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The best books on Learning Latin

recommended by Harry Mount

What books should you read if you want to learn Latin? Harry Mount (and Katie Walker) recommend the best books for learning Latin—the language of a small, central Italian tribe that managed to conquer most of Europe.

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Harry Mount

Harry Mount is an author and journalist who regularly contributes to a range of national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Spectator. Educated at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute, he is the author of the international bestseller Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That.

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Harry Mount

Harry Mount is an author and journalist who regularly contributes to a range of national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Spectator. Educated at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute, he is the author of the international bestseller Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That.

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THIS INTERVIEW IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS A PODCAST.

 

Let’s get cracking with the books you’ve chosen about learning Latin. Well, they’re not exactly about learning Latin, they’re the best books if you would like to learn Latin. Before we get to number one, I should ask you—we know the answer to this, but for the unenlightened—why should anyone learn Latin? Why would anyone want to?

The very simple answer is that, as you will all know, the Roman Empire spread across the whole of western Europe to the fringes of Asia, from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England right down to northern Africa, from western Spain right into Syria and beyond. It was there, on and off, in different countries, for varying from 700 to 1000 years. It had an absolutely massive effect on those countries, and still has a massive effect today: on their language, on their culture, on their history, on their architecture, on their art. By learning Latin, you have a little beginning into all those fields. I am not going to say you become an expert on all those things, but it’s the perfect introduction to 2000 years of western European history.

But as you make clear in your book, you can read about Roman culture in your native language. Why should you bother to try and read about it in Latin? Why learn their language?

There’s a very precise—perhaps limited—reason, which is that it is extremely beautiful, in and of itself, to read some of the greatest works of western European literature in the original language. That speaks for itself. Moving beyond that, Latin is the basis of all Romance languages in Europe. It gives you this universal key to these other languages. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should learn Latin in order to learn French or German. If you want to do that, learn French or German. But, by learning the earliest incarnation of all these languages, you naturally start to think about the journey from its original form—in, say, 300 BC—all the way till now. By the very fact that it’s so ancient, the mind naturally thinks about the gap between 300 BC and now, and the journey of those languages over 2000-odd years.

“Latin is the perfect introduction to 2000 years of western European history.”

The same applies to Roman or Greek history. You think about the gap. There’s a great line in a new book by A.N. Wilson about the Bible. He’s talking about people who are obsessed with ancient history, and how all his conversations with an old friend came down to how the ancient this, became the modern that. You naturally think about the journey of the language, the history, the culture, the politics, the architecture, all the rest of it. I’m all for learning about World War II—it’s extremely important—but imagine if you only studied World War II. Your mind would naturally start to think about the jump between World War II and now. Again, extremely important, the creation of the EU and all the rest of it. But you’re dealing with a tiny span of time and history. If you go back to both Greek and Latin, not the earliest languages of all time, but two of the earliest languages in which a sophisticated, huge body of literature, culture and all the rest of it is begun or expanded, you have the foundation stone, and you can start to build all the way up to the modern day.

I think it’s interesting for readers who are only interested in modern literature and art and culture—let’s say 20th century stuff. When I studied Matisse and Picasso at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, my professor, who was a modernist and hadn’t studied Latin, couldn’t get over the amount of classical content even in the painting around the 1910s. Latin is even relevant for so-called modernist work.

There are two aspects to that. Classical culture invented so many of the great eternal stories: the myths, the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid. But also, because it was studied so intensely, it was constantly referred to, imitated, mocked, satirized in art, in literature, right up until the 1950s and 60s. You’re not constantly looking back to a dead subject or dead language of 2000 years ago, you’re looking at a tradition that’s changed and morphed right up until 50 years ago. So, again, you have this idea of a universal key into European culture.

One more question before we get to the first book—a bit of a spoiler alert here—but those of you that know Latin won’t be surprised to hear that it’s Kennedy’s Latin Primer. Before we get to it, I’d like to talk about the value of learning Latin. It’s so satisfying: it’s a better version of Sudoku, it’s a better version of the Times crossword, it’s a better version of a jigsaw puzzle. I find it comparable—when I’m translating a paragraph—to an episode of Sherlock on TV. What do you reckon about the satisfaction of studying Latin?

