J. FARRELL, Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xiv + 148. ISBN 0-521-77663-5 STG £15 (Pb).
Review by Anna Chahoud
The study of Latin in our school and university curricula has too often become associated and not only in the mind of the few students who are still willing to embark on the venture with the idea of monotonous immutability. Endless hours are spent on normative grammar with a view to acquiring the skills necessary to make sense of a very limited set of ‘compulsory’ texts from the Classical age. There is a risk of forgetting that the Latin language was used as a means of communication and in various ways it went on living past the disintegration of the political unity of the Roman Empire and well beyond its boundaries. It is therefore refreshing to see a new book emphasising, in little more than one hundred pages in small paperback format, all that Latin culture has to offer in terms of language variation, social diversity, and intellectual ‘otherness’. Joseph Farrell calls upon Cicero as a validating authority on the matter (133):
‘Variety (uarietas) is a Latin word and is properly used of different colors, but metaphorically of many differences: one speaks of a varied poem, a varied speech, varied character, varied fortune, even of varied pleasure when one feels different pleasures from the effects of many different things.’
This excerpt from Cicero’s treatise De finibus 2.10 comes unexpectedly to mark the closure of Farrell’s passionate case for a new, vivifying and rewarding approach to the language of Latin culture.
The required definition is given in Chapter 1 (‘The Nature of Latin culture’). Farrell convincingly argues that Roman identity has little to do with natural connections with the city of Rome. Few Romans were born in Rome. Atticus, Cicero’s friend, was ‘that rarest of creatures in Latin culture … as the phrase goes, a “Roman from Rome” ’ (25); and yet his family name (Pomponius) revealed his Sabellian origin, and his cognomen (Atticus) declared his preference for Greece. Latin culture is viewed as the product of a social construction determined by the deliberate choice of Rome as adoptive fatherland (patria) and of Latin as a linguistic model. Cicero’s doctrine of the two fatherlands (Laws, 2.5-6, discussed at 18 ff.) demonstrates that ‘the claims of culture are clearly privileged over those of nature’ (24). To an extent this proposition applies to language as well. Correct Latin (Latinitas) is an acquisition rather than a natural datum: ‘the concept of “native speakers” of Latin is highly problematized by the wide-spread, ages-old tendency to imagine the language almost exclusively as a highly constructed cultural artifact’ (111). Interestingly, the theoretical foundations of this Roman ‘cultural artifact’ are, in fact, Greek. The Latin language is the product of a mixed civilization, as poetically sanctioned by Virgil’s Jupiter at the end of the Aeneid (12.829-840), a passage interpreted by Farrell as ‘a scene of initiation … the script for countless interactions played out across the centuries by thousands of readers, students of Latin, students of grammar’ (25).
How Latin culture ‘continues to write itself’ in relation to Greek is illustrated in Chapter 2 (‘The Poverty of our Ancestral Speech’). The very concept of ‘good Latin’ (Latinitas) springs from a Greek model (Hellenismos, ‘Greekness’), of which it retains and expands all implications concerning ‘cultural and ethnic identity’ (37). This ‘analogical ideal’ implies a constant effort at assimilation and ideological appropriation. A conspicuous example is the ‘poverty topos’ which Roman authors elaborated when discussing the potential of their own language. The theme, which ‘runs through Latin literature and through the reception of Latin literature in all periods’ (28) owes its name (patrii sermonis egestas) to Lucretius, and while guiding us through a close reading of significant passages of Lucretius’ Roman rewriting of Epicurean philosophy, Farrell warns us against mistaking ‘poverty’ for ‘inadequacy’ or ‘inferiority’. After all, ‘poverty’ is a Roman ethical value: ‘the praise of an unassuming, even a hardscrabble way of life is a constant theme, representing almost an article of faith’ (51). When the Romans draw attention to the paucity of their resources, they are often making a point of national pride and setting their standards against Greek (i.e. decadent, corrupt, immoral) abundance.
