Sunday 5 June 2011

Let them eat lettuce

In today's post, Christopher refers to the Latin writer Horace, whose Odes he studied for Latin A Level.  I read Ars Poetica for mine, and loved it.  I still mutter quotations from it at pertinent moments, although it's better not to do so out loud, because that would be very irritating.

Another writer we studied was Pliny, who wrote a lot of letters and then published them.  I've forgotten most of the ones we read and translated, but there are a few that still stand out in my memory.

Pliny the younger was the nephew of the elder Pliny, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius.  He wasn't there when the volcano erupted, but dutifully went to see what was going on, and also to attempt to rescue people in his boat, and was overcome by fumes. Pliny wrote a very interesting account of what went on, brought back to him by survivors.

I joined the class in its second year, having left school with two A levels (English and History) because my school, on the verge of closing down, had a severely limited range of subjects to choose from.  I had flunked Latin and chosen to learn to type instead of taking French, but in the Upper Sixth I changed my mind, took up both of them again and passed, and then decided I wanted to take A levels in both subjects.  I had, years earlier, skipped a year so I was not quite 18 at the start of the school year and went to the local high school for an extra crack at exam-taking.

I struggled to keep up, I have to confess, especially in Latin where there were several very clever girls specialising in languages - how anyone can learn Russian and Ancient Greek at the same time beats me, I couldn't have attempted it - but when you don't know your limitations, you are less daunted by them and I persevered.

At the start of one lesson, I observed some chuckling going on.  The teacher was going round the class and each girl (it was a co-ed school, but it so happened that Latin, that year, was only being taken by girls) had to translate a couple of lines.  Since I always sat near the back, I'd only bothered to prepare the second half of the epistle - well, I say bothered, but I was being pragmatic.  It took me longer than everyone else to do half the work - so I didn't know why, but they'd worked out that the embarrassing line was going to be translated by the most unsophisticated girl in the class.  I'd had to make an effort to be less shy, joining a new school, and I had reasonable social skills in any case, which were the reasons that was not me.

The subject of the epistle was a shocking incident that had happened at the baths.  There was a rich, elderly Roman who was notoriously cruel to his slaves and some of them attacked and tried to kill him. It described how one slave seized him while others hit him in his face and private parts.  I can't remember the Latin for private parts, but that's the direct translation.  Poor Elaine stammered and stopped when she got to that bit and couldn't carry on.  "Groin, translate it as groin," said the teacher, kindly.

As I remember, for I'm sure you will want to know, the Roman survived the attack for a few days, but then died and the slaves were put to death horribly, although some of them escaped.  Interestingly, the rich Roman's father had been a freed slave (as was Horace's father) and it's perhaps surprising that he was so unpleasant to his own slaves.

The third epistle that I remember was unintentionally hilarious if meant solemnly, but still entertaining if written as a tease (which it probably was, no one could be that pompous and not mean to be).  He had invited a friend to dinner, but the friend didn't show up.  Pliny wrote to reprimand him, saying that he had to pay up the not inconsiderable value of the feast - which included a whole lettuce.  Each!  As well as three snails and two eggs!  Presumably, the no-show had preferred to watch dancing girls and eat sea-urchins than have intelligent conversation and listen to a poetry recital, scolded Pliny.

No wonder one's schooldays are remembered with such fondness, hem hem.  I did scrape through the exams, but with no glory at all, getting Es.


Anonymous said...

I love my lettuce but I really couldn't eat a whole one. And especially not with snails!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Z:
Ex Africa semper aliquid novi! The same may also be said of Razor -Blade of Life.

Z said...

Sometimes, the snails come as a bonus, or slugs at any rate!

Or sometimes something very old, Jane and Lance...

Dave said...

I never completed my Latin homework - canis meus id comedit.

Z said...

Ho ho, Dave.

Vagabonde said...

I did not take Latin. In my school if you took Latin you also took extra math for some reason. But if you took a modern language then you had to take another one too. I took Italian and English and enjoyed both. You were brave to take Latin. I did take Russian later on. Thanks for coming to my blog.

Unknown said...

Sum, es, est, sumis, estis, sunt - about all that remains!

Z said...

I wasn't given a choice, I was in the A stream so took Latin and French. When I went to the other school and discovered the range of subjects I could have taken (I always wanted to learn Ancient Greek) I wished I'd been there all along.