There are an awful lot of people who, when I talk about Latin, say they did it and hated it. I can understand that. I’m not saying everyone’s going to love it. I think even if they hate it, everyone would benefit from at least a year of doing Latin, because it’s so incredibly important. But if you happen to have one of those minds where you really like it, it is like a crossword or a Sudoku, mainly because it’s an extremely compact language. On the whole, if you have 10 words of Latin in a sentence, translating that into English, you end up with 15 or 20 words. I liken it to a concertina: you open up the concertina when you go from Latin to English and you close it when you go from English into Latin. Because of all those things that people do find difficult—the declensions, the conjugations, the gerund, the gerundive and all the rest of it—Latin words are packed with dozens of meanings. It is a bit like cracking a secret code. It’s not surprising that an awful lot of the code breakers at Bletchley Park—I don’t advocate this, it might be a bit like showing off—apparently, in their tea breaks, used to speak in Greek to each other. Greek is, if anything, even more sophisticated, with thousands more word endings. If you like it, it is a great pleasure going from one to the other.

So the best books on learning Greek for our next interview! Harry, let’s move on to—I don’t know what you call it—but what I certainly know as the Bible. I have here Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer though I imagine you recommend the full-length version?

Yes, there’s the blue one, which I’ve got here and there’s a later one, with a red cover. They’re both fantastic. It is the Bible because it has all the conjugations of the verbs and the declensions of the nouns. It also has, in very concise form, practically all the rules of grammar and syntax. It’s a very dry book. You’re not going to find any jokes in it, but absolutely everything is there. It’s the ultimate rulebook of Latin. It’s actually very short. It’s a very thin volume, because there’s no excess verbiage at all.

It’s so efficient. It’s so economical. It’s my favourite book.

It’s amazing. Kennedy was, I think, a Latin master in Liverpool. My father told me that because every year whole new generations of school children bought the book, the borders of Lake Geneva were filled with huge villas lived in by people like Kennedy, Hillard and Botting — all these people who wrote Latin grammar books before it had this great decline. They became, very early on, standard books, because they were beautifully worked out to be extremely efficient in the delivery of information. Kennedy is very concise, but it has the answer to every problem in Latin in it.

I wonder whether the revenue from Amo, Amas, Amat, has bought you a villa on Lake Geneva?

It doesn’t go that far, but I’ve written seven books and six of them have sold two copies. The only one that sold at all well was this one. I could probably have bought, not a villa, but a very, very small flat on the outskirts of London on the proceeds.

There obviously is an appetite out there.

There’s an incredible appetite. There’s a great Philip Larkin poem called, “Church Going,” about what will happen to churches when no one goes to them anymore and they fall apart and we all become secular and atheist. He imagines people going, in the future, to these rundown churches and still trying to find the altar and touching various holy stones. He thinks of himself as an agnostic, I think, but he says that there is a hunger for seriousness in all of us. I think there really is. Latin and Greek and an awful lot of difficult things were thrown out of most British schools in the 50s and 60s, but that hunger still survives. I think that’s why Amo, Amas, Amat did well, although it’s delivered in a jokey way.

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There are an awful lot of parents who learned Latin and Greek who are concerned that their children no longer are. Even if they hated it, they have a memory of this serious and difficult subject. It is difficult to learn properly, but I do think people patronize children. Perhaps not all, but a lot of children quite like difficulty. It’s also the one time—I don’t know about you, but when I was a small boy, I did things dutifully—when if you’re asked to learn 100 pages of vocab, you go and do it. I wouldn’t do it now, but as a little boy I would. That’s the time to force the mind full of these things. There’s no two ways about it, it’s quite boring, but the pleasure that comes from having learnt all this is enormous.

Let’s go on to your next book, which is a guide to how to learn the language for young pupils, or even adults, maybe. It’s called So You Really Want to Learn Latin and it’s by NRR Oulton.

The Latin argument in the last couple of years has become very, very furious — as often happens with arguments about slightly obscure subjects. There’s a whole school of thought that because Latin is difficult to teach, you should therefore give up and teach a dumbed-down version. I’m afraid I’ll have to mention it: the Cambridge Latin Course would never be in my top five in a million years.

Come on, it wouldn’t be in your top 5000!

It wouldn’t be in my top 5 million. It’s extremely patronizing. I see you’ve brought it along tonight, Katie, shamefully.

I find the translations quite useful.

