Latin Einstein on the Beach
The first time I went to the beach with Reginald Foster was July 2007. I was with a group of international students who had come to Rome to study with the Vatican’s Secretary of Latin Letters. It was Sunday and we had traveled south along the Tyrrhenian coast to Formia, first by foot, then by bus and two trains, for some seaside fun. We were a block from the beach, swimsuits and towels in hand, but our first stop was an abandoned lot just off the main drag of the resort town. We gathered around a chain-link fence, took out our “Sheets”—a stapled packet of photocopies, 14 x 22 inches in size, filled with what amounted to the complete ancient testimonia on Formia—and flipped to a passage from Cicero’s letters. Formia had been the site of one of Cicero’s exurban villas. Foster announced, with equal parts historical confidence and mythical suggestiveness, that Cicero had dictated the letter to his secretary Tiro on that very spot. Afterwards, we made our way down the road to a stone tower called the Tomba di Cicerone, the place where the Roman orator-statesman is purported to be buried. Again we stopped and again we read Cicero, this time the inflammatory invective against Marc Antony that would ultimately lead to his decapitation and dismemberment. We then went to the beach.
Foster, a larger-than-life figure in the world of Latin education, has written a larger-than-life Latin textbook, Ossa Latinitatis Sola, or The Mere Bones of Latin. (The book is co-written with longtime collaborator Daniel P. McCarthy OSB.) It is his life’s work condensed to just over eight hundred pages, each one filled with enthusiasm for and meticulous study of the language to which Foster has dedicated his life. The Ossa is impressive in scale and scope, nearly maniacal in ambition, and for these reasons, often humbling. The Ossa is also as idiosyncratic as the man himself. If you were curious about why I began a review of a Latin textbook with an anecdote about a daytrip to the Italian coast, consider this anecdote from the book’s preface: when Foster first received his initial drafts of the hundreds of pages of Latin grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and everything in between, he exclaimed, “You could read this on the beach!”
The Ossa does not have chapters. It has Experiences and Encounters, a structure which Foster used to organize his decades of teaching at the Gregorianum in Rome. The First Experience plunges students into the fundamentals of grammar. The Fifth Experience is for all intents and purposes a lifetime of reading Latin literature on one’s own. The heavy lifting of, to use Foster’s words, “how to deal the language” makes up the middle. The Second Experience is “direct and immediate application” of spoken Latin, while the Third and Fourth Experiences treat the accumulated nuance of Latin grammar with the subjunctive, sequence of tenses, participles, ablative absolute, and indirect discourse among others dispatched in dizzying succession. Foster stresses repeatedly that the Latin language is not some mystical code dropped from the heavens but rather a genuine vehicle for human communication. And so, we encounter it, we experience it. Latin is not a knot to untie or a code to crack. At its best, it is something closer to the Sunday Times crossword puzzle—an object of difficulty, but also one of beauty and intellectual pleasure.
Like a crossword puzzle, the only strategy for success is to dive right in. “Literature will teach you,” he tells us. “Literature remains our guide,” he writes. Foster’s approach is pure ad fontes, immersive and inductive. We learn through exposure to the genuine article. But we do not need to go it alone. Foster is there to lead us through our life’s Latin journey. If Latin were the Divine Comedy, Foster would be our Virgil guiding us up from the depths. So, in the First Encounter of the Ossa, our teacher reveals to us the “Glue” of the language—twelve maxims for orienting oneself through Latin, a kind of philological rules of engagement—where we learn for example that “Each Latin sentence has a trap; every sentence is an adventure” and that we should “never begin blindly with the first word.” You will not learn Latin from the Glue, but you will develop the mindset for bringing Latin gradually into focus if you are patient, diligent, and rigorous in your studies. To allay any doubts about the importance placed on these virtues of Latin studiousness, Foster requires his students to sign an “academic contract” before they begin, a contract which is reprinted in the book’s opening pages.
