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A new Renaissance of Latin

Latin is certainly a living language today. During the last twenty years, it has experienced a revival, numbering some 5,000 speakers all over the world, many of whom are in their twenties. Many sites and forums are now maintained in Latin. The Latin Wikipedia has more than 100,000 articles written in the language of Cicero. In the United States as well as in Europe, I have attended many lectures that were given in a fluid Latin, and all questions after the speeches were asked by the audience in the same language. In some Classics departments, dissertations are written in Latin. Latin is spoken conversationally among scholars, students and lovers of the language, in Living Latin circles, in symposia, in casual meetings, by skype, and by phone.

Latin throughout history

Ever since Antiquity, Latin has always been a spoken language. Unlike other ancient languages, Latin has never experienced any break in its speaking tradition, always producing new literary works and developing new vocabulary[1]. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century A. D., large regions of Western Europe still had Latin as their official and vernacular language. During the Middle Ages, in the areas where Romance languages developed, a situation of diglossia[2] prevailed. Vulgar Latin had begun to diverge into distinct languages which were confined to everyday speech, and Medieval Latin, used for official and academic writing, was spoken in cultural circles as well as in monasteries and among clerics. Medieval Latin spread into lands that had never spoken Latin before, such as the Germanic and Slavic nations. In Western Europe, Latin became the language of international communication.

The European Renaissance briefly reinforced the position of Latin as a spoken language as it was adopted by Humanists. Taking the classical language of the 1st century BC as a model, they corrected Medieval Latin accordingly. The beginning of print helped the Latin language to spread, as most 15th century printed books (incunabula) were in Latin.

During the Early Modern Age, Latin was still the most important language of culture in Europe. Until the end of the 17th century the majority of books and almost all diplomatic documents were written in Latin. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Latin was the language spoken at the Hungarian parliament in the town of Pozsony. During the 20th century, until the end of the 1960s, in Pontifical Universities in Rome and Fribourg (Switzerland), theology classes were given in Latin.

Today, the largest organization that retains Latin in official contexts is the Catholic Church. Latin remains the liturgical language of the Roman rite. Although the Mass of Paul VI (ordinary form of the Roman rite) is usually celebrated in the local vernacular language, it can be said in Latin, especially at multilingual gatherings; the Tridentine Mass (extraordinary form) is always celebrated in Latin.[3]

The influence of Latin

The central role of Latin in Europe at least until the beginning of the 18th century has exerted a deep influence in many languages and cultures. To a large extent, the scientific, literary and religious vocabulary of the main European languages correspond to concepts that were either first coined in Greek and translated into Latin (such as substance[4], subject[5]or figure[6]) or that come directly from the language of the Romans. Latin and the later Romance languages (mainly French and Italian) have influenced the English language, supplying 60% of its vocabulary. Latin idioms dot the pages of European literature and the developments of scholarly discussions. Through the liturgy, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible has deeply affected the lexica of many languages: a word such as talent and its correspondants in different European languages, which originally designated a unit of weight of gold or silver, comes through the Vulgate translation of the famous New Testament parable[7]. Last but not least, since the end of the Middle Ages until today, a large number of literary texts compose what is called Neo-Latin literature.

The « eccentricity » of Western culture

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Latin if we wish to understand Western culture. That influence goes far beyond the language. According to Rémi Brague,[8] what has characterized Western culture since the period of the Roman Empire is its “eccentricity” or external position (secondarité) with respect to the great traditions of Jerusalem and Athens, namely the Jewish and Christian tradition, on one hand, and the classical Greek tradition on the other.

The culture of Western Europe has a distinctly Latin character, but its canon comes mainly from Athens (in Greek texts) and Jerusalem (in Hebrew and, to some extent, Aramaic and Greek texts). The “eccentricity” of Western culture lies in its non-Western origins.

Rémi Brague sees Latin, that is, the Roman culture, as the key to understanding Western culture. The transmission of that culture has propelled Europe and more generally the West toward civilization. Ever since Antiquity, the Roman attitude senses its own incompleteness and recognizes the call to borrow from what went before it.

The relationship of Western culture to its roots implies neither a rejection of those roots nor a simple continuation of the past into the present. This is what made possible the series of renaissances that the Western world experienced throughout its history, namely the Carolingian, the 12th century and the 16th century renaissances. Europe has always had to rediscover its roots by revisiting texts that were originally written in a language that was not Latin.

In the realm of Hellenism (Byzantium), even if one can point to some movements of rediscovery of the past, these rediscoveries did not entail a change of language and, therefore, did not have the same effect of renewal as in the West.

