Archive for the ‘Latin’ Category

On top of the Esquiline

February 28, 2010

Coming from a culture which has been so steeped in Christianity, it can be easy to over-emphasise the switch from paganism to this new-fangled religion. The schoolboy question and answer would be: Q. When did Rome become Christian? A. Under the rule of Constantine. As ever, of course, things weren’t as simple as that. Ignoring the question of just how Christian was this sainted ruler and looking instead at your average joe worshipper, Christianity’s entry onto the main stage of world religions was more of a seeping cooption of pagan beliefs and values. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been bored by people pointing out that the 25th of December was a pagan festival before the Christians usurped it, but nevertheless, there is quite a lot of truth in the old chestnut. The geography of Rome is shaped by such practices.

In Pre-Christian days, a temple to Juno Lucinda, the goddess who would be invoked in childbirth, stood on the Esquiline Hill. Understandably unwilling to lose any divine assistance during that particular trauma, people m

ade sure that this particular remit was transferred to the obvious other candidate; the woman who had given birth to Jesus himself. As such, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the hill today, and whatever ridiculous stories of miraculous snowfall marking the Church’s outer markings one might come across (, it’s this transferral of pagan values which would really seem to account for the location.

To the front and back of the church stand a column and an obelisk respectively. Both of these are of good sturdy classical stock and both stand where they do (at least partially) because of another common determiner in Roman geography: personal aggrandizement. The first of the two to be erected was the obelisk at the back of the church. The Latin inscriptions on each side of the base explain the provenance. The north east side, for example, reads:

Christi Dei

In Aeturnum Viventis


Laetissime Colo

Qui Mortui

Sepulcro Augusti



which translates as: “I who in sadness, formerly served the tomb of the dead Augustus, with greatest joy revere the cradle of Christ, the everliving God.” Augustus’ mausoleum, then, was the source of this obelisk. In his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome, Tyler Lansford explains its curious location; whilst it stood at the back of the Church it was supposed to serve, it stood at the front of Villa Montalto. Essentially, it would seem that it was an effort by Sixtus V to increase the value of his property.

Moving over to the front of the church now, we reach a site familiar to me from my many journeys into town on the 71, la Colonna della Pace (or the Colum of Peace). This one’s also a testament to the ulterior motives of popes past. The last two lines of the south west inscription shed light on the rationale behind the erection.

te paule nullis

obticebo saeculis

Or translated, “About you, Paul, I will be silent in no age.” Never one to shy away from a bit of self-publicising, this is the same Paul (Paul V) who prompted the graffito “I thought it was supposed to be dedicated to Peter” after he had prominently placed his own name on the facade of the recently completed St Peter’s.

Leaving glory hungry popes behind us, let’s get back to the Column itself. Even in the middle of its large piazza and in front of one of the biggest churches in Rome, its size gives it an imposing presence. Looking at its provenance, it’s obvious why. This column originates from the Basilica of Maxentius, the monumental ruins of which stand next to the Forum just off the Via Sacra. There are better sites to visit if you’re after the feel of a Roman building, but if you want to get a feel for the epic scale of civic Roman architecture designed to impress, this basilica’s well worth a brief stop off.

In a brief digression, the Latin inscriptions underneath once more include mention of the Column’s origins but this time, however, the inscription makers got it wrong. From the south east side:

vasta columnan mole

quae stetit diu

pacis profana in aede

or “the column of vast bulk which long stood in the unholy Temple of Peace”. Centuries of misidentification of the basilica as the Temple of Peace would not be corrected until serious archaeological work began in the nineteenth century.

As you can see from the picture below, sometimes the Latin inscriptions can be difficult to make out. Fortunately, Rose got me The Latin Inscriptions of Rome for Christmas and it’s this that I’ve been copying the Latin from (and indeed, most of the translations). Before I finish with this post, I want to take a second to plug the book. Even for non-Latinists, the English translations make it a really worthwhile purchase for anybody with an interest in Rome’s history.

A little bit of papal propaganda for you


Piazza Navona and ancient Rome

February 16, 2010

Carnival’s in full swing here in Rome, and Sunday saw Rose and I dodging excitable children in fancy dress on Piazza Navona as we took in a little street theatre.

More exciting than any of that, however, was the opportunity to regale Rose once more with my Piazza Navona facts.  Well now, lucky reader, your face too can glaze over with that impassive far away look of excited anticipation, because today I’m writing about the Piazza’s connections with ancient Rome.

The shape was determined by the building which used to sit there; Domitian’s theatre.  Designed for Greek sports the Latinized Greek word for ‘struggles’ (agonales) was associated with the place.  Over the centuries, this name evolved into Platea in Agone, Piazza N’Agone, and finally, today’s Piazza Navona.

