors of the English were giving Romano-British citizens of
    Londinium a spot of trouble, what with rapine and pillage.

    and more Roman goods of fine workmanship are being found in Britain,
    thanks to rebuilding and the wide use of metal-detectors.

    The design of the objects found makes us realise that the civilisation that made them is akin to better aspects of our own.

    But what prized possessions from our homes would delight their discoverers in 1,600 years' time?

    See also a full report in The Guardian

    Kirkcaldy pupils all love learning Latin

    Kirkcaldy pupils all love learning Latin

    By Kate Shannon

    • Kirkcaldy High bucking the trend with 'dead' language
    HEAD of classics at Kirkcaldy High School, Jennifer Shearer, is keen to dispel some of the myths and preconceptions about Latin.

    years the subject has been thought of as a pursuit exclusively for the
    'brighter' pupils and those able to afford a private education.

    with numbers of children taking Latin at secondary school plummeting
    across Scotland, Kirkcaldy High School is bucking the trend.

    with just four pupils studying Latin and classics a decade ago, Mrs
    Shearer's classes are now burgeoning, with over 100 taking the subject
    at the school.

    At Higher level alone, 16 pupils are working towards Higher Latin and classical studies.

    Modern languages such as French and German are compulsory at Standard grade level, but Latin can be chosen too.

    Shearer said: “Research in the USA has shown that even a basic
    knowledge of Latin cuts down the effort of learning almost any other
    subject by at least 50 per cent.” So”Whatever
    their ability level, pupils can relate to Latin and engage with the
    subject, whether it is through the study of words or by doing projects,
    having fashion shows or Roman banquets. Pupils want a challenge and
    Latin certainly provides one with an element of fun and enjoyment.”

    Latin forming the 'root' which feeds many other branches of language,
    about 750 million people in 57 countries share a language with the same
    common Latin base.

    With that in mind, Mrs Shearer believes Latin is very far from the 'dead' language many people believe it to be.

    She believes because of its relevance in so many different areas of life, the study of Latin could last for another 2000 years.