Book Review: “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin” by Ann Patty 1


Ann Patty, a highly successful woman in the world of book editing in New York City, is ejected into unwelcome retirement during the Great Recession. At loose ends in her country house in upstate New York, she is increasingly haunted by the memory of her mother, a parent with whom she felt she had had little in common and whose final years had been an accelerating slide into alcoholism. Ms. Patty’s solution? To throw herself into learning Latin as an auditor at Vassar and Bard.

Although the heart of this book is extremely serious, addressing the issues of the fear of being trapped by our parents’ mistakes, of unwanted change and of growing old, the narrative reveals Ann Patty to be a very lively-minded soul, clear-eyed about herself, with a hilarious but fundamentally kind sense of fun. I really roared at her incidental sketches of Vassar and Bard students and profs. Her glimpses into the New York publishing world in the 70’s and 80’s is captivating and leaves one a little breathless. Ms. Patty’s keen eye for the characteristic quirks of the people she studies with, learns from, and comes to know and love fills this book with unusual, intellectually passionate people.

Patty (perhaps unsurprisingly for a very successful editor) is also an unusually perceptive reader.  She comes to know Latin remarkably well (I would be silly to dwell on differences of opinion and the occasional mischaracterizations or slips that pop up.) A remarkably large portion of the book is given over to describing the structure of Latin, even the nuts and bolts of Latin grammar. I’ll admit that my eyes often glazed over trying to read what I teach all the time. But Patty just loves all of it, and really does manage to convey her enthusiasm. She is without question a person and an intellect who, as our colleagues who embrace the principles of providing comprehensible input to their students to foster true language acquisition would say, a true 4 percenter. Di ita eam ament, Patty’s a four percenter’s four percenter.

The outstanding qualities of Roman literature, as we all know well, differ a lot from those found in any modern literature. Roman literature is (among much else) demanding of the reader and unabashedly elitist. Patty is an excellent interpreter, forging interesting connections to the writer’s world that she knows and to a series of pivotal events and people in her life.

As I read most of Patty’s book with real interest, I found myself wondering what sort of ambassador for the study of Latin she really is. She excels, by virtue of consistent hard work, in a traditional Latin program, with classes that differ little in their fundamentals from those I took 4o years ago. To judge from book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon (wherein the most damning review is from someone who claims to be a career Latin teacher), Patty’s enthusiasms leave some entirely out in the cold. And, as a secular, progressive adoptive New Yorker who is not shy with her opinions, she has several strikes against her around this country to begin with.

And yet, to give Patty due credit, when she discovers SALVI, Paideia, and John Byron Kuhner, she is like a cat in cream. Not only does she like the people in the Latin-speaking community, she likes the approach (which is difficult and frustrating for her). In the garden of Patty’s mind, many flowers bloom and are welcomed, even those who showed up by chance.

The takeaway? I wouldn’t give this book to my Republican in-laws to explain why I do what I do. But if you have a friend who is over 50, intellectually curious and who loves the humanities, make this their Christmas present.



Nuntii Undique:

Remember that the application deadline for CANE Discretionary Grants is Saturday, October 1. There is still time to apply for financial help for your classroom projects or for the purchase of materials. Scroll down the link page for a description of what one teacher (Mathew Olkovikas at Pinkerton Academy) did with his grant.

Sat., 10/15: Maine Classical Association Fall Meeting. “Poetry, Politics and Palmyra.” Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME.

Sun., 10/16: Classical Association of Massachusetts Fall Meeting. “Classics and STEM”. College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.

Sat., 10/22: Classical Association of Connecticut Annual Meeting. Classical Magnet School, Hartford, CT.

Prandium Romanum Cotidianum – An Everyday Roman Lunch   Recently updated !

Several times per year the World Language department at my school hosts language tables in the dining hall. The idea is that students will spend the meal speaking whatever language they’re studying and sampling the cuisines. And so I host a Mensa Latina for my Latin students where we do just that. While a full-on cena Romana can be a wonderful activity for a Latin class, timing and other factors mean it just can’t be done. So we have a prandium instead, and I figure I’d share my shopping lists and vocabulary for those people who, like me, enjoy food-based learning.

