Back when I was a kid, the stories of the Noble Romans were much in vogue, as our elders seemed to think that exposure to the stern, stoic virtues of the people who produced Caesar and Cicero would be good for us. So in our illustrated children’s books we read about the farmer-soldier Cincinnatus, who stepped away from his plow for a few days to go slaughter some Etruscans or some Oscans, then returned without a word right back to the furrow he’d been been working on with his oxen team. There was the model wife Lucretia who, having been raped by the evil Tarquinius Sextus, fell on a sword rather than live with the stain upon her chastity. And there was good old Cato the Elder (or maybe it was Cato the Younger), who said, “Carthago delenda est,” which was Latin for “Rome–f*** yeah!”
The Romans had an ethic you didn’t always want to emulate (Lucretia’s self-imposed fate seemed harsh), but you could always appreciate: They were unspeakably courageous, they held to a concept of honor that they valued more than their lives, and they never whined. They went from Oscans to oxen and shut up. No wonder my mother forced my two sisters, one of my brothers, and me at forkpoint to take four years of Latin in high school.
Those were the days. Among today’s intelligentsia, the Romans couldn’t be less politically correct. In the London Times, Peter Stothard reviews A Natural History of Latin: The Story of the World’s Most Successful Language by Swedish classicist Tore Janson. As is the current fashion, Janson considers the Romans to have been the usual bunch of white male slave-owning chauvinist-pig Euro-colonialists. Stothard writes:
“’Repulsive’ is [Janson’s] word for the Roman farmers of the 2nd century BC as he introduces us to Marcus Porcius Cato whose work De Agricultura is one of the oldest extended pieces in the language. According to Cato, it is a mark of the highest praise to call someone a ‘bonum agricolam’. According to Janson, the slave-owning farmer Cato is ‘a heartless and inhuman profitmonger’. Next we meet the legendary Roman hero Mucius Scaevola, who, in a scene much loved by later European painters, is said to have held out his sword-hand into a fire as penance for his failure to finish off the Etruscan king Porsenna; then Titus Manlius Torquatus, the consul who sentenced his son to death for engaging the enemy contrary to orders. ‘Personally,’ says the professor, this all ‘makes me feel sick’.
“By the time we find Julius Caesar in Gaul it is no surprise to be told that his rampages through Gaul would today merit the charge of ‘genocide’.”
Oh, no! If it did any good, I’d tell Prof. Janson to go stuff himself with lutefisk, but his views about the ancient Romans–and almost anyone else who ever held an empire–are all too common in today’s academe. Instead, along with Stothard, I’ll fondly remember the old, guilt-free days of learning Latin:
“We could say amo, amas, amat without wondering whether I had been faithful, you had been a good wife or he, she or it had run off with the femina next door. Julius Caesar could divide Gaul into three parts without us worrying about the Gallic men and women who had been carved into three parts by his legionaries. An agricola produced food from his land and, if he had help from XII or so servi or captivi, that was nihil to us.”