Writing in Latin
Having survived and flourished for fifteen hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, writing in Latin is nowadays a dying art. Since the 1970s Latin prose composition has been taught less and less in Classics departments in Britain, and is now a relatively rare option on the syllabus in this country. I count myself fortunate to belong to what was probably the last generation here to be taught to write in Classical Latin by the traditional method, both at school (where classes were often conducted in Latin) and at university.
Since early 1997 I have been a member of a Latin letter-writing circle first run from the University of Warsaw by Konrad Kokoszkiewicz, “Conradus”, and now by Umberto from Naples. The Latin server has about 500 subscribers, mostly silent, non-participatory “legentes” (readers) and some 20 to 30 regular “scribentes” (writers). The subjects dealt with are both topical e.g the Hale-Bopp comet, the embassy siege in Lima, Thatcherism, and general e.g. how to express modern concepts in Latin, the future of Latin teaching, and which Latin to teach – Classical (Cicero to Pliny, say), mediaeval, or ‘neo-Latin’.
To write Classical Latin well is an extraordinarily difficult feat to bring off, rather like performing Bach on a cathedral organ, and I am permanently in awe of our Victorian and Edwardian forbears who did it so consummately. Some “scribentes” at their best are quite superb in their skill, eloquence and panache, particularly our Italian correspondents who seem to have a natural aptitude and who were clearly very well taught. So far I seem to have been almost the only regular British contributor.
Here, then, is the site of the Grex Latine Loquentium, the Latin-speaking group.
I write under the nom de guerre ‘Dionysius Silvanus’, a direct Latin translation of my name and – as luck would have it – reasonably authentic! And it is indeed on occasion something of a gladiatorial contest: to step out into this particular arena you need perhaps seven or eight years of rigorous training in Latin composition, and even then… All contributors make mistakes: it is in the nature of such a rapid exchange of views and information. We all have other things to do – teaching French literature, for example, or computing as several contributors do – and such moments are snatched from more pressing professional concerns. Once the “Send” button is pressed there is no second chance, “Nescit vox missa reverti”…
But this is a small price to pay for the exhilaration of keeping alive a beautiful, complex and subtle language that has contributed so greatly to Western culture ever since the poet Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC) said in his famous epitaph that the language in which he wrote would outlive him:
Nemo me decoret lacrimis nec funera fletu Faxit. Cur? Volito vivus per ora virum.
which roughly translated is: “Let no one shed tears or lament for me at my funeral. Why? Because I shall still be alive on men’s lips.”
© Dennis Wood, 2000