Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin
By Nicholas Ostler
HarperPress £25, 400 pages
FT bookshop price: £20
A few years ago the study of Latin appeared to be in terminal decline, owing perhaps to its negative association with rod-backed private education. But there are signs that it is reviving, and as Nicholas Ostler remarks in the preface to Ad Infinitum, “now is the time for a book about Latin”. Indeed, his is the second study to appear this year, hard on the heels of Wilfried Stroh’s Latein ist tot, es leben Latein! (Latin is dead, long live Latin!) – a book that followed recent studies by Francoise Waquet in Paris and Bo Lindberg in Lund.
Ostler is best known for his ambitious Empires of the Word (2005), nothing less than “a language history of the world”, written by a scholar who should at the very least reach the semi-finals of any competition designed to identify the most polyglot person alive. Like Empires, Ad Infinitum (so entitled because of the Roman belief that their culture would become universal) is bold, lively and crisply written.
The book tells a story that takes us from ancient Rome through to the present day. As Ostler puts it, “Latin was a language spread by force of arms, colonial settlement, trading networks, cultural diffusion, military recruitment and religious conversion”, and so he writes about armies, merchants, colonists and missionaries as well as about scholars.
He begins with the grandiose declaration that “The history of Latin is the history of the development of western Europe,” and, at times, he seems to slip without noticing from the history of a language to that of a continent. Acute observations on the social functions of Latin are, regretfully, made only in passing.
Still, this is an unstuffy guide that does not require Latin for full enjoyment. It is enlivened not only by the author’s fascination with etymologies (who would have guessed the link between ferula and fennel?) but also by his comparative approach. Characteristic of Ostler’s style of analysis is a bravura passage in which he discusses the problems experienced by medieval translators into Latin by comparing and contrasting the grammatical structures of Greek, Latin and Arabic.
A former Oxford classicist, the author is at his best when discussing antiquity. His view of the Middle Ages is perceptive, but he seems to lose interest in his story after he reaches the year 1500.
He ends on an optimistic note with a discussion of the possible future of Latin in the European Union. At the very least, its use in the Union’s proceedings would save the large sums currently spent on translation. Might Latin’s winter be followed by spring?
Peter Burke is a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge
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