In today’s post, Christopher refers to the Latin writer Horace, whose Odes he studied for Latin A Level. I read Ars Poetica for mine, and loved it. I still mutter quotations from it at pertinent moments, although it’s better not to do so out loud, because that would be very irritating.
Another writer we studied was Pliny, who wrote a lot of letters and then published them. I’ve forgotten most of the ones we read and translated, but there are a few that still stand out in my memory.
Pliny the younger was the nephew of the elder Pliny, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius. He wasn’t there when the volcano erupted, but dutifully went to see what was going on, and also to attempt to rescue people in his boat, and was overcome by fumes. Pliny wrote a very interesting account of what went on, brought back to him by survivors.
I joined the class in its second year, having left school with two A levels (English and History) because my school, on the verge of closing down, had a severely limited range of subjects to choose from. I had flunked Latin and chosen to learn to type instead of taking French, but in the Upper Sixth I changed my mind, took up both of them again and passed, and then decided I wanted to take A levels in both subjects. I had, years earlier, skipped a year so I was not quite 18 at the start of the school year and went to the local high school for an extra crack at exam-taking.
I struggled to keep up, I have to confess, especially in Latin where there were several very clever girls specialising in languages – how anyone can learn Russian and Ancient Greek at the same time beats me, I couldn’t have attempted it – but when you don’t know your limitations, you are less daunted by them and I persevered.
At the start of one lesson, I observed some chuckling going on. The teacher was going round the class and each girl (it was a co-ed school, but it so happened that Latin, that year, was only being taken by girls) had to translate a couple of lines. Since I always sat near the back, I’d only bothered to prepare the second half of the epistle – well, I say bothered, but I was being pragmatic. It took me longer than everyone else to do half the work – so I didn’t know why, but they’d worked out that the embarrassing line was going to be translated by the most unsophisticated girl in the class. I’d had to make an effort to be less shy, joining a new school, and I had reasonable social skills in any case, which were the reasons that was not me.
The subject of the epistle was a shocking incident that had happened at the baths. There was a rich, elderly Roman who was notoriously cruel to his slaves and some of them attacked and tried to kill him. It described how one slave seized him while others hit him in his face and private parts. I can’t remember the Latin for private parts, but that’s the direct translation. Poor Elaine stammered and stopped when she got to that bit and couldn’t carry on. “Groin, translate it as groin,” said the teacher, kindly.
As I remember, for I’m sure you will want to know, the Roman survived the attack for a few days, but then died and the slaves were put to death horribly, although some of them escaped. Interestingly, the rich Roman’s father had been a freed slave (as was Horace’s father) and it’s perhaps surprising that he was so unpleasant to his own slaves.
The third epistle that I remember was unintentionally hilarious if meant solemnly, but still entertaining if written as a tease (which it probably was, no one could be that pompous and not mean to be). He had invited a friend to dinner, but the friend didn’t show up. Pliny wrote to reprimand him, saying that he had to pay up the not inconsiderable value of the feast – which included a whole lettuce. Each! As well as three snails and two eggs! Presumably, the no-show had preferred to watch dancing girls and eat sea-urchins than have intelligent conversation and listen to a poetry recital, scolded Pliny.
No wonder one’s schooldays are remembered with such fondness, hem hem. I did scrape through the exams, but with no glory at all, getting Es.