Post-Classical Intellectualism in the Latin Classroom

The following is a guest editorial submitted by Zachary Taylor, a middle and high school Latin teacher:

My Advanced Placement Latin students, in their third week into the Aeneid, just read Helen Bacon’s excellent article, “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election.”

Bacon interprets Rome’s most famous poem as a visionary epic of transcendence, wherein the hero, Aeneas, “is the bearer of a divine and specifically national mission, first resisted, ultimately accepted.” Unlike in the Iliad and the Odyssey, personal heroism and fulfillment take a notable back-seat to the predestined establishment of the Roman people, and thus Aeneas must constantly set aside his personal desires and ambitions to follow the decrees of Fate. As he slowly loses his “humanity,” as Bacon puts it, he simultaneously becomes divine. “Aeneas is a hero destined for immortality,” she writes.

For perhaps the first time in their academic careers, my students had encountered in Bacon’s article inscrutable ideas and concepts such as transcendence, metaphysics, deification, and election. They were at a loss to comprehend the notion that in the Aeneid, we encounter “not pure metaphysics but metaphysical poetry” that manifests a “poetized vision of the transcendent reality of the soul” articulated by Plato, the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Such philosophical and conjectural ideas went entirely over their heads, not because they were unable to understand them—my Advanced Placement students are extremely smart—but because never before had they been exposed to late antique intellectual history. While they can discuss quite competently the ideas of Socrates and Cicero, whom they encountered in history and literature classes, they had not, until our Latin class, ever heard of Plotinus and only vaguely knew of Augustine. I must have sounded like an utter quack.

Even when I tried to relate Bacon’s interpretation of the Aeneid to the letters of Saint Paul, my students were at a loss. In fact, I believe they mistakenly assumed that I had started to preach and that our discussion of metaphysics, the afterlife, and deification had taken an unwanted Christian turn in which I aimed to defend Paul and the notion of transcendence. I quickly realized that my attempt to approach the Aeneid, a classical first century BCE text, via the late antique lens of Neoplatonism and the Christian lens of Pauline mysticism had utterly failed. They did not have a clue what they could add to or even contest in Bacon’s thesis.

What explains this? It is far too easy to say that my students could not handle literary criticism informed by unfamiliar philosophical or theological ideas. They can. Had they been exposed to late antique history and the period’s philosophy and philosophical theology, and had they learned about the numerous connections between the late antique Roman world, Christianity, and the classical era they know so well, they would have participated in our conversation with aplomb.

I venture that our failed discussion stems from a recurrent lacuna in Latin curriculum in secondary schools and universities across the country. For quite some time now, “classical studies” has stood apart from “late antique and medieval studies,” and in particular the field has made a concerted effort to distance itself from the study of Christianity. Simon Goldhill, in a paper titled “Classics in the Providential Order of the World” presented at the 2017 Society for Classical Studies annual conference, noted how, after a close-knitted affair between classics and Christian theology, both of which the same nineteenth century practitioners often studied, the disciplines have taken radically different paths. “Modern classicists in general are loathe to give theology the attention it requires in the development of our discipline,” he added, “and such a repression has consequently hugely distorted the field of reception studies.” Beyond Goldhill’s more narrow critique in relation to theology and reception studies, I wish to call attention to the study of late antique intellectual history, and by connection Christianity, in Latin classrooms. While I by no means wish to advocate for the study of theology over and above or even in between the study of Virgil and Caesar in the Advanced Placement curriculum, I do want to promote a broader, more inclusive advanced Latin curriculum that exposes students to the complex intellectual (and entirely Roman) world of Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome in addition to that of Cicero, Caesar, and Virgil.

Why? Beyond the obvious fact that such a curriculum provides students with a more comprehensive portraiture of the ancient world and Latin literature, it also helps students understand and substantively interact with claims like those made by Helen Bacon. In other words, a Latin curriculum that has students read Augustine opens interpretative doors to the Aeneid they may not have opened otherwise.

Catherine Conybeare, in a paper titled “Virgil, Creator of the World,” which she also presented at the 2017 Society for Classical Studies conference, claimed that “the intellectual heritage of classicists is radically incomplete if we continue to ignore the pressure of the cultural divisions of the fourth and fifth centuries on how we write and read and, indeed, select our objects of concern today.” As Conybeare made clear in her paper, the study of classical Latin texts in the nascent Christian cultural milieu of the fifth century—she drew attention to Macrobius’s Saturnalia—incorporated new interpretive techniques molded by debates within Christianity itself. “Pressure from the cultural and intellectual ferment of Christianity in the Western empire,” Conybeare said, “tacitly shapes the work of Macrobius”; moreover, his description of the reader’s approaches to the “holy recesses (adyta)” of the Aeneid, which Macrobius calls “sacred (sacri poematis)” (Saturnalia 1.24.13), parallels Augustine’s approach to biblical hermeneutics in Confessions (3.5.9). Ultimately, Conybeare concluded that Macrobius’s Saturnalia “provides a model for readers of classical texts in . . . the twenty-first century.” Macrobius, while a non-Christian representative of an intellectual culture that revered Rome’s pre-Christian literary past, nevertheless adopts interpretive tools inflected by Christianity in his analyses of a canonical classical text.

