By Pierre D. Habel, Latin Teacher
A treasure came my way at a library “decluttering” event: I walked away with a copy of Romans & Aliens. Let me assure you that this is not some dubious History Channel pseudo-science DVD. It is, rather, a substantial scholarly volume by a former fellow of Oxford University, J.P.V.D Balsdon. The book collects and analyses an array of ancient source materials (from high literature to laws, legal documents, and epitaphs) to show the broad spectrum of views that Romans held about themselves as a distinct nation. As many nations still do, Romans often defined themselves by contrasts to others. Sometimes they cast those “others” variously as uncivilized, strange, slavish, foreign, and alien, though not of the extraterrestrial sort (sorry, History Channel fans). As I read Balsdon’s work, it gives me opportunity to reflect upon how Latin students progressing through our curriculum see the Romans alternately pushing away and embracing peoples considered as “others.”
The dynamic is very complex. From Rome’s earliest foundation legends, we see them self-portray as refugees (survivors led by Aeneas fleeing the destruction of Troy) and as ready, if violently, to integrate aliens into Rome as fellow citizens (Sabines brought into Rome by Romulus, Albans by Rome’s 3rd king, Hostilius). Rome’s military might have allowed her citizens to enslave non-Romans or to exploit them as non-citizen subjects. And yet the Roman history demonstrates that they engaged in a multi-layered interchange of culture and status with non-Romans: at times the Romans xenophobically despised and reviled the peoples of other nations, and at times they envied and craved other nations’ material or cultural wealth. Throughout the curriculum my students confront the truth of Horace’s famous dictum, “After it’s capture, Greece captivated its beastly conqueror and brought the arts into the Latins’ backward homeland.” In architecture, literature, science, and other areas, Rome made the genius of Greek “others” their own. In politics and civic life, the Romans for long periods Romans jealously walled out others from Roman citizenship, and yet they periodically gave grants of citizenship to foreigners deemed worthy. Additionally, by the 1st century B.C. children born of former Roman-held slaves were granted citizenship. And in 212 A.D., Rome’s emperor issued an edict that granted citizenship to nearly all free residents of the Empire. By that time, the linguistic and cultural Romanization of peoples as diverse as the Celts of Gaul, the Turdetani of Spain, and the Dacians of Romania was well underway. And of course, from the Latin spoken in those provinces, the Romance languages (French, Spanish, and Romanian, as well as Italian and Portuguese) developed after the Western Roman Empire’s collapse.
Linguistically, how do we choose to identify “others?” Most often we use derivatives of these Latin nouns and adjectives:
If your patience permits, a long-famed quotation from the 2nd century B.C. Roman playwright Terence may bring this discussion to a close: “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.” “I am a human,” Terence’s character says, “I consider no human experience to be alien to me.” Later Romans such as Cicero, followed by Renaissance inheritors of Roman literature, embraced this sentence as an emblem of both intellectual and philosophical curiosity and as an assertion of human dignity that transcends national boundaries. This emblematic statement is part of a long tradition in Western education, one to which D’Evelyn proudly claims connection in its Founding Document when it quotes Jacques Barzun, “…what is the goal of such schooling? It is to turn out men and women who are not wide-eyed strangers in a world of wonders, but persons whose understanding of what they see makes them feel more at home in our inescapably double environment, natural and man-made” (Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, p. 95, emphasis mine). It is only by seeking to comprehend and appraise what is foreign or “other” that students gain a functional understanding of themselves and how they may claim their home in this world.
The delight of advanced language study (levels 4 and AP) is that students read, discuss, and analyze rich authentic texts (and recorded speech in Spanish or French). At this level of study students can readily understand a distant culture on its own terms and in its own words.
