Quid dulcius est Urbe?

I have had a wonderful, surreal summer at the Living Latin in Rome program, and I am grateful to the Paideia Institute, the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, and all of my donors for making it possible.


I thought that I loved Latin before this trip, but now my soul is thrumming with the words of the ancients and indelibly marked by the places they inhabited.  I feel so lucky that I was able to recite Horace at his villa, salute Cicero at his grave in Formia, rave with the Sibyl in her cave in Cumae, and act with Plautus in an ancient theatre in Ostia.  The ancients are alive for me as never before.


My skills of Latin sight reading have improved as well.  I’ve translated a fair bit of Latin in my day, but before this summer I never felt like I could read it.  Now I can read Latin, or I am well on my way to that point. Every day of this program I was handed a page of Latin and asked to sight read aloud, in front of people, alongside supportive teachers and colleagues who were struggling right along with me.  It felt so much more organic than a regular university class with a handily glossed page of a textbook that everyone in the classroom has pored over the night before and looked up an English translation of online.


Latin has also become more organic for me through the spoken Latin component of this program.  Many people have asked me why on earth I chose to spend my summer speaking Latin, and now I have so many answers.  Discussing texts in Latin allows you to maintain ambiguities and nuances that can’t be preserved in translation.  Speaking in Latin, just like speaking in any other language, helps you develop better reading fluency.  Also, it’s just fun, and it furnishes a handy fact about oneself to use in icebreaker games.


Though of course I have grown exponentially as a classicist,  I have grown more as a human being. My world has expanded so much. I usually live in a dorm and am able to circumnavigate my globe, my Notre Dame bubble, in an hour.  Now I have lived with and come to love three classicist roommates with wildly different backgrounds and ideologies, shuttled myself throughout a city whose language is no longer the one I speak, and figured out how to work an Italian washing machine.  I feel so much more capable and grown-up. 

My immersion experience has been one of beautiful words, passionate people, and intense learning, and I will never forget it.


Pluck the Day

On the penultimate day of my Latin program, we visited the ruins of Horace’s Villa.  Unlike most of our limited, Latin-filled, fast-paced days together, this one felt relaxed and suspended.  We picnicked on the grass, in the cool air near a waterfall, and recited some of Horace’s immortal verses for each other.  At one point I was walking in the cool waters of the Fons Bandusiae, reciting Horace’s words in my head, sipping white wine, listening to a friend play the violin, and thinking: “Well, it really just doesn’t get better than this.”


I, along with a favorite teacher, recited Horace 1.9 for my colleagues.  Like many of Horace’s poems, its theme is carpe diem.  “Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere et/ quem Fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro/ adpone”: “What tomorrow may bring, stop asking, and whatever days fortune gives you, count them as profit.”  The poem also speaks about staying warm by the fire while the snow piles up on Mount Soracte — it would make more sense in the context of a South Bend winter than a Roman summer picnic.


As might be expected from a student of a language whose native speakers have all died, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my mortality during this program (in a healthy way).  If you listen to Horace, the way to grapple with death is to throw yourself into the present. Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero/ pulsandum tellus: now we must drink, now we must strike the ground with a free foot.  (Isn’t that a great expression for dancing? I’m going to think about that every time I dance now.)


Seneca, whose words we read at his tomb on the Via Appia, has a different answer to the challenge of mortality: throw yourself into the past and spend your time in the company of the thinkers who preceded you.  Of the past, the present, and the future, he tends to trust only history: “What we do is brief, what we are about to do is doubtful, but what we have done is certain.” For him time is best spent “arguing with Socrates, doubting with Carneades, resting with Epicurus, conquering human nature with the Stoics, and surpassing it with the Cynics.”  For him, it’s ridiculous how much time we waste on “fruitless pain, silly happiness, greedy desires, and weak conversation.”


I like to think that the answer to the problem of mortality lies somewhere between Horace and Seneca.  Actually, as a Catholic, I think that it lies beyond them both. I’m a student of the Great Books as well as a Classicist, so I tend to agree with Seneca that it’s important to converse with the philosophers of the past and use time wisely.  But I also know that my happiest daily moments are those Seneca would consider a waste: the giggles of my little sister, walks around the lakes with friends, lingering, inane conversations in the dining hall, and cookie-baking breaks on cold days.  I’d like to love the past as much as Seneca, but live in the present as much as Horace. I’d like to also live with the knowledge that I am meant to live forever. I’d like to perhaps not seize each day but pluck it, enjoy it, and live it intentionally.

Sorry to wax poetic; this blog is actually supposed to be about my language-learning process. Rest assured that I have learned a lot of Latin.

Nube me, Cicero

“Ille, Ille Juppiter restitit! Ille Capitolium, ille haec templa, ille cunctam urbem, ille vos omnes salvos esse voluit.”

