Loving Latin

The Latin language is oftentimes relegated to elite scholars and antiquated religious clergy, yet we should appreciate its timeless texts and the experiences that come from the class.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Every time I have mentioned that I’m in Latin, I have, without a doubt, received one of two responses: “You also dance in SING!,” or “What are you going to do with a dead language?” The latter highlights a common misconception. The Latin language is not six-feet under, rather, it is one of the most vital studies. I have taken the language for the past five years, and am currently enrolled in Latin III. Originally, I was apathetic towards the subject—I did the bare minimum of attempting to memorize vocabulary and translating the night’s homework at a snail’s pace. 

This year, however, my journey with the Classics changed: the dread of period four I once felt has been replaced with anticipation. I am certainly not a great—or even mediocre—Latin student, but it is one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve taken. I now have a genuine appreciation for the subject because of the experiences with the language that I have accumulated for the past two years. We should all be able to value the language and its persistent texts, so I hope that some of my stories can help.

Carmen 85

Ōdī et amō. Quārē id faciam fortasse requīris.

Nesciŏ, sed fierī sentiō et excrucior.


I hate and I love. Why [do] I do this, perhaps you ask.

I do not know, but I feel it to be and I am tortured.

This poem, Catullus 85, represents my feelings for Latin perfectly. Over two millennia ago, the famed Neoteric, Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus composed many carmina, or poems, that survive to this day. Catullus, known for his elegiac love poetry, typically centers his canon around his already-wedded lover Lesbia like in this famous piece. However, while the poem describes his “situationship” with Lesbia, it can also be viewed as an introspection into the nature of love itself—that there is an inherent link between love and pain and the ups and downs of a relationship.

There is a glaring contrast between his infatuation for Lesbia and his torment from their relationship, even in the English translation. However, whereas English convention mandates a stricter word order—i.e. subject precedes the verb and the direct object follows it—Latin words can be arranged in nearly any order. The intentional structure of the authentic text amplifies the meaning. The words “ōdī” and “amō” physically start and end the carmen, surrounding his love with his pain. His confusion is amplified by juxtaposition of the “requīris” —you ask—and “nesciō” —his bewilderment. These unique literary devices that we learn about in class enrich the meaning of the poem and create intriguing analysis. Odi et amo linguam latinam. I hate and I love the Latin language, and for good reason. No matter how late I stay up to work through the assigned translation, I know that when I go into class, I will meet something new.

The “Latin” Scholar

One of the more dreadful parts of Latin flared up once again; late and on the 1 train, I sat with my head in my yellow-spined Muji notebook, staring at the vocabulary list from Latin I and Latin II. Since I previously jumbled up the differences between every word that ends in “-quam” and the different verb endings for each conjugation, I was hyper-focused on achieving a one-hundred on my upcoming quiz. As the train slid into the Time Square-42nd St. station, a tall stranger, disrupting my concentration, remarked, “Have you read Horace yet?” 

My answer was “no”, though my response came out stumbling as I was flushed with shock. We New Yorkers know to not mess with our fellow subway commuter, yet the stranger broke this convention. “Just wait until you read some of his poems,” he remarked, as a pause lasted for a smidge too long. “I learned Latin for eight years, high school to college.” His posture was straight, his hands gripping a warm copy of The New York Times. Wearing a red-blue plaid scarf and a drapey, wool overcoat, the man seemed to be the typical Latin enjoyer: an upper-middle class, college-educated white man. Regardless, our quick back-and-forth lasted a mere three minutes until I went back to the rather boring vocabulary.

I exited the station on the corner of Chambers and West Broadway. During my third-period free, I sat for a bit. I was in one of those moods that sparks deep rumination. Perhaps I, too, could have a pleasant, thought-provoking Latin experience if only I was a more diligent translator. Maybe I could connect with other Latin learners. This possibility stuck with me, and it was after this that I started looking at my fourth-period class with an optimistic lens.

