We classicists like to think that our subject is one of the great civilising disciplines, that it makes the people who study it better. Sadly for us, though, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. A lot of us are arrogant, offensive and utterly assured of the rightness of our position. The most famous exemplar of this is probably the poet and scholar A.E. Housman whose unsurpassed skills as a Latinist were communicated by the most venomous pen of his time. (One Oxford professor of Latin, he commented, had ‘the intellect of an idiot child’.) This is the kind of classicist whose obituary so often includes that killer clause, ‘He did not suffer fools gladly.’
Into these columns a fortnight ago rode another of the breed, Harry Mount, like a fifth horseman of the apocalypse, thundering on about the demise of Classics. Apparently, nobody in the UK — and certainly nobody in Oxford, the university where I work — knows any Latin any more. Mount is plain wrong about a number of things. His denunciation of the Cambridge Latin Course as ‘the evil Latin-for-idiots school textbooks’ is blind to the fact that it was this very course which rescued Latin from an apparently terminal decline in the 1960s. It later proved vital to the subject’s survival as it responded to the ever decreasing time available for Latin in the timetable, especially after the National Curriculum gained its stranglehold. And while it is true that the course did start its journey with some pretty weird ideas about language-learning, these have been rectified in subsequent editions. Indeed, the Cambridge Latin Grammar is one of the best around. If he were to flick through it, Mount would be amazed to discover frequent uses of such exotic vocabulary as ‘genitive’, ‘conjugation’ and ‘pluperfect’.