Feature Posts

Lessons from the past for our present and future


About three weeks into our school closure, before we had started remote instruction, I got an email from a student. He was responding to one of my earlier missives, which were just to check in with my students. He told me how he and his family were doing, that he was still working as a supermarket cashier for his usual Sunday shift, and that he was thinking about this situation we are all going through and imagining there will be good stories he will tell his kids and grandkids, which I thought was incredibly insightful.

Not too long after this, one of my Latin teacher colleagues posted about an interview with the pope in which he drew upon the words of the poet, Virgil, when he composed what Aeneas had said to his men after landing in Carthage, having lost so many of their comrades. The pope, who has the entirety of the Bible to draw upon, found a model for resilience in Aeneas’ words. Pope Francis said: “It’s not easy to be confined to your house. What comes to my mind is a verse from the Aeneid in the midst of defeat: the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come … for-san et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” (Aeneid I.203) Most often, that phrase is translated as something like, “Perhaps someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things.” And often people liken this quote to the saying, “One day we will look back on this and laugh.” Yet even as Aeneas says these words, a few lines later the poet tells us he is repressing his anguish, for the greater good, to bolster his crew for what lies ahead.

So then why will it be pleasing to remember these things? The verb iuvabit can certainly mean “to please” but it can also mean “to help” and I think that is really the point of Aeneas’ message.

These things, these trials and misfortunes, these dangers and terrors, will help build personal strength and resilience, so indeed the memory of these things will be helpful.

At the very end of this speech, Aeneas exhorts his men to Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis (Aeneid I.207) — to “endure, and preserve yourselves for things to come.” Not only does Aeneas try to encourage his men by saying they will find these experiences helpful in the future, but also that there will be better things to come that they will be able to enjoy.

On the heels of the pope’s message, my step-daughter, a rabbi, gave a Torah lesson on the Israelites’ flight out of Egypt. Why, she asked, did Miriam and the women bring their musical instruments? Weren’t there more useful things they should have brought with them? Why did they take up precious cargo space with these items? The answer is that their faith in the future was essential to their survival.

They had to believe that there would be moments of joyous celebration in order get through what was going to be a grueling trek.

Someday in the future, my student will have moments of joyous celebration with his children and grandchildren, and it will be helpful to remember even these things, these times, and the resilience learned from them. The stories both of ancient Rome and of the Torah reflect our shared human experiences, give us strength to persevere, and remind us to have the faith that there will be joy once again.

Elizabeth Baer is a Latin teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Pliny and Pompeii

From Ruth Breindel:

  • A book review:

The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Daisy Dunn, 2019

               Since not much is known about the life of Pliny the Elder, the author has concentrated on Pliny the Younger.  We, as classicists, know much of what Dunn has to say; most of the hard data comes directly from the Plinys, so there is not much new in substance or speculation.  Because the evidence in many places is scant, Dunn adds information that isn’t really germane; e.g., earlier and later eruptions of Vesuvius, later English historians and characters.  Her style is very nice and breezy, so it is fairly easy to read; borrowing it from the library is your best bet.

Book Review: The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker, 2018

Briseis, with some additions by Achilles, tells the story of the fall of Troy.  This retelling, from the female and minor character point of view, is in the fashion of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand, about Cassandra, and Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia, although the language here is much stronger and violent.  Briseis states Barker’s main point on the very last page:

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?  One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer.  A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

Indeed, this is a book that could only be written in our time, when the knowledge of what happens to the conquered, whether in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere, is brought to light.  In unflinching prose Barker makes us feel the fear and loss of “me-ness” that comes with being a slave, being seen as “it.” The casual cruelty is just part of the story.

My only objection to the book is when Achilles becomes the focus and we learn about his inner workings – his relationship with his mother, his feelings for Patroclus – too much pop-psychology here.  Briseis is a very strong character, who manages to survive Achilles, Agamemnon, the murders of her family in Lyrnessa, and at the end, reclaim herself:

Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed.  Now, my own story can begin.

I definitely recommend this books for adults – it will hold your interest and make you look at Agamemnon in a whole new light.

Reviewed by Ruth Breindel