Active Latin Comes to Dickinson

Conventiculum Dickinsoniense July 5 -10, 2010.conferences2

The Conventiculum Dickinsoniense is a new total immersion seminar in active Latin. It is specifically designed for all cultivators of Latin who wish to gain some ability to express themselves ex-tempore in correct Latin. A wide range of people can benefit from the seminar: professors in universities, teachers in secondary schools, graduate students, undergraduates and other lovers of Latin, provided that anyone who considers applying has a solid understanding of the grammatical essentials of the Latin language. A minimum requirement is knowledge of Latin grammar and the ability to read a Latin text of average complexity, even if using a dictionary often. No previous experience in speaking Latin is necessary. Sessions will be aimed exclusively at developing ability in speaking, understanding others speaking, reading and discussing texts in the target language. After the first evening, Latin will be the exclusive language used in the seminar. Participants will be involved in intensive activity each day from morning until early evening (with breaks for lunch, etc., of course), and will discuss themes ranging from topics in books, literature and art to the routines and activities of daily life.  The seminar will illustrate not only how active Latin can be useful for teachers, but also how cultivating an active facility in Latin can benefit any cultivator of Latin who wishes to acquire a more instinctive command of the language and a more intimate relationship with Latin writings.


Prof. Milena Minkova, University of Kentucky

Prof. Terence Tunberg, University of Kentucky

We can accept a maximum  number of 40 participants. Deadline for applications in May 1, 2010. The participation fee for each participant will $300. The fee includes lodging in a single room in campus housing, and two meals (breakfast and lunch) per day, as well as the opening dinner, and a special cookout at the Dickinson farm for one night. That also covers the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as internet access. The $300 fee does not include the cost of dinners (except for the opening dinner and the cookout at the Dickinson farm), and does not include the cost of travel to and from the seminar. Dinners can easily be had at restaurants within walking distance from campus.

For more information and application instructions write to:

Professor Terence Tunberg


The Peter Frampton of ancient Rome

I have just been translating  a little work De Spectaculis, by Novatian, the 3rd century AD Roman clergyman, who later became an “Antipope.” My favorite passage is about a musician who uses the tibia, a kind of reed pipe, to imitate the sounds of human speech:

He employs his breath, which he draws with great effort from the depths of his guts into the upper regions of his body, now keeping it shut up and locked within, now releasing it and pouring it out into the air through the passageways of his instrument. In this way he manages to speak with his fingers by breaking the sound into fragments, showing ingratitude to his maker who endowed him with a tongue. (Novatian, De Spectaculis 7)

frampton-comes-aliveI immediately realized I had stumbled on a reference to a Roman precursor of a guitarist I grew up listening to, Peter Frampton.

Peter Frampton’s Talking Guitar

Another analogy might be the plunger mute style of Duke Ellington’s great trumpet soloist Bubber Miley, nicely shown off in “Black and Tan Fantasy” from 1927:

Duke Ellington, Black and Tan Fantasy

Like the earlier, longer, and more convoluted work of the same name  by Tertullian, Novatian’s letter forcefully articulates the Christian clergy’s objections to the various types of Roman spectacles, games, and theatrical shows, and indirectly illustrates how popular they were with the members of Christian congregations. They’re so immoral, but as he admits more than once, everybody goes.

His argument shares a lot with the modern opponents of media violence, and his aphorism Discit et facere dum consuescit videre (“As he becomes accustomed to watching, he learns also to do”) neatly sums up the idea that bad behavior is learned by habitually viewing immoral entertainment.

The tibia, by the way, was an instrument consisting of a tube with holes for stops, fitted with a reed mouthpiece. They were often used in pairs.

Mary Beard

The 12th annual Roberts Lecture weekend is now a wrap. This year the speaker was the phenomenal and delightful Mary Beard of Cambridge University, she of the widely read column/blog for the London Times, A Don’s Life. Mary is a Roman historian and social historian who has done field changing work on Roman religion in particular. She is heavily engaged with material culture, and has written superb, readable, and often funny books on the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and now on Pompeii.

The Friday lecture was about the rise of Pompeii as a tourist site and cultural icon in the 18th and 19th centuries: The title, “Perhaps our expectations were wrought up too high: Visiting Pompeii in the 19th century,”  is a quotation from James Fenimore Cooper, one of the many visitors who were rather disappointed with the actual place after reading the breathless dramatization of Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s best selling novel, Last Days of Pompeii (1834). People expected it to look like AD 79, but what they found, before the extensive reconstruction work that has given us the inhabitable-looking houses, was a bunch of, well, ruins. On the other hand, there is a difference in the type of history we go to see now. Then you came to see not just the remains, but the process, the uncovering of the ancient world. Piles of dirt well all over, and the excavators were well-known to stage “discoveries” for the moment that a foreign dignitary happened to be passing through.

