How Latin Got Woke

How Latin Got Woke

Latin has long been the domain of dead white men. Today, a new cadre of scholars is trying to take it back.


On a balmy afternoon in July, April Robertson, also known as Lyricina Musa XI, recited poems by Horace in a lecture hall at the University of Kentucky while plucking at strings that once belonged to a harp. No one knows what music sounded like in ancient Rome—there are no surviving records of musical scores—so she came up with the melodies herself. And because some of the cheapest lyres go for at least $395, Robertson—a 37-year-old, single mother who was wearing a shimmery white dress for the occasion—had built the instrument on her own. “The handles are gardening tools; the floating bridge, a door plinth; the metal clasp, a bird cage,” she said.

While ancient Rome has long perished, Robertson and her audience were trying to rebuild some of it—not just by reading Horace but also, curiously, by speaking his language. To them, Latin didn’t die with the Romans; it continued to flourish long after the empire’s demise, and prevails to this day, albeit in a more modern setting.

During a five-day Latin-studies seminar in Lexington, around 110 scholars attended talks, in Latin, on topics ranging from Ovid’s alleged schizophrenia to Jesuits in Japan. Bathroom breaks and lunch logistics were announced also in Latin, forcing speakers to expand their vocabularies with composites unfamiliar to the ancients: “pausa cafearia” translated to “coffee break” (coffee only emerged in the 17th century); “loca secreta” translated to “bathroom”—a term that had evolved from the more public “latrina,” a place where Romans used to defecate among peers. To get to and from lunch, a “car,” in Latin, became, somewhat futuristically, “autocinetum,” or “self-moving.” Latin, evidently, isn’t set in stone.

Globally, there are about 3,000 Latin speakers, and their community is growing. Their goal, they said, is to revive stuffy grammar classes and reinvent the discipline. They call themselves “citizens of the republic of letters,” defined by their search for knowledge about who we are, and where we came from.

Terence Tunberg, a Latin professor at the University of Kentucky, first organized Latin “camps,” or conventicula, in 1996, after getting tenure; that’s when it started feeling safe to experiment with approaches unconventional to his field, he said. Stints at universities in Germany and Belgium introduced him to the Academiae Latinitati Fovendae (ALF), the oldest international body dedicated to the spoken use of Latin. Milena Minkova, a Bulgarian classics professor who defied the hot July weather wearing long skirts and blouses, is one of only 10 female members of the ALF (out of a total of 65), and taught in Rome alongside members of the clergy before joining Tunberg’s department. Together, the duo directs the Institute for Latin Studies, which offers Latin classes in Latin to train a new generation of teachers. Their efforts have inspired Latin summer schools—in Italy, Poland, Sweden, the UK, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and elsewhere—that have mushroomed across the world.

In Europe, too, Latin is enjoying a revival of sorts, though not without controversy. When Dutch parliamentarian and alt-right bad boy Thierry Baudet invoked Cicero’s Cataline Orations in his maiden speech in March last year, his performance went viral. In neighboring Belgium, Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalists, regularly laces his remarks with Latin (Julius Caesar’s claim that “the Belgae were the bravest of all Gauls” had generations of Belgian school boys dreaming that, they too, could one day be gladiators). And in France, Marion Marechal, niece of National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, recited, breathlessly, the “Our Father” in Latin on a Spanish radio station.

“This, too, is our common heritage,” she told the host, parroting her aunt’s party’s credo that “France is for the French”—an ethnic, nationalistic vision of the country. And in the United States, the White House was briefed on the work of Thucydides, the ancient Greek philosopher of war popular with foreign-policy hawks, ahead of talks with China last year.

Thierry Baudet’s address was mocked by scholars of Latin. His grammar, wrote the British classicist Mary Beard, “was close to incomprehensible.” Nonetheless, through the mangled verbs, his meaning came loud and clear: The Netherlands was a place for white Europeans, and anyone saying otherwise risks being marked an apostate. (Many academics interviewed for this story said they had received death threats after voicing such ideas.) Baudet’s speech prompted Dutch-Moroccan Speaker of the House Khadija Arib to respond, not without irony, “Lest newcomers think, ‘I can now also debate in a different language,’ that’s really not the intention. Dutch is the language of our parliament, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Latin’s revival, among young teachers on the one hand and nostalgic nationalists on the other, appears to flourish on two opposing ends. But while they may seem to be separate, the two are inexorably and uneasily linked through the history of white men’s appropriation of Latin as a marker of superiority. To Italian humanists, Latin was superior to all other languages in the world, and the study of Latin was a way to cultivate human self-perfection. They gleaned evidence of supremacy from the ancient texts. At its extreme, this logic saw Nazis mining Tacitus’ Germania, a manuscript describing German ancestors as “brave, loyal, pure, just, and honorable.” And in Italy, Latin, according to Il Duce, was a language for “a people of soldiers, conquerors, builders, lawmakers, and victors.”

Debates about who we are and where we come from have long animated the American culture wars. In 1998, Who Killed Homer?, by classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, left little to the imagination: Progressives, multiculturalists, and literary theorists had abandoned Homer out of political correctness. These scholars believed that “the Greeks derived many aspects of their core culture from Africa and the Levant,” the men wrote. “A polyglot ‘Department of Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Phoenician, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Egyptian,’ and so on,” could be one very exciting place indeed, they added—“but to what end other than…killing the field?”