For those who don’t know it, the Cambridge Latin Course spoon-feeds children, patronizes them, it expects them not to learn all these things—like conjugations and declensions—so they’re forever feeling in the dark, because they haven’t learned the basics. It’s like playing football without knowing the rules. I’m all for Latin being taught in a jolly, funny way. There is something very funny about Latin. Listeners who’ve seen the Life of Brian will remember the extremely funny scene with John Cleese and Graham Chapman and the badly spelt graffiti. You can be funny, but you can teach the rigorous stuff at the same time. That’s what the Nick Oulton book does. It has lots of jolly bits of history, nice pictures done in an easy-going way, but all the proper rules are there: the declensions, the conjugations, properly taught, in the right order.

It seems to me that the difference between the Cambridge Latin Course and books like Oulton’s are that the Cambridge Latin Course tries to teach Latin like a babe in arms might pick up English intuitively, whereas Oulton appreciates that you’ve got to learn it as though you were decoding something. I suppose the reason the Cambridge Latin Course was introduced in the first place is because if you learn code, it’s very dull, so you risk turning a lot of children off. So while I’m with you and agree Oulton’s method is better what do you do to counteract the boredom? Does Oulton do enough? He very much frontloads a child’s learning of Latin with grammar. How do you keep their attention?

I, like you, teach Latin and tutor children of 9 or 10. You can do it by being an amusing, good teacher. But I’m afraid the brutal truth is that learning stuff is quite boring. People don’t expect, when you’re teaching maths and learning long division — no one’s suggesting that that should be fun. It’s something we think our children should know. It’s quite boring, but it’s extremely useful. It’s the same with Latin. Only Latin and Greek were treated in this way — I think because of the associations with elitism and public school. They were given different treatment. Somehow it was shameful that these subjects were difficult to learn, and so they had to be dumbed down. I think that’s a non-sequitur. I disagree with the premise of your question. I’m afraid I don’t think it should be entertaining to learn, necessarily. I didn’t find it particularly entertaining learning 100 words of vocab every night when I was 10 or 11. It’s not fun. Education shouldn’t always be fun. It’s about things that are useful or things that later on bring incredible pleasure by knowing them.

Wow, you’re hardcore. How many tutees have stayed with you, Harry?

There are only 2 or 3. But I feel it strongly. The really unfair thing is that if you’ve been to expensive private schools in Britain like you or I have, that expectation of difficulty is completely expected. Parents bloody love it. They don’t want their children to have a particularly enjoyable time, they want them to know stuff. It’s extremely patronizing—largely in the state sector, although it’s fed into the private sector as well—this idea that because it’s difficult and boring, therefore your children shouldn’t do it, even though it’s extremely useful and wonderful for the mind. I just fundamentally disagree with the idea that the learning of it should necessarily be pleasurable.

This is really your textbook for learning isn’t it, the Oulton?

Yes. Over the last century you’ve had these two paths. You can either have the old-fashioned serious books of the 19th century, the 1920s, 30s which are a little dull and dry. Then there are ones like the Cambridge Latin Course, which fall over themselves to be nice and easygoing and therefore useless. Oulton is in the middle. It has all the hard stuff—and, as you say, it’s very heavy on grammar—but his examples are a little lighter and more pleasurable than the 19th century ones. So it squares the circle.

So looking at your list: for anyone who is starting from scratch the books they should get started on are Kennedy’s Latin Primer and the Oulton. They’re the two books that they’d buy first?

Yes, if you’re either an adult or a child, from those two books between them—it’ll take quite a long time, most children being taught properly at school will have years and years of this—you could learn Latin. I think there are three Oulton books, and there are some answer books as well. You could learn Latin from those books plus Kennedy’s Latin Primer.

Before we go on, I’d like to talk about the omission of one book. The way I teach is that I try and persuade the children to appreciate how different Latin is from the language they speak. None of these books you’ve chosen really concentrate on English grammar. I’ve always found it very useful to make children aware of what is going on in an English sentence and quite how different it is from a Latin sentence. So I’d like to mention, English Grammar for Students of Latin. Do you know this book?

No. It’s funny, I was asked the other day by a middle-aged person, ‘What’s a good book for English grammar?’ I replied that I’d never been taught English grammar, I did Latin and Greek. You could’ve been taught English grammar. There’s nothing particularly magic about Latin grammar, but just because, for historic reasons, it was taught in a rigorous way, you then learned what a noun, or a verb was — and you naturally thought for yourself about the differences. There is a famous cliché that you should learn Latin because it teaches you English grammar— the implication being because they’re very similar. Actually, as you said, it’s because they’re so incredibly different. There is no English equivalent of the ablative absolute. You could have been taught some other form of grammar rigorously—you could be taught Spanish grammar rigorously—it’s just that on the whole British schools don’t. There was a story the other day that at Brighton College, a very good private school, the English teachers got in trouble because they didn’t know their grammar. So the headmaster got in the Latin teachers to teach them English grammar. It’s not a magic quality of Latin, it’s because of the old-fashioned qualities of Latin teaching at its best, that grammar was taught.

