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Ancient languages enhance understanding of the present

“Want to be wait-listed for Classical Greek?” “Just two seats left in Intermediate Latin; don’t wait too long to enroll!”

No one will ever hear either remark at DU. Courses about mythology and ancient literature draw many times more students than the ancient languages themselves.

Nevertheless, the very words of ancient Greek and Latin — because of books and poems written, ideas expressed, lives lived in them — endure as our heritage. They offer both stimulating documents and paradigms of intercultural stance to all humanity. By the former I mean attractive texts that we examine and interpret, enjoy and learn from; by the latter, a particular approach to other older, more stable civilizations whereby we appreciate, appropriate and transform the examples they provide and consequently innovate in our own thinking, making and living.

Rome and Greece revolutionized their respective societies and their languages, voraciously “borrowing” from others — Greeks from Egypt and the Near East, Romans from Greeks and everyone else they subjugated.

Emulation and innovation are keys, where emulation isn’t passive assimilation or reverent imitation, but creative rivalry. Captive Greeks dared their conservative, tradition-bound Roman conquerors to compete, not with swords but in words. Cicero aspired to out-orate Demosthenes, Virgil to achieve something greater than the Iliad.

Ultimately, the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, transformed Euripides. Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate from St. Lucia, challenged the Homeric poems, while U.S. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison interwove classical and non-classical mythic strands. Morrison’s Beloved is richer for us when we know Medea.

Metaphors often used to describe our relationship to the classical world mislead. The Greco-Roman epoch, roughly 700 B.C. to A.D. 300, wasn’t the West’s “adolescence,” as if the Renaissance quickened what the Dark Ages had made lethargic, or reawakened it like Snow White from a long nap. Discontinuities between Western Europe circa 1500 and the ancient Mediterranean make “rebirth,” too, a misnomer. Classical antiquity was a distinct “other” that initially appealed to Europeans only because of geographic and linguistic accidents. Their excitement in the encounter indicates how little likeness there was between it and them; in fact, only because it was so different, so electrifying, could it spark the engines of modernity.

Similarly dynamic are today’s classicists, who apply adventurous, interdisciplinary eclecticism, revitalizing old masters and masterworks for a new generation of actors and creators.

The results? I can assign colloquial, intentionally provocative versions of Homer and Greek drama, Virgil and Latin lyric. Achilles and Odysseus, Oedipus and Antigone, Aeneas and Cleopatra re-rendered — as vivid as Michelangelo’s restored Sistine ceiling and as present as special-effects dinosaurs on the big screen, but more compelling, indeed transforming, in their effect on thoughtful moderns.

When bioengineers develop new varieties of crops, they exploit the oldest stores of genetic material. Ancient strains, though negligible in commercial value, make possible revolutions in modern agriculture. Similarly, fragments from Greek and Latin invigorate thinkers, writers and doers. My mission as a classicist is keeping such a hardy garden green, so today and tomorrow it feeds and instigates. My students’ opportunity is to browse and harvest.

Languages and literatures Assoc. Prof. Victor Castellani has taught classical languages at DU since 1971.

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