Mary  looked at the early guidebooks and newspaper accounts of onsite reenactments of Roman entertainments, as well as contemporary journal accounts of travelers, and documented the constant slippage between fictional representations of Pompeii (esp. Bulwer-Lytton) and archaeological representations of it. Before the railroad arrived, visitors entered by carriage via the street of tombs, which encouraged a romantic view of Pompeii as the “City of the Dead,” that evoked universal thoughts of death and our own personal mortality. This was only gradually and partially supplanted by the more progressive, 19th c. image of Pompeii as the “City of History.”

On Saturday Mary talked about her main current scholarly project, Roman laughter: “Seeing the funny side of it. What made the Romans laugh?” Eschewing the literary route through Plautus and Juvenal, she zeroed in on revealing anecdotes, proverbs, Roman jokes and puns to argue that Roman laughter was not simply derision, not just some kind of power play, the mere assertion of authority.

The Romans, she observed, are more preoccupied with the provoker of laughter than the laugher himself. Almost all words for laughing are varieties of rideo; but there are dozens of words for that which makes you laugh. Whereas now a sense of humor is a prerequisite for a good pubilc speaker, Roman writers on oratory counsel caution on the use of humor. The provoker of laughter always risks becoming the object of laughing; the tables can always be turned.

Ecce Viri Atri

See Dickinson alumnus Dave Hewett (currently in graduate school for classical studies at the University of Virginia) bust a move at the famous Conventiculum Latinum in Lexington, KY:

Ecce Viri Atri

I hope Will Smith and his copyright dogs don’t get wind this.

The video about the Conventiculum itself (linked above) is fascinating, and gives you a chance to hear the great Terence Tunberg, founder of the conventiculum, speaking Latin with the amazing crystal clarity that I imagine only he can attain these days. Prof. Tunberg will be visiting Dickinson in November, 2009 with his colleauge Milena Minkova to give a full day teacher workshop on using active Latin in the classroom. Watch this space for a more detailed announcement coming soon.

Latin Camp 2009


The 2009 Summer Dickinson Latin Workshop, affectionately known as Latin Camp, is now done. 12 Latin teachers came this year to read Cicero’s De Republica in Latin. They came from as close as Harrisburg and Lancaster, and from as far away as San Francisco, McAllen, TX,  and Comano, Switzerland. A last minute addition was Letizia Palladini, a Latin teacher from Modena, Italy, who happened to arrive in Carlisle this summer with her husband, an Italian colonel visiting the US Army War College for the year, and their four children. So it was a truly intercontinental group.

The workshop is a chance to improve one’s Latin skills in a friendly, non-threatening, yet disciplined environment. As I look over the anonymous evaluations, it seems everybody had a good time and learned a lot. The Latin was fun, but the camaraderie was even better. The whole experience was very energizing, and got us in touch with why we liked Latin in the first place.

The Cicero proved challenging for everybody, I think, certainly for me. But it gave us time to have a good think about the pros and cons of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, and about Cicero’s own distinctive blend of practical experience in statecraft and knowledge of Greek theory. The motto for the week on the t-shirts ended up coming from the preface: virtus in usu sui tota posita est, “virtue consists entirely in the use of itself,” that is, there is no such thing as having a virtue and not actually using in the real world. Very Roman!cicerobackmock

Christiane Amanpour on Latin

christiane-amanpourHere’s one for the “why study Latin” file. Dickinson’s graduation speaker this year was Christiane Amanpour, and like many others she gave me a gentle reproof for writing my recent editorial about Latin diplomas. She said that she had found her own study of Latin very valuable. I was able to reach her through her personal assistant and request that she put it in writing, so here it is:

Dear Professor Francese,

Latin has helped me immeasurably through life. If I could, I would mandate it to be taught in all Anglo-Saxon and Romance language schools, because while Latin is no longer a spoken language, it is the root of so many of the languages we do speak. Not only did I love my Latin classes at the time, but in the 35-years since, I have found great comfort and satisfaction in being able to know just about any word. For whenever I grope for the meaning of one I don’t know, I usually succeed by referring back to Latin!

So Professor, Latin Lives even though it’s dead! Don’t knock it!


Christiane Amanpour, CBE

Chief International Correspondent

CNN International

One Time Warner Center

New York, NY  10019

The reference to “Anglo-Saxon and romance schools” derives from the fact that she was brought up in Iran until the age of 20. Her Latin came at British boarding schools, not in Iran.

