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.