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.