Joan Smith: Every child deserves the classics too

Thursday 02 December 2010 01:00

A nymph reaches toward you with an outstretched hand, fish swim among classical urns and a Roman pavement unfolds on the sea bed: this is the underwater city of Baiae, situated in a bay north-west of Naples and visible only from a glass capsule suspended below a tourist boat. It's an eerie experience, making out the remains of the sumptuous baths built by the stuttering Emperor Claudius for his third wife, Messalina, but no more so than imagining the attempted murder in these same waters of Nero's mother, Agrippina.

Nero was so desperate to get rid of his mother that he invited her to dinner at his villa near Baiae and sent her home in a booby-trapped boat. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Agrippina was discussing her son's uncharacteristically affable behaviour during the meal when the ceiling of her boat collapsed on top of her; she survived and swam ashore, only to be confronted by assassins sent by Nero to finish the job. "Strike my womb!" the emperor's mother cried, pulling back her robe, and was promptly hacked to death.

The Romans did matricide, incest, misogyny and regicide like no one else. I started to learn Latin at grammar school at the age of 12 and was totally entranced, devouring Catullus, Cicero, Virgil, Juvenal and Suetonius until I left university with a degree in the subject nine years later. I've always found it heart-breaking that later generations of working-class children didn't get the opportunity I had; only 2,868 pupils are studying GCSE Latin at state schools this year. Seventy per cent of the 9,360 GCSE entries were in the private sector, which educates only seven per cent of the school population.

The figures come from a speech earlier this week by the Schools Minister Nick Gibb, a man I'd like to smother with kisses despite the fact that he's a Tory. This wonderful man wants to see a revival of Latin in state schools and he's supporting a campaign, launched back in the summer, to get it taught in secondary and even primary schools. On Tuesday, Gibb told the Politeia conference that he studied Latin at a state secondary school, enjoyed it and believes it equipped him for life; that's why he finds the "decimation" – a splendid word derived from Latin – of the teaching of Latin in state schools so alarming.

He is also worried by a fall (from 79 per cent in the year 2000 to 44 per cent in 2009) in the proportion of pupils studying a modern language, a situation that's even worse if you take out the independent sector. This is hardly one of Labour's finest achievements, and it's all the more bizarre that it was allowed to happen at a moment when people are moving around the EU for work and need foreign languages more than ever.

Gibb said this week that he hopes teachers at state schools will use his education reforms to reintroduce Latin into the curriculum. Three cheers to that, and I can't wait to hear of a rise in the numbers taking this most "useless" of subjects: Latin trained my mind, immersed me in a two-thousand year-old culture and turned me into a writer.

Unlike the Greeks, who shut them up in the gynaeceum, the Romans had endless problems with women. Juvenal complained that they wouldn't shut up at dinner parties, while the Julio-Claudian emperors were serial adulterers who lived in fear of their wives and mothers. I loved reading about the ebb and flow of power during the Republic until it was overthrown by Julius Caesar, a recognisably modern man who combined literary ability with the ruthlessness of a Stalin. Caesar had a villa at Baiae, as it happens, and Cleopatra is said to have been waiting for him there when she got news of his assassination in 44BC.

For my money, this history is much more stimulating than anything you might read in the Bible, and even better in its original language. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, naturally, but I'm willing to give the Tories the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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