LONG LIVE LATIN: The pleasures of a useless language

Nicola Gardini (tr. by Todd Portowitz)

Profile (2019) h/b 285pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781781259893)

Professor Gardini was educated in Italy, has taught Latin in the USA, currently lives in Milan and teaches Renaissance literature at Oxford. He fell in love with Latin as a teenager and subsequently with English. He obviously has a natural affinity with the structure and timbre of language. The argument of this book is that the Latin language (and particularly what he describes as literary Latin) has a utility of its own which is unique to itself. He is dismissive of the claim that Latin is useless because it has no current direct utility and almost as dismissive of the claim that the utility of Latin rests in its ability to generate among us a greater understanding and appreciation of our own language, literature and culture.

He seeks to establish his version of utility with thirteen essays which describe the unique selling point of each of a variety of Latin authors, ranging in time from Cato the Elder and Ennius to Augustine and Jerome but highly concentrated on the late republic and early empire. As you would expect, these essays contain many quotations to illustrate the points he is making, all in the original Latin and frequently lengthy (in excess of twenty lines). Nothing is left untranslated (although it is unclear whether the English is direct from the Latin or intermediated from Italian). The quality of the translation is however a secondary issue because G.’s points always relate to the original Latin text and the translations are provided merely to assist the less expert reader to gain at least a superficial understanding of his argument.

He bears witness to a range of literary effects that he admires.

Economy and precision:
Cato the Elder describes how to cure and salt a group of hams
In fundo dolii aut seriae sale sternito, deinde pernam ponito, cutis deosum spectet, sale obruito totam;
or Caesar on how to build a Bailey bridge over a river
Tigna bina sesquipedalia paulum ab imo praeacuta dimensa ad altitudinem fluminis….
Delia Smith and IKEA eat your hearts out.

Economy with edge:
Sallust, and Tacitus
palam laudares, secreta male audiebant.

O tite tute Tati tibi tanta tyranne tulisti.

Catullus, and Apuleius
Iam facies enormis et os prolixum et nares hiantes et labiae pendulae….

Clarity and economy with complicated subject matter:
Cicero, and Lucretius
Quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
Nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res

Sheer perfection of construction:
Horace and Virgil
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam;
Transiit et parmam macro, levia arma minacis
et tunicam molli mater quam neverat auro.
Implevitque sinum sanguis, tum vita per auras
concessit maesta ad Manis corpusque reliquit

He is also powerful on how Christian Latin shifts the rhythms and timbre of the language. Jerome’s Vulgate text of Luke’s account of the crucifixion could never either in its structure or in its vocabulary have been penned by Cicero:
Et stabat populus expectans. Et deridebant illum et principes dicentes ‘Alios salvos fecit, se salvum faciat’.

His essays are elegantly phrased, invariably perceptive and stimulating and, for the most part, persuasive. They can, however, probably only be fully appreciated by someone with a graduate grasp of the Latin language. The utility which he claims may indeed be valid, but it is a utility available only to a few. Only a tiny minority of the students that Classics for All is seeking to reintroduce to Latin can expect to achieve such a level of proficiency in the language. Most of us on the lower slopes of Parnassus can only hope to experience the utility of Latin as an introductory, unlocking tool.

The disciple that G. is hoping to enthuse is aged between 16 and 26 and likely, like him, to be introduced to Tacitus by an impulse purchase of the Annals in the original text. This is a superb book for that disciple and one that must also give further heart to those who are already convinced of the utility of Latin.

Roger Barnes

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