According to Brague, Arabic culture was mainly centered on sciences and philosophy; therefore, Greek scientific and philosophical works were almost exclusively the works that were translated into Arabic. Western culture instead acquired Greek literary and historical works in addition to those of science and philosophy, many of which were translated into Latin or became the inspirational basis for other works in Latin and Romance languages. The literary texts imply a knowledge of the language itself (instead of just the contents of what has been said), and Western culture has always been striving to search for external sources and has been exposed to other languages than Latin.[9]

Of course, one can challenge this theory of Brague by noting that during the Carolingian renaissance as well as during the 12th century renaissance, most scholars did not have any knowledge of Greek and worked primarily with original Latin texts or Latin translations. One can also add that the relationship with Latin itself has become eccentrical, as Latin is no longer a mother tongue (if we ignore the rare exceptions I mentioned at the beginning). Translations are not always extant. The percentage of literary texts from Antiquity and even more so from the Middle Ages that have never been translated into any modern language is overwhelming. Even some important works of Medieval philosophers are still untranslated.[10] Unless one knows Latin, it is impossible to access these texts. Also, one must emphasize the rich contribution of Latin literature and tradition to Western culture that was not inherited from other cultures. Once all this has been said, we cannot deny that Western culture is the result of a continuous cultural and linguistic crossbreeding in a measure that is not seen elsewhere.

A new Renaissance

That process of cultural blending through the rediscovery of ancient languages may be happening again. This phenomenon affects Latin, first and foremost. Strange as it may seem, as a living and spoken reality, the language of Cicero is experiencing a revival, often outside the boundaries of its traditional turf in universities and state educational systems.

We  are experiencing a small, albeit growing movement of discovering ancient sources. Now at the beginning of the third millennium, institutions are being developed with the common aim of renewing the pedagogy of ancient languages and teaching them in a living way. These institutions includethe Paideia Institute (New York), the Societas Latina Lexingtoniensis (Lexington, Kentucky), the Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum ou S.A.L.V.I. (Los Angeles), the Polis Institute (Jerusalem), the Accademia Vivarium Novum (Rome), and the Circulus latinus lutentiensis (Paris), as well as many other Circuli Latini and Conventicula in Europe and the USA. In what one could call a new renaissance, all things considered,[11] , the different institutions which foster living Latin and Greek move beyond traditional methods and try other ways of teaching ancient languages in an immersive way.

A Series of Renaissances

In order to better grasp the reality of the new (perhaps the sixth) renaissance, let us survey the periods in history that were characterized by a retour aux sources movement that dealt with ancient Greek or Latin texts. It is striking to see how each period corresponds to a technical revolution in access to knowledge.

The first renaissance, the first revisiting of ancient literature, in Western culture, corresponds to the editorial and textual criticism work that was accomplished during the third and second centuries BC in the library of Alexandria, the first state library  in the history of Hellenism. The idea of a literary canon developed there for the first time in history. According to Quintilianus,[12] Aristophanes of Byzantium[13] listed the “chosen” authors (ἐγκριθέντες) according to the “purity” of their style.

From the first century until the beginning of the third century AD, the second renaissance in Western history developed. That period was characterized by a renewal of rhetorics. Especially during the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (AD 96-192), humanities blossomed in Athens. Two important events distinguish this Greek city: the foundation of Hadrian’s library (AD 131-132), and a series of professorships for teaching rhetoric —one under Antoninus Pius, AD 138-161, and another under Marcus Aurelius in AD 176— and philosophy in AD 176.

The use of the codex, which appeared during the first century AD, began to spread. Unlike the roll, a codex has large margins for comments. Between the years 150 and 180, this technical development of the book fostered a selection of literary works to be studied at school. Based on the Alexandrinian canon, this new selection of texts led to other works falling into oblivion. For each author, the selected texts, with their marginal commentaries, filled the space of a codex.[14] It is during this period that we read for the first time, in the works of Aulus Gellius,[15] the phrase auctores classici (“authors pertaining to the highest class,” hence “classical authors”) which was applied to some Latin writers such as Cicero, Virgilius, Horatius.

           The fall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476) and the closure of Athenian schools by Justinianus (AD 529) led to a gradual estrangement from pagan Greek and Latin literature. The study of Antiquity and its texts was not renewed until the Carolingian Renaissance, the third renaissance, in the 9th and 10th centuries.[16] With the technical revolution of Carolingian minuscule, a capital letter was introduced at the beginning of each sentence. This facilitated the reading of manuscripts. Around the same time, in Byzantium, the Macedonian Renaissance occurred after the reorganization by Bardas (AD 863) of the University of Constantinople.

