To release one’s book with a major non-academic publishing house and reach the best seller list (?) may sound like a classicist’s wildest dream, but ‘ Latein ist tot, es lebe Latein‘ (Latin is dead, long live Latin) shows that this dream can indeed come true. Under this somewhat cumbersome title lies hidden one of the most entertaining and illustrative, and at the same time comprehensive, histories of the Latin language from the time of antiquity until today. The author has gained cult status among German academics, as he fights for the active use of the Latin language and, whenever the situation is suitable, appears regularly dressed up in public in the typical Roman dress of toga and sandals. Yet, Wilfried Stroh, also known in latinized form as Valahfridus, emeritus Professor of the University of Munich, is without doubt one of the Germany’s most respected classicists. And he is, thanks to his public speeches and his active commitment, certainly well known across the limited scope of the academic community. For that reason one is not surprised that Stroh has published his book with List, the renowned publishing house that after more than 50 years in its Munich exile has moved back to its Berlin roots in 2004. This choice of publisher (or should we rather say, the publisher’s choice of author) guarantees at least in Germany a general readership that probably no other book on Latin language has gained in recent years.
And the reader gets much more than just another literary history of Rome. In Germany this topic has been covered successfully and elaborately in the 1990s by Michael von Albrecht (1992) and Manfred Fuhrmann (1999), Stroh’s book does much more than that. What starts out as an overview of the literature of the classical period evolves itself as a history of European higher education and science, and along the way the reader learns a lot about the silent mechanisms that interlink language, literature and the course of historical events. Furthermore, Stroh’s book is simply a good read, always entertaining and vivid, sometimes gripping and novel, even for specialists.
After a praefatio in Latin and German, and an introductory chapter about the author’s motivation for writing it, the book starts ab ovo. That is indeed the title of the first chapter proper, which describes the earliest surviving specimens of Latin language (yes, it is the fibula of Praeneste) and its triumphal procession through the whole of Italy and beyond, a procession closely connected with the continuous gain of political and military power by the city of Rome. Stroh continues with the relatively late development of the specific Roman literary consciousness and identity that could not come to life without the presence of Greek culture and Greek authors in Rome. It is the ‘miracle of Cicero’ that marks for Stroh the obvious emancipation from the Greek model and the starting point for characteristically Latin literature. Stroh then takes the reader through the following centuries, highlighting the merits of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid as well as the elegiac poets in the Augustan era, until a point is reached in the first century AD where imperial Rome is not only the political centre of Rome, but the Latin language is lingua Franca all over the world.
Stroh’s organizing principle prefers variety to completeness, and sometimes his entertaining overview reminds the experienced reader of the style of the literary miscellanies of the second sophistic which aimed at providing its readers with anecdotes and highlights of earlier literature.
Stroh’s core thesis is in the chapter entitled Mors immortalis : Only by the ‘death’ of Latin as a language was there the chance of a new beginning, a rebirth in form of the Christian authors of late antiquity and later as the second language under Charlemagne in the Middle Ages, a position the Latin language held unchallenged until the eighteenth century.
With the rebirth of Latin in the Renaissance Stroh’s book takes a new turn, and its second half proper begins. The facts of the development of Latin under the humanist scholars and beyond are certainly less known by the general public, but beyond that it is this part of the book that makes it worth reading by anybody occupied with Latin language and literature and Stroh here resorts to his own research on the seventeenth century Jesuit poet Jacobus Balde. The University of Munich for more than twenty years has been engaged with research in the effort to make this Bavarian born poet more popular. But the beginnings of the German humanism are humble. That is why Stroh begins his chapter on the second rebirth of Latin with Petrarch who successfully tried to walk in Cicero’s shoes, so that it is Cicero again who becomes the decisive figure of Latin literature, even 1400 years after his death.
The German humanists like Peter Luder, Rudolf Agricola, and most important Conrad Celtis. who called themselves poetae, were responsible for a noticeable cultural shift that ended the strictness and inflexible formality that marked most of medieval Latin poetry. Stroh most laudably not only demonstrates the literary development over the following centuries, with the bang of the reformation in the sixteenth century and the two antipodes Erasmus and Melanchthon, but he also manages to interlace the relation of literature with political or religious developments, showing how both finally are reflected in educational policies and reforms. Stroh’s overview climaxes with the Jesuit theatre so successful in Stroh’s hometown of Munich, and with Germany’s greatest poet of the Baroque era, Jacobus Balde.
The two most decisive turns in European intellectual history, Renaissance and Reformation, are followed by a third one, that involuntarily is responsible for another decline of the Latin language. With the age of Enlightenment begins a re-emancipation of the national languages, and Stroh demonstrates this development by highlighting the gradual replacement of Latin as the international language of science in the eighteenth century by English (Newton’s ‘Opticks’ of 1704), German, or French. Another death of the Latin language comes a century later from the German movement of Philhellenism. But again, death means a chance for Latin, this time as an established part of higher education, in which form it has survived until this very day.
But Stroh would not be Stroh if he would stop at this point. Again it is his very own efforts urging active use of Latin as a mean of communication that are reflected in the last chapters of his book. As head of the ‘ Sodalitas Ludis Latinis faciundis‘ Stroh for years has promoted an active use and comprehension of the Latin language and the Roman cultural heritage. Latin music, Latin theatre, even a Latin radio talk show—there is not one aspect that Stroh has not tried to bring to life again. And, as Stroh shows, there are other epigones of modern Latin pioneers, like the Czech composer Jan Nowak (1921-1984).
Stroh’s book ends with a glimmer of hope: Latin may have died several time, but every time it had gained another chance to come to life again.
The book is rounded off with a useful appendix about correct Latin pronunciation, a clearly arranged timetable and an annotated bibliography for each chapter, notes and an index. And it should be mentioned that the book comes at a reasonable price. My only quibble is that Catullus is merely mentioned, but as I mentioned Stroh is not aiming at an detailed literary history.
In conclusion Stroh’s book is the best marketing tool the Latin language could have, useful for students of all ages as well as parents who are undecided which language their children should learn at school. The classicist also can profit from reading it, as it takes a fresh and uncommon perspective on the subject. As Stroh presents the reader with the florilegia of the Latin literature, previous knowledge about literary and cultural history of antiquity and early modern times is not a necessary prerequisite, though certainly helpful. There remains the urgent need for an English translation— although I am convinced that Wilfried Stroh would prefer (and is according to his illuminating website currently working) a Latin one.