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And haughty Juno™s unrelenting hate,
Expell™d and exil™d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labours, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won

Latin and the Romans

The Latian realm, and built the destin™d town;
His banish™d gods restor™d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

This kind of rhythm can be sustained inde¬nitely, and indeed the
whole Aeneid runs to some 10,000 lines. The plot is already pretty
clear from the lines we have quoted. The hero, Aeneas, was on the
losing Trojan side in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans,
which took place on the west coast of what is now Turkey. He escaped
across the sea together with a number of companions, and after
many adventures they landed on the coast of Latium, where they
became the ancestors of the Romans. Aeneas himself is said to have
been the ancestor of the Julian clan, of which among others the
Emperor Augustus was a member.
The poem is a saga of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses.
Aeneas™ mother is the goddess Venus, and the whole thing is obvi-
ously designed to provide the Romans, and in particular the emperor,
with a famous and ¬tting ancestry. Aeneas ¬ts the bill in every way.
He is handsome and strong, pious and brave, serious and wise,
indeed just a bit too perfect in some people™s eyes. In any case, what
makes this great poem worth reading for us is less the glori¬cation
of Rome and the Romans than the powerful emotions that are
conveyed.Virgil™s underlying tone is one of magni¬cent melancholy
which can easily captivate readers. The poem is basically about
míseri mortales ˜wretched mortals™; in other words you and me.This
atmosphere is nowhere more evident than in the famous episode
when Aeneas, in his wanderings, arrives in Carthage, which is ruled
by Queen Dido. Soon they are caught up in a passionate love affair
and Dido thinks that Aeneas is going to marry her and become king
of Carthage. But the messenger of the gods, Hermes, comes to him
and tells him that this will not do. Aeneas™ mission in life is to go to
Italy and found Rome. Obediently, he orders his men back to the
ships and sets sail again, while Dido in her despair burns herself on
a pyre, cursing the deceitful coward.

A natural history of Latin

The plot is every bit as convoluted as a TV soap opera.One difference,
though, is that Virgil sympathizes with both sides, with Dido who is
betrayed and with Aeneas who betrays her out of a sense of duty. In
Virgil™s world everyone has a heavy burden to carry. A close friend of
Virgil™s was another famous poet, Horace. He takes life a bit less seri-
ously than Virgil but is perhaps just as important. Many of his poems
too are in hexameters, but their tone is conversational, even chatty,
rather than tragic and heroic. They are nimble, carefully argued texts,
but for all that ones where the associations sometimes seem to move in
unpredictable directions.
Horace is best known for his collections of relatively short poems
called Odes. These are written in a variety of metres, normally with
stanzas of four lines each. The poems are about various things, such as
politics,friendship,and love,but a lot of them are also about how to live,
wisdom in verse as it were.The beginning of one of the poems runs:

Otium divos rogat in patenti
prensus Aegaeo, simul atra nubes
condidit lunam neque certa fulgent
sidera nautis;
otium bello furiosa Trace,
otium Medi pharetra decori,
Grosphe, non gemmis neque purpura
venale nec auro.
Non enim gazae neque consularis
summovet lictor miseros tumultus
mentis et curas laqueata circum
tecta volantis.
Vivitur parvo bene, cui paternum
splendet in mensa tenui salinum
nec levis somnos timor aut cupido
sordidus aufert.
Quid brevi fortes iaculamur aevo
multa? Quid terras alio calentis
sole mutamus? Patriae quis exsul
se quoque fugit?

Latin and the Romans

Literally translated this means:

[The sailor], caught in a storm on the open Aegean prays for peace when
a dark cloud has hidden the moon and the ¬xed stars no longer shine for
sailors. For ease [prays] Thrace furious in war, for ease [prays] the Mede
with his decorated quiver, peace, Grosphus, which is not to be bought
with jewels or purple or gold. Neither treasure nor the consul™s lictor can
dispel the miserable disturbances of the mind and the cares that ¬‚y
around the panelled ceilings. He lives well on a little, that man whose
father™s salt-cellar shines on his modest table, and whose quiet sleep
sordid greed and fear does not take away. Why do we strive so hard in our
short lives for so many things? Why do we change our countries for ones
warmed by a different sun? What exile from his own country ever
escaped himself as well?

And here is what it sounds like in a verse translation by
John Conington, a former Professor of Latin at the University of

For ease, in wide Aegean caught,
The sailor prays, when clouds are hiding
The moon, nor shines of starlight aught
For seaman™s guiding:
For ease the Mede, with quiver gay:
For ease rude Thrace, in battle cruel:
Can purple buy it, Grosphus? Nay,
Nor gold, nor jewel.
No pomp, no lictor clears the way
™Mid rabble-routs of troublous feelings,
Nor quells the cares that sport and play
Round gilded ceilings.
More happy he whose modest board
His father™s well-worn silver brightens;
No fear, nor lust for sordid hoard,
His light sleep frightens.
Why bend our bows of little span?
Why change our homes for regions under
Another sun? What exiled man
From self can sunder?