In the picture above, you see me reciting 1/38th of Cicero’s 3rd Catilinarian oration in Latin, encircled by the 38-strong Paideia gang. We stood by the temple of Concord on a hot summer’s day as we recited, but in spirit we stood in the chill of an early December morning in 63 BC and felt all of the tension that only an imminent threat to the republic and the anticipation of public speaking can provide.

You may notice that I have no pieces of paper in my hands. This is because, dear reader, I memorized my section! Without any prompting, I dramatically declaimed some of the most eloquent and difficult oratory from antiquity. With Ciceronian humility, I would just like to say: I did pretty great.

In all seriousness, the act of memorizing that speech was helpful for me as a classicist. I know that passage, including all of its word order, vocabulary, and syntactical quirks. I have built a mental storehouse of Ciceronian tricks. And now I feel much closer to the man himself; I feel honored to be able to carry Cicero’s words around with me.

After we finished reciting the Cicero speech, we read an epitaph of Cicero written by Piccolomini. The last few lines go like this: “As long as the sky looks back on the lands and the sea looks on the sky, no age will escape your praises. You who pass by here, boys and youths and men, stop and say “‘Oh Cicero of ours: hail!’”

Though I don’t quite appreciate the exclusion of women, I think this poem is beautiful. And I hope that it’s accurate. I hope that there will never be a time when people don’t study Cicero, or Piccolomini, or Horace, or Virgil. I hope that in fifty years, in a hundred years, there will still be a group of students standing at the temple of Concord in early July, shouting and spitting and making Cicero’s words their own, making tourists stop and stare, making guards approach and ask what’s going on, making the study of Classics vital and visceral and real. I was and am so honored to be a small part of this tradition, and I am grateful to the Paideia Institute for making it possible.

Vivant Elephantes

Today we visited the Colosseum or the Flavian Amphitheater, as I like to call it when I want to show off my knowledge of the fact that the word “Colosseum” really refers to the giant statue of Nero that used to stand on that spot.  

Whatever the structure is called, today it played host to a deadly debate concerning this question: “Were the gladiatorial games good for the city of Rome?”  There was only one complication: the debate was entirely in Latin.

Two people represented each class in this smackdown of Homeric proportions.  I very much enjoyed helping to craft snappy phrases for my spokesmen condemning the atrocities of the gladiatorial games, but primarily I just felt honored to witness the battle of wits.  Speakers skilled as Cicero, working entirely from memory or the inspiration of the Muses, vituperated and vilified and vied for glory. There was logos and there was unapologetic pathos; there were syllogisms and there were shameless ad hominem attacks.  One of my favorite moments was when Rex compared Hibernia, whose name is derived from the Latin word for winter, to Elsa, the Disney queen with a frozen heart. My absolute favorite moment was when Peter was passionately painting a picture of a peaceful Rome only to be interrupted by a security guard who asked him why he was yelling, what language he was speaking, and if he was drunk.

We continued a debate even older than the venue we inhabited. Our orators interacted with the writers, thinkers and orators of the past, discussing Augustine’s moral condemnation of the gore of the games, Seneca’s stoic disdain for the mob, Virgil’s infernal discussion of what it means to be Roman, and Martial’s suggestion that virtue can be found in the viscera of the ring.  Particularly moving was John’s narration of Pliny’s disgust at the slaughter of elephants in the Colosseum. By the end of his speech, we were all chanting “Vivant elephantes!”— “let the elephants live!”  I’m sure the guard was not the only one who thought that we were drunk.

Though we had been assured that gelato awaited the victors of the debate and death awaited the conquered, the spoils went to all.  We went as a group to Gelateria La Romana— as essential an experience for the modern visitor to Rome as the gladiatorial games for the ancient one.  The gelato was preceded by a rollicking round of Latin karaoke. I particularly enjoyed the song adaptation “Quidni Me Voces?”— “Call Me Maybe.”

Today, as every day yet,  reinforced my pride to be a part of this program and a fledgling member of the spoken Latin community (the Latinosphere, as my teacher calls it).  I am blessed to be able to learn from and with these scholars so skilled in the Latin language, so passionate about its past and future, and so eager to share it.

A Pagan and a Pilgrim

In one of my favorite romantic comedies, Four Weddings and a Funeral, a woman receives an unconventional sartorial compliment: “Fabulous dress.  The ecclesiastical purple with the pagan orange symbolizing the magical symbiosis in marriage between the heathen and Christian traditions.”

When I began this spoken Latin program with the Paideia Institute, I felt as though I was experiencing two different versions of Rome.  I would immerse myself in the Classicist’s Rome during class, in surreal and unforgettable site visits to the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae, the Capitoline Hill, and Mount Vesuvius. During my own time I would play the pilgrim in the Catholic’s Rome, visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and hunting down the relics of my favorite saints.

