Our study of language raises questions about culture, class, and identity.


Caesar salutem dicit Ciceroni—Caesar says greetings to Cicero. This oddly third person construction is characteristic of the way Ancient Romans would begin a letter—the equivalent of “Dear so-and-so.” In Latin class this block, students have been learning some of the particular historical valences and conventions of Latin words (such as dico here - to say or speak) and some of the ways in which language relates the members of a society to one another—not only through communication but through social hierarchies and distinctions of class and identity.

Students studied Roman letter-writing conventions by reading excerpts from real letters and noticing patterns in syntax and word choice. We talked about the differences from letter-writing etiquette today, and then students wrote their own letters in Latin using the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned this year. One student wrote a fictional love letter, while another wrote a letter to Donald Trump!

We continued our exploration of Roman history by reading a selection of primary and secondary sources about slavery and citizenship in the Roman world. Students were quick to make comparisons between this complex hierarchy of status and the very different ways in which class seems to work in our society today. We also read a short excerpt from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to compare Roman slavery to slavery in the United States. In our readings, students encountered one particular Latin word—officium—which they had learned from their textbook meant “duty,” but which also had a very specific historical meaning: officium was the term for a set of legally enforceable duties owed by a freed slave to his former master, which he had to accept as a condition of his freedom. In this way, students learned the limitations of word-to-word translation as a way of understanding a foreign language; as in this case, a single word can carry a whole constellation of meaning contingent on its use in a particular historical moment.

Language can also be taken out of its original context and given a new context and constellation of meaning: we saw an example of this when we listened to Cat Stevens’ 1972 song, “O Caritas,” which is almost entirely in Latin! Students were given the lyrics but with a number of Latin words left blank, which they had to try to figure out from listening to the song. This activity helped students to become more attuned to the sounds of the Latin language and to remember that originally this language was spoken aloud. We also interpreted the song, close reading the lyrics and the musical accompaniment, and talked about how it might have related to the historical moment in which it was written, including the Vietnam war.

-- Sydney Cochran