Comment Culture

Latin education and European identity

For a period over a millennium, anyone pursuing a career in ‘European Politics’ would not have learnt their lingua franca from Friends or Tintin, but rather from the Aeneid (a Latin poem by Virgil). Latin was, in fact, the original Pan-European language, spread by the Roman Empire’s expansion across the continent. Impressively, it survived its creators’ fall and remained the international scientific and ecclesiastical language of choice amongst European countries right up until the 19th century. It would end up being taught in places never touched by the Roman eagles: Sweden, Russia, even Mexico! Although nowadays Latin and other classical languages are much diminished in usage, a country’s approach to Latin can reveal much about its perception of itself today.

Latin’s role in British educational life has been diminished in recent years, with only 1.5% of all students taking the subject for GCSE in 2014 according to the 2016 Education Development Trust’s survey. Limited access to Latin is further compounded by the class divide: Latin is offered at 61% of independent schools and only at 18% of state schools. Exposure to Latin is thus generally restricted to those who can afford hefty school fees, giving the language a somewhat elitist reputation amongst the British Public.[1]  Most Latin students will be familiar with a copy of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC for short), first printed in the 60s, focusing firstly on a family in Pompeii and then on Roman Britain. Despite the break in continuity during the dark ages between Roman and modern Britain, many students and teachers still consider Britain to be a ‘Roman successor’, just like they would any other mainland European state. Particularly popular set-texts include Caesar’s military conquests in the Gallic Wars and the Aeneid, an account of Rome’s mythical origins. For countless schoolchildren, Latin and its characters (such as pious Aeneas) were associated with the established order, providing examples to follow of the good imperial citizen; hence the bitter lie for Wilfred Owen in his famous anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” as the dying soldiers slowly realise the hollowness of their society’s values, which these lines of Horace had come to represent. Following decolonisation and the two World Wars, the scale of modern education expanded, but the same cannot be said for the classical subjects, which instead did not seem to belong any longer in the new world order.

Whilst Latin holds for Britain only a glimmer of its distant imperial past, for a country like Italy, the language has much deeper roots. During the Risorgimento, Latin was the common denominator between all the various Italian dialects and of course was (and still is) the official language of the Catholic Church, an organisation central to any prospective Italian State. Latin also provided a link to the glories of Roman imperialism and power- a link that Mussolini, as he tried to resurrect Roman disciplina and empire, was keen on exploiting. Perhaps, because of these important political implications that Latin holds in Italy, the country’s effort to teach Latin is significantly greater than any other European country: Latin is compulsory in the Liceo classico and scientifico (academic institutions loosely corresponding to secondary schools) and is frequently offered at other institutions, opening up Latin to a wider range and number of students than in Britain. For Italians then, Latin remains an important part of education and of their national identity.

Perhaps the most surprising approach to Latin education comes from Romania. Here, students aged 14-15 have a compulsory hour of Latin each week, and often students receive more than this obligatory one hour[2]. What is more astonishing is that teaching Latin was banned in 1948 by Communist authorities in an effort to promote a more Slavic national identity. It was later reintroduced and made compulsory by Ceacescu, in an attempt to realign Romania away from the Slavic USSR and build ties with the West. Recent attempts to make Latin optional have been met with firm resistance from the Romanian community. It is clear that Romanians still feel Latin plays an integral part of the Romanian identity (the clue is in the name) and is a symbol of its continuing cooperation and relationship with Western Europe. Because Latin is embedded in so many cultures in so many different ways, it would be a big mistake to think that teaching it in school would only be about the language. Latin education reveals so much about a nation’s conception of itself and its relationship with others.


[1] Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board. Language Trends 2015/16: The state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England. Education Development Trust. 2016. pg 133

[2] AFP-JIJI. Despite several attempts to kill it off, Latin still survives in Romania. Japan Times. 2017