Doctor Who – the Fires of Pompeii

Don’t miss this!  Wednesday 3rd June 7.00pm on BBC3

You don’t have to be a Doctor Who fan to appreciate the value of this programme to Junior CLC Latin classes everywhere. When the headmaster arranged to observe one of my lessons recently, as part of my appraisal, it happened to coincide with the climax of Stage 12. It was only to be a 35 minute lesson. Just enough time to read the last reading passage, flash up some images of Pompeian plaster casts, speculate on who they were, how they had died and how they could possibly have avoided their fate. And just as the awfulness of the eruption and the imminent demise of characters they had come to know and love dawned on them , the pupils and the headmaster were suddenly presented with a saviour, a deus ex machina, totally unexpected, a triumph of timing, and pure theatre as the Doctor was finally persuaded by Donna to save Caecilius and his family………

You can now get this episode on DVD – but catch it on TV this week, record it – and don’t tell the kids at school, not yet.

Robert Mitchell: one student’s memories

You may never have heard of Robert Mitchell. But it doesn’t matter. This account of him, written by one of his students, places him in that instantly recognisable band of wonderful, slightly wacky Latin teachers, who inspired so many of us with our enduring love of Latin.

by Esther Mobley
Newton North ’07

The loss of Robert Mitchell on Wednesday is more than the loss of a beloved teacher and friend: it is the loss of a member of an endangered species.

Mr. Mitchell was a Latin teacher at Newton North for the last twenty years. His history prior to that is a mystery. Whenever we asked, hungry for a personal anecdote, about his childhood, he would tell us, “I was never a child.” And indeed this was not hard to believe. Mr. Mitchell, it always seemed, was somehow super-human. He claimed to read a book, an average of three hundred pages, every day. The human brain, he always said, can’t really retain more than twenty-two languages – and that’s how many he knew. On one particularly energetic day, upon learning that none of us had ever read Chaucer, without which English literature is meaningless, he said, he gave us a beginning lesson in Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Mitchell woke up every morning and swam three miles, then ran six more. We learned of his exercise regimen on our very first day of class, when he hurried into the classroom five minutes late, drenched in sweat from his head to his feet (on which he refused to ever wear socks), panting and out of breath. We waited for an explanation for his appearance, an apology for his tardiness, but instead he began: “My favorite authors are Herodotus and Dickens.”

Once a student casually asked him if there was a translation of the Gettysburg Address in Latin. There was not, and so Mr. Mitchell came into school at six o’clock the next morning and translated it himself, from memory, unaided by any dictionary, within a matter of hours. He filled Room 318’s two wall-length chalkboards in his narrow, near-unintelligible calligraphy.

He realized, more completely than any I have ever witnessed, the Juvenalian formulation of mens sana in corpore sano.

In reality, Mr. Mitchell was not super-human, but rather one of the few surviving members of an ancient species, the Romans. What other type of human being achieves his level of discipline, bodily and mental, for free? The rest of us always seem to be working for pay, or at least nominal recognition. But Mr. Mitchell was born with an inborn sense of pietas, in the Virgilian sense of the word. Pietas can’t be translated as piety; it’s more than that. It’s an absolute devotion to deity, to duty, to discipline for the sake of discipline. He was a mystery to us not only because of his refusal to divulge any details about his personal life, but also because the pietas that governed his words and deeds is absolutely foreign to our modern American consciousness. This exotic quality made us infinitely curious about him: his insistence that he was never a child sent us on a desperate search for evidence of his childhood.

I asked him once why he never married. The answer, essentially, was that pietas was more important than marriage. He told me that he had had several proposals, but that he could never be eternally bound to another person. He reminded me that Aeneas, the archetype of pietas, sacrifices his own happiness for duty when he abandons Dido in Book IV of the Aeneid. Aeneas can’t get married and hang around in Carthage; he has to go found Rome. In a sense, it was Mr. Mitchell’s lifelong endeavor to be a custodian of the civilization that Pius Aeneas founded: with every word he spoke, he was trying to keep alive a tradition whose death in our modern world is imminent. The eulogy for the Latin language – not as the Roman Catholic Church speaks it but as the ancient Romans wrote it – has already been written. Were it not for people like Mr. Mitchell, Latin could die within a generation.

He left school a few months ago to begin treatment for melanoma. None of his students knew that he was leaving until he had already left. On his last day of class, there was no mention of himself or of his condition; the subject was Latin, and he assigned his students thirty lines of translation for the next day. Now it is up to those who knew Mr. Mitchell, and those to whom he gave the invaluable gift of his knowledge and presence, to commemorate him as he would not commemorate himself.

Accipe fraterno multa manantia fletu, / Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Esther Mobley graduated from Newton North in 2007, and in the fall will be a junior at Smith College. This summer she is an editorial intern with the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Why Study Latin?

By Cheryl Lowe

     Have you ever wished you had a good answer for those people who ask why you would spend your valuable education time studying Latin when you could be spending it on something more “practical”?

     There are three reasons Latin has long been considered the one master subject before which all others must bow.

     First, Latin teaches English better than English teaches English. “The study of one’s own language,” says classicist Charles Bennett, “is achieved incomparably better by the indirect method of studying another language … It is because translation from Latin to English … is so helpful to the student who would attain mastery of his own language … that I find the full justification for the study of Latin.” In other words, education based on the study of the child’s own language is inferior to one based on Latin.

Second, the mental discipline Latin instills in students makes it the ideal foreign language to study. Latin originated with the Romans, and their character pervades the language they created. The Roman, says R. W. Livingstone, “disciplined his thought as he disciplined himself; his words are drilled as rigidly as were his legions, and march with the same regularity and precision.”

     Latin is systematic, rigorous, analytic. Its sentences march “serried, steady, stately, massive, the heavy beat of its long syllables and predominant consonants reflecting the robust, determined, efficient temper” of the Romans themselves.

     Latin is clearly superior to other languages in this regard. Like English, modern languages are “lax and individualistic,” reflecting the modern temper of those who speak them. Thinking that you can get the same benefit out of studying them is, in Livingstone’s words, “like supposing that the muscles can be developed by changing from one chair to the other.”

     Third, Latin is the ideal tool for the transmission of cultural literacy. Latin is, in fact, the mother tongue of Western civilization—a language that incorporated the best ideas of the ancient Greeks, and which then, after the conversion of Rome, put them into the service of Christian truth.

      Rome fell into ruin, but the dying language of the disintegrating empire was infused with new life. Harnessing the power and precision of the old Latin, Christianity transformed the tongue of conquest into the tongue of conversion, and Latin became the very language of the Christian faith for over a thousand years.

Christian Latin takes the intellectual discipline of classical Latin and adds another element: simplicity. Although the basic grammar and vocabulary of Christian Latin are the same as the classical, Christian Latin authors emphasized the transmission of Christian truth, striving for clarity and simplicity above all else. Because Christian Latin is easier to read, it is the perfect gateway to the more difficult classical Latin of Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil.


Together with a number of ARLT members I attended David’s funeral in Street. It was a profoundly moving service and we were all quite numb with the shock of his sudden loss. His work for ARLT is inestimable and will be long remembered. I hope that I will be able to continue this ARLT blog and trust you will keep patience as I come to terms with the technology and establish a routine for providing a flow of news in a lively and interesting way. If I am ever tardy, I hope it will be enough to remind you that I am not only the Head of Classics but also the Examinations Officer of my school!
David Swift