The 20th century was an English-language century, and the next hundred years may be as well. Eventually, by sheer dint of its billion-plus native speakers, Mandarin Chinese will likely supplant English as the international argot. But, for now anyway, it’s easy to wander a place like the Eternal City and think our own tongue deathless. Yet, everywhere you go in Rome, you’re haunted by inscriptions, on churches, columns, gravestones, monuments both recent and ancient — the long fading marks (even random bits of graffiti survive) of the original lingua franca, which once ruled an empire and then all but expired.
The subtitle of Nicolas Gardini’s Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language isn’t so much cheeky as rhapsodic. Gardini wants to rescue Latin from utilitarian brain trainers, from being put to work as “cognitive boot camp” for aspiring logicians and lawyers. “[W]e must study [Latin] for one fundamental reason,” Gardini says, “because it is the language of a civilization; because the Western world was created on its back. Because inscribed in Latin are the secrets of our deepest cultural memory.” Long Live Latin is less a popular history of the language, however, than an aesthete’s manifesto (“Latin is beautiful,” Gardini goes on, and “[b]eauty is the face of freedom”), a survey of Latin stylists through the centuries, beginning with Cato the Elder and, of course, Cicero.
The “supreme father of the Roman language,” as Petrarch put it, must loom large in any work on Latin literature — though Cicero, as Mary Beard, among others, would remind us, was also a self-promoter of the first order. (I got myself a nickname among the Italians who worked at the refugee center: cicerone — “teacher” but also “big talker.”) Gardini sees the immortal orator’s ambition through the lens of his expressiveness:
His is a syntax that seeks to examine every corner, to throw light in all directions, to flush out every source of possible opposition and silence it in advance. The result is clear and ordered sentences, complex but not complicated, where everything holds, where one phrase justifies the next and there’s no room for doubt or vagueness. […] There’s something of a warrior’s pathos in his cold, composed reflection.
Indeed, for Cicero, who made his name in the courts, good rhetoric is rhetoric that wins. Clarity and proper usage are paramount, ambiguity to be avoided at all costs.
Cicero’s student, Julius Caesar, picked up this theme in his De analogia, a usage guide that survives only in suggestive fragments but points, Gardini says, to “strict grammar, uniformity, and morphological coherence.” The emphasis on linguistic hygiene seems to harken back to the Greek Atticists, who argued for a plain, pure style, in opposition to the ornate Sophists. (Earlier still, Aristotle criticized Heraclitus for saying you can’t step in the same river twice and leaving it grammatically ambiguous whether the man or the water changed — which, after all, was Heraclitus’s point.) Caesar, it seems, wanted not just to weaponize Latin but to give it military discipline. That the conquering emperor took time away from the battlefield for a bit of armchair linguistics has piqued many a Classicist. Keeping the language in order and the barbarians at bay, it seems, went hand in hand.
Gardini considers another contemporary of Cicero’s, the historian Sallust, whose abrupt, epigrammatic style followed from Thucydides and influenced Tacitus, the Renaissance poet Poliziano, and Nietzsche. “Compact, severe, with as much substance as possible,” Nietzsche says of Sallust’s prose, “a cold malice towards ‘fine words,’ also towards ‘fine feelings.’” Witness this bathetic moment in Sallust’s The Conspiracy of Catiline: “Catiline, having seen his troops disband and himself now left with but a few supporters, in memory both of his family and of his own previous dignity, charges into the thickest ranks of the enemy and is slain there in battle.” That’s beautifully brusque. (And, as far as my dire language skills can determine, accurately and vividly rendered into Italian by Gardini and then into English by Todd Portnowitz, whose translation of Long Live Latin ably captures Gardini’s bombast and fussiness alike.)
Ovid, in contrast to Sallust, is a spendthrift, telling his sumptuous, alarming, erotic stories of metamorphosis through an accelerating string of images. Here, the nymph Echo, for her love of Narcissus, is stripped of her physical form:
sleepless anguish consumes her pitiful body,
her skin folds up, and all her body’s fluid
goes into thin air; just voice and bones remain:
then only voice; her bones, they say, took on the shape of stones.
Ovid, Gardini tells us, “is film — one thing at a time, a frame-by-frame unfolding of events and details. […] [N]arrative prevails over drama.”
The Augustan historian Livy, on the other hand, is all intricate chronicling, the decay and collapse of the Roman Republic rendered through a vast array of highly structured, Ciceronian rhetorical devices. “Livy becomes an artist of episodes,” Gardini says. “He stacks one on top of another: the details mount and take on metaphorical resonances; events are relayed in sequences, with a crescendo and a climax.” In one such patient, psychologically nuanced episode, the Gauls, come to sack Rome, find the streets eerily deserted. The city’s aristocratic, elderly warriors, already beaten, have all shut themselves up inside, donning their regimental garb to await death with dignity:
[S]pooked by their own solitude that they might be walking into a trap, [the Gauls] returned en masse to the forum and its surrounding areas; where, being that the shades of the plebeians’ dwellings were shut, while those at the palaces of the ruling class were open, they were almost more reluctant to enter the open homes than the closed ones.
