The charming lady who gave our continent her name was of Jewish ethnicity and Phoenician (nowadays Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli) nationality, the god who kidnapped her was Greek, and they had their first sex in Crete. The roots of the mythical figure "Europa" are of Greek and not of Latin origin. And yet the "Latin connection" is highlighted on every possible occasion when it comes to legitimising the idea of a European identity, or even a European language.

If Europe Speaks Latin

We all know the problem. The English are horrified by the howlers their mother tongue sprouts in so-called European English; the French speak either French or French; the Spanish either don't speak or they speak too fast; the German have their terrible accent, and no one understands when native British-English speakers try to explain themselves in English. "Europeamus!" is the answer of some who think that speaking Latin is the way out.

Photo: Marcello eM(CC)
If Europe spoke Latin, conversations in our next Erasmus party might just become a tiny bit clumsier.

The advantages are evident. The language is nobody’s mother tongue - a fair chance for everyone - and it is jawbreaker-free; Londinium is pronounced Londinium and not Lunden, London, Londres, Londra, Londyn, or Λονδίνο (or Manchester, as the saying has it). The Latin language is complex but precise: grammar allowing constructive dodges like the ablativus absolutus (ablative absolute) which acts as a repository for any additional information relating to the main clause, or a hyperbaton hiding an adjective miles away from the subject of its reference, could be the perfect raw material for European laws drafted in Brussels.

Latin is not a dead language by nature - it was the exclusive language of European science until the 16th century, and is currently still the official language of the Catholic Church and the Vatican. The obvious disadvantage? The language is nobody’s mother-tongue and everyone has to learn it. Given that there are seven cases, five declensions and four conjugations, it may not always be as simple as acquiring a rudimentary "I-do-you-do-he/she/it-does" kind of European English. It would seem odd to imagine the next Erasmus party dialogue as: "Eho salve, ut vales?" – "Magnifice! Frigidam velis cervisiam?" ("Hi, how are you?"– "Great! Wanna have a cool beer?")

If Europe owes its identity to both Christianity and Latin, the result must be a cultural schizophrenia, a contradictio in adiectio.

How Latin is Europe?

First the Romans killed Christ. Then Christianity surpassed the Roman religion (that on its part had been taken over from the Greeks), dismissing it as paganism. If Europe owes its identity to both Christianity and Latin, the result must be a cultural schizophrenia, a contradictio in adiectio.

Photo: Holly Hayes;(CC BY-NC)
Can Christianity and Latin co-exist in defining the European identity historically?

A third element is needed to close the dialectic gap: the recollection and updating of discarded heritage. Starting from the Italy of the 14th century, the Renaissance movement rediscovered the ancient "classic" aesthetics of the past Roman culture and rang the bell for the end of the Middle Ages. Then, around 1800 the Enlightenment era challenged and broke the lasting supremacy of Christian dogma, often returning to philosophical and scientific paradigms which dated back to pagan antiquity. In Latin, of course: "Sapere aude!" was Immanuel Kant's battle cry for "mankind's way out of self-inflicted sheepishness." 

"Dare to make use of your reason!"

Pre-imperial democracy successfully superseded the divine right of kings and absolutist monarchies thanks to the Enlightenment. Science started to deny religion’s sovereignty of interpretation, which it had borne for centuries. If modern Europe is a child of the enlightenment era, Latin culture at least is its godfather (and Christianity at best its step-aunt).

But even in the Middle Ages, which people now remember as 'gloomy' and unenlightened, the Latin language remained the carrier of intellectual heritage and progress, though reserved for a small, mostly ecclesiastical elite. And the Roman Empire served as a paragon and legitimator for most subsequent empires on European territory. Its influence on modern language has travelled along. For instance, both the German term "Kaiser" and the Russian name "Tsar" derive from the Roman politician who in 45 B. C. crowned himself Roman emperor and thus ended the almost 500-year-old democratic tradition of the Roman Republic: Gaius Iulius Caesar.

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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