Now, bang in the centre of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fountain.  There’s plenty of stories that could be told about as (as Rose would verify) but as this blog is about ancient Rome, let’s head for the church behind it.  This is San Agnese in Agone (named after the location of those Greek struggles once more) and here we find another link to ancient Rome.

Agnes was a 12 year old girl of aristocratic stock living under the reign of a favourite emperor of mine, Diocletian.  Ordered to marry an acquaintance of the Emperor, she refused on the grounds that she was dedicating her body

A fornex under Piazza Navona

to Jesus.  In the earliest surviving account of the story (St. Ambrose’s writings) the girl was put to death upon this refusal, displaying a stoic bearing which impressed Ambrose immensely.  However, the Catholic Church wouldn’t be the Catholic Church if it didn’t squeeze some sex into the story, and so as the myth developed, the naked girl was dragged to a brothel to be raped (thereby satisfying a law which forbade the rape of virgins).  Both the rape and execution were supposed to have taken place at the spot of St Agnese in Agone.

At one side of the Piazza, you can find an open archaeology site showing an arch or fornex.  If there were any truth to the more colourful versions of the young saint’s death, it would be to somewhere like this she would have been sent; these fornices underneath the stadiums were infamous sites of brothels.  Indeed, “going to the arches” became an idiomatic expression for visiting a prostitute in Latin.  For anybody interested in etymology, our own term “fornicate” stems from it.

Being a family friendly blog, I don’t want to end on such a seedy note, so let’s return to St Agnes.  Her other major Church in Rome St Agnese Fuori le Mura can be found a couple of kilometres to the east of Termini on Via Nomentana.  This church was built over the catacomb which held her corpse, and it’s here that lambs are ritually shaved to provide the wool needed for part of a new archbishop’s ceremonial robes.  Apparently the sole reason for the location is Agnese sounds like agnus, the Latin for lamb.  I don’t know for how many centuries the Catholic Church has been using that particular pun, but for ignoring the increasingly exasperated groans of the world around and just powering on through with it they command my respect at least.

Consistite! Grammar time!

January 14, 2010

Come now people.  I’ve been writing this blog for about 3 or 4 months now, and it seems its still not become an indispensable part of anybody’s life.  It’s been about a month since I last posted, and in that time, have I heard a single “Sam, without the colour provided by your insights into the world of ancient Rome, my life is but a grey simulacrum”?  No, I have not.  Still, putting this lack of communication from my legions of followers down to abject despondency, I forgive you.  I’m back from England now, Christmas is over, and There Boy is back.

Today, however, I’m talking about something a little more applied than usual: modern attitudes to learning Latin.  E-strolling through the, I found a post asking for suggestions on how to go about learning the language.  The poster asked if people felt that grammar or vocabulary was the more important area to concentrate on for a developing student.  Unanimously, the verdict was grammar.  A later strand in the discussion was from the original poster once again and it expressed her slight disappointment as well as her lack of surprise that she would have to head back to the world of ut + subjunctive and so on.

For some students no doubt, a heavy emphasis on grammar is fine.  This person, however, evidently isn’t among them.  One of the hardest things about learning a language is maintaining the initial enthusiasm; focussing almost exclusively on areas which we find frustrating and difficult will not help.

Furthermore, meaning is not conveyed by lexicalised grammar, but grammaticalised lexis.  If somebody must take the bizarre position of so explicitly ranking one of the two language systems above the other, vocabulary should take priority; there’s more of it, and it’s of more use.  Other posters wrote that you could look up a new word in the dictionary when you came to it, but assuming the motivation for learning is for the excitement of reading ancient texts, such a laborious and stilting process will inevitably be counter-productive.

The responses posted were symptomatic of (what I see to be) two central problems with the way that Latin is taught.  The first is the single line exercises that are a part of almost every text book I’ve ever seen.  They focus exclusively on translating a sentence with 100% accuracy and give little or no thought to being interesting.  When students swap the exercises for real and extended texts, they have to learn a different set of skills; it’s more important to get carried away by the Latin than to be translating into accurate English.

The second problem, and bear with me here chaps, is the teachers.  What I mean is that of all the thousands of people who start learning Latin, the small number that manage to sustain their love of the language over a long enough period to reach an appropriate level to begin teaching others are inherently different from the many, many more who give up early.  These people have presumably been taught using techniques with the traditional grammar bias and presumably, they loved it.  In turn then, they’ll go on using the same ideas with their own students and the cycle perpetuates itself.

All that said, the study of Latin grammar is of huge importance and it can’t be neglected.  However, if you get to a stage where you’re not enjoying the way you’re learning the language, just lay off that technique for a while and try something else.

Valete, omnis.