My friend Cicero

I read a biography of Cicero and it has caused me to be a huge nerd. You can leave now if you don’t want to see me at my absolute nerdiest.

My first-ever teacher of Latin, in middle school, would stand at the front of the class and make incomprehensible remarks like “If you just remember amo amas amat amamus amatis amant, you will be all right” and “Here I have a postcard from my friend Cicero,” which it turned out was not an alive human but a very long-dead Roman of whom my Latin teacher was a great admirer. As a serious-minded eleven-year-old, I found this teacher maddeningly obstructive to my goal of learning Latin, and if memory serves, we didn’t even have textbooks.

That can’t be right, I must be remembering that wrong. Who would teach Latin without textbooks? Except if we had textbooks, I’d have taught my own damn self Latin, proof of which I now offer you in the form of my second middle-school Latin teacher. She had a weird and tragic backstory that she told in alarming detail to my older sister’s Latin class but never (as far as I can recall) revealed any shred of to my Latin class. I found out later (because she gossiped to students in her class at the other middle school) that she hated my class. I suspect this was my fault. I thought I was minimum 12x smarter than her, taught myself Latin out of the book while studiously ignoring her, and then let the four other people in the class copy my translations and cheat off my paper during tests any time they wanted.

And y’all, look, I know that was not great. I know I was a smart-ass twelve-year-old who made her teacher’s life hard and needed to be taken down a peg, but you have to understand that this is a story of love at first sight. From the first moment I understood how conjugations worked, I have been in love with Latin. Latin is the easiest and most joyful subject I have ever studied.1 No wonder everyone wanted it for their lingua franca, it is the motherfucking best language in the whole world. It’s so sensible and elegant and great. Shit.

In part this is because Latin makes heavy use of what we call inflection, which is a grammar thing that means the form of the word changes based on its grammatical function. It means that word order kind of doesn’t matter! Or rather, it means that you can use word order in fun, inventive ways. Especially if you are Cicero.

Anyway, then I went to high school and it turned out that my high school Latin teacher was put on this earth for the express purpose of teaching Latin, insofar as she was (is! to this day!) a Latin-teaching genius who if there were a medal for Worldwide Best Ever Latin Teacher would probs win that medal every year and all the other Latin teachers would get sulky and vote to stop awarding the Best Ever Latin Teacher award because it’s not promoting a collegial atmosphere (but actually it would just be sour grapes because they never got to win).

In Latin 3, when I was a sophomore, we got to read my guy Cicero, the subject of Anthony Everitt’s biography that I just finished reading. The biography was pretty good in terms of the events of Cicero’s life, but it’s weird to read a book about Cicero that doesn’t spend hardly any time at all talking about his prose. Like shouldn’t Cicero’s prose be getting more compliments? The man was a goddamn genius of word-writing. And you do really have to describe it, because his brilliance in large part depends on Latin’s flexibility and therefore doesn’t translate. Like here is a sentence (translated by me; I apologize to everyone for mistakes, I haven’t taken Latin in years) from his oration against the criminal Catiline, who was doing treason.

The Latin:

quam diu quisquam erit qui te defendere audeat, vives, et vives ita ut nunc vivis, multis meis et firmis praesidiis obsessus ne commovere te contra rem publicam possis. multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem, sicut adhuc fecerunt, speculabuntur atque custodient.

In English:

As long as there is anyone whatsoever who dares to defend you, you live, and you live just as you are living now, blockaded by my many and trusty guards, so that you will not be able to agitate against the republic. The eyes and ears of many people will watch and guard against your unknowing self, exactly as they have done up to now.

Granted that I am not a professional translator. But like, there’s so much stuff in the Latin that doesn’t come through in this description because it can’t, because English doesn’t do those things. The translation doesn’t get at the punch of that vives . . . vives . . . vivis repetition, you live, you live, you live, the way it emphasizes that the traitor Catiline lives lives lives, at the mercy of the Senate. Or take this phrase:

multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem

I translated “multorum . . . oculi et aures” as “the eyes and ears of many people,” which is exactly correct, but which loses this thing Cicero does where “multorum” and “oculi et aures” actually surround the word “te” (you). It is so good! The order of the words mimics the way Catiline is living his life — surrounded by watchful enemies!

Or take “non sentientem” (unknowing). That is an adjective phrase that goes with “te” (you) but it’s tricky to translate cleanly, because it also carries the implication of what Catiline doesn’t know (that the eyes and ears of many people are watching him). One choice is to make it into a separate clause along the lines of “although you do not know it,” which is less literal but gets in the slight sneeriness. I kept it as an adjective. Regardless of what you do, it never sounds as good as the original. Sob.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done talking about Latin. Cicero was a motherfucking genius. I will now submit to being stuffed in a locker. I acknowledge that I deserve it.

  1. I am putting this in a footnote because people who didn’t study Latin won’t get it, and people who did study Latin will want to straight-up murder me: I enjoy doing case and reason exercises. I’d have done double the assigned amount.

