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ideas of Epicurus and Lucretius were incorporated into one of the
most important systems of thought ever constructed in the western
world: scienti¬c materialism, whose name directly reveals the source
of its inspiration. Karl Marx wrote a doctoral thesis on Epicurus and
the attitudes of the two thinkers have much in common, as witness
for instance their passionate belief that the lot of human beings can
be improved if they are freed from the yoke of religion. Today Marx
is just as unread as Lucretius ever was, but his ideas and those of like-
minded people have in¬‚uenced western thinking for more than a
century so thoroughly that what once seemed controversial and new
is now deemed trivial and obvious.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, who as we have seen was above all a great
orator and politician, also wrote several philosophical works. He
did not claim to come up with original ideas, but saw it as his task to

A natural history of Latin

present the thoughts of the Greeks in Latin in an appropriate literary
form. To this end he wrote ¬ctitious dialogues, in which Cicero him-
self and his friends were often protagonists.The topics are things like
death and the possibility of life after death, duty, good and evil,
friendship and old age.The emphasis is on giving guidance about life
rather than on logical reasoning. Opinions are often set against each
other without Cicero himself directly taking a stance. They were all
written at an amazing rate, most of them within a year when Cicero
happened not to have much else to do, and they can still be read
with pro¬t, particularly as a starting point for one™s own personal
The writer Seneca lived about a century after Cicero, and was
known in the ¬rst instance as a philosopher. Like Cicero, he achieved
a very prominent position in Roman society. He was the tutor of
Nero, who became emperor at a very young age, and Seneca and
another man acted as the emperor™s guardians. However, after some
years he fell from grace and was forced to commit suicide. Seneca
wrote many books advocating the philosophy of Stoicism, which he
for the most part took over from his Greek predecessors. This view
involved doing one™s duty, using one™s personal resources for the
common good, despising wealth and worldly rewards, looking for-
ward to eternal life, and revering the highest god.
These ideas are very close to those of Christianity, and indeed
speculation did occur at quite an early stage that Seneca was really
a Christian or had at least been in touch with Christians. There is
even a forged correspondence between him and the apostle Paul.
Timewise, it all ¬ts quite well, since Seneca died in 65 ce and Paul
in 67 at the latest. Seneca™s philosophy was greatly valued for a long
period of European history, which obviously has to do with the fact
that it is so consonant with Christianity. Seneca himself, however,
has had very few admirers, since he did not live by his own precepts.
He held the view that one should despise riches, but nonetheless
acquired a very large personal fortune. He thought that we should
endure everything with fortitude, but turned out to be less than a
hero in real life.

Latin and the Romans

How to judge this kind of discrepancy between thought and deed
is a matter for debate, but whatever one concludes on that score, it is
of interest that two of the most prominent philosophers of antiquity,
Cicero and Seneca, were closely involved in political activity and
leadership. Both also wrote other literary works, and made early
careers as orators. This says something about the position that
philosophy and literature had in Roman society. On the one hand
they had great prestige, and writers often played leading roles in the
state; on the other hand, they were pastimes. To achieve real success
in life, it was no help to be a philosopher or a poet or a historian. You
had to be a public speaker.

The schools and Quintilian
Since success in Rome depended so much on the ability to speak in
public, it was natural for parents to want their children to learn to
speak well. That was essentially what schooling in Rome was about.
There had been schools and teachers for children in ancient Greece,
and the Romans took over the idea. Primarily, of course, it was the
wealthy families in the towns who sent their children to school,
although the very richest were able to afford private teachers in their
homes. It is dif¬cult to say exactly how many children received a
school education, but in the towns quite a large percentage of the
population were able to read, and there seem to have been schools in
most towns.
In their ¬rst years at school children were taught to read and write
and do arithmetic, very much as today. The language of instruction
was of course Latin. Most pupils probably did not get any further
than that.Those who went on had to learn a foreign language, Greek,
and start to be trained in public speaking. That training consisted, in
part, of the children making speeches on given subjects; such
speeches were called declamationes ˜declamations™. They also had to
learn the theory of oratory, which we have already described, and

