Roundtable on the Future of Latin Studies

On the 2nd of February 2023, three members of RELICS, Simon Smets, Elodie Paillard and Dinah Wouters, organized a virtual roundtable to discuss the future of Latin studies. This blogpost by Simon Smets and Dinah Wouters aims to capture the highlights of that discussion.

Impulse talks

From a good number of expressions of interest, six speakers were invited, who each gave a five-minute ‘impulse talk’ to fuel the debate. Ronnie Ancona, who is a professor of Classics at Hunter College, started the event. In her view, the two biggest issues for Latinists today are changes in Latin language pedagogy and the range of sources in Latin scholarship. “Both involve who is reading Latin today and why.” On the first topic of pedagogy, she advocated the value of communicative Latin for learning the language. She also pointed out the utility for learners to embark on learning Latin through easily comprehensible texts before moving on to highly literary texts. This approach would make learning Latin more accessible to a wider and more diverse group of students. A more diverse group of learners could in turn push us to widen the timespan and range of the Latin texts that we read. Ancona gave the example of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women), which she taught recently in an upper-level undergraduate Latin class in a Classics Program. Lastly, she expressed her hope that the advanced study of Latin in PhD programs be separated from the study of ancient Greek, which is sometimes an institutional prerequisite and creates an extra hurdle.

Next, Šime Demo, professor of Latin at the University of Zagreb, brought in the perspective of a linguist. He decried that, although scholars of Latin linguistics now employ modern research methods and new linguistic theories, the discipline still focuses on Antiquity and takes this period to be synonymous with Latin in general. Rather than elaborate on the wrongheadedness of that perspective, Šime pointed out the benefits of including all periods of Latin. First, there are the theoretical advantages. Studying post-classical Latin gives a glimpse into the inner workings of a language without native speakers, which in turn gives insight into the functioning of human linguistic ability. Second, practically speaking, there is still much work to be done and much to explore. Until now, linguistics has been mostly dealt with on the side-line of editorial projects. Linguists still have much to unearth and discover until we have as much knowledge about the grammar, prosody, semantics, phraseology, and pragmatics of post-classical as of classical Latin.

Arlene Holmes-Henderson, who is a professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University, then advocated for the teaching of ancient rhetoric as a way to combat disinformation and misinformation. She argued that rhetoric boosts performance across the curriculum, because it stimulates critical thinking, literacy skills, and non-verbal communication. Furthermore, its benefits extend beyond the curriculum to critical listening: deconstructing arguments and ‘reading between the lines’. These skills help people to become responsible citizens, “questioning the status quo, disrupting ineffective civic structures and imagining alternatives which promote social justice.” Holmes-Henderson believes rhetorical education should be prioritised from a young age, “in high schools, or even in primary schools.” She mentioned that her research on rhetoric in the school curriculum is international; currently focussed on Scotland, Slovenia and Norway. In these countries, the study of ancient rhetoric is linked to contemporary health and wellbeing.

Next, Johan Steenkamp, senior lecturer in Latin at North-West University in South Africa, zoomed in on economic factors affecting Latin studies in his country. On the one hand, students are mainly guided by future job opportunities, especially if they are not from affluent families. Many of those who end up in Latin are simply not able to secure a place on their desired program of economics, tourism or other job-oriented fields. While Latin was compulsory for law students until 1992, the anchorage of Latin in the university at large quickly decreased afterwards. Courses on medical, legal and botanical terminology failed to sufficiently fund the Latin department, which consequently suffered budget cuts. Furthermore, these ‘solutions’ separated the Latin language from its literature and culture, thereby dissolving the intellectual community that fosters innovative research. The real future, we heard, lies in the highly motivated students who get hooked on Latin literature and ancient history, or simply European culture, out of curiosity. Furthermore, collaboration with the English department could strengthen the position of Latin—as Steenkamp would later write in the chat, ‘interdepartmentalism is more important than interdisciplinarity.’ Indeed, Latin’s survival in South-Africa is highly desirable, since South-African students of the Latin tradition can provide a new, African perspective on European texts and cultures, thereby enriching the field as a whole.

Wim Verbaal, professor of Latin at Ghent University in Belgium, convincingly demonstrated how an honest discussion about Latin’s future needs a thorough consideration of its past. From various ideological influences on the development of Latin as an academic field, including the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and romanticism, Verbaal singled out nationalism as particularly harmful. Nineteenth-century nationalism took the late Roman Republic and early Principate as its political models. As a consequence, it re-imagined Latin as the national language of ancient Rome, thereby effectively erasing medieval and early modern Latinity, which was essentially trans-national and even cosmopolitan. In the supra-regional nature of Latin’s long history, Verbaal said, lies one of its most important values for our own time. Today as well, countless people use another language than their mother tongue for study and communication. By making people aware of the continuous dialogue that Latin had with vernaculars and of the ways it facilitated cultural exchange, Verbaal ardently argued, students of Latin can contribute to a better understanding of languages that unite more than they divide, whether in the past or today.

