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A little Latin (and Greek) is not a bad thing

February 10, 2018



Sicily 093

I am aware that Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg have recently given Latin a bad name as an elitist pursuit, irrelevant to the 21st century. I would argue, though, that there are many things to be gained from the study of the ancient world and its languages. Certainly, I feel enormously privileged to have had the chance to study Greek and Latin and ancient history at school and University. That experience has provided me, and continues to provide me, with many powerful insights into the modern world and the underlying dilemmas of the human condition. In this blog I would like to set out why.

The first thing I gained from a classical education was a better command of my own language. Studying Latin led to a significant development in my skills with English, broadening my vocabulary, improving my spelling, and making me much more aware of the structure and sound of the language. It also helped give me my wider love of languages and facilitated learning romance languages such as French and Italian. As a non-clinician working in healthcare, a knowledge of Greek has been pretty handy in understanding medical terminology.

Making sense of the classical world also brings a particular set of intellectual challenges. Bits of it we know a lot about, bits of it we know very little about. As direct ancestors of our own culture the classical worlds show many things which are very familiar, whether they are stories and dramas, political concepts, forms of art and architecture. At the same time the ancient world can seem very different and distant. It is endlessly fascinating to try to patch together a fuller understanding from partial sources and classical scholarship has been enriched by a widening set of information sources, in particular, the results of archaeological investigation which has cast a much richer light on the lives of the poorer Romans and Greeks.

The study of the ancient world, itself an ancient tradition, has also been enlivened by the interpretation and reinterpretation of the same sources over the centuries in the light of wider developments in scholarship and in ways which reflect the preoccupations of different generations. History, and its interpretation, is never an absolute truth but always carries an image of those who write the history and their concerns. In the age of globalisation, Brexit and its resulting uncertainties there is a plenty of scope to plant our own story on the template of the classical tradition.

A great fascination with so many things in the classical world is that they hold the origins and first examples of some many constructs which are so fundamental to the modern world. Whether it is the democracy or political science, natural science or philosophy, theatre and drama, Rome as the world’s first metropolis, roads or central heating, Greek and Roman civilisations transformed human thought and political organisation in ways which later generations have built on but, not necessarily, fundamentally changed. The intellectual revolution which, in particular, seized the Greek world between the 7th and 4th centuries BC remains one of the most amazing leap forwards in human development. It is humbling that it is still possible for us to appreciate it.

There is also something very significant in studying a world and set of civilisations which came to an end. Views of the end of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD have changed and there is much more emphasis in modern scholarship on those areas of continuity which survived into the early modern era. Nonetheless the end of the ancient world remains one of the most significant and fascinating discontinuities in the whole of our history. Nowhere is that more evident than in the city where I am writing this blog. In the middle of the 4th century London was the thriving capital of Roman Britain, by the middle of the 5th it had been abandoned, not to be properly settled again until the 9th century. As I have argued in a previous blog  the end of the Roman Empire has some lessons for modern Europe and the issues it is facing.

Finally, the classical world casts some brilliant insights into the human condition. Nowhere is this more evident than in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the oldest works of western literature, written down in the 8th century BC but built on an oral tradition which goes back much further. Despite that antiquity, these poems contain a rich and moving understanding of what is like to be human, our battle with mortality and our desire to leave a small mark on the tapestry of life.

Classics will never regain the place it had as the universal basis of western education, but it deserves not to be despised as old fashioned and irrelevant. It needs to adapt to the character of modern world in ways which recognise the significance of a much wider group of ancient civilisations, not just those which have contributed most directly to western Europe. Classics also needs to reach out beyond the bastions of independent schools where it has, to some extent, ended up, to offer programmes and forms of study which can appeal more widely. It needs champions like Mary Beard who can make the ancient world exciting and accessible to modern audiences.

That said, like our greatest poet and playwright, acknowledged, let’s recognise the value of a little Latin and even less Greek.


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One Comment
  1. Moysten Gorjus permalink

    Served me well (although I declined the opportunity to read classics at University because by the standards of my school I was very bad at them – now realise that my school’s standards were stratospherically high!). Have never been secure enough in either Latin or Greek to become a tedious show off like Johnson/Rees Moog (at least I hope I haven’t) but know enough to know when they are trying to bullshit the plebs. Catullus remains the sexiest poet ever.

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