The Roman empire might have long gone, but its legacy remains strong even to this day.
Did you know that sixty percent of the English language comes from Latin?
Latin stopped being taught in most schools from the early 1970s, which was a dreadful mistake because of its foundational influence not only on English but also all of the Romance languages – Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese – (the Romance referring to Roman).
It can be argued that Latin never really went away. Even after the Empire fell, many of the governmental systems and procedures inherited by the Romans continue and found its way into permanent use in law, science, medicine and biology with these things kept alive by the Christian church – specifically the Catholic church.
Many common phrases and short forms we use today would be familiar to the Romans – as would some proverbs.
Here are some familiar ones:
- alea iascta est – The die is cast
- audentes fortuna iuvat – Fortune favours the bold
- errare humanum est – To err is human
- ophidia in herba – Snake in the grass
- Let’s not forget the good ole Carpe diem: “Seize the day.”
And one of my favourites from Cicero – Non nobis solum nati sumus – we are not born for ourselves alone.
One that I used in Dark Heart, and which appears as a recurring motif, has a double meaning: optimi natatores saepius submerguntur – The best swimmers often drown.
Even if you never learned Latin, you could make a good stab at understanding its meaning in three of the words at least:
- Optimi = optimal/best/ideal
- Natatores = swimmer (you might have to go back to your high school French to pick up notation for swimming
- Submerguntur = that looks close enough to submerge to infer that it means drown
Today we might describe the same moral as pride goes before a fall.
The phrase is particularly apt for my hero Marcus Cornelius Drusus who is a swimmer. He receives this warning from his best friend Lucius, while on the trail of a murderous cult planning to further destablise the Empire.
So next time you read a book excerpt you will know that it comes from the Latin ‘ex’ out of and ‘carpere’ to pluck and literally means to pluck out and has been commonly used in English since the 1630s.
So bring back Latin, I say! And making the case far better than I could is Charlotte Higgins:
What else? Children learning it will quickly start to read the great classics of Latin literature. After a couple of years, Catullus and Martial. After three, Virgil, Pliny, Ovid, Cicero. Soon come Horace, Lucretius, Tacitus. This is tough, uncompromisingly difficult stuff – but also offers entry into an astonishing world, a lost world that paradoxically offers itself up vividly and excitingly through its literature. These great writers lie at the head of a western tradition in writing that enfolds Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Eliot, Heaney. To be a good reader of English and Irish literature alone,
knowledge of the literature of the Romans offers an inestimable advantage.
Dark Heart Excerpt
“How did Philomen keep his appointments?”
“He had a wax tablet. Either I would write them down or he would.” She surveyed the disordered room. The magistrate looked about, too.
Wax tablets were strewn across the desk and floor. One had been stepped on, leaving a booted imprint. Others were smeared with blood.
She sent up a silent prayer of thanks. Philomen’s lifelong collection of medical texts, both Greek and Roman, were safe in his study inside the villa. It would have been a final insult if they had been stolen or destroyed.
Kyna tipped upright a three-legged stool and found the right tablet. Its back was broken but when she pushed it together, the writing was still legible. Behind her, the magistrate approached and she inhaled the faint aroma of cedar and orange.
He didn’t take the tablet from her; instead he seemed content to read the list from over her shoulder.
She ignored his presence the best she could and concenstrated on the names and the brief description of the patient’s ailment. She knew all of these people. None of them would have harmed Philomen. There had been no appointments after the noon meal.
At first she thought the command was for her and turned, but over the magistrate’s shoulder, a guard saluted and retreated to the taberna’s entrance.
“Tell me about the man you saw.”
There was an edge to the young magistrate’s voice that forced her eyes to his.
Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi – “the face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter”. As the saying came to her, he looked away. Kyna felt her brows crease. Was he hiding something?
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