It wasn’t until a day trip to Ostia, an ancient Roman sea port, that I realized the very obvious— my love for Latin and my love for the Church don’t have to be separate.  The Paideia program has a philosophy of “loci in locis” which means “the passages in the places.”  In practice, this means that we read beautiful works of literature, in Latin, in the historical places to which they refer.  On this particular day, my teacher led our group into some unassuming ruins in Ostia, and we read from the ninth book of Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine speaks with his mother Monica soon before her death.  I’ll offer you a quote from our reading and a very rough translation of my own:

“Quarebamus inter nos apud praesentem veritatem, quod tu es, qualis futura esset vita aeterna sanctorum, quam nec oculus vidit nec auris audivit nec in cor hominis ascendit.  Sed inhiabamus ore cordis in superna fluenta fontis tui, fontis vitae, qui est apud te, ut inde pro captu nostro aspersi quoquo modo rem tantam cogitaremus.”

“Between us we were discussing, in the presence of the truth, which you are, what the future eternal life of the saints would be like, which neither eye has seen nor ear has heard nor the heart of man reached.  But we were gaping with the mouths of our hearts at the heavenly flow of your font, the font of life, which is in your presence, so that we might then contemplate so great a matter in accordance with our ability, in whatever way possible, and be sprinkled with its waters.”

I’ve read that passage several times, but it never moved me like it did on that day.  I was reading the words of Augustine in their original language, in the town where he and his mother stayed, across from a window much like the one he and his mother must have looked through as they contemplated things unseen.  I felt connected to the past and the people who inhabited it as never before— only a dead language could have such power.

If the relationship between Christian and heathen traditions is a marriage, it’s certainly a complex one.  The marriage seems to be thriving when the two parties share ideas, when Augustine interacts with Plato’s ideas or Aquinas with Aristotle’s.  On the other hand, the marriage seems to be a power struggle if you look in the Piazza Colonna, for example. The statue of St. Paul perched atop a column depicting Marcus Aurelius’ military triumphs looks less like a healthy marriage and more like a woman trying to shush her loud and slightly embarrassing husband at a dinner party.  I look forward to exploring this relationship more, and spending more time with the pagans, politicians, popes, and rhetoricians who wrote in the language that I love.

A language must die to be immortal

My first week as a student in the Paideia Institute’s “Living Latin in Rome” program has been absolutely surreal.  I have translated the words of Cicero in the Forum, of Propertius on the Tarpeian rock, and of Augustine in Ostia. I can feel my skills of translation, of sight reading, developing exponentially.

I’m not quite sure how this blog is supposed to work for a student of a dead language.  One of the suggested tasks for this blog is to “Identify a local and culturally important holiday about which you would like to learn more. Next, locate a tourism office/museum/historical center and ask someone who works there about the historical and cultural significance of the holiday and its origins. After you have spoken to someone in an official capacity, ask the same question(s) to a regular citizen. Were the two accounts the same/similar?” I suppose I could ask a tourism office in Rome about Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, but I’m not sure what kind of response I would get.

Despite the fact that my language of choice is dead, the ability to try it out conversationally has been invaluable.  In the first session of conversational Latin, my teacher, John, explained that one should be able to laugh at oneself when speaking Latin.  All of the classicists here are strong in the language and used to translating it well. Yet, speaking Latin is an entirely different proposition from translating it.  Because I’m used to reading complex sentences in Latin, the struggle involved in saying “where do you live?” is frustrating and new to me. Yet I am learning to embrace the struggle, and I am keeping up as my classes slowly transition into full immersion.

One new strategy I have learned for my studies is this: to delete my quizlet account and throw away my flashcards.  At the Paideia Institute, we learn new Latin vocabulary by associating it with Latin words we already do know. This way, we are not flipping back and forth from English to Latin, but totally immersed in Latin.  For example, in a story from Livvy I came across an unfamiliar word: anser, which means goose. Instead of writing that word on a flashcard and “goose” on the back, I mentally associated the word with other goose-related Latin words: aves, ala, columba, mater, and stultus (birds, wing, dove, mother, and silly, respectively).  I can already tell that my Latin vocabulary is expanding thanks to this technique.

My favorite part of the program so far has been the opportunity to connect the ancient authors I love with their historical contexts.   At the Capitoline Museums, I gazed up at the fasti, the very lists of consuls that Ovid consulted when he wrote his poem of the same name.  Livy’s account of the founding of Rome became much more real to me when I read it on the Palatine Hill itself.  And Plautus’ hilarious play, Pseudolus, was a thousand times more funny when performed in an actual ancient theatre, in Ostia.

In summary, I feel so blessed for all of the opportunities I have had in my first week of my Summer Language Abroad, and I cannot wait for the next adventures!