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Achilles the aesthete: In the "Iliad" he plays the lyre and sings of past heroes (Naples National Archaeological Museum)

Classicists tend to be defensive about their subject, far more so than historians or artists of theirs. I used to work for an education charity dedicated to supporting and reviving the teaching of Classics in schools. We printed thousands of leaflets for teachers to display at parents' evenings, emblazoned with quotes on the merits of learning Latin and Greek from Tom Stoppard, Mary Beard and Jonathan Evans, the former Director of MI5. Although immense progress has been made in liberating Classics from its crusty reputation over the last decade or so, I still faced a battle. You'd be amazed by how many people consider Latin a punishment to be imposed on posh schoolboys. There is no use for it, I have been told; it is elitist, and the memory of learning it in the 1960s is reason enough for a parent to protect his daughter from its torture—but thanks anyway.

The fact that Latin is commonly referred to as a "dead language" doesn't help its case. One suspects that exasperation with popular misconceptions of its status today has been a driving force behind Jürgen Leonhardt's book, Latin: Story of a World Language, which opens with a debate about how dead Latin actually is. True, it is no longer anyone's mother tongue. But for as long as there are people who use it, Leonhardt counters, Latin will live.

Here lies the Classicist's problem. Latin, and indeed Classical Greek, must be nursed like heirlooms for our children to inherit or (Jupiter forbid!) trade in for something new. Classicists may speak defensively of them, but there is no disguising the fact that heirlooms are burdensome responsibilities, which few willingly take on with any pleasure.

One solution is to release Latin from its status as a strange relic, which Leonhardt makes a valiant attempt at doing. His book is a highly readable tour of the language, from antiquity, through the Renaissance, to its use in reports for the Council of the European Union in 2006. If that sounds like just another affirmation of Latin's heritage, then the psychology of the book is quite different. Some of what Leonhardt advocates is, frankly, bizarre, such as the re-establishment of Latin as a spoken language to bring history to life, as if in historical re-enactment. But he does a good job of attaching meaning to the heirloom. He knows that we struggle to throw something away when we understand precisely what has been invested in it, what it means, and most importantly, what might yet come out of it. If Latin is to be a living language, it needs to be treated as such. Which is an excellent attitude towards Classics and historical subjects more generally.

People who love history and ancient languages do so not because they feel responsibility towards them, but because they feel emotionally invested in the stories, objects, and words of different cultures. The main risk that accompanies years of close study is to their ability to communicate the excitement they felt at the very beginning of their careers. One of the joys of passing a subject such as Latin on to the next generation is that young people, particularly schoolchildren, are struck at once by the strangeness of it, the myths, the sounds the words make. They see things the expert forgets, and bring new life to it in that way.

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February 27th, 2015
3:02 PM
Thanks. I ordered Jenkyns's book.

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