Whitefield Academy Blog

What Does it Mean to Study Latin?

by | Jun 18, 2020 | Classical Christian, Education, Private Schools, Reading, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Welcome to Latin story time, round two!  Today we’re going to look at a tale most famously told in Livy’s enormous (yet fragmentary) work of Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita.   Livy, our primary source for Rome’s early history (and for several of the stories mentioned in our last post), dates the end of Rome’s monarchy and the beginning of the Republic to 509 B.C.  The transition was purportedly inaugurated, or rather initiated, by the horrific rape of a Roman soldier’s wife.  Livy of course presents the event as history, but we have to keep in mind that he was writing nearly 500 years after this supposedly occurred, and though he worked from intermediary sources which no longer survive, he was not writing strict history in the modern sense. 

But the story itself is gripping and telling in a number of ways; in fact you may remember it from an earlier blog post last year.  Lucretia was the virtuous wife of a Roman military captain.  Poor Lucretia caught the eye of one Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the foul king Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Arrogant”), and one night while Lucretia’s husband was away, Sextus Tarquinius came for a visit and ruthlessly raped her.  The next day she disclosed this shame to her husband and a few others and subsequently plunged a knife into her chest.  Those who witnessed her suicide incited community outrage against the ruling Tarquin family by carrying Lucretia’s dead body around the streets of Rome, and from the ensuing revolt the wicked Tarquins were driven out and the first consuls of the Republic were established.

Now let’s say that we were going to study this story in Latin.  What would that entail?  Well, at the most basic level it would mean working with the narrative’s vocabulary and grammar.  And so we’re going to turn to just a little of the Latin now and see what we can glean from it, but don’t panic – we’ll stick to vocabulary only here.  When Lucretia’s husband comes face-to-face with her the next day and asks, “Are you alright?”, Lucretia replies:

“Minime…quid enim salvi est mulieri amissa pudicitia?  Vestigia viri alieni, Collatine, in lecto sunt tuo; ceterum corpus est tantum violatum, animus insons;  mors testis erit.” **

Looking at the Latin above, do you see any words whose meanings you could at least make a stab at from your knowledge of English?  If so (and I hope so!) that’s because a very large portion of our vocabulary comes from Latin, especially English’s fancier words (e.g., “convalescent,” “pulchritudinous,” and “indefatigable”).  Let me pull out a few from above: salvi, from the adjective salvus, means “safe” and lies at the root of our word “salvation;” vestigia is Latin for “footsteps,” and so the “vestiges” of something refer to the footstep-like traces it has left behind; viri, from the noun vir, is the Latin word for “man” and lends us the adjective “virile;” from corpus (“body”) we get “corporal” (as in corporal punishment), from violatum and the verb violare “violate”, from mors (“death”) “mortal”, and from testis (“witness”) come “testify, testament”, and the like.  Of course if we were actually in Latin class, we wouldn’t just guess at the meanings of words but would look them up in the dictionary.  But dwelling on vocabulary here mimics the manner in which we would engage with this story at a basic level of study.

At the next level, we would continue with issues still germane to the story’s Latin text, for instance Livy’s style, as well as any rhetorical or literary devices employed within the text.  And from here we would endeavor to place the lines of Latin given above and the story as a whole within their larger narrative context.  What was Livy’s intent in relating the story of Lucretia’s rape to his readers?  Can we spot any larger themes with which the tale resonates?  Well, to the first question, we know from the preface of the Ab Urbe Condita that Livy had a purpose in telling this story (and all his stories) beyond simply conveying ‘facts’; the story of the rape of Lucretia served as one of many moral paradigms he posed to his readers.  We are to be repulsed by the horrific actions of Sextus Tarquinius and at the same time to be moved to virtue through the examples of Lucretia, her husband, and his companions.  And to the second, if we look further in Livy, we in fact find similar stories of political reform stemming from wronged women.  Only fifty years after Lucretia’s rape and suicide, Livy tells us, the young maiden Verginia fell victim to the lustful desires of another ‘bad’ politician, yet in this instance her death came at the hands of her father, who killed her to maintain her sanctity and in so doing helped initiate a second round of reforms.  One might surmise therefore that the Romans conceived of their history at least partially as one in which violence against women served as a catalyst for reform.

Further come historical considerations.  How true is this story?  As I’ve already mentioned, we can’t just take everything that Livy says as the objective reporting of facts, especially when dealing with his accounts of Rome’s early history.  We can, though, turn to evidence from the archaeological record, and in this case we find that a good number of ‘royal’ buildings seem to have been burned around 500 BC, suggesting that some sort of political revolt may indeed have taken place.  Finally, we examine the story’s reception – or afterlife – in later Roman and then Western culture.  Just like the stories in our previous post, the rape of Lucretia has inspired the literary and visual arts even up to modern times; if you’re an opera fan, just check out Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which is directly based on this story.

So what then are the educational benefits of studying this “dead” language?  You learn another language, a language whose study directly enhances knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar and moreover paves the way for learning other Romance languages with ease; you learn Roman history, culture, and mythology as the context in which the Latin language emerged; you learn to practice detailed textual and literary analysis through close readings of Latin text; you learn to engage more generally with questions of literary genre, history, archaeology, anthropology, and cultural reception; and, in marshalling all this together to study one simple story, you learn to think extremely critically and analytically.  In sum, in studying Latin you immerse yourself in an inherently interdisciplinary world that comprises much of the humanities at large and forms the fabric for Western languages, literature, history, and culture over the past two thousand years.  Is this of educational benefit?  I hope the answer is obvious.

** (Translation) “No, for what well-being is there for a woman once her chastity has been lost?  The traces of another man are on your bed, Collatinus.  But the body only has been violated; the mind is innocent.  Death will be my witness.”

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