We must also remember that, on the other end of the spectrum, non-Christian authors exerted a massive influence on the new Christian intellectual elite of the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine, like many of his episcopal peers, received a standard Roman education that led him to a career at Rome as a professor of rhetoric. Evidence of his instruction in philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry abounds in his work, wherein he often explicitly discusses canonical texts, such as the Aeneid (Confessions 2.2) or confronts philosophical ideas from the classical Roman period, such as Cicero’s definition of the res publica, the focal point of City of God Book XIX. In fact, apropos rhetoric as it concerns the didactic role of the Christian preacher, Augustine was part of an entire movement, led by Christian bishops educated in the typical fashion for Roman elites, who accepted the authority of classical rhetoric yet abhorred its sophistic tendencies. In response, they tried to create “an oasis of literary culture,” in the words of Peter Brown, that was unselfconscious, unacademic, uncompetitive, and devoted to the comprehension of biblical texts, evidently in opposition to the non-Christian intellectual milieu. In short, just as Macrobius (perhaps unselfconsciously) employed Christian interpretive techniques in his literary analyses, late antiquity’s Christian thinkers appropriated what they found useful in classical literary culture and dispensed with what they perceived was harmful.

I do not think that secondary school Latin students should learn all this. I nevertheless call attention to this rich period of Roman intellectual history because, like Conybeare, I contend that late antiquity’s “cross-disciplinary approach,” as it were, to the study of classical texts like the Aeneid offers a model for Latin educators just as well as readers or scholars. Latin teachers more familiar with late antiquity can, in turn, expose their students in the years prior to advanced Latin to the philosophical, literary, and theological ideas of late antiquity, not merely because well-rounded future classicists should know this information, but also because such an approach aids them in their own comprehension and analysis of traditional Latin texts from the first century BCE and the early years of the Principate. Armed with such interpretive tools, students could more fully appreciate the finer points made by scholars such as Helen Bacon.

I should note that some Latin textbooks already take seriously the idea that Latin students should learn more about late antiquity and the post-classical life of Latin, if for somewhat different reasons. Most notably, Bolchazy-Carducci’s Latin for the New Millennium series, written by Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, introduces students to adapted Latin texts from Augustine, Boethius, and Ammianus Marcellinus as early as Level 1. Brief introductions to these authors’ lives, which expose students to the historical and literary contexts in which they wrote, accompany the selections students are expected to translate. The Level 2 textbook, which commences with an introduction to the subjunctive mood (trial by fire, Level 2 students!), takes as its thematic foci post-classical Latin in medieval and Renaissance contexts. Students therefore read selections from the Venerable Bede, Einhard, and Petrarch, and learn about medieval Britain, the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Renaissance reception of Cicero, respectively. Level 2 even includes excerpts from Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on the New World and from Nicolaus Copernicus on “the revolution of the celestial bodies.” With a textbook series such as Latin for the New Millennium, which I use in my own Latin classroom, a Latin teacher can craft a curriculum extraordinarily rich in late antique intellectual history.

The alterations to the conventional secondary school Latin curriculum that I propose here may not be at the top of every teacher’s priorities. Many of us are concerned with Latin’s exclusionary and elitist reputation, with its whiteness and maleness, and with the appropriation of classical culture by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Others seek to transform Latin curriculum in other, more fundamental ways, such as those committed to comprehensible input. I, too, share these sociopolitical and curricular concerns, and have tried to address issues of race and racism, white supremacy, and sexism in my Latin classes. I have also tried to speak Latin more frequently, convinced that my students and I can truly benefit from comprehensible input. By no means, then, do I wish to imply that exposure to late antique intellectual history will radically transform our Latin classes in the most relevant or consequential ways. I do, however, believe that students can benefit considerably from a more inclusive Latin curriculum that does not shy away from Latin’s extensive post-classical, Christian life out of fear that such a curriculum would stray uncomfortably into non-secular academic realms. To conclude, I cite Macrobius once more—an excerpt from his Saturnalia that Catherine Conybeare quoted at the start of her paper at last year’s conference, which I shared with my Advanced Placement students after we dissected Helen Bacon’s “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election.” On the Aeneid, Macrobius writes:

Videsne eloquentiam omni varietate distinctam? quam quidem mihi videtur Virgilius non sine quodam praesagio . . . de industria permiscuisse, idque non mortali sed divino ingenio praevidisse: atque adeo non alium ducem secutus quam ipsam rerum omnium matrem naturam hanc praetexuit velut in musica concordiam dissonorum. Quippe si mundum ipsum diligenter inspicias, magnam similitudinem divini illius et huius poetici operis invenies.

Do you see the eloquence, distinct in every kind of variety? Indeed, Virgil seems to me to have mixed assiduously with a certain prescience that which he foresaw with a divine, not mortal talent: and thus having followed no other guide except nature itself, the mother of all things, he wove together this harmony of discordant sounds just as if it were music. Indeed, if you look carefully at the world itself, you will discover a profound similarity between the creation of the divine and that of this poet.

Saturnalia, 5.1.18-19, my translation.


Zachary Taylor is a new Latin teacher at an independent school in Delaware. In between his Latin classes, he draws up plays he hopes will help his middle school boys basketball team win a few close contests.

St Augustine Teaching Rhetoric (1)

“St. Augustine Teaching Rhetoric.” By Jan van Scorel. 1495-1562.


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