How European is Latin?

The traces of Latin are there. But are they European? It is natural for a culture that dominates a region over a long time to leave traces there. But the long-ago realm of Latin culture is not identical with the extension of Europe. The Romans were where Europe is not. In the 2nd century the largest cities of the Roman Empire, except for Rome, were on non-European territory: Alexandria (nowadays Egypt), Antiochia (nowadays Antakya, Turkey), and Carthago (nowadays a suburb of Tunis). The capital of the East Roman Empire was Constantinople/Byzantium (nowadays Istanbul). The greatest Roman ruins stand in today's Libya (Leptis Magnae). The loss of the strategically important Roman province in Africa ushered in the disintegration of the West Roman Empire. One could say that this is one more historical argument for Europe to integrate Turkey or cooperate more closely with the North African states.

But the Romans were also not where Europe is. They may have tried to establish themselves in Britannia, but they never got as far as Berlin. German philosophy may be full of Latin borrowings, but the word "Bier" is clearly independent from "cervisia", "cerveza", or "cerveja". Latin and Europe are not congruent.

Image: Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C - a long time ago. Instead of dwelling on how Latin Europe might be or might have been, it is time to exploit the historical treasure trove and construct a future European identity.


A good European Sunday speech needs a metanarrative. Be it Latin, Greek, Christian, Fascist or musical: it must be vast and vague enough to root practically everything in it without all too obviously uprooting one of the competing metanarratives. When it comes to banishing Turkey from Europe, the Christian metanarrative is as current now as it may have been in the Middle Ages, whilst the Enlightenment narrative is welcome to moralise about the non-secular Arab world as if Bavaria did not exist.

The question is not: how much Latin can we decode within Europe; the question should be: how much Latin do we want to encode when we program our European identity? Within this project, historical facts are relevant, but subject to interpretation, rating and weighting. There are people in Europe moaning over Latin books. In Germany it is still not unusual for pupils to study Latin at school, sometimes even as a first foreign language. Although they are never taught to say a single Latin sentence, understanding Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian is then almost no effort for them. And even the Latin-derived word monsters in English and Russian might stick in their minds better.

The question should be: how much Latin do we want to encode when we program our European identity?

There are people in Europe who deplore the "decline of the philological education" and claim that Latin is the European universal formula. Those are the people who believe in a past when everything was better. From the Latin language, they argue, one gets to Latin history, and from there to philosophy, art history and then to literature, the whole world is revealed and one finds oneself an all round educated, noble human being. Those are the people claiming that "melancholia" or "Europe" are Latin inventions, as in their eyes everything is a Latin invention. But their favourite invention dates from post-Roman times: the establishment of "a knowledge of the classics" as marker for social and intellectual capital. Knowing Latin becomes socially selective, an excuse to look down on the uninitiated. Those who see Latin as non-negotiable for Europe are often those who participate most stridently in the educated classes. "Philistine" derives from Latin for them as well.


  • The Holy Roman Empire (by the 15th century the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) was the official name of what was considered the continuation of the West Roman Empire by the times of Charlemagne (800 A.D.).
  • In the East, the Byzantine heritage of the East Roman Empire became a founding myth of the Russian Empire and led to the notion of Moscow as the Third Rome. (After both Rome and Constantinople had fallen away as centres of orthodox Christianity in the 16th century.)
  • When Napoleon conquered the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1806, he was clever enough to style himself as a Caesarian figure with toga and laurel wreath, and won the hearts of not a few German Latin freaks - such as Goethe.
  • Mussolini's declared goal was to rebuild the Roman Empire.
  • The radical socialist reconstruction of Moscow and Saint Petersburg knew one stylistic measure: Roman colossal columns and Corinthian capitals.
  • On a communist building in Leipzig, an inscription reads: "Omnia Vincit Labor" (Work conquers all).

And then there are the people in Europe who claim that history, and thus also Latin, can be discarded, as they cost money without making new money. Those are the people who believe in progress. Progress is produced by everything else that makes money, and some people earn a lot of it. In times of "crisis" it will be interesting to see whether this concept of progress will become set in stone, or whether it will be challenged.

In any case, these will be the European questions to answer: How much understanding of culture, history and past do we need for a globalised present and future? How much education is needed to protect us from a blind belief in "progress" which we can see is damaging? How much knowledge and creativity, nourished even by art history & Co., may actually create economic potential for Europe in the world - maybe more than McKinseyan cutting down and sourcing out, maximising and streamlining?

Can any "progress" come from knowing that Lucius Cornelius Sulla resigned as a bloody tyrant in 79 BC for no obvious reason; that Marcus Licinius Crassus was the richest man in Rome and Gaius Iulius Caesar took advantage of it; that Roman doctors tried to heal kidney stones by manually fishing them out of the body, but were successful in trepanning (drilling into the skull) and that things long ago can be very different and very familiar?

If not the Latin past, it may be the potential of (its) education, of an understanding of (its) complexity, of the experience of (its) diversity and similarity that indeed are the stuff a future European identity can and must be made of. Thinking is progress. Sapere audete, Europei, Europeate!

Teaser Image: Mattox (CC) 

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