Monday, December 21, 2009

The Iliad and Latin Class

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit
- Cicero

I am currently rereading the Iliad for discussion with our Lincoln Park Sunday morning discussion group. The reading has reminded me of the my first encounter with the Iliad when I was in high school studying Latin.
I had two years of Latin study which has served me well over the years as a foundation for my English skills, such as they are, but this Latin class was not just studying a dry dead language but rather it was discovering a living culture that extended from the early age of Mycenae to the fall of Rome. The source of this was our Latin teacher, Mrs. Helen Daggett, who was perpetually invigorating with regard to all things Latin and classical. The result was an exciting class that found that Rome and Greece were interesting and sometimes exciting places about which to learn. The Latin Club was one of the largest in the high school and the annual "slave" sale was one of the high points of the school year.
But, you may ask, what does this have to do with Homer's Iliad? After all, didn't Homer write in Greek, and ancient not classic Greek? Yes but this Latin class, as I mentioned, was about more than just Latin, but also the culture of Rome and Greece before it. So it was there that I encountered the Iliad, but not directly from Homer. I learned about Heinrich Schliemann from reading Robert Payne's The Gold of Troy. It was Schliemann's adventurous and romantic life (more recently chronicled in an excellent biography of him by David Traill, Schliemann of Troy) that first introduced me to Troy and Mycenae and the story behind the story of The Iliad. It was due to his persistent belief that the city of Troy in the Iliad really existed and that it could be found that led me to the story of The Iliad. I still remember admiring the mask of Agamemnon from my days in Latin class. However, in reading and rereading The Iliad that mask pales in comparison to the "Shield of Achilles" described in Book XVIII. I have read many of the classical Greek and Latin authors since those days I spent in Latin class discovering Latin and Greek culture. And my love for the classics I owe in no little part to that class.

The Gold of Troy by Robert Payne. Funk & Wagnalls Co., New York. 1959
Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit by David A. Traill. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1995

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