When I read books that teach Latin, they always try and comfort the pupils, right at the beginning of the first lesson, saying, Latin is so like English — look at the word ‘ambulo,’ I walk, it’s just like ‘perambulator,’ a pram. And you think, firstly it’s not that similar, and, secondly, it’s so much more important for a child that’s setting out in Latin to realize how different it is and not how similar…

It is, and there’s an incredible pleasure in that. An example I give in my book is the Latin word ‘candidus,’ the adjective meaning white, pure, unvarnished. That’s where we get the word candidate from — and I don’t know when was the last time you heard the word political candidate and white, pure, unvarnished in the same sentence? They don’t go together. The reason why that word is what it is is that if you were standing for an election in Rome, you would sprinkle yourself with chalk dust — to be the prominent person in the market place. So you would be the candidus, the candid one, the white, pure, unvarnished one and ultimately the candidate. But, actually, if you went purely on your Latin, you couldn’t say that candidus has a direct connection with a candidate. But isn’t that incredibly pleasurable, to think about the journey?

So buy Oulton, but it’s maybe also worth considering—if I’m allowed to suggest something, I know this is a bit unorthodox—English Grammar for Students of Latin, the 3rd edition, by Norma W Goldman. Now, less about my suggestions, and on to your next book.

It’s the Latin version of Asterix the Gaul, Asterix Gallus. The Asterix books, for those who haven’t heard of them, by Goscinny and Uderzo, are a brilliant, brilliant series of comic strip books about Asterix, a little Gaul from a village that holds out against Roman occupation in the 1st century BC. It’s extremely funny in English and actually the English version has some very, very good Latin jokes in it. It’s very sophisticated. There’s a set of pirates who constantly sink and whenever they do, there’s an old pirate who always makes little jokes in Latin. So if you’re pleased with yourself you can congratulate yourself on translating the Latin to English. I think the books are a really good introduction into Rome, the Roman Empire, Roman Gaul, and also Roman Britain. Asterix in Britain is an extremely good book.

Asterix Gallus, the Latin version, has good, easy Latin and, particularly if you’ve read Asterix the Gaul in English first, it’s a really good way of learning your first proper Latin sentences. Like all cartoons, there’s only one or two sentences in each speech bubble. So once you’ve got your Oulton and your Kennedy by your side, perhaps buy Asterix Gallus and Asterix the Gaul alongside each other. A lot of it is quite straightforward Latin and they have very good vocabulary lists, as well, in the book. There were all sorts of words that I didn’t know. Anyone who reads Asterix knows that Obelix, his fat friend, is very interested in eating wild boar. I didn’t know the Latin for boar was ‘aper, apri.’ And he’s obsessed with carrying menhirs, big stones. The Latin for a menhir is ‘cipus,’ a stone block. But otherwise the Latin is really quite simple.

I believe they’ve translated Harry Potter and Winnie-the-Pooh and other such classics into Latin too. Have you tried any of them?

I’m afraid I’ve read Harry Potter neither in English nor in Latin, but I have read Winnie Ille Pu. I’ll be honest, the books are more enjoyable in English. But they are really nice, easygoing ways for grown ups, as well as children, to do their first translations. Like all great children’s books, the English is simple and so the Latin is simple.

One thing I like to do with children—which is a bit along the lines of Asterix—is if they look really tired and the parents have gone out, I switch on Gladiator. Just to make it a bit more of a ‘lesson’ I’ll pause it and get them to try and explain the last scene to me in Latin. Contemporary culture on Rome is a fertile seam, isn’t it? And a lot of fun.

