Who said Latin was a dead language? Like the Roman army invading Britain, hordes of university students are flooding classics departments, intent on learning Caesar’s tongue. At York, enrolment in beginners’ Latin has doubled over the past few years, while the University of Ottawa has opened more spaces due to demand.
Alison Keith, chair of classics at the University of Toronto, thinks Latin’s popularity has to do with “media interest in the ancients,” as typified in movies like Gladiator. “I’ve spent time looking at the ruins, but they’re down around my knees,” she says, which makes seeing ancient Rome on screen all the more exciting. The Harry Potter books, too, have made an impression: “Lots of the code words have a Latin base,” she says. (Take the lumos spell, close to lumen, Latin for “light.”)
But a love for period drama is a “pretty frivolous reason” to study Latin, says Peter O’Brien of Dalhousie University, especially considering “all the drudgery it requires.” Students are drawn to it because they want to read Virgil or Catullus without the filter of translation, he believes, and future doctors or lawyers might think Latin will come in handy. (The legal term “in camera,” for one, is Latin for “in chambers.”) Others, adds John Geyssen of the University of New Brunswick, simply like the “arcane weirdness” of it.
Samuel Allemang, president of the University of Toronto’s Association of Classics Students, is skeptical that his peers are flocking to the discipline based purely on the merits of Russell Crowe or J.K. Rowling. “I haven’t heard people saying they’ve entered the program because of Harry Potter,” he says. “No one has made life decisions based on the movie 300, as far as I can tell.” The association has, however, hosted screenings of the HBO series Rome, which is popular with students and professors alike.
Whatever the reason, about 2,500 Canadian university students are now taking Latin. Far from being a dead language, one might say, lingua Latina vivit.