Lingua Latina


I thought that I might refresh my Latin. It is really hard to maintain that you are a Roman enthusiast if you don’t read the language with some degree of competence. The Bradford U3A have just started a study group devoted to this purpose, and six of us met up recently for our first session. None of us have thought about the third declension, or the ablative of position, for over forty years, although we all have old O-level passes. In fact we have one intellectual giant with an A-level but she claims to have forgotten it all. Well we shall see. I can still remember my set texts for O-level. We studied book five of the Aeneid, which is the one devoted to the funeral games. Presumably the powers that be in my single sex school felt that chapter four, the desertion and death of the Carthaginian queen Dido, was rather strong meat for impressionable young men. Although sadly the desertion of devoted women plays quite a substantial part in some male lives.

I quite enjoyed Caesar’s Gallic Wars too, although I now appreciate that Julius Caesar, like all politicians, put a good deal of positive spin on his recollections. I felt that the Gallic hero Vercingetorix deserved rather better for his leadership than to take a starring role in Caesar’s Roman triumph, and then be strangled at the end of it. Personally I would have welcomed a less conspicuous role in Roman history. Incidentally did you know that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BC? If it wasn’t for his own account of them they would have been forgotten totally by history. I think that I am also correct in believing that Caesar provides most of the evidence for the existence of the druids. Although druids loom large in ‘new-age’ and nineteenth century pagan revivals, hard evidence about them and their beliefs is virtually absent.

It seems that there is now a new way of pronouncing Latin. No longer is in veni, vide, vici but ‘weni, widi, wici’ which doesn’t have the same ring somehow. Latin may not be the language of polite education any longer but doctors are still taught primum non nocere. In fact ‘Do No Harm’ is the title of a recent account of his professional life written by senior neuro-surgeon Henry Marsh. I highly recommend it, but it is by no means a comfortable read. On the other hand it may make you slightly more sympathetic to doctors, slightly more concerned by the modern NHS, and more than slightly appalled by the medical service in Ukraine. If you ever want to inscribe a sundial in your garden let me give you something cheerful: Horas non numero, nisi serenas ‘I do not count the hours, unless serene’. Much better than Hilaire Belloc’s deeply pessimistic lines also intended for this purpose: ‘Let fools in soft deluding lies delight; a shadow marks our days, which end in night’.

The late PD James had a great fondness for quotations in her novels. In ‘Original Sin’ the author had a scene where some cremated ashes are scattered on the Thames. Several characters read appropriate lines from Wilfred Owen or the Bible. Only one piece was unattributed and searching through all the quotation dictionaries in Bradford Central Library did not at first help me identify the original source:

The worst that can befall us, measured right; Is a long slumber and a long good-night.’

I thought of Shakespeare. I wondered if two lines of ten syllables each might end a sonnet. But I drew a blank, and examination of Tennyson’s and Wordsworth’s greatest hits was equally unprofitable. Raymond Chandler also struck a chord. But while I propose that he should have named a novel ‘The Long Goodnight’, most irritatingly he actually called it ‘The Long Goodbye’. Interestingly I learned that PD James didn’t ever provide a key to her quotations since she believed that the well-read should manage identification the hard way. I think that is fair enough if she sticks to the Bible and Shakespeare or (with ‘Devices and Desires’) the Book of Common Prayer. Actually the long good-night is Latin again, from John Dryden ‘Translations from Lucretius’.

I once shocked my friend Wendy by telling her that I just love Mulligatawny soup for breakfast. In return she admitted that her favourite treat is melted Mars Bar and ice-cream. For myself, if asked to choose between melted Mars Bar and perpetual solitary confinement, I’d chose the cell any day. Well, as us Latin scholars say, de gustibus non disputandum.


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