It’s incredibly popular. I’ve painted a picture of doom and gloom, which I still think is true of the decline of rigorous study of Latin over the last 50 years. It’s massive and it hasn’t been reversed. But, the increase in the informal study of Latin—which I’m all for, any Latin is better than no Latin—over the last 15 years has been enormous. The number of state school students doing Latin has doubled in the last 15 years and for the first time, possibly ever, there are now more state school students doing Latin than are doing it in grammar schools or private schools. Probably not to the same level of rigour. People sometimes think this is an amazing new dawn. I still think it’s very depressing how standards have slipped, but there is a great contemporary boom in translations and English books about classical culture. Mary Beard and Boris Johnson just did a brilliant debate in London, Greece versus Rome. Mary Beard represented the Romans, Boris represented the Greeks. It was completely packed out, 1000 people, voting one way or the other. Mary Beard won, but they were both brilliant and the audience was largely under 30. So there is a massive, massive interest.

What book is next on the list?

It’s by Nicholas Ostler. It’s a more obscure book called Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant book explaining how and why Latin became the European language and the ultimate world language, in a way. It explains that until about the 3rd century BC, Latin was spoken in a tiny area of Italy in Latium, the modern province of Lazio, near Rome. There were all sorts of other dialects with wonderful names like ‘Oscan’ spoken very nearby. But because this small group of Romans beat the neighbouring tribes, Latin became the language of the Roman Empire. Who learns Oscan now at school? No one. Because Latin was the language spoken by this brilliant tribe who defeated the other Italian tribes, it became the dominant language of the Roman Empire, and then, later, the spark for all Romance languages. There’s also brilliant stuff on how Latin mutated into Italian. It’s extremely close, and like any language that’s spoken regularly, it’s spoken more quickly, and the more difficult bits were dropped. So consonants at the end of words were dropped. So here’s a perfect example — in Latin, to say a good person sings a song, you’d say ‘Bonus cantat canticum.’ The Italian is ‘Buono canta cantico.’ Almost identical, but they’ve dropped the consonants from the end of all those words, so you get that more fluid Italian.

I would like to give an example of what you’re describing in action, Harry. There’s a book I brought along tonight and it might well be of interest for our American readers. It’s called Scribblers, Sculptors and Scribes, by Richard A. LaFleur. It’s an accompaniment to Wheelock’s Latin, which I think is used a lot in America. This guy Richard decided he would try and find examples of Latin—very simple or very complicated, depending on the level or chapter that someone is on—and even right at the beginning he manages to find super simple Latin sentences from graffiti. In chapter one or two, there’s an example of something that’s written on the threshold of a house belonging to a merchant in Pompeii. It says, ‘Salve, Lucru.’ So you can imagine a merchant coming home. It’s obviously meant to be ‘Salve Lucrum’ or ‘Hello, Money’ as the guy opens his door or crosses the threshold. So that’s what you’re talking about, the dropping of the ‘m’, the consonant, at the end of the word.

It’s very consoling to anyone who does Latin and finds it a bit difficult that Romans got it wrong too. There’s another straightforward bit of graffiti from Pompeii which says ‘Marcus Spedusa amat,’ which means ‘Marcus loves Spedusa.’ Anyone knows that should be Spedusam. It’s comforting that Pompeiians also had problems with the accusative. Because it’s been treated as this grand language, we have this crazy idea that the Romans were always talking in very high-minded ways, but of course they used Latin to swear, to say how much they loved their girlfriends, or to bet on Ben Hur in the 3.30 at Circus Maximus. And the graffiti at Pompeii is fantastically obscene, a lot of it. Very, very funny too.

On to your next—your fifth and final—book, am I right?

It’s called A Loeb Classical Library Reader. James Loeb was an extremely interesting figure, an American. Readers might know about the Loeb banking family, who are still a significant banking family. He was a late 19th century member who didn’t take to banking. What he really loved was classics. He came up with this brilliant idea of publishing both Greek and Latin books with the Greek and Latin on the left hand side of the page, and the translation on the right. It is difficult reading Greek and Latin but you can look across just like that and it makes it very, very, easy. You can just read the translations if you want, but it’s a very good way of gradually increasing your power of reading Latin. You can cover up the right-hand side and not have the English at all, or just refer back to it. This reader has a great mixture of difficult and easy passages, and it’s got Greek as well. It’s got a brilliant passage from the Odyssey about the Cyclops being wounded by Odysseus. But it has a mixture of Latin in there as well. It’s got some relatively easy Latin to translate — Livy’s History of Rome, Propertius’s Elegies, Ovid. I’ve slightly delivered these books in order. This is probably the most difficult thing to do, but it’s always made easy because you’ve got the translation on the other side of the page.

