The Colosseum - just one of the achievements of ancient Rome

A Classic Question

8th May 2015

What can the study of ancient languages and the ancient world do for the mind?
Jonathan Brick speaks up for a difficult subject

“Oh, I did Latin at school,” people often say to me when I mention that I graduated in Greek and Latin from Edinburgh University in 2010. I started studying the subjects at the age of ten, and then benefited for five years from great teachers and fun classmates at one of the best local independent boys’ schools before heading up north.

People bemoan the complications of the case tables and the verb forms: amo, amas, am-outtahere. “But,” I reply, “once you get past amo-amas-amat, it’s all fun and games. Caecilius does come out of the horto eventually… You get wonderful Satires from Juvenal; you get Homer in its original form…”

They look at me suspiciously, and I can see that they think I’m out of touch; that they’re still wondering what possessed me to study Classics, giving away four years of my life at degree level and eight years going through the GCSE and A-level syllabuses? Or is it syllabi? I should probably know that.

Either way, I loved the subject, and I’m not sure that it really is that obscure. Is it?

For guidance I turned to Alastair Vettese, who teaches both Greek and Latin to girls from Year Seven up to A-level at The Godolphin and Latymer School in West London. He and his five departmental colleagues are, as you read this, preparing their pupils for their GCSEs, A-levels and International Baccalaureate exams. The ultimate goal is to help them get into top universities, but pure love of the subject plays its part, too.

Alastair and I were at school together, and the only two students to take Ancient Greek up to A2 level. While others were bored in history classes, we studied the gory tragedy Oedipus Rex and the marvel of Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek. We both disliked Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy, but love the thrills of Jason and the Argonauts.

Despite Alastair’s own enthusiasm, he agrees that it is unhelpful for parents to push the classics in the face of teenage opposition. He does have pupils who hate the subject but do it because their parents beleive it’s good for them, like eating cabbage. “Some people think it’s useful for law and medicine, but it’s only of limited use. A lot of younger students, or their parents, are talking about how it reinforces language learning in general which is broadly true.”

Sometimes his pupils take Latin for GCSE, however, and are then convinced to pursue it for A-level because of the smaller class sizes and because they genuinely love the literature, including set texts Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Apuleius (and, if you’re a boy, the bawdy Catullus). “They’re all converts by the time they get to A-level,” Alistair says. “There’s an enthusiasm for certain texts, and if a teacher can get them excited, they pick that up and run with it. They do love a good story.”

It is education for its own sake, a lot of the time, and there is no shortage of role models for Alastair’s pupils, such as comic and writer Natalie Haynes whose novel The Amber Fury is based on the gods of ancient Greece. Haynes is also a passionate advocate for the study of Classics and their influence on the modern day, and regularly appears on the BBC. Likewise Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes have both fronted TV shows about the ancient world to accompany their sometimes dense, scholarly books about Troy, Socrates and laughter. Viewers prefer footsteps to footnotes.

Without getting into well-worn arguments about Professor Beard’s teeth, over 80,000 people ‘follow’ her musings (or take a dislike to them) on Twitter. When I was a student of Classics I found her Don’s Life blog was invaluable, but it has broad general appeal too, and is published on the website of The Times at timesonline.typepad.com, and not behind a paywall like the rest of the paper. Beard – ‘a wickedly subversive commentator on both the modern and the ancient world’ – taught me so much more than just the syllabus, and told of the real life of a Cambridge Professor (she’s at Newnham College). Her Confronting the Classics collection of essays for the Times Literary Supplement is a good summary of her work, but the compilation of blog posts, It’s a Don’s Life, is more user-friendly, and is available at a good price on Amazon. Unlike in the ancient world, there’s no haggling.

Peter Jones writes the Ancient & Modern column in the Spectator magazine. His recent book Eureka, all about the Ancient Greeks, can be downloaded to your e-book reader for the shockingly low price of £1.19, about £9,000 less than a year at a university. This chimes with the ethos of a charity for which he is an adviser, the excellent Classics For All (ClassicsForAll.org.uk), which aims ‘to ensure Classics is available in every state school where there is demand’.

Some schools run clubs and societies, with waiting lists, such is their popularity, and over at Godolphin and Latymer Alastair even runs a breakfast talks club for students and over 50 interested members of the community around the school. The 8am starts are punishing, but the mind is at its clearest at the start of the day, so there’s no excuse not to listen to some of the country’s sharpest professors dropping in and discussing their academic passion: think Vindolanda: Letters from Rome's Most Northerly Frontier or Odysseus: the greatest hero of them all, for example. Email Alastair at AVettese@GodolphinandLatymer.com for the summer term schedule, and head over to West London before your daily grind.

If you prefer evening classes, Birkbeck College in London’s Bloomsbury offers the chance to learn Latin after work hours, and ClassicsForAll runs summer schools to introduce people to Latin and Greek culture and their languages. Just as useful are books such as Introducing the Ancient Greeks, with its engaging subtitle From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind, by Professor Edith Hall of Kings College London.

Professor Hall writes about the things the Greeks did for us (not aqueducts, that was the Romans…), which most people would acknowledge comprise the foundations of our world today. Philosophy, drama, comedy and (topically) democracy were all first practised in the Greek world. Conversely, so were tyranny and ostracism, so it’s not all good stuff.

Alastair points out that the recent government’s policy has been to promote ‘British values’ in education, and that many of these ideals actually first emerged in Greece 2,500 years ago. “Classical authors engage with a lot of issues which transcend generations.”

Like Hotel California, Classics is something you can never depart from. This is because it takes such a great deal of work to do it in the first place: vocab to be learned, case forms to be memorised, and then every sentence needs to be translated, with the right words found, all ambiguities resolved and then ‘unpacked’. Why did the poet use this word instead of that? What is the role of the poet in the poem itself? Complex, yes, but fascinating and demanding.

As an aficionado, Alastair sells the subject with passion. “Especially in the British workplace, knowledge acquisition is vital. When you focus on the transferable skills rather than the knowledge, therein lies the value of Classics. It combines logical and analytical and creative sides, and the empathetic. You can be an historian, a literary critic, a linguist and a philosopher.”

Classics makes you stand out from the crowd. “It shows a willingness to take risks and be a bit quirky that other subjects do not. Latin,” he concludes, “shouldn’t have a case to answer.

Likewise for Greek. Those who love drama will head to the Almeida Theatre, Islington, this year to see three plays by Greek tragedians Aeschylus (his bloody Oresteia) and Euripides (the equally bloody Bacchai and the wretched Medea). Each play runs for six weeks, and ought to be a nice yet bloody trip to town for young Classicists.

And a break from verb memorising, and questions about the syllabus. That reminds me…Syllabuses or syllabi?

“It’s a Greek word. Is it fourth declension? Is it both? The vast majority of my students couldn’t care less!”

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