“What did the Romans eat?” is always an area of curiosity. Unfortunately, most of the texts in wide use focus on the extravagances of the upper class (e.g. the second chapter of Cambridge Latin Course, where Grumio is cooking a peacock for dinner) if they even discuss food at all. Popular discussion of Roman cuisine tends to focus on the elite cena, sometimes with a bit of a “gross and weird” angle (as when the topic of garum comes up) and often mentions Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria, a text dating from the 4th or 5th century CE that is often described as the “first cookbook” and contains recipes for, among other things, flamingo.

In reality, your average Roman’s normal meals wouldn’t look particularly alien to anyone familiar with contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, though there were some crops they didn’t have access to, most notably tomatoes, potatoes, cane sugar, maize, and most tropical fruits. The lunchtime meal was called the prandium and mostly consisted of light, mixed dishes that diners sampled from as they wished. The foods for my prandia tend to rotate among the following:

Bread (panis): I go for foccacia and other flatbreads when I can (an excellent video of an Italian baker recreating the famous Pompeian bread can be found here), but dinner rolls are often easiest to pass around. Bread was immensely important to Roman cuisine and was eaten at virtually every meal.

Honey (mel): The primary sweetener for Romans – granulated sugar, originating in India, was not widely known in Europe until the medieval period. Goes great with basically everything, particularly fruit and cheese.

“Wine” (vinum): Grape juice, obviously.

Olive oil (oleum): The best tasting olive oils, then as now, came from Spain and Greece. Italian olive oil unfortunately has a very good chance of being adulterated, so I avoid it.

Cheese (caseus): Romans generally preferred goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese to that of cows. Provolone, pecorino, and soft cheeses like taleggio haven’t changed much from their Roman ancestors. And while it isn’t of Roman origin, mascarpone is always a huge hit with my guys. Try it on bread with some honey on top!

Olives (olivae): Eaten either whole or on bread as tapenade, which Cato the Elder called epitryum.

Pesto (moretum): Eaten with bread, Roman moretum was a bit cheesier than modern pesto and contained vinegar, but was otherwise very similar.

Eggs (ova): I use hard-boiled eggs for simplicity’s sake, but the Romans enjoyed a wide variety of egg dishes, from quiche to deviled eggs.

Apples (mala or poma): Delicious sliced and dipped in honey.

Figs (fici) and dates (cariotae): Sometimes unfamiliar to students. I encourage students to try them with cheese and/or honey on top at first if they’re ambivalent. Usually by the end of the meal the fig and date bowls are picked clean.

Raisins (astaphides): Due to its longer shelf life, dried fruit was significantly more common at your average Roman’s table than fresh.

Salad with vinegar dressing (acetarium): Vinegar (acetum) was a very common Roman cooking ingredient. I’ve found that your average American schoolchild’s palate isn’t quite given to the taste, so I reserve it for the salad.

“Dormice” (glires): Yes, the Romans ate (domesticated, farm-raised) dormice, specifically the edible dormouse, still extant in Europe. I have in the past used Swedish meatballs as a stand-in.

Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, or fish sauce (garum): Garum was a widely used and strong-flavored sauce made from fermented fish, unfortunately often discussed with an eye towards grossing people out. This attitude tends to be borne out of ignorance, as many modern cultures (particularly in Southeast Asia) use very similar fish sauces, and Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies. I like to use garum and dormice as a jumping-off point for discussion about cultural differences. Do we eat any foods that might sound gross to someone from ancient Rome? What might the Romans have thought about raw milk, or sushi, or chocolate?

I tend to avoid meat and nuts (outside of moretum) due to various dietary restrictions and allergies, but the Romans were certainly fond of them: Pork, chicken, fish, mutton, shellfish, sausages and dried meats of all kinds, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts.

At our Mensa Latina we try to keep conversation to Latin as much as possible and always refer to foods by their Latin name. It’s an especially great opportunity for students to practice their imperatives, vocatives, pleases and thank yous (“da mihi illas olivas, Marce, quaeso! Gratias tibi!”). Food, friends, Latin, and learning – what’s not to love?