Lastly, Isabella Walser-Bürgler, from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies in Innsbruck, took the discussion in the direction of Latin teaching in practice, and argued for a change in the school curriculum. Rather than staying within the ivory tower of the academia, Walser-Bürgler argued, professional Latinists at universities should develop teaching materials that draw upon the riches of medieval and neo-Latin literature to discuss topics relevant to our time. Students could best be drawn into Latin’s heritage by texts dealing with themes familiar to them: coffee, natural disasters, travel narratives, religious tensions, immigration and integration, or climate change. Rather than lament the dominant utilitarian view on education, we ought to answer the demand for present-day relevance. Since teachers have often not been trained in analysing or finding neo-Latin texts, there is an important role for professional Latinists to bring the material to them and their pupils. There are several ways to contribute to this endeavour, Walser-Bürlger illustrated: for example, creating diverse teaching materials, organising workshops for schools, contributing to teachers’ training and getting involved in curricular reforms.


After these impulse talks, we had a debate involving the speakers and members of the audience. The topic that sparked most questions from the audience was the link, drawn by Wim Verbaal, between Latin and nationalism. Someone contributed the perspective from Central Europe, pointing out that Latin was the official language of Hungary until1844 because Hungarian was deemed not developed enough to serve that function. In response to this, we were reminded that until 1847 Latin was the official language of the Croatian Parliament, and from the end of the eighteenth century served to halt the advance of Hungarian as the official language. A totally different context, that of Italian fascism was brought up in the chat, and recent scholarship on its engagement with Latin expanded the scope of this topic.

Wim Verbaal was asked about the inherent contradiction between Latin as a transregional language on the one hand and nationalism on the other. He answered that the postclassical history of Latin did indeed pose a problem for 19th-century nationalist thinkers, who responded by focusing exclusively on ancient texts in the ‘national’ language of the Roman empire. Isabella Walser-Bürgler expressed her agreement with Wim Verbaal, saying that, before the 19th century, Latin was praised as a supranational and common language, “shared by everyone and nobody in particular.”

We went on to discuss the connections between nationalism and other issue such as gender, since the 19th-century focus on Antiquity went hand in hand with a disregard of women’s voices that has consequences until today. Endeavours to turn the tide, such as Skye Shirley’s reading group Lupercal, were praised by all. The topic of nationalism led to the question of Latin elitism. Johan Steenkamp suggested we think about the socio-economic factors in the learning of Latin. This is especially relevant for the southern African context, where moving outside of the canon is difficult also because acquiring new textbooks is too expensive. A diametrically opposed idea was brought up by one someone else, who testified that the elitism, or, more neutrally expressed, the prestige of Latin in the context of the USA is helpful because it comes with money and enrolments. However, everyone also agreed on the negative effects of elitism. Jaclyn Neel, for instance, pointed out in the chat that “students who have more time to study are more likely to learn and continue, and free time is a marker of economic privilege.” Thus, she reminded us that interest is not the problem, but rather everything else that students have on their plate.

The enduring consequences of Latin elitism from the past can still be felt, we heard. It was noted that, while Latin scholarship can certainly thrive in areas that have less historically ties with the classical tradition as it is manifest in France, Italy or Spain, the presence of a strong classical tradition benefits the popularity and visibility of our field. However, Steenkamp noted that the association of the classical tradition with European culture in a country such as South Africa has a negative impact because of the colonial past. This is especially true for the Neo-Latin heritage, which cannot be detached from colonialism, if only through the strong presence of Christianity. Antiquity, on the other hand, is perceived as safer ground. To give only one example, ancient polytheism detaches classical Latin from modern European culture and its perceived faults.

As we had hoped, the first of what will hopefully be a series of roundtable discussions threw light on some urgent questions our field faces. Inclusion of female and economically unprivileged voices, as well as new teaching methods are only a couple of them. Led by our fruitful exchange, we will continue to develop the format, and focus on those and other specific issues.

Further reading suggested by the participants

Kipf, S. (ed..) Integration durch Sprache: Schüler nichtdeutscher Herkunftssprache lernen Latein. Heidelberg: Propylaeum, 2021.

Ribeiro Leite, L. ‘José de Anchieta na sala de aula: uma experiência com o latim pós-clássico’, PhaoS 15 (2015).

Holmes-Henderson, A., Zmavc, J. and Kaldahl, A-G. ‘Rhetoric, oracy and citizenship: curricular innovations from Scotland, Slovenia and Norway’, Literacy 56.3 (2022).

Stevenson, J. Women and Latin in the Early Modern Period. Leiden: Brill, 2022.

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