22 thoughts on “My friend Cicero”

  1. That’s really interesting – re how much gets lost in translation. I remember a friend of mine who was studying Russian at the time (back when Russia was going to be the next big thing, investment-wise) telling me that – for example – ‘Anna Karenina’ in Russian is markedly different from the English translation, Vronsky’s first encounter with Anna on the railway platform being described her in minute detail, beginning with her eyes.

    Robert Harris – the guy I mentioned previously as the author of ‘Fatherland’ – has written a trilogy about Cicero. Not sure if it’s any good or not. I read a previous book by him set during the days of Ancient Rome called ‘Pompei’, and the characterisation was pretty flimsy – although the description of how Pompei’s water supply system worked was fascinating, to the extent that I felt he was more interested in this as a feat of engineering than what happened to his characters.

    1. That would drive me cuh-razy, knowing that the translation I was reading was very much not faithful. That’s one of the big reasons I don’t read that many books in translation! I’m like obsessed with translators’ notes because I need to know what they did to reach this point. :p

      I’ve heard of that Robert Harris series, and maybe a very long time ago tried to read them? I can’t swear to that, it’s been a while. But if I did try to read them, they obviously didn’t wow me.

  2. So very interesting! I never knew all that about Latin probably because none of my schools ever offered it. I suppose my university did but by then it was too late.

  3. I loved learning Latin! I had no interest in Spanish or French, which we the only other choices at the time. Then in college, I took German and loved that too! And Russian, because I love the challenge of languages. I also took Italian one summer but I got frustrated because it was “too easy.” The words don’t decline / conjugate and endings don’t matter. I couldn’t get it!
    I also loved reading The Histories by Herodatus. They are actually funny in parts.

      1. Oh my gosh – yes in English! I am nowhere near brave or patient enough to read something like that in Latin!

  4. I’ve been thinking about Cicero a lot lately, because of what he says about someone who is good at rhetoric needing to be a “good man” in order to use it responsibly.

    1. also, if you have any advice about how a person can teach herself more Latin after an introductory (supposedly graduate level) course where no teaching happened but a “Wheelock” workbook was filled out, please lay it on me. My daughter is trying to teach herself more Latin this summer–enough to be able to read the Vulgate on her own.

    1. Narrator: It was not.

      Seriously, though, it wasn’t that high-faluting of a school district. The languages on offer seemed to heavily depend on what language teachers were available? We had Japanese in high school apparently only because one of the teachers there spoke Japanese. :p

  5. Where on EARTH did you go to school that Latin was available not only in high school, but middle school too??? My (really quite terrible) high school barely managed French alongside the mandatory Spanish. And my Spanish teacher was only interested in teaching the Latino kids and hated the rest of us.

    1. I went to public school! IDK it was very very fortunate. All the language teachers in middle school seem to have been awful — my friends who took Spanish and French were miserable — and most of the language teachers in my high school were also not great. Latin was a great choice because I loved it, but also because I got to have classes with one of the only good language teachers my school had.

  6. Please take this the right way…I think I’m in love with you.

    Don’t tell my husband. But this is perhaps the loveliest thing I’ve read in a long, long time. I have never actually wanted to learn Latin (and surprisingly, as a wordy person, I’ve read a lot about Latin and learning Latin and how Latin works and where it might fit in a curriculum and even short stories featuring kids in schools where THEY were learning Latin), but nothing has ever made me want to drop everything and LEARN Latin like this post. Oh, and also kick the shit out of my public school curriculum planners, who wasted my time with all sorts of bullshit classes that weren’t Latin. Really? Three years of phys. ed required (totally stupid for a farm kid who was getting more than enough of a workout at home, k thx) and no Latin?

    Anyway. I won’t have time for Latin for some time but I might have to go look something up about Cicero. Thank you.

    1. I love you toooooo, you are the best! I hope you like whatever you hunt up — the Aeneid’s good! — and if you ever do have a chance to learn Latin, I recommend it so much. It’s a wonderful, elegant, excellent language. I wish we still had it as a lingua franca.

  7. I can only bow down to your Latin-loving enthusiasm. I can’t say it is a language I ever wanted to learn, and Cicero not an author I have ever considered reading. But damn girl! You make me want to see if Duolingo has Latin as one of its options!

    1. I wish I could just give you my HS Latin teacher so that you could experience Latin that way! She just knew everything and was an amazing teacher and made it easy to love Latin. I would have loved it anyway, but I loved it better better best because of her.

  8. This is delightful. I am delighted. My Shakespeare teacher always got a kick out of how little Cicero says in Julius Caesar (I think it horrified him, honestly) but I think he conceded that Shakespeare knew he couldn’t do Cicero and his oration justice.

    1. Ha! That is a great point. I remember being annoyed that Cicero didn’t have more to say/do in Julius Caesar, especially given how closely his fate was tied in with Caesar’s, one way and another.

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