According to Miami University classicist Denise McCoskey, the current reactionary moment follows from a long tradition wedded to the idea of a “pure” history of Europe. This tradition ignores, often willingly, that the Greeks and Romans were part of a diverse ancient Mediterranean world in which Europe itself was always already influenced by both the Near East and Egypt. Unlike anthropologists, McCoskey says, classicists have only recently woken up to the systemic racism of their field. “It’s really easy to point fingers outside of classics and talk about how ignorant [the alt-right] are or how they’re misusing things,” she explains, “but a lot of it comes from the history of classical scholarship itself.” Some of the same classics journals that published papers on eugenics after WWI also promoted Latin as the most appropriate lingua franca of the West, she added.

At the ALF conference in Kentucky, a new generation of Latinists was grappling with this legacy.

Jamie, a queer Latin teacher from Brooklyn who teaches kids with learning disabilities and wished not to be identified by his last name for fear of professional repercussions, called out a strong divide between what he described as secular, “more progressive, anti-racist” speakers, and conservative Catholics. “I’m not sure they would value me as a person if they knew certain things about me,” he said. “They like me in a lot of other ways because I’m a good Latin speaker, but at the bottom, they’re not in my corner, even though they may not know that.” For his part, the soft-spoken 28-year-old, who was first introduced to Church Latin singing hymns in a choir, has taken up the study of Arabic as what he calls a “corrective” to himself, “to make sure that I wasn’t valorizing European culture just because of Latin.”

Discriminatory undertones resonate deeply in the Latin-speaking community, he added. At the ALF’s foundation in 1966, honorary members included Giuseppe Saragat, then-president of Italy, and Antonio Bacci, the Latin secretary to the pope—Old World powers whose shadows lingered in Lexington. “There is so much harm done by the Latin speakers who propagate the idea that Western civilization is somehow superior,” Jamie said. “I think most of them certainly wouldn’t identify with far-right groups, who are more explicit and less intellectual, but it’s actually some of the same ideas, and you have to recognize that.”

To counter their ideas, a new guard of classicists is applying postcolonial, race, and gender critiques to the field for the first time. Classicist Curtis Dozier recently launched Pharos, a blog hosted by Vassar College, that articulates a “politically progressive approach” to the study of antiquity, and documents appropriations of Greco-Roman culture by hate groups online. And Donna Zuckerberg—whose brother, Mark, was quoted in a 2010 profile in The New Yorker reciting Aeneas on his dream to build a city that “knows no boundaries in time and greatness”—in 2015 founded Eidolon, an online platform that promotes the study of a “classics without fragility.”

In 2016, two weeks after Trump’s election, the site published her op-ed, “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,” which functioned as a call to arms that warned against the misogyny of so-called “red-pill” communities. In her new book, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, Zuckerberg presciently analyzes these communities’ (and sections of Silicon Valley’s) embrace of stoicism as a self-help tool to gain confidence, jobs, and girlfriends. Their adoration of men like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Ovid, whose Ars Amatoria earned him the reputation of being history’s first pickup artist, is founded in a limited and distorted interpretation of ancient philosophy, she writes, lending heft and authority to sexism and abuse.

But feminists deserve a better Internet, she concludes, and a feminist interpretation of the classics can counteract bigoted distortions. “Future generations of readers deserve a better kind of discourse about the ancient world: one that is free of elitism and neither uncritically admiring nor rashly dismissive,” she writes.

When Zuckerberg’s op-ed came out, many colleagues called her “hysterical.” Her argument that terms like “the Greek miracle” or “Western civilization” could serve as coded language of red-pill activists to praise whiteness bordered on the extreme, they said. She turned out to be right. “They may have a lingering sense that I’m an alarmist but really from where I sit now, two years later—it was on the tame side,” she explained in an interview. Most of all, she said, she hopes for academics and practitioners to find reasons other than narratives of Western power and importance to study the classics.

At the gathering in Kentucky, one such alternative narrative emerged. It hinges on the idea that after the fall of the Roman empire, Latin didn’t disappear; rather, it became the language of the European intellectual elite, so colonizers’ tales of wonder, plunder, and destruction were all written in Latin. That means that today students of Neo-Latin—that is, Latin written since the time of the Renaissance—can read Jesuit ethnographies detailing these colonial “first encounters,” most of which have not yet been translated into English, or other languages. This is significant, because scholars in former colonies don’t have to rely on European translators to write their own history; they can master the language and read the original texts on their own.

Terence Tunberg (whose father wrote the Hollywood film Ben-Hur), teaches Latin from a more “international perspective” by “not trying to whitewash the racist stuff in it—that’s there too, for sure, but by pointing out that it has another, bigger side,” he said. Classicists from Brazil, Japan, and Australia, who had traveled to Lexington to attend the ALF conference, are increasingly turning their attention to Neo-Latin texts and using them to uncover, say, Aboriginal massacres.

Tunberg, a tanned Californian familiar with the power of a good story, said the conference theme was “journeys,” in recognition of the ALF’s first foray into the New World and in honor of the “many unfortunate people who are being forced to flee from the Middle East—a timely reminder of the influence of language on others.”

If Latinists can heed this reminder, their community will continue to grow and attract people who build a more inclusive community. Liz Szylejko, a 30-year-old public-school teacher from Philadelphia with a blond pixie cut and nose stud, teaches Latin to immigrant students whose native language isn’t English. “It is far more compelling to invite students into an international community of Latin users than to tell them they are one in a crowd peeking through the crack of a locked door,” she said. “It taps us into the humanity of learning to communicate.”

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