- Latin Literature: A History by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph Solodow
Johns Hopkins, 827 pp, £45.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 8018 4638 2
Latin has always suffered from being in the shadow of its more glamorous Greek cousin. It is rarely allowed to stay up late for Dionysiac frenzies, sympotic sensuality or the frenetic cut and thrust of argument; instead, it has languished in the schoolroom, surrounded in popular mythology by a stuffy atmosphere of grammar, empire and conservative values. At one time its place in the curriculum was secure, but there was always a feeling that Latin literature was only a pale imitation of the original Greek. Over the course of a century, however, classics as a whole has lost ground; the decline of Latin has accelerated rapidly in the last generation, and Greek has disappeared from schools almost completely. Latinists today are grateful for a position even at the margins of education, and are obliged to spend increasing amounts of time justifying their existence and making their subject look more appealing.
One response to this state of affairs is that of the jolly popularisers, with their restagings of Roman banquets and newspaper columns about the Latin derivations of everyday words. Another more academic and sophisticated response uses sexuality, politics and literary theory to entice potential students away from other disciplines, where these approaches have either been expelled or comfortably absorbed. Classics, once the most traditional of subjects, now has a reputation in some universities for being one of the most radical. What the radicals and the popularisers have in common is an understandable lack of confidence about the attractions of classics in its previous dusty, complacent form. The jokey titles of many papers given to classical societies suggest feelings of insecurity, and it is very difficult to teach Latin these days without feeling the urge to pep it ap with jazzy anachronisms.
Latinists currently tend to present ancient Rome in one of two ways. Either they claim that the Romans were just like us really (with their fast food and central heating); or they emphasise the distance between us and them, and offer less direct routes to understanding their culture. Many Latinists are positively drawn to Roman civilisation by its ‘secondary’ nature, its complex remoulding of Greek experience. Now that learning about the Romans is not an automatic part of our education, we have a good opportunity to stand back and appreciate just how different from us they were; we can look at them through anthropologists’ eyes as a collection of diverse peoples with unfamiliar and often unsympathetic attitudes towards such things as their families, their bodies, their gods and their past. If the radicals bring any modern parallels into their interpretations, they do so to be provocative, rather than cosily reassuring.
One trump card played by classicists trying to attract students is that their subject offers a unique opportunity to study a whole civilisation. Literature, once the core of classical studies, is in danger of being squeezed out by history and archaeology, as a new generation of Latin-less undergraduates arrives to take classical civilisation courses. The solution is not easy. Latin is a concentrated language which alters significantly when taught in translation; only those who have learned it can appreciate the extent to which Roman literary culture is shaped by its means of expression into something different from out own.