A natural history of Latin

which involved techniques for ¬nding arguments, for memorizing
and so on. We know quite a lot about how this was done from a large
handbook in twelve books written by Quintilian called Institutio
oratória ˜Training in oratory™, or more freely ˜Manual of Public
Speaking™. This deals with the education and training of a public
speaker, and covers everything from infancy to adulthood. It pro-
vides an overall picture of education in Rome.
In particular, it shows how the goal of becoming a good public
speaker was allowed to take priority over all other educational
considerations. Quintilian is undoubtedly a very perceptive and clever
man, who emphasizes the importance of having a broad perspective
and a good variety of skills, but the goal throughout is very clear.The
important thing is to turn the pupil into a successful orator. One
consequence of this attitude was that the Latin language received a
great deal of attention in school. A knowledge of language is the
speaker™s basic tool and a fundamental demand was that the pupils
should speak correctly. Grammar and linguistic correctness there-
fore had pride of place right from the beginning. Later came exer-
cises in style at different levels, from simple everyday language
through elaborate descriptions to violent outbursts of emotion.
A public speaker had to be aware of the resources of the language at
every level and be able to make use of them in the best way possible.
Given such schooling, it is hardly surprising that the best Roman
writers have never been surpassed stylistically. To speak well and
also, when necessary, to write well was quite simply the highest goal
of education.
However, this in turn meant that schools did not pay attention to
other kinds of knowledge.Pupils undoubtedly had to read a lot,prefer-
ably the writings of the best Latin and Greek authors, but the inten-
tion was not primarily to discover what they wrote about but to study
and imitate their language and style. All kinds of literature were seen
as material for rhetorical exercises. In this way pupils came to read a
fair amount of history and philosophy, but there was little room for
other disciplines. Mathematics stopped after elementary arithmetic,
and anyone interested in subjects like physics,astronomy,biology,and

Latin and the Romans

so on had to follow their interest up outside school. Technology,
economics, and medicine had no place in a Roman™s education.
With such a school system, one might imagine that there would
be a debate about teaching methods. This did take place to some
extent, but rather than being about the content of the curriculum it
mostly centred on the criticism that the training in oratory was far
too theoretical and unrealistic. One contribution to this debate was
by Seneca, who, as we have said, was also a very well-known public
speaker. At one point he writes, Non vitae sed scholae discimus ˜We
learn not for life but for school™, by which he meant that the class-
room exercises did not train pupils to be better at anything except
doing classroom exercises. That phrase was soon twisted around and
is often quoted as an unchallengeable truth: Non scholae sed vitae
discimus ˜We learn not for school but for life™. Whether that is in
general true is certainly worth discussing, but in any case it is not
what Seneca had asserted.

The sciences
Although schools focused on linguistic exercises, there was a great
need for knowledge about other matters in Roman society. There
was no possibility of access to higher education because the Romans
never had the ¬rst inkling of anything comparable to a modern
university. Older people probably passed on their vocational skills
through some kind of apprentice system, but we do not know much
about it. However, manuals in a wide variety of subjects have come
down to us. As we have already said, the basic industry was farming,
and there are several handbooks on that subject, starting with the
one by Cato the Elder which we have already mentioned and going
right on into late antiquity. The most detailed was written by
a landowner called Columella, who lived in the ¬rst century ce.
The Romans also undertook a whole range of building projects.
Vitruvius, who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus, wrote

