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Fall 2015

What’s Relevant? Roman History and Latin Literature

TO THE POINT: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 25, 1973

Russell Kirk

Having written some books concerned with the history of ideas, I sometimes am asked, “What period of history ought young people to study nowadays, to understand the world we live in?” And I answer, “The history of Rome in the age of Augustus.”

This response surprises some people. What, the history of a dead civilization about the beginning of the Christian era? Yes, precisely. For America today is curiously like Augustan Rome.

Like Rome, America has become the greatest power in the world—without ever quite intending to be anything of the sort. Like Rome, modern America confronts the difficult problem of trying to reconcile its old moral convictions with the luxury and appetites of its new condition. Like Rome during the time of Augustus Caesar, twentieth-century America endeavors to preserve constitutional forms and liberties in a time of increased executive power. Like Augustan Rome, the United States today is troubled by urban confusion and rural decay. And there exist many other parallels.

So if we are talking about “relevance,” nothing in history is more relevant to our present discontents than the attempt at social and moral reinvigoration which was undertaken by Augustus and his friends. The “Pax Americana” to which President Nixon aspires, for instance, curiously resembles Augustus’ establishment of the Roman Peace.

Then people ask me, “What body of literature has the greatest meaning for us nowadays?” And I tell them, “Latin literature.” It is a great deal more important that some of us should understand Cicero and Virgil, say, than that we should immerse ourselves in those ephemeral publications which make up the best-seller lists. For Cicero and Virgil speak to certain permanent aspects of the human condition.

In American high schools, the study of Latin reached its height between 1900 and 1910, when about half of the pupils studied Latin literature. In recent years, Latin has vanished altogether from a great many high schools: more’s the pity.

Dr. John F. Latimer, executive secretary of the American Classical League, recently published a useful pamphlet entitled “The New Case for Latin and the Classics.”

Latin, Professor Latimer writes, “is the only European language, widely studied and known, that carries in its extant literature the roots of Western civilization. This can be said of no other language, not even Greek, important as that language has been and still is for the development of our culture and civilization.

“Latin’s contribution to English vocabulary and its common source of the Romance tongues makes it unique among the languages of the world. Latin and Greek together with Hebrew constitute the linguistic and cultural trinity that is still influencing the destiny of Western man … Advancing technology combined with great knowledge of antiquity and more refined techniques of teaching can make these values and pleasures available to oncoming generations and help to preserve for posterity a continuing awareness of our debt to Greece and Rome.”

Amen to that. My own formal discipline in Latin amounts to no more than two years of study in high school. I could not think now of writing an essay in Latin, let alone delivering an oration in that tongue. And yet my own small knowledge of Latin enables me to understand classical history far better than I could otherwise; it gives me a far better mastery of the English language; and it helps me to apprehend Christian teaching.

If one knows Latin tolerably well, he can learn easily enough French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian. If one knows something of Roman history, he can see our own age more realistically and with less prejudice. Culture is not “dead” unless we kill it.  

Posted: November 15, 2015 in To the Point.

Did you see this one?

Shaping Memoir and History
Charles Jeanfreau
Volume 45, Number 1 (Winter 2007)

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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