Latina Magna Est!

or If You Can Read The Title, You Might be a Classics Nerd.

Imagine over a thousand teenagers (and a hundred or so theoretically adults) swarming a large school, muttering to themselves in dead languages, pushing a chariot, dragging catapults made of PVC and electrical tape, and fretting about the fit of the toga for their speech to the Senate. Many wear tee-shirts with strange cartoons and witty sayings or quotes in Latin. A number of the teens carry bags stuffed with reference books and dictionaries, because they anticipate challenging the test answers if they don’t get a perfect score. And a few are complaining about not having a javelin throw contest this year just because back in the 1970s someone almost got speared and trust us we’re soooo much better than that now. Welcome to the State Junior Classical League meeting. Back in the day, [redacted] years ago, I competed in classical languages and history at the high school level. I went to state a few times, medaled, and generally confirmed any lingering suspicions my classmates may have had about my being a nerd. I was not alone. My high school, and several others in the area, fielded strong Latin teams. You see, among a certain set, Latin and ancient Greek are a very big deal. We take Latin in school and spend hours studying the language, culture, history, and now art and geography of the Classical world. And we take written and oral exams, sing, act, play quiz games (certamen, which is as cutthroat as possible), do artwork based on Classical themes, declaim oratory, and have a lot of fun at area, state, and national meetings. And drag willing (and/or baffled) adults along with us because most of us are too young to drive and no one can rent a car.

I think one of the things that keeps the Junior Classical League alive is that no one bar no one gets into the Classics unless they love it. And the teachers pass that excitement and love on to their students. There’s also a bit of the lure of being an insider, because only a (self) select few today dig deep into the classical languages. And even fewer want to go to the trouble of taking tests and traveling hundreds of miles to pretend to stand before the Senate and declaim (in proper style, with the Roman gestures) legal statutes or great speeches in a language not spoken outside the Vatican (and some colleges. Into the 1960s some Catholic Universities had you take your finals in Latin.)

Is it fun? Oh yeah. There are Olympic games (no wrestling, though), catapult contests, costume contests, talent shows, plays, movies, lectures about Classical stuff (day in the life of a Roman, what we can learn from margin notes), food, and a chance to meet people and hang out with other language nerds. And I will freely confess that it was at State Latin in 199* that I discovered other people who read David Drake and Keith Laumer. And learned about Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco novels (from a classics professor, no less, who highly recommended them.)

Latin has served me well later on. Once you learn Latin grammar, you can pick up other languages more easily, since pretty much all Indo-European languages are described in the same way (a dative is a dative, the past perfect tense is the past perfect tense). You also get the foundation of a lot of words, ditto if you do Greek. I can spot read inscriptions on monuments and in churches pretty well even though I’m out of practice. And you can read naughty books, including the first work on “sexual deviance” and psychology, where the case studies were written in Latin. (But that, of course, is NOT one of those things teachers talk about. I learned that from a relative who took a lot of History of Medicine classes).

So here’s to the JCL, local and state and national, and to the teachers and alumni who keep the torch burning.

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