In Chapter 3 (‘The Gender of Latin’), Farrell explores another myth of Latin culture, whereby ‘Latin claims the masculine and regularly attempt to feminize the Greek’ (53), as in Horace’s image of Greece as ‘a captive woman who has fallen into the possession of a victorious, Latin speaking, male conqueror’ (Epist. 2.1.56 Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes / intulit agresti Latio). The Romans imagined their language as gendered masculine a ‘father tongue’ (patrius sermo). Social constructs function at morphological level (63) and shape the sphere of literary acceptability. What do we know about Roman feminine voices? There is no Roman Sappho. Farrell argues that most records were silenced through the persistent identification of feminine speech with emotional disorder. And yet, what little evidence is extant is well worth consideration. Farrell looks for Latin ‘feminine voices’ and finds traces of the sermo of e.g. Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (Corn. Nep. fr. 59 Marshall), of Laelia, the daughter of C. Laelius Sapiens (Cic. De orat. 3.41-2), of Hortensia, the wife of the orator Hortensius (Val. Max. 8.3.3). Mothers, daughters, wives: ‘the Roman woman never fully escapes from her relationship to at least one man’ (74). This state of affairs begins to change with Christianity, which offers interesting surprises to readers prepared to go beyond Classical antiquity. Farrell draws our attention to neglected texts such as the diary of the martyr Vibia Perpetua (3rd century AD) and advises against accepting a ‘restrictive construction of latinity’ (78) that inevitably disallows late and/or substandard texts.
The strictures of literary history are further challenged in Chapter 4 (‘The Life Cycle of Dead Languages’). Farrell insists on the importance of understanding Latin studies as a unified field as against long-established patterns of periodization and consequently limited syllabus. Here lies the core of the leading argument of the book, as advertised by its title (84):
‘I want to maintain that Latin culture is best and most fully represented by the Latin language itself, and that it should be seen as a larger and more unified area than traditional disciplinary structures currently allow.’
The notion of ‘language death’ is here explored in conjunction with the more important question as to the possibility and modes of ‘afterlife’ (105 ff.). Farrell reminds us that Latin was both a spoken language and a cultural construct, implying a permanent status of diglossia (111). If the ancient Romans are gone and nobody will ever succeed to revive their speech, their civilization remains along with the language they created to describe it. Farrell therefore suggests that the future of Latin studies ought to be built not so much on implausible revivals of Latin as through the replacement of the metaphors we have always used as interpretive models. These tend to focus on the idea of decline (life, death and rebirth / ‘golden and silver, bronze and iron’: the ‘biometallic model’, 90 ff.). The proposal for a more generous metaphor is put forward in Chapter 5 (‘The Voices of Latin Culture’). Farrell suggests viewing the whole of Latinity (including Neo-Latin texts) as a mosaic or a musical piece, each element of which is equally valuable though retaining its own identity. The ‘cultural polyphony’ model (124) would embrace historical consciousness and synchronicity, thus opening the door to texts chronologically or linguistically departing from the notion of ‘correct latinity’. Farrell had pointed out earlier in the book that this notion was ‘measured by ‘standards established by a few generations of the ruling class of a single city’ (40).
Latin Language and Latin Culture is a constructive and beneficial addition to our reading list. All Latin is either translated or thoroughly explained. The style is clear and unpretentious, making a pleasant read not only for literary critics but also those who have no interest in current critical jargon. It gives both a friendly introduction to the complexities of the Latin language and an interesting overview of Latin studies. Farrell touches upon issues of transmission (e.g. 73), illustrates various modern perceptions of Latin (including contemptuous attitudes such as W.B. Yeats’, 35 f.), and investigates myths connecting language and race (e.g. 100 ff.). Most importantly, Farrell succeeds in making the same fundamental point that the present reviewer found stated in the far more demanding equivalent course text of her undergraduate days: ‘Latin will be saved not by making many study it badly, but by making a few study it well’.