Latin Diplomas, pro and contra

My editorial in the May 15 New York Times calling for the end of Latin

"I can't understand this, either."
"I can't understand this, either."

Diplomas has turned out to be something of an (unintended) exercise in reverse psychology. Defenders of the Latin diploma, and Latin in general, have emerged everywhere, to eviscerate me on dyspeptic blogs, in letters to the editor, via email, and even the odd cold call to my house.

I confess to feeling like a bit of a traitor, but it certainly touched a nerve, and all the attention has been a thrill. It was on the Times’ most emailed list for two days. Christiane Amanpour, Dickinson’s commencement speaker this year, mentioned it in her speech. My friend Rob Hardy, a classically trained writer and poet from Minnesota, correctly divined the shadow of educational reformer and Dickinson founder Benjamin Rush lurking behind the argument, and pointed that I was assassinated beneath his statue recently. Coincidence? A big thank you to Bob Winston of Dickinson’s English dept. for coming up with the idea for the slogan in the art that went with the piece.

One interesting strain in the emails I have been getting is that the Latin diploma, in all its opacity,  is an appropriate symbol of what colleges in fact do. Frederick Dennis Williams writes that what most students are really after is not mental improvement but the piece of paper itself:

“When I was working on a Ph.D. in the 1960s, we used to call it a ‘union card.’ It still is. The ‘clear communication’ being taught is the arcane language of the elite — the modern version of the priestly language, the hieroglyphics, of the Egyptians . . . Latin carries the real message — tradition, not innovation; class status, not education. Latin is not a contradiction. It is an indication.”

Two people independently invoked the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to refute my contention that the goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge–not the creation and transmission of prestige. Au contraire, says Bourdieu, according to Anthony McKeown, who wrote, “Education is the institution par excellence for the transmission of prestige.” And my colleague in the Sociology dept. Dan Schubert writes, “by design, degrees are to separate all those who receive them from all those who never will. Thus, Latin helps?”

Needless to say there is some truth here, but this seems like an excessively cynical view, especially given the triumphs of American education in creating upward mobility. This is not the middle ages, though Latin diplomas do give off a whiff of nostalgia for the middle ages.
One relevant fact that I found in my research but did not put in the article: the Minneapolis firm Jostens, the largest printer of diplomas in America, printed 2035 college diplomas this year, and only 16 were in Latin. For high schools, the figure was less than one half of one per cent, according to Jostens. So this is an issue that has largely been decided, and it also helps to rebut the criticism I have gotten from some Latin teachers that the demise of the Latin diploma would somehow hurt Latin programs. Having two English diplomas on my wall from institutions with great classics programs, it doesn’t seem to me that the two things are directly related.

Classics bowling shirt catches fire

The 2009 classics dept. bowling shirt (and companion tee) has been selling like crazy around campus and beyond. Designed by Prof. Meghan Reedy, her husband Chris Stamas, and the students of Prof. Reedy’s

give 'em what for with the new classics dept. bowling shirt

Lucretius seminar, the shirt is emblazoned on the back with the merman from the tower of the winds in Athens (a classical answer to the historic Dickinson mermaid atop Old West), and a line from Catullus that you may have heard: pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo (16.1). Ah, how to translate this? “Screw you and shut up” would be one possible approach. Others insist on a more literal rendering, “I will penetrate you anally and orally.” It depends in part on how you understand the context and the tone of Catullus 16. In other words, it’s not just a shirt, it’s a philological controversy.

Want one? Contact Prof. Reedy at

Stephen Heyworth visits Dickinson

Prof. Reedy’s mentor and Propertius scholar extraordinaire Stephen Heyworth paid a visit to Dickinson on February 21-23, 2009. He was visiting the US on the heels of the publication of his major works, the Oxford Classical Text of Propertius, and Cynthia, a commentary on the Latin that explains many of the difficult choices he had to make in editing this notoriously corrupt but incomparably beautiful text. We promptly put him to work, first teaching Prof. Reedy’s advanced Latin poetry students. He walked through Ovid’s creation narrative in the beginning of the Metamorphoses, stimulating a lively discussion on Ovid’s style and his relationship with Lucretius, who is the main subject of that class. On Saturday he taught a workshop for high school teachers of Latin on Roman mythology. Attendance was excellent, about 45 from all over the eastern seaboard, and the reception enthusiastic. I hope to have a picture or two up of that in a bit. Then he spent a generous couple hours advising me and Prof. Mastrangelo on the finer points of writing commentary on Latin texts. We are working on a commentary on Prudentius’ Psychomachia, and the advice was invaluable. Finally, he had his well-earned fancy dinner, and on Sunday paid a visit to the Gettysburg battlefield.