BMCR 2001.09.03

Latin language and Latin culture from ancient to modern times

, Latin language and Latin culture : from ancient to modern times. Roman literature and its contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xiv, 148 pages).. ISBN 0511040814 $18.95.

This is the latest offering from the outstanding ‘Roman literature and its contexts’ series, edited by Denis Feeney and Stephen Hinds. Though not quite as densely written as previous books in the series, Farrell’s exciting and stimulating essay has certainly helped to change the way I look at my subject area. The book has two main strands of argument: first, that Latin culture should include everything written (and spoken) in Latin, that we should override the divide between Classical and Medieval Latin and read all Latin as part of Latin culture; second, that languages, and the Latin language in particular, are not simply there to be catalogued and taught; they are the subjects of representation, how we think and talk about them is important. He brings texts from a wide variety of periods together (from Lucretius to Stravinsky), adding the obscure and the fragmentary, for a challenging study of how language shapes and is shaped by culture.

Arguments for the broadening of the canon have become almost a tradition now; nevertheless, as a student of Statius, I know how important they still are. And Farrell (F.) takes the call for a broad church of latinity to its ultimate extreme. It is humbling and exciting to remember just how many Latin texts there are still to read and think about; it is easy to fall into the habit of assuming that ‘Latin’ means Classical Latin, or those texts which are part of the teaching syllabus. The provenance adds to the impact of the message: F. is a scholar renowned for his work on that most mainstream of authors, Virgil.1 The representation of latinity, the use of language as a way of constructing identity, is not a new subject either. For instance, Bloomer’s 1997 book Latinity and literary culture addresses some of the same ideas, about the representation of Classical Latin.2 Waquet, in Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe, also looks at how Latin has been used as cultural capital.3 However, F. makes incisive observations about the representation of Latin, from antiquity onwards, which force us to re-examine our own metaphors. The range of texts studied, the way Latin language is brought into contact with themes of Greek and Roman, masculinity and femininity, above all the sheer power of its persuasiveness, all make this an important book.

This is a book which is difficult to categorise. In the Cambridge Classical Faculty Library, it resides in the ‘history of the Latin language’ section. It is written by a scholar known for his literary work and is worth reading for its insightful readings of texts. F. suggests that his audience should be ‘fellow-classicists’ who need to ‘get out more’: this is a book which aims at stimulating debate among classicists about their subject area.

Each of the five chapters deals with a theme: chapter 1 produces the overarching argument that latinity is a continuum; chapter 2 examines the topos of ‘the poverty of our ancestral speech’; chapter 3 explores the gender of Latin and women writing and speaking Latin; chapter 4 critiques the way Latin has been represented, particularly the metaphors of metallic ages and life cycles; chapter 5 suggests some other metaphorical ways of talking about Latin. I will discuss each chapter in turn below.

F. begins from Virgil, with the ‘reconciliation’ of Juno in which she negotiates the on-going use of Latin in Rome. Chapter 1 is fundamentally concerned with the idea of Latin as a civilizing force, the Roman linguistic imperialism which conquers and civilizes the conquered by teaching them Latin. F. extends this idea of linguistic imperialism through time to the initiation of students of Latin to this day through the reading of the Aeneid. He takes a radical position of continuity which claims that those students are equally part of Latin culture. It is interesting to step outside reading and look at it as an act, a process of acculturation and initiation; this is certainly an extremely provocative idea. I wonder however whether the task of learning Latin is really that much more heroic than learning Russian or Japanese. Surely there is an unavoidable difference between reading, observing and commenting on a culture and being an active part of that culture? With the decline of prose and verse composition as part of the training of latinists, many never even learn the active producing of the language, let alone become part of a living linguistic culture. F.’s position is designed to be radical and thought provoking, but is it ultimately convincing? Waquet, for instance, takes a different approach. Like F., her way forward for latinists is in the study of an ever wider range of texts (p. 322-23), but unlike F. she sees it as properly the preserve of a small minority of scholars who might present the texts to the rest of the world in translation. I am inclined to agree with F. that there is something important about the learning of Latin itself for all students of the ancient world, whether or not they intend to become one of this select band of scholars. The experience of reading a text in the original is qualitatively different from the experience of reading it in translation and that experience is valuable in itself.

F.’s next step is to point out the problems of pinning down the exact moment when Latin culture ‘died’; this is clearly a problematic issue. However, just because we cannot pin-point a final break between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ Latin does not mean that it has not died. There is continual change in the way succeeding generations approach the learning of Latin and we clearly take a very different approach from, say, Renaissance Italy, where many wrote significant parts of their oeuvre in Latin. The chapter concludes with four fascinating views on Latin: the complicated negotiations of Venantius Fortunatus deferring to Frankish culture while praising the barbarians in Latin; Alcuin’s restoration of Classical Latin (first of many); Dante and the image of the separation between the vernacular and Latin which presents Latin as artificial, written and elite; Cicero and Atticus in the Laws discussing fatherlands, with Rome as always adopted, cultural rather than natural fatherland, ending with Latin confronting itself and seeing Greek.

Chapter 2 examines the topos of patrii sermonis egestas through Valerius Flaccus and Lucretius, and how this connects with modern traditions of worshipping Greek and despising Latin, represented by Virginia Woolf and W.B. Yeats. F. suggests that by using a Greek title for his section on ‘stratagems’, Valerius Maximus is implying that stratagems are underhand, un-Roman and morally depraved. The topos of linguistic poverty implies moral superiority. On Lucretius, with a dazzling display of word play, he shows how Lucretius uses the language itself to suggest something more concrete and solid about latinity, debunking the ‘hifalutin philosophical terminology’ (p.50) of Greek. He ends by pointing out the positive connotations of ‘poverty’ in the Roman way of thinking, opposed to the ‘luxury’ and ‘extravagance’ of Greek language.