I had a quick look and you can actually subscribe online to the Loeb Classical Library but it’s pretty expensive — $150 in your first year, and $65 thereafter. For the full set, there are some inexpensive options, but some are as much as $10,000.

It’s a huge library, all the prominent works of Greek and Latin are in Loeb’s and it would cost a fortune to have them all. The book I’m referring to is a particular, single book, called A Loeb Classical Library Reader. It has passages from each of those people — a page or two. It makes it very easy to read, because they’re just little excerpts. It’s only about 7 GBP — it’s a little paperback. It’s a brilliant introduction and an incredible thrill. Even with basic Latin, you’ll be able to read Ovid or Horace or Propertius. And you’ve always got the English on the other side if you’re finding it a bit difficult. And extraordinary to be able to read these things in the original language!

Before we wrap up, there are two other areas I’d like to quickly touch on. Like you, I was lucky enough to have a Westminster School and Oxbridge classical education, but someone that helped with my Latin language immensely was Reginaldus Foster, who was the Pope’s Latin secretary. He did two things for me. First of all, he recommended that if your really want to get to the heart of Latin, you should learn passages off by heart pretty regularly. One that he asked me to learn off by heart, Horace’s speech for the poet Archias, I absolutely loved, and did indeed help me with the structure of sentences. Is there a passage that you would recommend?

Perhaps the opening lines of the Aeneid, Virgil’s great epic about the defeated Trojan, Aeneas, going to Italy to try and found Rome. The first line is probably the most famous line in Latin: ‘Arma virumque cano,’ — ‘I sing of arms and of the man…’ If you start learning the first line, not only will you know the most famous line of Latin, but you’ll also begin to get an understanding of Roman history and actually how very close the Aeneid is to the Iliad. The first line of the Iliad is, ‘Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles.’ The Aeneid is so rich and thick with references both to Greek and Latin, that just by doing a tiny bit, the first few lines, that leads into the Iliad, into the foundation of Rome, into the greatest epic Latin poet. So I’d begin with the first three words, and then learn more and more.

By the way, readers, just so you know that Harry isn’t a pretentious wanker, I should say that if you read Amo, Amas, Amat, you will also learn what the tattoos mean on Angelina Jolie’s belly and David Beckham’s body. Harry is just as keen on low-brow Latin as he is on the high-brow stuff he’s just mentioned. In fact, in my first lesson, I get my pupils to learn Beckham’s tattoos off by heart.

Yes, he has ‘Ut amem et foveam,’ which is a tricky use of the subjunctive, meaning ‘in order that I might love and cherish,’ which I think is on his left forearm. Interestingly, he leaves the object of his loving and cherishing blank, so it could apply to lovely Mrs Posh, or AN Other.

And it’s really perfectly opposite to Angelina’s tattoo…

Yes, which is an extremely brilliant bit of Latin, ‘Quod me nutrit, me destruit.’ It’s an early anorexic’s charter — ‘what feeds me destroys me.’ I looked it up and the earliest reference I could find was to a 16th century philosopher. I’m not quite sure what the impact is, but it’s quite a strange thing to have tattooed on your belly, which is where Angelina has chosen to have it.

One reason Reginaldus was so helpful for me in Latin is that he created boundaries. He didn’t think—or didn’t give the impression—that there were countless irregularities and so never any point learning the rules, which is the sensation I had a bit when I was younger. He said that if I buy one book it has to be Lewis and Short, because their A Latin Dictionary has every single instance of the meaning of a Latin word. Why isn’t it on your list?

Because it’s extremely expensive and it’s enormous. I would suggest that eventually anyone who is a big Latin fan get it. I’ve got a copy at home and I think it’s fantastic. It’s an incredible work of scholarship, and because Latin dominated Europe for so long, the words changed their meanings massively. Lewis and Short will say how a word changes meaning over centuries. But, to begin with, a smaller Latin dictionary will do.

And those of you out there who are studying medieval Latin—because you’re studying medieval history, I’ve met many American Latinists who are studying Latin for that reason—it’s absolutely crucial. I really was a lot worse than Harry at Latin at school. I found Lewis and Short very comforting, because it gives you answers and solutions to everything.

Latin is often attacked for being a dead language. Actually, that’s one of its great virtues. There’s no room for bluffing. The rules are there and they’re set in stone. By all means break them for fun, but they are completely inviolable and it’s extremely enjoyable and useful to learn them.

Interview by Katie Walker

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