“Were it a scene in a film,” Gardini says, “the music would cut. We’d hear only the actors’ breathing, a creaking here and there, and nothing else.” The cinematic metaphors (and an occasional reference to HBO’s Rome) suggest that Long Live Latin might be flirting with the kind of broad readership found recently by The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek (2019), by the Italian journalist Andrea Marcolongo, translated by Will Schutt. But, more often, Gardini simply geeks out on rhetoric. His precise, writerly descriptions of the texts — here he shows how Livy’s syntax, verb tense, and the pileup of secondary clauses mirror the Gauls’ hesitation — are often exciting and infectious in themselves.
It’s his chapters about later Latin stylists, however, that this reader found most fascinating. With St. Augustine and the Christian Latin writers — Tertullian, Jerome, and, later, Dante and Petrarch — a reformist streak comes into the language. Syntax is simplified and moves toward a more conversational style, away from the layered subordination of clauses typical of Classical hypotaxis. The lexicon, on the other hand, begins to sprawl, picking up Greek words and technical and military terms (sacramentum, “a soldier’s pledge,” Gardini tells us, comes to signify a commitment to Christian thought), reviving archaic words and emphasizing the secondary meaning of current ones. The martial order of Caesar’s Latin gives way to the swirling high-low registers of the Bible and its unusual imagery, paradox, and hyperbole. “An avant-garde, digressive, even visionary” Latin takes form, as evidenced by the traffic jam of metaphors in even single sentences of Augustine’s Confessions: “In my youth, I burned with the desire to glut myself with baseness, to branch off into multiple, shadowy loves, and my beauty faded and I rotted before your eyes.” This new expressiveness, Gardini says, mirrors a new sense of the self, a more intricate and minute mapping of the state of the soul. Augustine’s conversion, after all, was a repudiation of both his polytheistic upbringing and his former career as a teacher of Classical rhetoric, the persuasive tool of the pagans. Though the Christian Latin writers never completely forsook Cicero, his high elegance and clarity became suspect, and the mystical, sometimes impenetrable language of the gospels became, well, gospel.
Outside of the Ciceronian mainstream, there are, too, the eclectic, highly referential novelists Petronius and Apuleius, stylistically “strange” and “patched-together,” “soaked in an excess of the carnivalesque, the clownish, the subversive.” Apuleius’s The Golden Ass — full of “[l]owly or coarse vocabulary, colloquialisms, neologisms, archaisms, poeticisms, Graecisms, and a general tendency toward contorted forms, contaminated registers, caricature, parody, and expressive excess” — was rediscovered in the 15th century by Boccaccio and later still informed such heavyweight stylists as Flaubert, Pater, and Joyce.
That influence has been strongly felt, to put it lightly, ever since. Flaubert’s le mot juste set a new bar for stylistic fastidiousness/obsession in both French and English. Pater called for a prose not distinct from poetry — i.e., not prosaic — for sentences and paragraphs that gather so much descriptive power that they rival the thing being described, a near-alchemical notion that sparked both the aesthetic movement (Pater tutored Wilde at Oxford) and the modernists: Joyce’s fascination with rhetorical play, Lawrence’s hypnotic repetitions, Woolf’s attempts to use verbal music “to find out what’s behind things.” Gertrude Stein took the experiment so far — a simplified, ostensibly sensical syntax paired with a lexicon that initially reads like word salad — that she was widely ridiculed. Until, that is, the poststructuralists came along to tell us that language is merely signs and signifiers, that the very tool we use to hammer together “truth” is perpetually slipping from our fingers. Caesar’s nightmare, it would seem.
It might be churlish to ask a book as doggedly apolitical as Long Live Latin to gesture toward the current rhetorical moment. Gardini is too besotted with the ancients to waste many words on the white noise of contemporary politicians or to draw comparisons between the fall of the Roman Republic and the depredations suffered by both democracy and discourse in the 21st century.
I couldn’t help thinking, however, of the bad review Tacitus gave to the gloomy emperor Tiberius upon his first address to the Senate: “There was more affectation than good faith in his speech. Besides, the diction of Tiberius, by habit or by nature, was always indirect and obscure, even when he had no wish to conceal his thought; and now, in the effort to bury every trace of his sentiments, it became more intricate, uncertain, and equivocal than ever.” Tiberius was reputed to be a reluctant ruler, yet the mangling of rhetoric seems more than ever a friend and/or crutch for imperial politicians: e.g., George W. Bush’s tongue-tied bungling, Bill Clinton’s legalistic dodging (“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”), the pseudo-intellectualism of Donald Rumsfeld. Has there, after all, been a deeper perversion of poststructuralist ideas than Rumsfeld’s notorious smudging of the evidence for Iraqi WMDs?