Me too, Mike. My Latin is up to Dave's quip of the dog having eaten his homework, but that's it. Christopher's command of Latin is impressive, however.

Christopher said...

Vero exaggeras, Z dilecta. But have you - or anyone else - tried eating sea urchins? They're the fiddliest things, sharp spikes all over, and all you get from them, once you've contrived to get inside, is a tiny scrape of pink iodine- and salt-flavoured slime that barely covers a mustard spoon. You need every atom of your concentration for this - take your eye off for a moment and you're spiked - so dancing girls would be more of an alternative than a concomitant.

Rosie said...

We never had such interesting stories at my school. I wasn't even allowed to take Latin...or woodwork. I was allowed to take Domestic Science, a horribly wrong thing to force me to do as a child. A gift of a box of coloured pencils to a four year old girl with tonsilitis changed my life.
But I would have loved your stories. We were shamed by James Bond dropping his swimming 84.

Z said...

I actually rather want to try a sea urchin from your description, Chris. Although it would, I suppose be rather unkind to deprive the unfortunate creature of life just so I could be mildly, enjoyably, revolted.

Rosie, it was an art teacher that so put me off the subject that I never have willingly painted or drawn since. I would have liked to learn to draw, but she wanted big paintings that were beyond my inhibited capabilities and she rubbished my tentative attempts using a quarter of the paper.

My first two attempts at Latin O Level, the set book was Caesar's Gallic Wars, too boring to read in any language (the second time, I received the lowest possible grade, a 9!). The third was a book of the Aeneid, which was brilliant, and I passed.

Z said...

BTW, it's been terribly gratifying to be able to read and understand all the Latin in these comments. Thank you for speaking to me at just my level.

Anonymous said...

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres ... Oh Lord ... and so it rumbles onwards, Caesar here, caesar there, it's all about Caesar.
Later we read Cicero, Tusculanes disp. and Catilina; Ovid, ars amatoria and metamorphoses - difficult. Finally Aeneis, subject of the final exams.
Of course we first had to work through Julius' boring hq dispatches so we could see Cicero's finesse.

Z said...

Arma virumque cano is so much more enticing, isn't it? I still think it's one of the best opening lines of any book.

luckyzmom said...

I say WHAT? It's all
Greek to me.

Z said...

Okay -
There's always something new out of Africa
A dog ate my homework
I am, You are, He/she/it is,We are,You are,They are
You exaggerate the truth, dear Z
All Gaul is divided into three parts
I sing of arms and the man

I tried Greek when Al learned it, but it was too late. It was beyond me.

Anonymous said...

I do not have the symbols here - and I'm sorry for poking at the Greek "point" - but the best line imho is the opening of the Iliad:

"MENIN aeide thea ..."
Vom ZORN mir singe oh Göttin ...

Our Greek teacher explained and showed us the beginning of the Iliad - not in a half baked way, but pretty (this audio is a bit tiring), well, exploding: It's about a mans furor, anger.

He was a born Bohemian in his late fifties, a gentle, softspoken and highly learned man. He teached us from 9th grade onwards, must have been ... 1978? And of course he had us. He had a wicked sense of humour too.
I can still read it, but I forgot the words. I had to use Latin all through my studium, sometimes I gave lessons (Nachhilfe, tutoring?), and sometimes I am still asked by colleagues to help with translations.
The "best" (sorry) Latin I ever saw was written by Thomas Aquinas in his summa. I had to work through pars secunda secundae quaestiones 96 seq. (superstitio, incantationes, pactum). I feel a deep respect for the doctor.
But I never ever understood mathematics, I am nearly illiterate in this field. A number is a nice or interesting graphical sign with a semiotic impact - but I can not decipher it: I know, but do not understand.

Z said...

I don't think I'd be able to choose a best opening line, but then I wouldn't be able to decide on a single 'best' anything. Another favourite is Paradise Lost Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe
- but indeed, Of Mans First Disobedience sets the scene and tickles the curiosity, which is what's wanted from an opening line.
If one does not speak or understand a language, one relies on the quality of the translation, most of all in poetry, and yet the resonance of the original words are part of its beauty, of course.
The best teachers stay with you all your life, don't they?

As for dyscalculia, I'm not sure that much attention has been paid to it, in the way that it has for dyslexia. It's different, of course, because difficulty with reading does not indicate a lack of understanding of words or language, whereas one can read numbers and use them accurately, to whatever extent, without actually understanding them.