The Magazine

When in Rome

How Latin thrived, declined, and was revived.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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(We are perfectly free to question its influence, at least provisionally, every time someone says, in a simple letter or memo, that he "circumambulates" something instead of walking around it.)

While most of this book is, indeed, a history of Latin's perambulations (sorry) through the last couple thousand years, Janson felicitously sets off a long closing section explaining the mysteries, which aren't so mysterious after all, of its tight, inflected grammar, along with a lengthy list of Latin phrases--ad hoc, ad hominem, anno Domini, in toto, quid pro quo--that have insinuated themselves so thoroughly into English that we find no need to replace them with their vernacular forms. The Latin, we sense, somehow says it better.

Despite its golden aura, and despite its image of perpetual imperviousness to the sad work of time, Latin does, indeed, have a history. Yet many people, both those living and those very much dead, would register a quiet dissent, or perhaps only a cautionary rejoinder: Latin doesn't really have a history; to them, Latin is history itself, an embodiment of tradition. And as Janson so ably shows, it is a perennial reminder that tradition is never static, nor does it come cheap.

Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.