           The fourth renaissance is that of the 12th century. It was marked by the spreading in Europe of a series of Latin translations of Greek philosophical and scientific texts, which were made either directly from the original text or from an Arabic version.  This renaissance is linked to a technical evolution in reading. In Continental Europe, it is at that period and for the first time that word separation appeared in written texts. This improvement in the form of manuscripts fostered silent reading. On the other hand, the number of copied books increased. In some workshops, many copies could be made from a single manuscript through a more rationalized distribution of work among copyists.

           Some decades later, in the Byzantine world, between the return of Michael VIII Palaiologos to Constantinople in 1261 and c. 1340, philology blossoms with Maximus Planudes (c. 1250 - c. 1310), Manuel Moschopoulos (c. 1265- aft. 1316), Thomas Magister (c. 1265 - aft. 1346) and especially Demetrius Triclinius (c. 1280- c. 1340), who can be considered the first modern philologist. According to Jean Irigoin, it was Triclinius who made the link between the principles which were inherited from Alexandrinian philologists and the new scholarship which will develop in the Western world from as early as the 15th century.[17]

           The 15th and the 16th centuries correspond to the fifth renaissance, the Humanist renaissance. Print revolution enabled publishers to dramatically increase the number of copies. Unlike the two former renaissances, the focus of the humanists was pagan texts rather than Hellenistic or late Antique texts. For most scholars of this period, Isocrates’ Greek or Cicero’s Latin become the model for imitation, either in written texts or in speech. Scholars from this period considered ancient languages as living ones and communicated among themselves mainly in Latin and sometimes in Greek.

           The sixth renaissanceseems to be happening today. The generation of the 1980s has grown up with books: people were accustomed to reading printed books. For them, formal and written language were synonymous, and they were more familiar than we are today with grammatical analysis of texts. Reading was associated with the intangible limits of a book which has a clear beginning and end. This was a different generation for whom the traditional methods of learning classical languages through charts and declensions were less problematic than for us. However, the generation which grew up with internet cannot have access to knowledge in the same way. If the traditional way to learn Latin seemed difficult thirty years ago, it has become even more difficult today. One can see how, in many Classics departments, the relatively high number of students who register at the beginning of the year starts to dwindle throughout the semester, and very few perservere until the end.  As soon as the teacher starts explaining the intricacies of grammar, it looks as if students abandon the lessons, as they find it difficult to assimilate the Latin language and cope with its teaching techniques.

For the first time since the 16th century, we are encountering a small but increasing development of living Latin and Greek. The digital revolution which has multiplied access to knowledge in the last twenty years has played an essential role in this development. Judging by its consequences, this technological development can be likened in magnitude to the beginning of writing, the spreading of codices, or the invention of print.


[1] See for instance David Morgan and Patrick Owen, Lexicon Latinum, (http://www.wyomingcatholiccollege.com/faculty-pages/patrick-owens/lexicon/adumbratio/index.aspx)

[2] A situation in which two varieties of the same language are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers. The term is usually applied to languages with distinct “high” and “low” varieties, such as Arabic.

[3] The reader will find in the book of Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin. Story of a World Language, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2013 an interesting survey on the history of Latin.

[4] The English word comes from Latin substantia which is a literal translation of Greek hupostasis.

[5] The English word comes from Latin subjectum which is a literal translation of Greek hupokeimenon.

[6] The English word comes from Latin figura which, when applied to literary figures, rendered the Greek word schèma. See Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, trans. Ralph Manheim (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[7] Mt 25,14-30.

[8] Rémi Brague, Europe, la voie romaine, Folio Essais, Gallimard, 1999 (third revised edition). See English translation: Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, Trans. Samuel Lester. Notre Dame: St. Augustine's P, 2009.

[9] Cf. Rémi Brague, op. cit., p. 215 (« Il n’a jamais été longtemps, ou sérieusement, question pour les chrétiens de rejeter les littératures antiques, qui véhiculaient pourtant des représentations païennes. Leurs chefs-d’œuvre ont été conservés, ce qui a, comme on l’a vu, permis cette série ininterrompue de ‘renaissances’ qui constitue l’histoire de la culture européenne »).

[10] We do not have yet a full English translation either of the Four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard or of its commentary by Thomas Aquinas, for instance.

[11] One cannot really compare the former renaissances, which affected most scholars in every given period, to the current one, which influences a small number of students and Classics teachers. The interested reader will find in the following appendix a description of the different renaissances that the Western world has experienced since Antiquity.

[12]1.4.3 ; 10.1.53-72.

[13]ca 257-180 BC.

[14] Cf. Jean Irigoin, Histoire du texte de Pindare, Paris, Klincksieck, 1952, p. 93-100.

[15] 19, 8.

[16] This renaissance lasted until c. 1030 and is often called the Ottonian Renaissance.

[17]Cf. Irigoin, op. cit., p. 361.