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Why Study Classics?

Natalya Kahn, former pupil at Moreton Hall, Shropshire, discovered that there's more to the Romans than baths and swords - Classics is diverse and exciting...

Posted on: 19 Dec 2014

When I was 7 years old, I declared that I would never spend my life studying Romans. Since then something has clearly changed my mind!

Well, for a start, I do actually really enjoy learning Latin and Classical Greek, subjects I began at Moreton. Sadly Greek is a subject that not many schools offer now so I am very lucky to have had this opportunity. I know that when you start these languages it seems as if you’re just learning endless rules and vocabulary, which is not terribly exciting. But it does get much better. Now for A level Latin I use all the rules I’ve learnt since Remove to solve translations. It is so satisfying when a seemingly impossible sentence becomes a coherent phrase after following a set of steps. Unfortunately the vocab never stops, as Mr Symons will tell you.

To make this vocab even more of a challenge, both Latin and Greek sometimes use the same or similar words but with completely different meanings. ‘Lego’ means ‘I read’ in Latin, the root of ‘legible’. Λεγω (lego) in Greek means ‘I say’. ‘Agnosco’ means ‘I recognise’ in Latin but the Greek word ‘αγνοεω’ (agnoeo) means ‘I don’t know’, leading to ‘agnosticism’.

Yes, this can be frustrating at times, but I think that it is the language component of Classics which has made me decide to study this course at university. To some, it is pointless to learn ‘dead languages’ but, as I said in my university interview, they are not really dead; an amazing amount of English (and other European languages) comes from Latin and Classical Greek. I learn new derivations and links nearly every lesson! I’ll give you some of my favourites:

  • Μετέωρος (meteoros) means ‘suspended in the sky’
  • When you exclaim ‘By Jove!’ you are actually being very grammatical. Jupiter in Latin is Iuppiter, but in the ablative case (meaning by, with or from) it changes to Iove. An ‘I’ in Latin changes to a ‘J’ in English.
  • Τύπος (typos, ‘u’ changes to ‘y’ in English) means ‘a mark’ or ‘impression’
  • Events in history can change language and this can have a knock-on effect. For example, in English a rostrum is a speaker’s platform, but it actually comes from the Latin word for ‘a beak’. This seemingly random link occurred because the Romans, after a naval victory, would attach the ‘beaks’ from the defeated ships’ prows to the speakers’ platform in the Forum.
  • Θησαυρός (thesauros) means ‘treasure’
  • An omnibus was so named because its translation from Latin means ‘for everyone’

The influences of the Classics can be seen in every aspect of our lives today, from our legal and political systems to our town structure. Look at Chester (or Deva) which we all know so well, with Northgate Street and its walls. Shakespeare was very much influenced by classical authors. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe (as seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; he wrote plays such as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus (to name but two), both plays about Romans, fictional or otherwise. In Upper 6, Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex was on the syllabus for 3 different subjects: Classical Greek, Classical Civilisation and English Literature, not to mention Drama. This play is included in the A level English syllabus because, as Mr. Macdonald-Brown said, you really can’t study King Lear without Oedipus.

The subject of Classics is so broad - at one time I can be analysing Tacitus’ scandalous gossip about Nero, at another I can be helping to excavate Roman drains on Hadrian’s wall. These drains still worked; when it rained, the trench filled up with water. So, instead of digging in a puddle, we walked 8 miles along the wall in the rain. This breadth means that there are still so many new discoveries to be made, even after all these years. Dr Clare Rowan, a Classicist at Warwick University, who gave a talk in the Bronwen Lecture Series this term, showed us some Roman coins of which there are an incredible number to be studied, each with new information and mysteries to give us.

Studying the roots of our culture, whether in the languages, in history or in literature, helps me understand much more about today, even if it’s just to work out what someone says to me! So, after discovering that there is more to the Romans than baths and swords, I’ve realised that Classics is diverse and exciting. It also has the advantage of involving trips to Greece, Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean!

Natalya Kahn was a pupil at Moreton Hall, Shropshire and is now at Magdalene College, Cambridge reading Classics.


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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.