Latin 4 students encounter and analyze a brief Latin passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions. The Confessions offer a remarkable intellectual and spiritual autobiography of the author, including his youth and education, his career as a teacher of rhetoric, his pursuit of Neo-Platonic philosophy, and eventually his conversion to Christianity, a belief which he promoted in writing and in service as priest and later bishop in his native North Africa. Augustine’s life (A.D. 354-430) and writings bridge the period when Christianity, officially tolerated in A.D. 313, became the dominant religion of the Empire. By 391 Emperor Theodosius I had ordered pagan temples closed and banned pagan practice. In many ways, readers of Augustine comprehend two intertwined yet distinct cultures, pagan Rome and Christian Rome.
Augustine wrote the Confessions about a decade after his conversion (386). His discussions of his life, family, friends, and students are deeply imbued with the Christian doctrine and belief that he ultimately embraced. The tale we read in Latin 4 features a friend and former student of Augustine named Alypius and it focuses on Alypius’ moral crisis when he travels to Rome as a law student at his parents’ direction. At the center of the crisis is the violence of gladiatorial spectacles which like modern UFC or other mixed martial arts (or so many modern movies) celebrate the brutal wounding of the human body, though of course at the often-lethal level produced by armed and armored combatants. Alypius is a focused student who adheres to his parents’ wishes, yet lacks a developed moral center of his own. One day he is unwillingly and forcibly dragged to the Colosseum by friends and fellow law students who accost him on his way back to school from lunch. Though overwhelmed by his peers’ strength and numbers, Alypius challenges them to a battle of wills, indicating that while he will go to the Colosseum, they cannot overcome his resolve to keep his eyes closed and remain unaffected by the combat before him. You’ll note that Augustine portrays two combats here, one in the sand and one in the stands.
Alypius loses his battle when a particularly vicious blow to one of the gladiators causes a sudden uproar among the crowd. Intrigued and with his will overcome by the piercing cries, Alypius opens his eyes and takes in the bloody scene before him. As Augustine phrases it (in a striking inversion of the language of the Last Supper and the sacrament of communion), “when he saw that bloodshed, simultaneously he drank in the monstrousness… and imbibed madness and lost self-awareness and was delighted by the wickedness of the struggle and was intoxicated with bloody pleasure.” Alypius is immediately converted into a fan and fanatic (the words share the same origin), and before long he is described as forcibly dragging others to attend similarly gory combats. In short, the bloody violence of the arena works its will on Alypius like a potent wine, and soon he himself becomes a violent recruiter of new fanatics. Augustine goes so far as to say that Alypius “was stricken with a wound in his soul more grievously than that fallen gladiator was wounded in his body.” This wound, Augustine asserts, is eventually healed by belief in Christ, and he does so knowing that his Christian readers will view this as part of the redemption worked through the violence of the crucifixion.
A modern handling of Alypius’ moral crisis would use the bloodless technical language of peer pressure and desensitization to violence. Advanced Latin students have the chance to grapple with this character’s crisis in an historically and rhetorically rich context, and in the very Latin words that Augustine wrote over 1600 years ago. They have the chance to discuss and explore the value of having a creed (philosophical, religious, or purely moral) that surpasses a professional or technical expertise such as Alypius’ lawyering. How central these questions are to understanding humanity- what is moral integrity and how does one guard it? It is a question that is still of paramount importance today, and students who grapple with our predecessors’ narratives are likely to find their own way to win it.
By Pierre D. Habel, Latin Teacher
Learning a second language such as Latin allows a student to develop a depth of insight into English that far exceeds that of most students. During the November, I will feature four Latin words which allow knowledgeable students to enrich their control of the meaning (and nuance) of English words.
The first word of the month is the verb torqueō. As in English, each Latin verb has principal parts from which all other forms of a verb may be assembled (parent readers may remember learning the series, see[s], seeing, saw, seen, as a way of avoiding ungrammatical statements such as ‘I seen him there’). In Latin, torqueō, torquēre, torsī, tortus has as its basic meaning “twist, turn forcefully, wind, hurl.” It is regularly applied to the action of the arm as it engages in the act of throwing, to the winding of windlasses and catapults, to physical twisting so as to inflict pain, and to the more metaphorical ide of bending things or words out of their original shape. Clearly, it does not seem to be the most pleasant of ideas, yet consider the range of ideas expressed by its English progeny: