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Sing, Muse, of the Man Who Once Learnt Something by Rote

Sarah Sheard

It happened a few days ago now, and yet the tremendous feat will not leave my Twitter feed. It is even more galling given that the act itself happened not one, not two, but six entire years ago. Way back in 2013, when the world wasn’t on fire, the Conservatives were in coalition with the Lib Dems, and UKIP were still trying to make ‘Brexit’ happen, Boris Johnson stated that when times were tough, he recited the Iliad. Six years later – large proportions of the world on fire, Brexit imminent, Conservatives in power with iron-clad majority – the clip went viral on Christmas Eve, with an appropriately smug caption: ‘your move, Labour’.

There have already been hot-takes aplenty. Prof. Mary Beard called Twitter’s collective bluff, retweeting the clip with a link to donate to the charity Classics for All: surely, she maintained, if we are to applaud Johnson’s recital, we should all recognise that learning Latin and Greek is still a privilege afforded to those whose parents can pay for private schooling, who likely learnt the ancient languages themselves and understand the wider socio-cultural importance of the Classics.

People then accused Mary Beard of only knowing ‘basic’ Greek, or no Greek at all.

Classics academics were merely kicking up a fuss because it was Tory-Panto-Villain Boris Johnson doing the reciting, rather than Jezza Corbyn. Otherwise (so the Twittersphere claimed) the would-be symposiast would have been applauded for keeping the Classics relevant; crowned with laurel, invited to recline in our ivory towers.

I would be remiss not to refer you to my colleague Krishnan Ram-Prasad’s article on Tory politicians’ manipulation of the Classics to project a particularly well-heeled, ministerial image. Reciting the Iliad is merely another facet of a political PR campaign which in no way has the good of the Classics at heart, beyond capitalising on its prestige and (not-quite-so) historic role as a marker of status.

I must confess, however, my bias: I have some skin in the game here. You will likely be unsurprised to learn that I attended an independent, fee-paying school where I learnt Latin. You will be equally unsurprised to learn that I was so exceptionally outgoing, popular and sociable that I took part in more than one Latin Reading Competition in the north-west of England.

While everyone else was downing WKDs, procuring fake IDs and having fumbly teenage sex, I was scanning hexameter, circling elisions with a 2B pencil and an inflated sense of self-importance.

You didn’t have to learn the passages by rote, but I practiced them so often that I usually did not need the written passage on the day.

I remember these competitions with great fondness. There were never more than a handful of people competing in any one category: the crowd of increasingly spotty and gangly teens soon became familiar to each other. In the first year we started with sections of the Cambridge Latin Course – funny voices and all for Caecilius and Metella’s domestics – but we promptly moved on to the ‘real’ stuff, the grand, canonical texts of Western culture.

In my second year, the passage was the haunting description of the unburied dead lingering on the banks of the Styx, longing to cross over, from book 6 of the Aeneid. They are some of Virgil’s most poignant and moving lines: the souls of boys and unmarried girls, as many as there are autumn leaves falling upon the ground in the first frost, or birds fluttering to warmer climes in the winter, extend their imploring hands in lamentation. A tall boy of around fifteen hesitantly stood up to recite the piece, his dark fringe so long that it flopped behind the frames of his glasses, his limbs the very image of reluctance. I remember the sudden, dawning realisation of why he held the paper so determinedly over his crotch for the duration of the reading. He didn’t turn up next year.

I won in my final appearance – although I won’t embarrass myself further by specifying how many times I competed – reciting Dido’s confession of her wild, all-consuming love for Aeneas and guilt for her deceased husband Sychaeus.

As a single seventeen-year-old, who hadn’t been widowed and promised total fidelity to the dead, I found the emotions difficult to access. I stood up, recited, sat down, and checked my phone: I still had no reply from the boy I’d had a crush on since our Silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition weeks previously.

And yet, years later, I am still able to remember large chunks of the Latin I had memorised in my time. They reappear, still, in my brain, at the most inopportune moments. I do not say this to brag. The article so far should dictate to you that I found nothing about this experience remotely impressive or noteworthy: being able to recite Latin has brought me little by way of advantage in my life to date. A moment in late teenagedom illustrates that succinctly: stood at a train station trying to explain to an overzealous guard that I was not too tipsy to travel, I recited Aeneid 2, and Creusa’s speech to Aeneas: si periturus abis, et nos rap-in omnia tecum, sin aliquam… I wasn’t allowed on the train. National Rail, one; Virgil, nil.

I have no patience for Classics being used to bolster the self-image of politicians with no consideration for what Classics is, what is has been (thoughtless at best, and downright fascist at worst), or what it could be in the future, for good or ill. But I find the bits of Latin in my head and smile at the idea of it – that these lines, lofty and exalted and canonical, are embedded in moments and feelings that are entirely pedestrian, not remotely epic or grandiose: snippets of an overly responsible, ill-spent youth.

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