The rise and fall of Latin

Times Staff Writer

I spent a bit of Sunday night helping my 14-year-old son study for an upcoming quiz in his Latin class.

He’s a freshman at a large and well-regarded school for boys. As a native Angeleno, he grew up speaking both English and Spanish, and I was interested and a little surprised that he and so many of his classmates elected Latin as their foreign language. I was still more surprised by how far Latin instruction has come from the days when it all began with a Cassell’s dictionary and a copy of Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” -- Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Today’s beginning Latinist gets a thoroughly modern, handsomely illustrated textbook built around the lives of teenage Romans living in adjacent country villas. Students translate incidents from their protagonists’ daily lives and study vocabulary and grammar lists drawn from each chapter’s main anecdote -- sort of a classical soap opera. It’s all very up-to-date and thoroughly engaging, which probably is why my son and many of his classmates devote a couple of after-school hours each week to their high school’s Latin club and recently spent a Saturday hosting similar groups for a day’s worth of Latinate activities.


I recount this bit of homey personal experience only because the spontaneity and vibrancy with which my son and his friends are pursuing their Latin stands in such contrast to the elegiac tone of Nicholas Ostler’s “Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin.” One supposes that after you’ve been the lingua franca of the entire Western world, anything less is a comedown, but this account of Latin’s rise and fall definitely ends with a whimper that does not seem entirely deserved.

Educated in Latin, Greek and philosophy at Oxford, the British-born Ostler completed a doctorate in linguistics under Noam Chomsky at MIT. He now heads a foundation that encourages the persistence of small languages and is the author of a well-regarded work for lay readers, “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.” In “Ad Infinitum,” he has produced a book that’s often informative and fascinating, sometimes wearyingly discursive and, occasionally, just plain frustrating.

Nonspecialists may find Ostler’s exploration of Latin’s linguistic origins, particularly its relationship to Etruscan, overly detailed -- but Ostler is particularly good on why Latin was the one language among many on the Italian peninsula that ultimately spread as it did.

The author argues that Latin triumphed over the other languages spoken in what is now Italy -- particularly Etruscan and Oscan -- because, “unlike them, Latin combined three properties: It was a farmers’ language, a soldiers’ language, and a city language. Together, these gave it the victory.” The Romans, moreover, “had some winning ways that were all their own: After a victory they demanded not tribute, but land, which they would sooner or later settle with their own farmers; and they levied soldiers too from the defeated powers, who would add their strength to the Roman army. The Roman army, too, with its compulsive program of road building, cumulatively and permanently improved ease of communication. . . . All these policies benefited not just the long-term strength of Rome, but also sustained the growth of the Latin language.”

As Ostler points out, the Romans were secure enough to attribute their military successes to a willingness to learn from their antagonists. The historian Sallust, for example, attributed these observations to Julius Caesar himself: “Our ancestors were never lacking in strategy or boldness . . . nor were they prevented by pride from imitating others’ institutions, if they were sound. . . . [W]henever anything apt was recognized among allies or enemies, they followed it up at home with the utmost zeal; they preferred to imitate good things rather than envy them.”

(It may have been that the Romans’ unshakable self-regard made them impervious to envy.)

It also seems true that their language benefited from a similarly robust adaptability. And, though Ostler seems to feel a rather irritating compulsion to apologize for the Roman’s militarism and imperialism -- we get it already, their notion of unity was more like Mussolini’s than Lincoln’s -- Latin ultimately spread because the people Rome conquered wanted to live like Romans.

Clearly Latin’s claim to functional universality also benefited when Catholic Christianity adopted it as its official language rather than the Greek in which the Gospels had been written. (Say what you will about those early church fathers, but when Constantine offered them a link to state power, they recognized the main chance when they saw it.) For its part, Christianity also gave to Latin two things that promoted its utility and its centrality to our own culture. One was the “codex” or book, which gradually replaced the “volumen,” or scroll as the preferred literary and informational medium. The other was silent reading, which Ostler correctly characterizes as “closer to thought itself.” Neither the ancient Greeks nor Romans read silently. Indeed, the first Western reference to the practice occurs in Augustine’s “Confessions.” When the young North African rhetorician, newly arrived in Milan in the 380s, called on the great Ambrose, he found the bishop reading to himself and recorded his astonishment: “But when he read, his eyes were led over the pages and his heart sought out the understanding, while his voice and tongue were quiet.”

Ostler’s treatment of Latin as a mother to the supple vernacular tongues we call Romance languages is particularly good, and his evaluation of the Renaissance humanists and the way in which they may have loved Latin to death is provocative. But his evaluation of Latin’s critical contribution to the revolutionary scientific culture so central to Western progress is sketchy, and it’s here that his “biography” trails off into a dreary sequence of retreats and retrenchments, ending in irrelevance.

According to his biography, Ostler now lives in what once was a part of Roman Bath -- Aquae Sullis, as it then was known. It’s one among a handful of places, found more often on the empire’s periphery than at its center, where you still can feel intensely not only the Roman presence, but also what it must have meant to others to live alongside that magnetic imperialism. It’s a pity that something more of that sense didn’t find its way into this book.

Early on in “Ad Infinitum,” Ostler shrewdly and -- to this reader’s eye, at least -- rather movingly asserts that, “The history of Latin is the history of the development of Western Europe. . . . In fact, only seen from the perspective of Latin does Europe really show itself as a single story: nothing else was there all the way through. . . . Latin, properly understood, is something like the soul of Europe’s civilization.”

One wishes, too, that the author had evinced a bit more of the courage that ought to flow from those sentences’ implication. A simple adherence to Cicero’s famous insistence on plain speaking might have helped where erudition for erudition’s sake and a fashionable but unexamined political correctness have muddled an inspiring story.