Why Study Latin?

The Paris Review

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently enrolled, doesn’t require you to do much of anything. Time is largely unstructured here; as long as your writing gets done, you barely have to get out of bed for two years. When I first realized this, I panicked, and then I registered for an undergraduate course in elementary Latin. I don’t even get academic credit for it. I just wanted something in my life, amidst the subjective muck of the creative process, that I could be objectively good at—the occasional dopamine rush of a check mark, an A grade, a scribbled Great job! from an authority figure—and I remembered being good at Latin.

It had been almost two decades since I last looked at a Latin textbook, but I was optimistic that I’d retained a lot. My seventh-grade Latin textbook left a vivid impression on me. It followed the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Pompeian household (vocab words for the final chapter included volcano, to erupt, smoke, ashes, in despair), and to this day, I remember the whole cast of characters: Caecilius, a banker; Metella, his wife; Grumio, their cook; and Cerberus, the dog, who stays by his master’s side to the very end (RIP, little buddy). I’ll never forget the passage in which Melissa, a newly purchased slave girl, is first presented to the household: my translation was “Melissa pleases Caecilius. Melissa pleases Grumio. Uh-oh—Melissa does not please Metella!” It was pretty juicy material, by seventh-grade standards. (I just Googled these names, so I can tell you that the book was The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1, and that it has a surprisingly robust fandom on Tumblr.)

My middle school required two years of Latin, and the worse I did socially, the better I did at Latin. At the social nadir of my seventh-grade year, on the heels of my thirteenth birthday and my parents’ divorce, my best friend unexpectedly dumped me dramatically in a crowded school hallway. “You’re a BITCH from HELL,” she shouted in my face, “so FUCK OFF!” I had never had such language directed at me before, and over the following weeks, as I reeled from the shock of the incident, I found myself thinking about it in Latin. The verb vituperare, which can be translated as “to yell at,” “to find fault with,” “to reproach,” “to castigate,” et cetera, summed it all up in a way that no English word could. Amelia me vituperavit, I whispered to myself on the subway, in the crowded school hallway, in the cafeteria where I now ate lunch alone. O Amelia, cur me vituperavisti?

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