A natural history of Latin

a large handbook on architecture, De architectura, the only one that
has survived from antiquity. It was very in¬‚uential, especially in the
Renaissance and afterwards, when people wanted to return to
ancient ideals of style both in architecture and other kinds of art.
A particular speciality for which the Romans were known was the
construction of the means of carrying water over long distances,
namely aqueducts.A successful civil servant, Frontinus, who was the
manager of Rome™s water supplies, wrote a book about the aqueducts
of Rome, which has been preserved. The same man also published
several works about another Roman speciality, warfare, and one of
these too has survived.
An especially useful skill for farmers, builders, and even soldiers is
the ability to survey the land. While the Greeks had developed
geometry as a part of mathematics, the Romans had no time for geo-
metrical theory as such; but they used selected aspects of it to create
practically applicable procedures for surveying the land, and we pos-
sess a number of their pretty indigestible treatises on this subject.
In all these practical ¬elds the Romans went some way beyond
existing Greek models. In many other areas they were content just
to translate Greek knowledge into Latin. A good example is medi-
cine, where the Greeks had had a strong tradition ever since the great
Hippocrates. In Rome several handbooks of medicine were composed,
among others one by Celsus, but they were all based almost totally
on Greek models. The same goes for the manuals of veterinary
medicine, prescription books for pharmacists, and the like.
The person who probably did most to transfer the knowledge of
the Greeks into Latin was a prominent of¬cer named Pliny. He was
an admiral in the Roman navy, which had its main base in the bay of
Naples. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 ce, Pliny tried to help the vic-
tims of the disaster but was killed himself. We can read this dramatic
story in a famous and very detailed letter written by his nephew,
Pliny the Younger, who was also present at the eruption. Pliny the
Elder, who must have had an incredible capacity for hard work, spent
a large part of his time reading”or having read to him”specialist
literature in Greek on most subjects, of which he then continuously

Latin and the Romans

dictated translations or summaries in Latin. He gradually collected
this material into a large encyclopedia, which he called Naturalis
historia ˜Natural History™. In this title, the Greek word historia
retains the general meaning ˜inquiry™ or ˜science™, whereas we
mostly use it only to mean inquiries into the past. The title of the
book you are reading is of course adapted from Pliny™s famous work,
in the hope that it will provide a suitable blend of useful information
and entertaining anecdote, just as his volumes do.
In one form or another the Naturalis historia takes up most of
what today is called ˜(natural) science™ but which was long called
˜natural history™ after the title of Pliny™s work. For a long time, even as
late as the eighteenth century, Pliny was in fact the most important
authority in areas such as botany, zoology, anatomy, mineralogy,
and many more. But modern science has gradually overtaken him
in area after area, and now his work is seen almost exclusively as one
of the curiosities in the history of learning.
The same generally goes for the other Roman writers in different
specialist areas. For a large part of the history of Europe these writ-
ings were the best to be had, but in the course of the last couple of
centuries they have become very dated. Some of their material has
become basic knowledge for beginners in different disciplines, and
much has turned out to be wrong. What has by and large been
preserved are the Latin names and terms which, with or without
modi¬cation, live on in today™s scienti¬c language.

Everyday language

What did people say in Latin when they talked about the weather or
complained about the taxes or were gossiping about their neigh-
bour™s wife? For a language that is spoken today it is easy to ¬nd out
about such things simply by listening. Latin we can only read, not
listen to, so it is hard to know what everyday speech was like. Quite
a lot can be gleaned from the texts we have; but most writers do not

A natural history of Latin

adopt a colloquial style, preferring instead to write in a deliberately
artistic way, using a wide range of vocabulary, often with long sen-
tences and always with the utmost respect for the rules of grammar.
People do not speak like that nowadays, and of course they did not do
so in Rome either. Moreover, as we have seen, most writers came
from the upper classes, and their way of speaking was probably very
different from that of the majority of Romans. The elements of spo-
ken language that can be found in Cicero or his peers are therefore
not very representative.
It is possible to get some idea of how common people spoke from
the comedies of Plautus, whom we mentioned earlier. Here is a short
dialogue between two housewives, Cleostrata and Myrrhina, who
meet in the street:

Cleostrata: Myrrhina, salve.
Myrrhina: Salve, mecastor: sed quid tu™s tristis, amábo?
Cleostrata: Ita solent omnes quae sunt male nuptae: Domi et foris


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