In chapter 3, F. takes us on a whistle-stop tour of feminine latinity. First he points out how Latin is presented as a masculine language ( patrii sermonis); then he looks briefly at the lack of a Sappho figure and the way men represent women’s Latin. There is little Latin written by a woman which survives: he examines Sulpicia the elegist, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, and her letter to her sons, the small fragment left of the poetry of Sulpicia, wife of Calenus, and Vibia Perpetua’s narrative of her own martyrdom. These are interspersed with male representations of women speaking Latin: Quintilian erasing women speakers, Cicero praising Laelia who inherited her father’s eloquence, Valerius Maximus on Hortensia and Afrania. Particularly fascinating in this chapter is the comparison of Martial’s representations of Sulpicia Caleni with the small fragment of her work which survives. This chapter argues that Latin in ancient representations is a masculine language, which women can only use successfully if they take on a male persona, or display male characteristics.4 Perhaps more examination of the way that Latin is used positively to form and present masculinity might have been interesting, although I appreciate the lack of space and the polemical need to concentrate on the small remainders of feminine Latinity.5

In order to critique the segregation of medieval Latin culture from classical Latin culture, in chapter 4 F. examines the metaphors used to talk about Latin, beginning with the idea of decline. Anyone who argues that later Latin is worth studying needs to surmount the problem of ancient narratives of decline. F. begins this task with a brief mention of Tacitus bemoaning the loss of libertas in order to heighten his praise of Trajan. The section on Isidore of Seville is less convincing: it doesn’t really show that Isidore is using his narrative of decline to grind an axe of his own; it is not clear that Isidore’s version of the decline of Latin is really so different from the ‘biometallic fallacy’ (as F. refers to it), although F. is clearly attracted by the idea of ‘mixed’ latinity. Work still needs to be done on narratives of decline as narratives; they are not purely a literary or linguistic affair, nor are they a Latin invention.

F.’s critique of the metaphors of metallic ages and Johann Nicolaus Funck’s life-cycle of Latin is masterful. He clearly and forcefully brings out the assumptions behind these ways of thinking and shows how pernicious they are. Taking this still further, he brings together a huge variety of different passages mentioning ‘Latin’ (either the language or the ‘racial grouping’) in the nineteenth and twentieth century and shows that attitudes to Latin as ‘substandard’ are implicated in the ‘sexually, racially, and religiously chauvinistic attitudes of nineteenth century ethnography’ (p.105). The chapter ends with the provocative suggestion that Hebrew was once even more dead than Latin, and, by setting the idea of Latin as a culturally acquired elite language against concepts of a dead language as one in which the last native speaker has died, F. suggests that Latin can never die. The problem with this argument, of course, is that it also implies that Latin was never a live language in the first place.

In chapter 5, F. builds on his discussion of the metaphors used of Latin, further rejecting the ‘metallic’ language and biological metaphors in favour of ‘a language turned to stone’. He shows how Nietzsche and Stravinsky view Latin as a monumental and jewelled language. At the beginning of the chapter, he suggests that he will find a metaphor that ‘holds promise as a means of organizing Latin studies on a more open and inclusive model.’ The two following sections examine, respectively, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and its libretto as a representative of Latin as monumental and jewelled (a fascinating portrayal of the way Latin is used for its associations), and the text of Tallis’ Loquebantur uariis linguis, presumably to bring out the idea of Latin as varied tongues, many voices.6 It is not clear which of these is the metaphor intended to open Latin out: language turned to stone would seem to share many connotations with the idea of a ‘dead’ language, and even the idea of a jewelled language has the same associations with privilege and the elite; Latin as many voices is more inclusive but seems to me not a strong enough metaphor to change our thinking. Perhaps in the end the underlying metaphor of this chapter is the most important: Latin as music, as performance.

I agree that we must examine our metaphors and be aware of how they shape our thinking, but the optimistic idea that somehow we could come up with a metaphor that would make Latin culture more open and inclusive, perhaps even give Latin yet another glorious resurrection, may not in the end ring true.


1. Most importantly: J. Farrell, Vergil’s Georgics and ancient epic: the art of allusion and literary history (Oxford, 1991).

2. W. M. Bloomer, Latinity and Literary Society at Rome (Philadelphia, 1997) (oddly not in the bibliography). For instance, Latin as ‘other’ to Greek, while adopting Greek terminology: Bloomer p.1, Farrell p.37; Bloomer mainly looks at ‘latinity’ as ‘correct’ Latin, claimed by various social groups in opposition to others, and his scope is not as wide-ranging as F.’s (though he does bring in modern attitudes to Latinity, for instance on Browning’s The tomb at St. Praxed’s at pp.28-35).

3. F. Waquet, Le Latin: l’empire d’un signe (Paris, 1998) is more a historical account of the decline of the learning of Latin, looking in depth at levels of language competence, arguments about why Latin should or should not be learnt, how Latin is used to exclude and define.

4. ‘[M]ost typically women represent an inferior and degenerate latinity that correlates with various substandard types: socially with plebeian, spatially with provincial, religiously with Christian, chronologically with medieval and vernacular speech’ (p. 83).

5. Waquet discusses at length the way Latin is used to make men but rather in the context of the humanistic and nostalgic universalism of mankind than in differentiation from women (p. 213-245—’Faire l’homme’).

6. F.’s reading of this text as an interweaving of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, is attractive, but surely the word ‘Alleluia’ is so much a part of church Latin that it is difficult to defamiliarize it and replace it in its Hebrew context?