A natural history of Latin

As often in ancient poetry there are allusions which need explaining.
Thrace is the home of the Thracians, who together with the Medes
were peoples that the Romans were at war with. Lictors were a kind
of policemen who also served as bodyguards for the leading ¬gures
in the state; hence to have a crowd of lictors around one was to have
reached the pinnacle of society. Grosphus is the person to whom
the poem is addressed. Moderation and calm, and the ability to enjoy
life as long as one has it, are the things Horace prefers to talk about.
The message is low-key and unsensational, but it has appealed to
many over the centuries. Amongst poets writing in English
who imitated the structure and style of the Horatian ode we may
mention Marvell, Gray, and Keats. Here is the beginning of a famous
poem by Andrew Marvell entitled ˜An Horatian Ode upon
Cromwell™s Return from Ireland™:
The forward youth that would appear
Must now forsake his Muses dear,
Nor in the shadows sing
His numbers languishing.
™Tis time to leave the books in dust,
And oil th™ unused armour™s rust,
Removing from the wall
The corslet of the hall.
So restless Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace,
But thorough advent™rous war
Urged his active star.

Virgil and Horace, like their younger contemporary Ovid, became
writers who have been read in schools from their own time right
up until today. Latin was the most important school subject for
almost two thousand years, as I shall explain later. The reading of
poetry was always part of the school curriculum (from Latin
currículum ˜a race™ built on cúrrere ˜to run™), and so these poems
have become better known than any others in the whole history of

Latin and the Romans

Of course, the Romans did not stop writing poetry after the time
of Augustus, when the most famous poets lived. But none of their
successors really reached the same level either in achievement or,
above all, in fame. A good number of poems from later antiquity
have survived and several of them are very readable, for example
the satirical poems by Juvenal, but hardly anyone but specialists
actually reads them nowadays.

Philosophy: Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca
The word philosophy is Greek and means something like ˜love of
wisdom™. For the Greeks it included most kinds of systematic search
for what is true and right. As is well known, their achievements in
the realm of philosophy were paramount, and still today much of
what the best Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle wrote
has lost none of its signi¬cance and importance.
Roman philosophy was entirely based on this great Greek
tradition, with its various attempts to explain the world and to estab-
lish the norms by which one should live one™s life. The Romans did
not introduce many new philosophical ideas but they did transfer
the thoughts of the Greeks into Latin, making a few modi¬cations
along the way. Nonetheless, the Roman philosophers are very import-
ant for two reasons. First, they communicated the essence of Greek
philosophy to everyone who could read Latin, which was to prove
very valuable in the later history of European thought. Second, they
created a terminology for philosophical reasoning which was then
there to be used by the many signi¬cant original thinkers who
subsequently wrote in Latin, from Augustine and the Church
Fathers of late antiquity right down to Descartes and Spinoza in the
seventeenth century.
In fact the ¬rst major philosophical work in Latin turned out to be
in¬‚uential even later than that. Its title is De rerum natura ˜On the

A natural history of Latin

Nature of Things™, and it was written by Lucretius, who died in 55 bce.
This work also falls within the poetic tradition since it is a long didactic
poem in hexameters, the same metre as Virgil used for the Aeneid.
Lucretius was a passionate adherent of the Greek philosopher
Epicurus. To the extent that people know anything at all about
Epicurus today it is as an advocate of pleasure as the supreme good;
pleasure-loving people are therefore sometimes known as Epicureans.
But Lucretius took no notice of that side of his philosophy. To him,
Epicurus was the man who had the courage to explain the whole
world rationally with the aid of the theory of atomism and so sweep
aside all superstitious fear of the gods and of unknown powers.
Already near the beginning of the poem we ¬nd the line Tantum
religio potuit suadere malorum ˜Such evil has religion been able to
cause!™ (In the word order of Latin: ˜so-much religion has-been-able
to-cause of-evils™.)
This poem on the nature of things consists of six books, each of
which is more than a thousand lines long. The ¬rst two books are
about atoms, and how everything in the world is built up out of
them, and how in the end everything breaks back down into atoms
again. Books three and four are about the soul, the will and sensa-
tions, and stress materialist and rational explanations for what we
experience and feel. Books ¬ve and six are about the universe and
the external forces that act on human beings, such as bad weather
and illness. Plagues are explained, for instance, as due to bad air
and the transmission of infection, and in consequence they have
nothing to do with punishments visited on us by the gods. The
whole work concludes with a striking illustration of this line of
argument, a grand and terrifying description of the plague in
Elsewhere in the poem Lucretius is not always good at ¬nding
really striking examples or parallels to illuminate his work. A lot of
the text is inevitably dense scienti¬c analysis, even if it is conducted
in verse. Sometimes he encounters, and indeed complains of, the
dif¬culty of transferring Greek scienti¬c terminology into Latin.
At one point he talks about patrii sermonis egestas ˜the poverty of

Latin and the Romans

the language inherited from our forefathers™. From a strictly literary
point of view, therefore, the text is rather uneven. Some parts, such
as the introduction, are among the best things that have ever been
written in Latin, and the great master of Latin poetry, Virgil, learnt a
lot from reading Lucretius. Other parts, by contrast, are rather
wooden. But then we must remember that the purpose behind
this poem was not simply to create a work of art. Lucretius was a
missionary for Epicurus in Latin, and his passion was to make
human beings appreciate that the world was ruled by understand-
able natural forces. He was an apostle of science, materialism, and
For a long time it seemed as if his message did not get through. In
Rome he was never read very much, and in general the philosophy
of Epicurus was pushed into the background by the Stoic ethic of
duty and piety. Christianity took over most of the ideas of Stoicism,
leaving Lucretius and his teachers to stand in the corner with the
pagans for almost two thousand years. However, Epicurean thought
was revived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The eigh-
teenth century saw the Enlightenment and the new science, which
abandoned the link with religion and reinforced the interest in the
ideas of the Epicureans. In the nineteenth century, the fundamental


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