Latin in Suits

It turns out, I am a double nerd; not only have I committed the first three lines of Catullus’ Carmen 5 to memory, but I have also committed myself to Speech and Debate. This midwinter break, our team traveled to Harvard University to compete on the national circuit, yet it was fortuitously an opportunity to bond with those from New York.

After exiting my second round of preliminary competition, I saw a familiar face standing opposite to me. This Catholic school student was all too similar to the “country-club” subway man I had met before. The junior wore black-brown glasses, a double-breasted, pin-stripe suit, and had an Italian fountain pen tightly secured in his breast pocket. 

Somehow we both discovered our odd fondness for Latin. Our common experiences, a mild hatred for the subjunctive, apathy for the National Latin Examination, and a disagreement over prose and poetry brought us together. An ancient and “dead” language brought us together. While we played a spirited card game of Egyptian Ratscrew, we recited lines of Latin as others would recite lines from a classic movie. Today, I wince at the cringy interaction. However, our one-year gap notwithstanding, Latin has fostered authentic friendships that translate to funny online conversations and light-spirited tournaments.

Cicero and Ted Cruz

Another thing that unites most Latin students is a debate over prose and poetry. To me, an expertly metered poem may be enchanting, but I still favor prose, particularly oratory prose. Public address was considered an art form for the Romans, and speeches still define teaching, politics, business, and science today. Throughout contemporary public speaking, orators often allude to classical oration, making it a relevant field of study.

One decade ago, Texas Senator Ted Cruz decided to invoke rhetoric, used two-thousand years ago, from renowned lawyer and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cruz called on the U.S. Senate to stop Obama’s landmark executive reform on immigration through an impassioned speech which appropriated Cicero’s In Catilinam oratory. Cicero’s works encompass seventy-five percent of recovered texts from his time and are so long that they could filibuster the Senate. Students across the country, including those in the Stuyvesant Latin II program, translate his works. 

However, Cruz misconstrued Cicero’s original intentions. When I first analyzed the set of Cicero’s speeches against insurrectionist Cataline, Mr. Tomas, our one-man Latin Department, highlighted Cruz’s manipulation of the rhetoric. Cicero wrote in a tumultuous time period during the advent of the Catilinarian Conspiracy and the Roman Civil War. As Cataline and his ever-growing army were “inside the walls and inside the Senate,” Cicero remarked, “Up to what end, Cataline, will you continue to abuse our patience?” He called for an end of Cataline’s schemes involving an assassination against Rome’s elected officials—an attack against democracy. When President Obama attempted to fix the immigration crisis, Cruz remarked, “When President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?” The comparison is ridiculous; in no way did Obama pose a substantial or immediate threat to our nation, nor did he employ force and terror to try and circumvent the democratic process. The differences are striking, but the silver lining is that these speeches could apply to our day-to-day actions.

Cruz’s claims that Obama may have been an insurrectionist are erroneous and even ironic today. As we witnessed Trump’s supporters rage the capitol on January 6th while Republican politicians like Cruz defended their actions, rioters were literally “inside the walls and inside the Senate,” as Cicero said. All too often today, we may feel we are plagued by a civil war or insurrection (which also comes from the Latin words in and sergere; quite literally to rise up from within), and it was this connection to modern-day politics that made me, a then-bored Latin II student, interested in what these ancient works had to say. I have Mr. Tomas to thank for this, as he designed his Latin II and III curricula to incorporate a wide breadth of Latin literature where anyone can find something to connect with. 

I am not trying to peddle an impractical language onto you, because, in reality, you will leave Spanish or Japanese III with more conversational skills. Whether it is taking the class or just picking up one of the thousands of translated Latin collections from one of the thousands of Latin authors, exposure to Latin has immense value. In the process, we, as a highly diverse school community, can continue to break the mold of who has access to texts like these. The affluent have long been the select few even introduced to pieces from antiquity—and my privilege of studying Latin in middle school is to the same vain. Latin should be another outlet for students to see unique perspectives. Not only do these texts train our analysis skills and present literary scenarios for us to take a deep dive into, but they also connect Latin learners and represent commonplace situations of the political and the personal.