At the beginning of the last century, A.E. Housman, that cantankerous giant of classical scholarship, was already complaining about "an age which is out of touch with Latinity." Around that time, philistines were excising classics from the popular curriculum, and the subsequent 100 years have hardly improved Latin’s apparent relevance in Western society. Classicists may tout the fact that Advanced Placement enrollment in Latin doubled between 1997 and 2007, but this mini-surge brought the number of upper-level high school Latinists to a minuscule 8,654 – literally 1 percent of the number of secondary school Latinists in the mid-1930s. Like its nouns, Latin continues to decline.
In the face of these grim prospects, I boarded a plane to Rome this summer to join the small network of scholars dedicated to preserving the language by actually speaking it. I found myself in the company of 16 other twentysomethings, puttering about the center of the ancient world chattering not in English or in Italian but – ecce! – in Latin.
I can assure you that the enterprise was even stranger than it sounds. The Paideia Institute’s "Living Latin" program is an immersive, spoken-Latin summer course based in Rome. The mornings are spent at the St. John’s University campus reading poetry and prose and commenting on the texts in Latin; the afternoons are spent doing the same thing at various sites of literary or archaeological significance. If you vacationed in Italy this June, you might have seen us standing around the Ara Pacis on a scorcher, offering competing Latin orations on the pax Augustana. Other exercises were more modern: using hip-hop beats to memorize Alcaic meter, say.