Confessions of a Latin Lover.

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We were watching B.B.C. television. The programme ended, with credits rolling up the screen at a speed that always makes it impossible to read them. Talk about a fleeting moment of fame. The credits paused. My little daughter asked me: “Who’s that person, McMillix? He’s in all the programmes.” So he was. I was a teacher of Latin at the time, a member of an endangered species, now almost extinct. I had to explain that this was the date. The B.B.C. being such an august organisation, had to write the date in Roman numerals. It was MCMLXXIX or 1979 to ordinary mortals. She nodded but I could see that she thought it a cockeyed way of counting. She was right.  They had no zero. They couldn’t ‘put down the three and carry the one’ over to the next column, as the decimal system allows. It’s simple addition. At least it was, until some educational expert decreed that children should write all the numbers in a line from left to right and add them up sideways. Even after LX years, it still makes me furious. If it ain’t broke etc. To give McMillix his due, he provided some great family viewing, before the proliferation of screens scattered families to all parts of the house.

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In earlier times we could have brought our children to the local amphitheatre, to watch some recreational slaughter—admission free, courtesy of some great general or politician. Bread and Circuses, the sure way to political success. As members of the proletarii, the people of no wealth except for their children, (proles/prolific/proliferation and so on,) we would probably have had to occupy the higher seats, further from the action, probably in direct sunlight, but at least the food was free.  There was always some good family viewing on at the amphitheatre. We could have watched battles between groups of gladiators, with plenty of gore spilled into the sand (arena). We could have cheered to see women fighting wild beasts, or being torn apart by them. We might have been privileged to witness the dismembering of prisoners and enemies of Rome by ravenous, exotic animals. The execution of children would have been a salutary lesson to our own.  Throw in a few Christians for a laugh. On a good day the Emperor might have graced the proceedings with his presence, accompanied by the great nobles and ladies of quality. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to impress upon our proles, the glory of Rome and why the gods decreed that Rome alone should rule the world.

The study of Latin and Roman civilization has been a staple of European education for centuries. Generations have marvelled at their achievements, their mighty works of engineering and architecture and the brilliance of (most of) their military campaigns. It was the Romans who defined patriotism, love of country, as a willingness to die for the fatherland. It is a privilege, a duty and a delight. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. That was Horace, the poet son of a freed slave. Wilfred Owen, in our time, saw the grotesque reality of that lie. It is difficult to contemplate much of Roman civilization, without revulsion. Similarly, the heir to the Roman Empire, the Church of Rome inspires revulsion at the pointless opulence of the Vatican, the expense of which, split Christendom in two.  It’s a cockeyed way to carry on the work of the crucified carpenter from Galilee. I met an old English soldier who had fought in Italy during the war. He told me that he lost all respect for Catholics, because there were vendors in Pompeii, selling pornographic postcards of the frescoes in that unfortunate town. He presumed that they were Catholic. You can hardly blame the Church for everything. They did good business with the Tommies. The Romans saw pornography as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

Drumanagh Loughshinny

This is Drumanagh, a promontory at Loughshinny, north of Dublin. A defensive ditch cuts the headland off on the landward side. The martello tower is a nineteenth century addition.  I saw the field just after it was ploughed, possibly for the first time ever. There was an avenue leading from the ditch to the tower, marked by the black remains of cooking fires. Every patch was strewn with animal bones, evidence of long-standing human habitation. I found a decorative bronze pin lying on the newly turned earth. My brother, an archaeologist, promptly confiscated it.  He takes a very dim view of treasure hunters and metal detectors. It was just lying there, your honour. Drumanagh attracts legends, treasure hunters, strollers, motor bikers, people with theories, occasional fly-tippers. Some say that Cuchulainn, ‘the Irish Achilles’ seized his wife, Emer, from Drumanagh. Some suggest a Roman settlement. Vikings?  All the theories are urged with great conviction. It would repay a full excavation. No matter who lived there, it was a formidable fort.

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(This cliff is outside the ditch but similar to the rest of the promontory.)

Agricola (farmer) is alleged to have said that he could take Hibernia in a week with one or two legions. Maybe he tried. Maybe the Romans got their comeuppance near Drumanagh. A legend tells how Fionn MacCumhail and his Fianna fought The King of the World.  A recent report describes a significant find, a massacre of what appears to be a Roman force, about two kilometers from Drumanagh. Don’t ask me where. It’s all at an early stage of investigation. It could turn out to be our own little Teutoburg Forest, where Varus and another Roman army over-reached themselves. There is a certain satisfaction in thinking so. Vae victis. Alas for the defeated ones.

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And yet– and yet. I still love the language. It permeates our daily speech. It is the language of the sciences, from botany to medicine. It has given the stars and the elements that compose them, their names. It is spoken, in its various modern forms, from the Black Sea to the tip of Tierra del Fuego and the high Canadian Arctic. Dan Quayle, on a tour of Latin America, lamented  that he had never learned Latin. Salsa sauce out-sells tomato ketchup in the United States, evidence of the re-colonisation of what was once Spanish America. I love its precision and clarity. An understanding of its structure is a guide to clear expression in the English language. It gave us the elegant Roman alphabet, where letters took their style from the turn of a mason’s wrist or the broad goose quill in the fingers of a scribe.

Is there not a contradiction in school teachers extolling the effectiveness of the short, stabbing sword as a weapon? Is there not a contradiction in  ‘blockbuster’ entertainment relying so heavily on blood and guts as family entertainment? Am I, in some small degree, also to blame? If so, mea maxima culpa.

I must have a word with McMillix, if I ever get to meet him.

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4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Latin Lover.

  1. And sure Nero gave us the Fleadh Ceoil and Caligula made his horse a Senator – and we took that on board !! And still people ask “What have the Romans done for us ?”

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  2. “Who’s that person, McMillix? He’s in all the programmes.” What a wonderful story of your daughter!

    And I must add that after seeing the fare of MMXiv (Mr. and Mrs. Xiv, or Madame et Monsieur Xiv? — not sure of their appellation), the programming of McMillix doesn’t look quite so bad. And I presume MMXiv is two people as they have done an amazing job of filling thousands of channels with dreadful schlock — at least McMillix tired out after filling up just a few over-the-air channels.

    Congrats to the Irish for halting the Roman advance in the north and west of Europa near Drumanagh, just as Arminius (aka Hermann) halted expansion east in the Teutoburger Wald. Your victory, and our victory, though centuries ago, may just have prevented our era from suffering from TV channels carrying Roman numerals. Image how clumsy the TV remote would be with Roman numerals in place of Indo-Arabic numerals. (Even more forbidding is the thought that we could be using binary numbers instead!)

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    • For those of us who are slightly innumerate at the best of times, Roman numerals would open an appalling vista. Definitely justification for a last-ditch stand at Drumanagh and Teutoburger Wald.

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