Why I Study Latin
~ by Amanda Reeves ~
A quick internet search for why students should study Latin offers many defenses of the language. Articles suggest that Latin students perform better on standardized exams, have a wider English vocabulary, and learn other languages more easily. I won’t contest those reasons, but I find myself 18 years into my study finding that they no longer are as relevant. Still, here I am, a weathered copy of Horace’s Carmina in hand, even more taken aback by the beauty that I see within the language than I was when I first started my study. I don’t need to defend why anybody should learn Latin; five minutes on a search engine will serve you well to that end. I instead want to share with you why all these years later, I continue to study Latin, in hopes of putting into words the intangible reason why some of us who have developed a love of this language keep coming back for more.
Full disclosure, I did not always love Latin. Any conversation with me today reveals that studying and teaching Latin is one of my greatest joys, but nothing is a greater shock to those who knew me before. I was forced to study Latin by loving parents who had unfortunately (from my immature perspective) discovered words like “classical education” and “trivium” early in my education. I praise God for their endurance and insistence upon my Latin study, because I was not a willing student. My initial dislike of the language stemmed from a certainty that those tangible benefits of learning Latin mentioned in so many articles would soon not matter much. Thus, it seemed improbable that the language could matter either. It took years of study to discover not just value in the language but a perspective that adds richness to everyday life
What finally sold me on ancient languages was their ability to transcend time and still speak to us today. There are moments reading ancient texts when I feel a remarkable closeness to the author. Those moments shrink time and make me certain that whatever today may bring, there is somebody who experienced the same millennia ago. I could wax rhapsodic about reading any number of texts whose words brought a comforting realization that history is filled with friends who know the pains and hopes I feel today. To keep it brief, I want to share just one brief example when I learned that people sang in the shower in antiquity.
I was in college, working later at night on my translations than I will ever admit or recommend to any of my students. I had one last bit of Seneca to finish before I could sleep, but my eagerness for rest was shared by few in my dormitory. My hallmate was enthusiastically singing Disney songs in the shower. Somebody was learning to play the saxophone in the room below me (with limited success, I regret to say). My upstairs neighbors had converted their room into a bowling alley, or so it seemed from my vantage point below. I struggled to fully focus on my work in such an environment. It was in this cacophony that I read the first line of the assigned text and promptly burst out laughing. Seneca started his letter complaining about how he just wanted to have a quiet place to study, but alas, he lived above a bathhouse in ancient Rome. He constantly heard canon-ballers and snack sellers, hair pluckers and hair pluckees, and even bathhouse singers, delighting in their own voice far more than anybody else was. His singers were no doubt crooning different songs than mine, but I had to appreciate the similarity of our situations. Here I was, a world apart from the author, certain that he empathized with the exact predicament in which I found myself.
As I read Seneca’s words, the years that stood between us might never have existed. Although our cultures and worldviews could not be more different, I knew that we would have much about which to commiserate, were he there with me. The sensation that finding a companion in such a separate world from one’s own gives is humbling. Our culture all too frequently teaches us that we are exceptional, unique, and must forge our own path, ignoring the wisdom of those who went before. The more I read ancient texts, the more certain I am that few perspectives could be more dangerous. My problems, fears, and frustrations are not my own, but are the same ones that generations of people who came before me shared and survived. This perspective offers an indescribable sense of smallness and transience, and a certainty that my story is but a small piece of a larger one that extends both before and beyond me. To find that humility in an ancient text about bathhouses gives a person a reason to keep reading, far more than any standardized test score ever could.
Somehow, though, that smallness doesn’t lead to a sense of insignificance. You can’t hold a text that has survived through the fall of empires and not believe that your words and actions, however small, have lasting consequences. If Seneca could console me 2000 years later in the ruckus of a college dorm room, what might my own words be able to do? Even as reading these texts has allowed me to realize that I am not nearly as exceptional as my pride would tempt me to think, it makes me appreciate that the way I speak, act, and think can impact far beyond myself. As believers in Christ, we know that the impact of our actions stretch into eternity. The limited time we are given on earth will decide our eternity and potentially the eternities of others as well. Reading ancient texts that continue to speak across the chasm between us reminds me of the impact my own words and actions might have on generations to come.
If your study of Latin begins in a desire to improve your understanding of language or attend a prestigious college, I hope it ends experiencing the delight of conversation with a culture and a people different from your own. I hope it leads you to a fresh perspective on your time on earth and the impact that even your short stay here can have. But really, I hope your study doesn’t end at all. If my experience can be a guide, Latin offers a richness to people at every stage of learning and promises even more gifts to those patient enough to pursue its less tangible delights.
Amanda Reeves has a BA in Greek and Latin from Stanford University, where she received recognition in her department for both her enthusiasm for the classical world as well as her excellence in scholarship. After finishing her degree, she spent a year living abroad in Rome, Italy, designing and facilitating short-term study-abroad programs for students studying Latin through the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study. Currently, she lives all over the world, splitting her time between the United States, Italy, Brazil, and anywhere else she thinks would be interesting to get to know. It is one of the great joys of her life to pass along her enthusiasm for Latin to her elementary, middle, and high school students. Having learned Latin online herself, Amanda is passionate about distance learning and enjoys integrating traditional grammar and translation methods with spoken Latin to produce the best educational experience for her students. She has taught and tutored Latin online for the last nine years and particularly enjoys seeing how each unique student’s personality shapes the learning environment. When she is not exploring the world, she spends her time waxing poetic about the Parthenon Marbles and Stanford football, always with a strong cup of coffee in hand. [email protected]