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
I say all of this not to mourn the relatively forthright oratory of Barack Obama but to wonder at the sheer velocity with which the revolutionary thought of the literary/intellectual vanguard filters down to the mainstream and, soon enough, gets hijacked by the voices of those in power.
And to marvel at how eternal is the tug of war between rhetorical traditionalists and iconoclasts, between rigidity and decadence, at how deadly that contest continues to be. If, for Cicero, good oratory is winning oratory, then, 2,000 years later, Hitler’s feverish speeches plunge that principle to its darkest nadir. After Auschwitz, not only is writing poetry barbaric, but civil discourse seems grotesque. Joyce’s inheritor, Beckett, traded the quixotic lyricism of his early work for the near grunts of Vladimir and Estragon, forgoing his native English to compose, more barbarically, in French:
[M]y own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman.
Rhetorical violence can come, too, in the form of evasion and not just persuasion. Orwell, in his “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946, sees euphemism and obfuscation everywhere, among Stalin’s apologists as much as among the Tories. Orwell describes a kind of postwar writing that “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Two decades later, Nixon and Agnew, as if taking the negative lessons of Orwell’s essay as their manual, started the war on the mainstream press that has led, with almost inevitable illogic, to the current administration’s assault on the very notion that words might represent verifiable facts. Now, 45 and his sycophants don’t bother to disguise a lie, not even in a thicket of Tiberian verbiage.
What about our everyday discourse, the language, to use a crude phrase, of the people? I think we’re in a profoundly decadent moment, as George Saunders has pointed out and repeatedly demonstrates through his characters’ struggles to utter any sentence undefiled by corporate-speak and advertising platitudes. English, like Christian Latin, has sprawled. Our dictionaries add a raft of new words every year — including such dubious neologisms as “solopreneur,” “marg” (short for margarita), and “pregame” used as a verb — often to keep pace with internet culture, which constantly shovels novel technical and slang terms into the lexicon. At the same time, as the linguist Gretchen McCulloch suggests, such digital tools as autocorrect and spell-check can flatten out our usage, promoting more common word choices over obscure ones or erasing the difference of humor/humour in American and British English. Nor are other languages immune to World English’s sprawl. As the Académie française, for example, tries to keep its language pure and compact, it finds French hopelessly infiltrated by loan words like “l’email” and “l’after-shave.” Do more new words, more new gestural tools like emojis, and more electronic platforms (Twitter, TikTok, et cetera) through which to share our every passing thought add up to more expressiveness? Or are we all now speaking the same undifferentiated mush?
Despite Globish’s world-spanning march, regional differences in spoken and written English do, of course, still proliferate. One need only visit east London or northern Maine or Anglophone West Africa to hear that. Or read writers whose permutations of English are as different as, say, Marlon James (prose-poetic Jamaican patios), Cormac McCarthy (high Biblical mixed with Southwestern cowboy), or Sandra Newman (millennial art-kid-speak mashed up with Elizabethan art-kid-speak).
Or, to take a small example from my teaching in Rome: After a couple months, I began to notice a phrase many of my students were using to compliment one another’s selfies on Facebook: “Nyc, bro.” Eventually, I realized that the standard abbreviation for “New York City” — a place that carries an almost impossible appeal to many refugees — had come to stand in for “nice.”
“Nyc, bro.” In its own way, I find it as beautiful and concise as Sallust.
Part of the appeal of a book like Long Live Latin is the promise of escaping the tumult and babble of our contemporary discourse. One doesn’t envy the future scholar of English, in its late-imperial phase, the task of parsing the etymologies of “marg” or “onboarding” or the coarse homophonic play of “Do the Dew.” A dead or “useless” language like Latin is not constantly shifting under your feet, asking you to change your habit of speech and thought every five minutes, or burning the ad man’s latest jingle into your brain. Latin can be more logical, less vividly debased. It can offer, Gardini tells us, both mental quiet and exuberance. “There’s something sacred about discovering Lucretius,” he says with no apparent irony. “It feels like stepping into heaven.”
Lucretius’s long poem, De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), is an atheistic tract on the principles of atomism. In Lucretius, it isn’t ritual and superstition that delineates and describes the world but clearly reasoned thinking and discourse. It’s ultimately Lucretius’s “faith in words,” their attempt at the “reeducation of mankind,” that Gardini finds exalting. For Gardini, the promise of Latin is that getting to the root of words, understanding what they meant before they got into Italian or English or any other Romance language, is getting at what underlies and defines our vexing Western culture. “A word’s meaning is history itself,” Gardini says. “[I]t’s our responsibility and our privilege to live it.”
Will Boast is the author of a story collection, Power Ballads, a memoir, Epilogue, and a novel, Daphne. His short fiction, reporting, and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, the Guardian, Glimmer Train, and theVirginia Quarterly Review, among other publications.