“QUO usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patienta nostra?”
With these 7 words, a man was made a legend, another was made a villain and Rome was saved. When Marcus Tullius Cicero denounced Lucius Sergius Catilina in the senate on the cusp of a coup d’êtat, when he stood there as presiding consul wielding only his formidable oratory, when he threw his hands out as a cook to a brace of poultry, he preserved his republic from the perils of revolution, mass murder and destruction. With each word he uttered in his first sentence, a hill of Rome stood proudly defiant against the Catilinian host gathering in the Etruscan hills to the north.
Or not. There’s a slight source issue with the years leading up to the First Triumvirate (the rise of a certain J. Caesar), so guess whose word we have to take for it. Sallust’s bellum Catilinae was almost entirely based on Cicero’s souped-up versions of his senate speeches, as he was a fraud and political outcast with a mission to worm himself back into society – and how better than to emulate the pater patriae, the father of the homeland. Cicero meanwhile was somewhat keen to paint himself in the best light and would hardly seem impressive, were Catilina only to be a bit of a bad-tempered playboy.
In any case, these 7 words represent the way one subject has dominated education for 6 eons. Throughout the ancient, Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance, pre-modern and modern periods, classics has shaped our statesmen, our emissaries and our churchmen, our doctors and our lawyers, our teachers, soldiers and writers. And our society.
For the 7th eon, the future, there are those who wish to see classics struck off the educational register. There are those who decry it as the privilege of the privileged, the leisure of those at leisure, the toy of the toymasters.
Read Cicero’s Against Catiline (in Catilinam) – it’s easy to see the origins of the best political speeches of the modern era. Churchill indeed, according to (classics graduate) Boris Johnson, was top of his class in classics. Read Tacitus, and you’ll see how the best modern script-writers and television historians merely continue a craft forged years ago on the streets of Rome. Listen to Virgil, and, as long as you haven’t stumbled across the epically dull Georgics (about agricultural technique etc), the ancient techniques of propaganda, spin and manipulated history will shine forth.
Classics isn’t a lesson in how a bunch of tribesmen subjugated half the known world. It isn’t a lesson in verb conjugations, noun cases or precisely where Caecilius chooses to spend his private life at home. It is a universal lesson in everything we, as global citizens require. It is a lesson in politics, but simultaneously in word puppetry, dramatics, literature and comedy.
When we study Latin or Greek, we understand. We understand whence around 50% of the words you just read came. We understand how to captivate an audience. We understand our own history, our own politics, our own language and our own society.
Learning classics isn’t just about giving us all a basic grounding in language, which makes learning every language thereafter infinitely easier. It’s not just preserving literary bequests or finding out how our ancestors once lived. It is a global education which every pupil should have the chance to access, and it is the key subject to open a door into any and every pathway.
Caesar may have come, seen and conquered, but we should stop, look and listen.