Each Experience concludes with an example of his “Sheets,” roughly fifty pages of readings drawn from the Latin authors. Passages are selected with the kind of methodical randomness with which I used to make mixtapes in college: personal favorite juxtaposed against personal favorite, sequenced for maximum interest, variety, and pleasure. No consideration is given to the difficulty of the passages (“Latin is what it is, there is no such thing as easy Latin or difficult Latin.”) Latin exists and Latin must be dealt with. Foster, fond himself of musical analogies, views the corpus of Latin literature the way a classical radio station views its repertoire: a deep, deep catalog of composers and works, covering centuries and falling into genres and subgenres and micro-subgenres, all of which deserve an audience. By Foster’s reasoning, an aspiring pianist needs to reckon with the “whole reality” of the tradition and just start playing the piano. More exposure, more practice, more growth. Accordingly, rote lists of hic, haec, hoc and amo, amas, amat are inevitably a waste of time because students would always be better served immersing themselves in the Sheets.
The Encounters vary widely, not so much in quality, which is high throughout, but in size and range. Some of the most successful chapters have a listicle feel, like “Ten Ways to Use the Relative Pronoun Qui” (Encounter 79) or “Fourteen Ways to Express Purpose” (Encounter 84). Others are barely longer than a paragraph, the shortest of these having a Zen-like quality. For example, Encounter 74, only 250 or so words, recommends that students take the opportunity to “forget and relearn everything you know.” (The chapter is amusingly enough on Latin verbs of remembering. Humor is perhaps not the first quality that people associate with a Latin textbook, but I will admit to laughing out loud more than once as I read the Ossa.) Still, the real highlight of the book can be found in Foster’s lengthy disquisitions on his favorite topics, such as modal attraction of the subjunctive (Encounter 85) or dative and ablative verbal complements (Encounter 89). I have been in the room when Foster would pontificate on these finer points of the language. Future generations are fortunate that Foster has committed to writing these often sui generis but always convincing explanations of Latin grammatical phenomena.
This will be an unusual confession for a book reviewer to make, but I have not read every word of Foster’s book. The Ossa is a life’s work in two senses. On the one hand, it is clearly Foster’s magnum opus, a thick paperback distillation of his five decades of day-in, day-out devotion to language instruction. On the other hand, the book contains nearly three hundred pages of unglossed and uncommented Latin—the aforementioned Sheets—meant to be dipped into, sampled, skimmed, and, yes, appreciated for the literature that it is—in time. So, while I have not read the book verbatim, I can vouch for Foster’s instincts as an anthologist. It is great to see old friends like Cicero and Horace, alongside authors I’ve grown to love outside classics proper like Erasmus, in turn alongside authors previously unknown to me like the eleventh-century Benedictine scholar, Othloh Emmeram. The Sheets impressively covers Latin’s longue durée from the second century BCE (Plautus’s Asinaria) to the twenty-first century CE (Maurus Pisini’s Apollo et Hyacinthus). I have no doubt that I will be enjoying these passages for months and even years to come and the classics community owes Foster a huge debt of gratitude for compiling a sort of greatest hits of the first two millennia of Latin literature.
For many teachers and students, the Ossa will be the first opportunity to immerse themselves in Foster’s unique brand of Latin education. Fortunately, the book captures Foster’s style and voice beautifully. “You cannot put 1,000 Latin words into a mixer and pull them out at random and have them make sense.” This is pure Reginald Foster and there are hundreds of perfectly quotable sentences like this throughout. I have some concerns about how effective the book will be in practice, though. It is pedagogically sound, rigorous, and thorough, but it is also extremely long. It could take years for a beginning student to work through this book. As I read, reminiscing about my own time at Latin summer school, I found myself wondering if, without Foster himself there in the room to usher you through the text, whether the whole thing would click. This is a danger for any textbook, I suppose, but it seems all the more acute for a book so closely tied to such an outsized personality. Still, this feels a bit like complaining that my pile of diamonds has gotten a bit dusty. The Ossa is a treasure, and is recommended reading for both Latin adepts and the Latin curious. Whether you toss the Ossa in your beach tote is a different question entirely.
Patrick J. Burns works as a Classics researcher in New York City. He writes about Latin and digital philology on Twitter at @diyclassics.
Posted: April 9, 2017
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