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The relevance of Classics in contemporary society

Learning a dead language may seen like a curious occupation to some, but immersing yourself in a classical language like Latin or Ancient Greek offers a trove of linguistic rewards.

The reason some people still put time and effort into mastering these ancient languages is firmly rooted in European socio-cultural power dynamics. In short, Ancient Greek culture was dominant in the Mediterranean, Near East, North Africa and much of South Eastern Europe from roughly 750 BCE to 200 BCE. They attainted true world superpower status under Alexander the Great in c.330 BCE, when he forged an empire that spanned from Italy to India.

After Alexander's death Greece waned, until it was annexed by Rome c.150 BCE. Although Rome gradually solidified their status as dominant European superpower from then on, their material culture and society borrowed heavily from Ancient Greece. They spread these classical cultural forms, along with both Latin and the Ancient Greek language, to the four corners of Europe, to all of North Africa, and a good proportion of the Near East. During this time, local societies in the occupied countries came to view Latin and classical culture as 'higher' than their indigenous language and culture, something still reflected to a degree today. For example, English contains two words for just about everything: one from its Germanic-Celtic roots and another from Latin. "Dog" and "canine", "cat" and "feline", "house" and "domicile", "watery" and "aquatic", "see" and "perceive", "give" and "donate" are just a few examples.

In the dying years of the Roman Empire, Christianity arose and became incredibly influential. After being adopted heavily in Greece, it was finally embraced by Rome in 313 CE for political reasons. Once Rome collapsed, Christianity split, its Western European incarnation maintaining Latin as its official language and Ancient Greek being its official language in Greece (now the nascent Byzantine Empire) and South Eastern Europe.

In the so-called Dark Ages, all manner of cultures and groups tried to ape Roman cultural forms. Thus we had the Holy Roman Empire (neither Holy nor Roman: it was a conglomerate of German fiefdoms which dominated central European power dynamics, ruled by the Kaiser, whose title is a corruption of Caesar); the Papacy that controlled the Catholic church and cemented its rule through religious hegemony; the Byzantine Empire that dominated Greece, the Balkans and the Near East with a mixture of Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern culture; the Russian Czardom ('Czar' being yet another corruption of Ceasar) which dominated Russia and Eastern Europe. Throughout the coming centuries and into the Middle Ages, Latin was the lingua franca, from Morocco to Russia, from Italy to Scotland. It was the language of the elites and of the church, used to define power structures and to justify monarchies. In some areas it superseded the local languages entirely, giving us modern-day Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian: all dialects of Latin. In other areas, such as Britain, Germany and Russia, it further emphasised power divides, with the common people being disenfranchised from elite culture through linguistic divisions. In Britain, for example, the nobles spoke Norman French and Latin, and the commons spoke English. In Russia this dynamic persisted up until the beginning of the 20th century, with the aristocracy speaking French!

The Renaissance heralded a new interest in the Classics, with Ancient Greek and pre-Christian Latin texts seeing a huge surge in popularity, even amongst members of the non-elite classes. The Catholic church's hegemony started to wane as countries like Portugal, Spain, France and Britain started experimenting with imperialism. Latin and Greek still remained the languages of the elites, however: even in places like Britain that had seceded from the Catholic church. This is reflected in the terminology of the nascent academic subjects at the time, such as Medicine, Biology and Law.

When European imperialism truly kicked in, it brought with it a new wave of wannabe Roman Empires. Thus we had Napoleon aping Caesar; the British, Portuguese, Spanish and French spreading Roman and Greek architectural and artistic forms worldwide, Latin inscriptions being carved on stone everywhere from Central America to India, and missionaries spreading the religion of Constantine to the farthest corners of the Earth. The men who forged these empires grew up reading about the imperialist desires of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, the last-ditch battles of Leonidas and Horatius, the political thought of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. They turned their capital cities into New Romes: one only has to visit Trafalgar Square, the Champs-Elysees, Washington DC or the Brandenburg Gate to see this.

Even in contemporary times our political and legal ideals are heavily informed by the classics. America, with its Senate, imperialist outlook, Christianity, idealisation of Democracy (an Ancient Greek invention) and Romanesque high architecture, is arguably the Last Roman Empire in the long tradition of Roman Empires described above. It even has its own Caesar, albeit nowadays elected (making that facet more like that of an Ancient Greek city-state with an elected leader).

When one learns classics, this is the tradition you're buying into. Not that one should view it in terms of good or bad of course, it just is: no doubt with our postmodern hindsight strong judgement could be passed. Yet the fact remains that Latin and Ancient Greek have been dominant European languages for millenia, and have informed everything from modern languages, law, medicine, religion and politics. As you can see, they're far from dead. They've helped fundamentally shape Western Society, for better or worse. So when you learn them, not only are you learning the keys to modern Romance languages (learning them will be far easier if you've learnt Latin, and you may even find yourself understanding English better too!), you're experiencing one of the fundamental foundations of European culture.

Regardless of the social, historical and cultural context, studying the classics has its own linguistic charms. Like learning any language, there is a significant body of literature associated with the them. This includes epic stories, comedy plays, poetry, personal memoirs, legal documents and philosophical treatises: a rich spread indeed. Juvenal will make you laugh out loud one minute, and make you realise that certain social injustices are ages-old the next. Homer and Virgil will regale you with stories of heroic deeds and vengeful gods. Pliny will intrigue you with the workaday aspects of Roman life and Plato will make you reconsider the very nature of existence. Sure, you could read these in translation, but all the text's subtleties and richness can only truly be experienced in the original.