This past Saturday, 16 February, the halls and classrooms of St John’s College resounded with the pristine language of the Romans, which was used for centuries in the University of Oxford to instruct students in letters, science, and the liberal arts. In just one Saturday, sixteen classes were held entirely in Latin, attended by more than 40 students and teachers from different universities and secondary schools in Britain and beyond (we were delighted to welcome participants from as far afield as Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Mexico, the United States, Greece, and Hungary). We were delighted too by the presence of friends who run initiatives and projects similar to ours. Josey Parker, who runs the Circulus Latinus Cantabrigiensis, was among the participants with some other members of the Cambridge Circle; so was Vincenzo Rosati, who is a member of our project, but is also the teacher of the “Latine loquimur” classes at UCL; Alwaleed Alsaggaf, who teaches Latin, in Latin of course, at Eton College; and Dimitar Dragnev, who organizes a summer programme of spoken Latin in Sofia, Bulgaria. There were also several alumni of the Vivarium Novum academy, Even in the midst of a busy academic term and the bleakest month, these studious men and women dedicated an entire day to attend the “Dies Latinitatis” organized by members of The Oxford Latinitas Project and the Vivarium Novum Academy.
The study day began with a brief address from Dr Melinda Letts, Tutor in Greek and Latin Languages at Jesus College and Harris Manchester College. Dr Letts spoke about the study of these ancient languages in our universities, how these disciplines are usually approached by teaching students how to read and write the languages, and how we can improve our understanding and scholarship not only of the languages but also of the texts and the cultures that produced them by adding spoken Latin to the existing methodologies —which is one of the central aims of the Oxford Latinitas Project.
Inspired by Dr. Letts’s invocation, participants next headed to the speaking, reading, and discussion sessions. These seminars divided participants into smaller groups of 5-8 in order to give everyone the opportunity to practise speaking Latin as much as possible and to express their own opinions or questions about the texts under discussion. Our teachers, who are not just language enthusiasts and pedagogues, but academics who use the language to approach their respective fields of study, had each prepared Latin texts from their area of expertise to read and discuss with the participants. Authors chosen for this study day ranged from classical staples such as Seneca, Ovid and Augustine, to medieval and early modern authors such as John of Alta Silva and Enea Silvio Piccolomini. The seminars also included a broad range of topics, from women in the Academy according to Augustine, Laura Cereta, and Isota Nogarola, to the nature of the human soul in Prudentius and Boethius—as well as all manner of stylistic delights, such as Pope Pius II’s amusing narrative about the Cardinal Conclave that elected him as Pontiff, described by the humanist pope himself in his Commentarii. By teatime, all the participants were so confident about using spoken Latin that the hall echoed with Latin conversation in the midst of clinking china and much laughter. The day ended with everyone gathering back together to sing poetry by Horace, Catullus, Ovid, and medieval poets.
The Oxford Latinitas Project was founded to share our mode of study and scholarship—i.e. a focus on close reading, primary sources, immersion in the language, rich and spirited discussion, and above all the friendship inspired by these practices—with others in our universities. Those of us who lead the Project have found these practices to bring both immense personal joy to us as individuals and enormous creativity and fresh strength to our academic work, and we were glad to be able to share a bit of this with so many friends on Saturday. To everyone who came: it was a joy to spend time and learn with and from you—thank you so much for coming!
Iván Parga, February 20, 2019