Tag Archives: grammar

Fringe Romans and country men

Ancient Roman cell phone

I made a point of saying that kids who spoke Latin and Greek were taught to read & write Latin and Greek. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and if you wanted your kids to succeed in life, by Jupiter, you taught ‘em Latin. But maybe Latin wasn’t the kids’ first language after all. Let’s face it, the Roman Empire was a big place. As you travel away from the city of Rome, toward the frontiers of the Empire, people were less fussy about speaking Latin. Those regions had had their own native languages before Julius Caesar showed up. They adopted Latin and its grammar as it suited them. They mixed it in with the language they’d already been speaking.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Learning Latin

I think we got it right this time!

UPDATE! The title of this post is more apt than I knew. I drew this quick sketch (above) of Julius Caesar writing his Commentaries (you can pick up a paperback copy here) and scribbled in his famous line: “Veni, vidi, vici” “I came, I saw, I conquered.” I did it in a hurry and got it wrong. I’d say I was nodding, like that guy Homer Bonus, but in my case it was more like a coma. Lucky for me, my pal Jim F (a newly-minted Western Civ Irregular) is a Latin master. He caught my goof not once, but twice when I corrected it wrong (see comments below). There’s a lesson here, gang. You don’t have to be smart—just be sure to have plenty of smart friends. I’m blessed with quite a few.

You still hear and read “I came, I saw, I conquered” occasionally today. A few years ago American Secretary of State Clinton joked about deposing the Libyan dictator Qaddafi:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlz3-OzcExI “We came, we saw, he died.” Vastly less cringe-worthy are Eric Maschwitz’ lyrics to These Foolish Things: “You came, you saw, you conquered me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mshV7ug8cdE  Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing it. If her voice and this song aren’t the pinnacle of Western achievement, I don’t know what is.


<p>During the Roman Empire, kids went to private schools. A teacher would set up a school and the parents paid him tuition. Not everybody went. Roman citizens—and freemen who could afford it—went to school. Poor freemen and slaves didn’t. <br /><br />Naturally, the students learned to read and write Latin and Greek. These are called ‘classic’ languages. Believe it or not, Latin was a regular part of everybody’s education in Great Britain and the United States up until less than a century ago. In the Sixties they taught Latin in New York City public schools. <br /><br />https://trisagionseraph.tripod.com/literacyf.html<br />https://erenow.net/ancient/ancient-greece-and-rome-an-encyclopedia-for-students-4-volume-set/257.php<br />https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Status_in_Roman_legal_system<br />https://classicalacademicpress.com/blogs/classical-insights/10-reasons-to-study-latin<br />The Latin master was a familiar feature of British education—enough so that the audience got John Cleese’s bit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAfKFKBlZbM<br />Do they still teach Latin in Italy? Renzo Arbore tells his mamma that he prefers singing rhythm to studying Latin: “Il Latino non va giù, aritmetica è tabu…(Latin’s no good, arithmetic is taboo)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZV0XFzKxO0<br />https://medium.com/@gentryalex13/how-learning-latin-changed-my-life-3554969eb293</p&gt;


Livius and students.

With all these scrolls and codex books there must’ve been a fair amount of people who could read and write back in the latter days of the Roman Empire. It’s hard to know exactly because they didn’t keep statistics like that. At least I can’t find any. Based on who could afford to send their kids to school, maybe a third of the population was literate? Boys, mostly, learned to read and write—but girls learned, too. You can find the occasional fresco or statue of a girl reading. There weren’t government schools like we have today. Up until the 3rd century bc kids were home-schooled by their dad, the paterfamilias. As I mentioned earlier, the Romans sure did love Greek arts and literature. Once they saw Greek education, they glommed onto that, too.

The Roman Republic, and then Empire, was all business. They were set up as an organized military that also farmed. No time for frivolities. At least at first, Rome didn’t have arts or literature of her own. She imported ‘em from other cultures—mostly Greece. One Roman dad bought himself a Greek slave, Livius Andronicus, to tutor his kids. Livius likely introduced a system of teaching that resembled the Trivium (3 parts): Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. At the Grammar stage students learn subjects that are memorized, like the rules of reading & writing. At the Logic stage they learn how to think and understand. At the Rhetoric stage they learn how to persuade other people using logic and speaking skills.

Livius was wildly successful at teaching and so won his freedom. He opened his own school after that and is known for translations of Greek works into Latin as well as his original plays. Livius is thought to be the first to write literature in Latin.

I enthusiastically recommend recorded lectures offered by The Great Courses, but goodness, they need a proofreader for their newsletter. It’s ‘Plato’ not ‘Pluto.’ https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/the-education-system-in-ancient-greece/
Here is a tiny chunk of what kids had to learn: 30 conjugations of the word ‘this’—

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.