When I was a lad, the Jesuits in charge of my high school education thought it good that I take four years of Latin. So I took four years of Latin. I cannot say that I enjoyed it, nor that I was a great Latin scholar. (I scored 100 on my very first Latin test; I recall that because it never happened again on any subsequent Latin test.) But since I ended up becoming a writer, and a historian with a strong interest in Ancient History—although that is not my main field; I am not a Classical scholar—I am grateful to the Society of Jesus for giving me a good foundation in Latin. Some knowledge of Latin is indeed, as the reverend fathers told me, a very good thing for those who write, and love, English.
In recent years, as a teacher, I had contact with the Latin teachers at my school. I sometimes examined the books they used, and my! was I struck with the differences between these new texts and what I and my schoolmates were subjected to.
Today, Latin, when it is offered at all, is almost always an elective, so it is thought necessary to try to make the subject interesting. We now have texts and course materials designed to entice the nascent Latinist with stories about Marcus (and, of course, Marcia—one could not these days leave out the ladies) going to school, walking in the garden, playing games, interacting with other young Romans, and generally behaving like human beings. Classes play games using Latin and have Latin names for students (as is normally done in other foreign-language courses). In short, there is an attempt to make the Romans appear to be rather like us.
It was otherwise in a Jesuit high school in the 1960s. The first year was grammar, the second was Caesar, the third was Cicero, the fourth Virgil. (If there were others, I have forgotten them.) Marching through Gaul with Caesar’s legions got pretty tedious after a while, even for someone —e.g. me—interested in military history.
The English-to-Latin translations we were made to do were a mixture of Roman military history and Catholic theology. We translated sentences like “The centurion is leading the cohort into the forest,” “The soldiers are fighting the Gauls,” “Mary, our mother, loves us, “Caesar is sending the grain supply to the besieged city,” “We pray for the salvation of souls.”
I remember that several pages of one text were devoted to a playlet in which a military tribune is interrogating a captive Gaul. When the Gaul is reluctant to spill the beans, he is tortured. That is how we learned the Latin exclamation “Eheu!”, which means “Alas!” or “Woe!”—the poor Gaul screams “eheu” as he is being tortured. When the agonized Gaul finally tells the Romans what they want to know, he is released--but unfortunately he mutters words to the effect that the Gauls will yet prevail. The Romans hear him, and the tribune orders “Statim ad mortem!” (Kill him immediately)—which is immediately done. (I am not making this up; obviously the little drama made an impression, as I recall it over half a century later.)
Many of our vocabulary words are probably not included in modern introductory Latin, such as occidere (to kill), supplicium (capital punishment), tormentum (torture), gladius (sword), scutum (shield), and especially frumentarium (grain supply). How many times did we read of the frumentarium being brought to the troops, being transported through the forest, being intercepted by the Gauls!
The poor Gauls paid a heavy price in my high school Latin. Translate: The Romans are killing the Gauls. The Gauls are being killed by the Romans. The Gauls have been killed by the Romans. The Gauls shall have been killed by the Romans. Will the Romans kill the Gauls? I think we killed more Gauls than did Caesar (although that would be difficult, as he slaughtered many tens of thousands).
I imagine that the reaction to this essay, at least among those not versed in history, will be that modern Latin instruction, with Marcus and Marcia cavorting on dad’s latifundium, is far superior to that which was forced on those of my generation. But… but… well… Roman history is something I taught, and have studied, for many years. And, you know, I have to say that what I was given in high school was a more accurate rendition of the Romans than any prettified contemporary stuff. The Romans did not build an empire by being nice, and their customs were not ours. Maybe the new Latin programs should feature Marcus killing some hostages or Marcia being told at age thirteen that she is going to marry a man in his thirties.