Start a new chapter in Latin: International Mother Language Day, 21 February

10th February 2012 at 00:00
John T. Gilmore explores the scope of the language and what it can bring to the classroom

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe decided to put up a sign to attract the attention of any passing ship. He spent two paragraphs debating with himself which language to use: if he wrote in French or English, those on board a German, Spanish or Portuguese vessel might not understand and would sail on. On the other hand, Latin was known all over Europe and he might hope that on a ship of any nationality there would be someone who would know what he meant when he inscribed the words Ferte opem misero Robinsoni ("Help the unfortunate Robinson").

This story is not in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel; it comes from Robinson Crusoeus, a Latin adaptation by a French schoolmaster called Francois Goffaux, first published in Paris in 1810, with nearly a dozen further editions appearing in France, Britain and North America over the next 120 years. The anecdote itself, and the publishing history of Goffaux's work, help to show how Latin retained its practical and cultural importance for much longer than we might think and offer a glimpse of the sometimes surprising extent of post-classical Latin.

The teaching of Latin has undergone something of a revival in the past 15 or 20 years. Bloomsbury has even published Harry Potter books in Latin: Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis was released in 2003, followed by Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum in 2007. Both were translated by Peter Needham.

But the emphasis is nearly always on the Latin of classical antiquity. This is, to a significant extent, driven by the demands of examination syllabuses: at both GCSE and A level, OCR set texts are drawn from classical authors such as Caesar, Tacitus, Virgil and Ovid. As a result, it is possible to study Latin at school without being aware of any author later than about the 2nd or 3rd century AD. There is a certain logic to this, as classical Latin is the foundation of all later Latin. As Keith Sidwell says in the preface to his Reading Medieval Latin: "It cannot be stated strongly enough that Latin is Latin. It retained its identity throughout the period when it was the main medium for the transmission of intellectual culture."

Nevertheless, the majority of surviving Latin literary works date from after the classical period. The history, literature and culture of Western Europe for a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire cannot be properly understood without reference to what was written in Latin.

This is not the case only for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for well into the 18th and 19th centuries significant works in the humanities and sciences continued to be produced in Latin in order to ensure the widest possible readership. An obvious example would be Isaac Newton's Principia. Less widely known is the way in which many texts from Asian literatures first became known in Europe through Latin versions, such as the first complete Western translation of the Confucian Book of Odes by the 18th-century French Jesuit Alexandre Lacharme, which was posthumously published in 1830 and was still being used as a crib by Ezra Pound in the early 20th century. Although it was not the first Western version of the Bhagavad Gita, the Latin translation (1823) by August Wilhelm Schlegel was particularly influential.

Medieval and Renaissance Latin are taught on a number of university courses, but some of this material could usefully be used in schools as well. Goffaux reminds us that, for a very long time, Latin in schools involved the study of modern as well as classical texts. One consequence was that in the 18th century, most English readers had little knowledge of literature in Italian, but many were familiar with the Italian Renaissance poets who wrote in Latin and a work like Vida's Scacchia Ludus (the Game of Chess) was used as a school textbook. It had several merits: it was written in hexameters, which would bear comparison with Virgil; it was free of embarrassing descriptions of sexual passion of the kind found in something like the story of Dido and Aeneas; its mock-heroic tone was often genuinely humorous; and it was relatively short - not as long as the Aeneid.

There is an enormous amount of 18th-century verse in Latin by British writers, inevitably of varying quality, but some once well-known anthologies are still worth exploring. Among them are the two collections published under the title of Carmina Quadragesimalia (Lent Verses) in 1723 and 1748 and several times reprinted. These were exercises by students of Christ Church, Oxford, on assigned themes that were often supposedly of a scientific nature. The poems are usually short, no more than 20 lines or so in classical elegiac couplets, and treat the theme purely as a starting point for a reworking of a literary story - which may be classical in origin, but is sometimes taken from English writers such as Shakespeare or Pope - or for humorous anecdotes of 18th-century life on topics ranging from beggars to tavern life to the fashion for Italian opera.

School anthologies such as those published as Musae Etonenses or Lusus Westmonasterienses also include much of interest - many schoolboys devoted a large part of their waking lives to Latin verse composition, and it is not surprising that some of them became capable of work that goes beyond technical competence to levels of considerable sophistication.

Several major English writers, such as Milton, Addison and Johnson, produced significant quantities of Latin verse, some of which is available in modern editions. Other writers, such as Vincent Bourne (1695-1747), once enjoyed a high reputation based solely on verse in Latin.

The possibilities of medieval Latin should not be neglected either. The Vulgate Bible, arguably the most important text in Western Europe for 15 centuries, is a mine of stories suitable for classroom use, such as David and Goliath or Susanna and the Elders.

While medieval Latin can sometimes seem strange to those accustomed to classical Latin literature, several good introductions are available. Renaissance and later Latin writers usually pay close attention to classical models, even if we do occasionally find strange items of vocabulary for things unknown to the Romans - Goffaux's Robinson encounters cocossae, for example, which are coconuts.

There is a need for more modern scholarly editions, such as those found in the I Tatti Renaissance Library (which include facing translations, such as the Loeb Classical Library, and are reasonably priced), and it would be nice to have one or two new anthologies of modern Latin verse specifically designed for school use. Nevertheless, thanks to the growing availability of online texts at sites such as The Latin Library and of print-on-demand editions, much of this material is more easily available than ever before. In the classroom, it can offer not just a change from yet another extract from Caesar or Virgil, but a way of demonstrating the central importance of Latin through virtually the entire history of European culture.

John T. Gilmore is an associate professor in the department of English and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick. He is the translator of Musae Anglicanae Anglice Redditae and is currently working on an English verse translation of a Latin poem on coffee by Guillaume Massieu (first published in 1738)



Key stage 1: pyrrha's pages

Listen to spoken Latin and Greek, make a Roman mosaic, explore Latin poetry through pictures and transport pupils back to the ancient world with pyrrha's website.

Key stage 2: Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis

Decode the Latin origin of the spells in Harry Potter with a game from luisl.

Key stage 3: adjective Latin

A clear and concise exercise for Latin language beginners from gaylegaylesmith.

Key stage 4: Latin literature

Explore the history of English with laurahoneybee's lesson that unravels its Latin influences.


The Latin Library offers a range of classical, medieval, Renaissance and later Latin texts online.

The Philological Museum website includes the Library of Humanistic Texts, an extensive online collection of critical editions, many of them in Latin, with introductions, notes and translations.

See the I Tatti Renaissance Library's website for full details of available titles.

Check out the Society for Neo-Latin Studies site, which contains many useful links, including an anthology of texts with notes and translations.

For all links and resources visit


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