by George Sharpley (Latin teacher and author)
People who join the Latin Qvarter beginner courses are curious to discover how dead this language really is and to explore what they can of Latin (and English) grammar. They rightly expect a word feast, with lots of our own words with Latin roots pointing the way ... and I do my best to please. I also want give people a feel for what is easily lost in Latin’s centuries-old silent imprisonment in books and stone memorials: the language’s voice.
In its day, classical Latin was a language heard much more than read. Most people – even those taught to read – will have experienced the works of Virgil and Ovid read aloud. And if T.P.Wiseman’s excellent The Roman Audience (Oxford 2015) is anything to go by, this will not have been confined to private readings in rich people’s houses, but in public theatres too. And read – or performed – with facial expression, gesture and body movement.
Thus we need caution in our application of the oral-literary divide. We think of the Iliad and Odyssey as ‘oral’ epics, because they very nearly are. They are the closest we get to oral poems of that time; but they are in fact pioneering triumphs of a literate society, if drawing on an oral tradition from the world around them. And Virgil’s Aeneid, the fruit of a poetic culture at ease with scrolls of papyrus and the study of letters, is a good deal more aural/oral than we might think. In fact the idea among some scholars today that Roman literature started from cold in the 3rd century BC is a little misleading. It was already well warmed up by the previous and concurrent oral tradition of dramatised storytelling.
Dio Chrysostom (c. ad 40–115) shows us a poet and a storyteller at work. He describes a scene in the Hippodrome: “I remember seeing a number of people in one place, each one doing something different: one was playing a flute, another dancing, another juggling, another reading aloud a poem, another singing, and another telling a story or myth; and not a single one of them prevented any of the others carrying out his own business” (Discourses 20.10).
What makes a poet literary is not so much that he is read whereas a storyteller is heard, but his performance is recorded on papyrus, which is then used as a prompt for further recitals (as well as a text for admirers and teachers). The oral storyteller on the other hand is below radar; his work has not been preserved. Mind you, his popularity was not limited to ordinary folk: Suetonius tells us that Augustus would summon a story-teller at night if he could not sleep (Aug.78).
We think of the literati of Rome absorbing Hellenistic culture, and with it and through it the earlier classical Greek one. What we see much less in the surviving evidence is the influx of Greek culture into Italy at a broader more popular level, not least through the oral storytellers.
The tour of cathedrals in spring 2016, Latin in the Cloisters, was meant to evoke the part played by medieval cathedrals and monasteries in the teaching of Latin and in copying and preserving the great classical authors. And as it continues to roll forward into new cathedrals, Roman sites and museums in 2017, Latin beginners can expect more of the same, to learn the language through stories, historical and fabled; and to hear verses you might have paused to listen to on your way through the forum.
Latin for Beginners, a one-day course in 2017 (remaining dates):
25th March PEMBROKESHIRE (St Davids Cathedral)
22nd April CHICHESTER (Fishbourne Roman Villa)
29th April CARDIFF (Llandaff Cathedral)
18th October EXETER (Royal Albert Memorial Museum)
Details of these and other courses from The Latin Qvarter: