Whitefield Academy Blog
Whitefield’s New Latin Teacher: Why I Love Latin
In August of 1995 I walked into Latin class for the first time. A native of Lawrence, I attended Lawrence High School and so was privileged to sit under the teaching of Dr. Anne Shaw who, more than twenty years later, still remains one of the most formative influences upon me as an educator and a Latinist. I chose to try Latin as my foreign language because it sounded cooler and more obscure than my other options of French, German, and Spanish.
I don’t remember what I expected from the class – most likely I came in with no expectations and just a measure of curiosity – but during my three years of Latin study (Lawrence High consisted solely of 10th-12th grades at this time) I developed a passion for the language that has kept me coming back to it year after year, season after season. Dr. Shaw was a force to be reckoned with. A petite woman, hardly more than five feet tall with a South-African British accent, she ran her classroom like a military machine. Always the vocab cards first – and good luck if you didn’t know what the word meant – some grammar review drills and sentences, paradigm chants, and then into the day’s work, which entailed reading Latin in some form. We read, and we read, and then we read some more. We read out loud as individuals and as a class; we read in small groups, working with the nitty-gritties of the text, and silently on our own, sometimes illustrating the passage at hand with a comic strip, and sometimes translating it for an assessment.
Of course we spent time studying other aspects of the Roman world, namely Roman history, culture, and mythology, and for some people, these latter topics were the hook. For me, though, it was the language itself, the joy I found in reading it, and the stories through which it was conveyed that led me to return to Latin (and the field of Classics more generally) for a second bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and finally a Ph.D., in spite of having sworn to go no further at least three times along the way.
So why do I love this “dead” language so much? The question has been put to me countless times, and each time I find it difficult to answer, for when you love something deeply, often it resonates with your core so profoundly as to defy articulation. But if forced to put words to it, I’d say that I love Latin first because its highly complex syntax has fascinated and challenged me from the earliest days. As a novice, I viewed Latin as a sort of hybrid between language and logic, and passages of poetry from Virgil or Ovid presented new puzzles to be solved.
But as my facility with Latin grew, I began to see the art and beauty of the language. An inflected language like Latin allows for much more flexibility in word order, and the Romans used this to great advantage for artistic and effectual purposes. If you think the Aeneid and Cicero’s speeches are powerful in English, they are infinitely better, more beautiful, and more rhetorically impressive in their original Latin.
And then there are the stories themselves. Romulus and Remus abandoned as infants and suckled by a she-wolf before ultimately founding Rome (according at least to mythological tradition); Gaius Mucius Scaevola, the Roman youth who, during Rome’s war with the Etruscans, snuck into the Etruscan camp to kill their king, Lars Porsenna, found himself captured, and when brought before Porsenna defiantly held his right hand in a burning fire to prove to the Etruscans the Romans’ steadfast bravery; Aeneas, Rome’s beloved mythological ancestor, caught fast between the gods’ dictate to found Italy and his love for the African queen Dido; Boudicca, warrior-queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe who led her people in a valiant resistance to Roman occupation in 60/61 A.D.
Often these stories mix the historical with the traditional and the mythological – stemming from the genre of historiography, which is a different beast from history as we tend to think of it – but many served to point their readers toward moral virtue, and in general they reveal much about how the Romans thought of themselves and their history. And in fact all those mentioned above have proved so powerful as to have reverberated throughout the Western imagination in various incarnations (the painting featured at the top of this post for instance depicts Scaevola just before he places his hand on the fire). But we’ll pause here for today. In our next post I will tell you a bit about one of my favorite stories – one that has gripped me ever since I first read it in high school with Dr. Shaw – and what it can tell us about the educational benefits of studying Latin.
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