I came, I saw, but there was no Latin to be conquered

veni vidi

Unlike my parents and grandparents, I never had the option of studying Latin while in high school.

Mind you, the decidedly uninspired worth ethic I demonstrated in my teens perhaps ensured that I wouldn’t have taken Latin had it been offered, but the fact that California’s public school system was well in the crapper by the time I was enrolled in high school in 1980 made it a non issue.

Indeed, the Language of the Caesars was considered passé by the lightweights who had taken control of the Golden State’s education system beginning in the 1960s.

Instead, I squeaked my way through a couple of years of French – which in no way prepared me for the two years of college French that was required for me to graduate.

Years later I regret not having studied at least a smattering of Latin at some point in my schooling.

To be able to read Cicero, Cato or Tacitus in the original would have given me the chance to view their world through a wholly different lens, rather than one distorted, even unintentionally, by translation.

Fortunately, after a decline of several decades the study of Latin is increasing in popularity once again. Perhaps, common sense is returning to a segment of the education community, and the greatness of literary giants of past millennia are again being recognized on a wider basis.

Latin may not be for everybody but as Cicero once stated, “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”

(Above: Cartoon from The New Yorker and likely the only time the words “mani” or “pedi” will ever appear in this blog.)

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College 200 years ago was for the few, the erudite

South_Carolina_College_Horseshoe_1850

Few will question that college has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. Today, post-secondary education is often geared toward preparing an individual for employment, where 200 years ago the goal was to provide a classical education.

In the early 19th century, very few people went to college, but it would appear that those who did were extremely well educated.

Consider this description, taken from The Life and Times of C.G. Memminger (1893), a biography of the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, of the knowledge necessary to gain admittance to South Carolina College (today’s University of South Carolina) in 1819:

“A candidate must be able to sustain a satisfactory examination upon Arithmetic and Elementary Algebra and English Grammar; upon Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, and the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin; and in Greek upon the Gospels of Sts. John and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Greek Grammar.”

And that was just to get into the school!

The description goes on to add that “The studies to be pursued in the Freshman year are Cicero’s Orations and Odes of Horace in Latin, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Memorabilia in Greek, Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Vulgar and Decimal Fractions, the Equations and Extractions of Roots, English Grammar and Rhetoric.”

My first thought is one would be hard pressed to find a college student today proficient in the above in their mother tongue, never mind in Latin and Greek.

Some of the names listed above are familiar, others not so much.

Cornelius Nepos was a Roman biographer whose simple writing style made his passages a standard choice for translation on Latin exams.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, often known simply as Sullust, was a Roman historian and politician whose works include The Conspiracy of Catiline.

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