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.
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.
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.
- 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. ↩