What does the Latin actually say?
People often imagine that if you 'know Latin' you can read more or less any bit of the language that is put in front of you (much like what you can do if you 'know French'). It isn't really like that at all. OK, there are some easy bits. A basic tombstone doesn't present much of a problem. After all most epitaphs are pretty formulaic, with a few additional idiosyncratic, personal details. And quite a lot of what you read in Latin, you have read before, at least by my age.
I have often said that more things survive (in both Greek and Latin) of what the ancient Romans wrote than anyone could hope to read in a lifetime. And that's true. But it's also true that you do go back time and time again to some of the same classics: in my case, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy. And there it is not so much a question of reading, as of re-reading -- and it's that what enables you to skip at a reasonably cracking pace.
It's not really the same when you are reading anything complicated for the first time. I dont think students realise this very often, when you are taking them through some particularly tricky bit of (say) Tacitus. "Oh come on," you say with slightly feigned weariness, "you can see where the verb in this sentence is, cant you?" And it is not often that you confess that when you yourself first clapped eyes on this particular passage at their age, you couldn't make head or tail of it either (though I have been confessing that more as I get older).
I still remember an eye-opening moment when some elderly professor of Greek, giving a visiting lecture when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, boldly stated that the only Greek authors he could read fluently were Homer and Herodotus (and I think he should have added the Greek New Testament -- in each case we know the crib rarher well). I couldn't work out if this was hugely reassuring, or if it meant, more gloomily, that I was committing myself to a life in which I would never quite feel I had mastered the languages I thought I was trying to learn.
Why, I still wonder, are Latin and Greek so hard. I think it is partly that most of us, even if we have done our turn in trying to translate English into Latin, still learn ancient languages largely passively. It is both the plus and the minus of Latin that we never have to ask for a pizza, or the way to the swimming pool, in it. But more to the point is that most of the classics we have to read in Latin, or Greek, are so damn difficult. Making sense of Thucydides or Tacitus is closer to making sense of James Joyce than Charles Dickens . . . and after even 10 years at the language one is hardly quite up to the task (and it was probably almost as baffling for native speakers too).
The truth is that for most of the canonical greats, there are always translations if you get stuck. That isn't so with what I am working on now. I am in the middle of my project on images of Roman emperors in post Renaissance art. And one of the things I am trying to get under my belt are the largely sixteenth-century portrait books, with their series of great men and women from history, pictures plus short biographies -- usually centring on a run of emperors. They are, however, intriguingly different: they choose different characters, they end in different places right up to the (then) present day rulers, and the images bear all kinds of different relationships to surviving images on coins. The image at the top of this post is from the earliest of the lot, the Illustrium Imagines of 1517, and it's the entry for Julius Caesar.
I am by no means the first to work on these, but I am currently trying to think a bit harder about how the 'bad' emperors were understood within the series, and what the books were really for. How did you package, for a sixteenth-century readership, Nero or Caligula. This, of course, means looking hard at what the Latin texts actually say, because most of them are not in the vernacular. Some of them are easy enough when you get into them. The blurb under Caesar, above, says that the bodily and mental qualities of Caesar are very well known, so the author will restrict himself to a brief description of his physical appearance : tall stature, white skin etc...
But most of the stuff -- especially the explanatory prefaces to any of 15 or so books -- is much longer, and more argumentatively tortuous, and to be honest difficult. And you are on your own: there's no crib here, like there is with Tacitus. So 50 years of learning Latin is now being tested at the frontline.
Dispatches will come later.