A Report on the 2023 Living Latin in New York City Conference

Melinda Letts |
Spoken Latin and Greek at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Paideia’s choice of ‘Festivals and Celebrations’ as the theme for their 2023 conference was an apt one for their first post-pandemic in-person gathering. And there was a distinctly celebratory air to the event. Old friends enjoying each other’s company, new participants getting to know one another, everyone enjoying the scholarship and the discussions — what was not to like?

For me, as a first time attender, there had been no expectations or pre-conceptions. My introduction to Active Latin came in 2018, when I went on the first Septimana Latina organised by the Oxford Latinitas Project under the leadership of Jenny Rallens, so there had only been one pre-pandemic Living Latin in New York City conference I might have gone to, and I’d been unable to get there. My aims in attending this conference were broad: to get to know more about Paideia and its work, to learn from interesting presentations, to have fun reading and speaking lots of Greek and Latin with like-minded people, and to indulge in that time-honoured conference activity, networking.

Held at Regis High School in the Upper East Side, the conference seemed to me very well attended, though I don’t know how many people the organisers had hoped for. Paideia staff seemed to be everywhere, always at hand when you needed them for advice or directions — the latter a not infrequent need in a building whose layout seems designed to confuse the unsuspecting visitor! A prodigious array of lectures and reading sessions were on offer, betraying what must have been a Herculean task for organiser Amanda Carver and her team; frustratingly at times, they were all parallel sessions apart from the plenary opening and closing talks by Jason Pedicone, who launched bravely into Latin karaoke on Saturday morning to the tune of ‘Party Like it’s 1999’.

The agony of choice imposed by parallel sessions is an enduring feature of academic conferences, and this one was no exception. How to choose between Tunberg on Erasmus’s Adagia and Ranieri on the Roman Triumph? Do I want to read Catullus with Milena Minkova, or Cassandra Fidelis with Laura Manning? Have I got time to run all the way round the building to see Still Waters in a Storm, the Aeneid video made with such panache by a group of young people from Brooklyn, and be back on the other side in time to catch Marina Garanin on ancient Greek music? How about more karaoke? (Actually that was a no-brainer for me; all kudos to Jason for his infectious enthusiasm, but karaoke doesn’t really do it for me. I’m pretty sure I was in a minority there, however!) Do I want to talk in Greek or in Latin at the next reading session? Here I should confess to Amanda that, despite our having been so carefully distributed into groups, I played truant from some of my allocated Latin sessions in order to get more Greek than the statutory one per person.

For me, the stars of the weekend were Terence Tunberg, whom I had not met before, and Christophe Rico, whom I had. Terence’s reputation turned out to be wholly deserved: a fluent Latin speaker with a wonderful classroom manner, who combines erudition with the grace, humility and curiosity of a born teacher and gave me new things to think about in reading Horace Odes I.37. Christophe had given a one-off class in Oxford three or four years ago, which I’d attended, so I had some idea what to expect, and he surpassed himself here, with three utterly brilliant sessions on Plato (Symposium 174α-176ε) and Xenophon (two classes on the feast of the Greeks and Paphlagonians at Anabasis 6.1). Nobody observing his seemingly effortless, yet tirelessly energetic, ability to engage and enthuse a classroom, consolidating complex morphology and syntax by getting students up and participating, could possibly maintain the absurd calumny that active language teaching lacks grammatical rigour. But if I single out those two individuals, it is for their superb pedagogy in particular; others gave stimulating presentations on a satisfyingly wide range of authors. Leo Trotz-Liboff, an Oxford Latinitas Project alumnus, spoke eloquently, and for the most part without notes, about Cicero’s ideas about the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Joseph Medeiros transfixed his audience with a gripping recitation of parts of the first two books of the Odyssey. Milena Minkova elegantly elucidated Erasmus’s treatment of the word festivus in his Stultitiae Laus; David White described how Columella, in De Re Rustica XII, altered the timing of the Vinalia Rustica in order to ensure his poetic advice on gardening closed with a festival appropriate to his subject matter; David Ring vividly illustrated how difficult it is for students to read a text if more than a tiny percentage of the vocabulary is unfamiliar to them. And though I missed Luke Ranieri’s lecture, he obligingly kept his Roman legionary garb on for the rest of the day.

A highlight of the weekend was the tour of the Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, led by Christophe Rico and Luke Ranieri and conducted in Greek and Latin respectively. Not only did we get to enjoy selected exhibits explained in elegant Greek and Latin by knowledgeable enthusiasts, but after the tour was over we could wander the galleries at will. I had somehow got the impression that we were having an after-hours tour, so it was an unexpected delight to be able to stay longer. I particularly enjoyed the Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Colour exhibition, which showcases 17 full-colour reproductions created by Dr Vinzenz Brinkmann and Dr Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, based on 40 years of scientific, art historical, and archaeological research. The reproductions are presented alongside original ancient statuary whose contemporary audiences would no doubt find the monochrome marble we have been taught to admire sadly flat and lifeless.

All in all, then, a stimulating and hugely enjoyable weekend. A few small things that would help next time: name badges, to facilitate the identification of people one might be keen to meet; the provision of tea — or at the very least a source of boiling water and some teabags — for us non-coffee drinkers; and it would also have been helpful to have a bit of guidance on nearby cafés: when the lunch break is only an hour long, and you don’t want to miss a thing, it’s a pity to waste time searching an unfamiliar area for somewhere to get a sandwich and a much-needed cup of tea. On the academic side, some of the reading sessions I attended could have been better prepared by their leaders. But these are minor niggles, easily ironed out. A bigger challenge, and one which concerns all of us who care about the future of Classics, is that of diversity. As Paideia’s Outreach Manager, Aminata Hughes, has said, ‘the Ancient world was incredibly diverse, and all people should be able to see themselves in history’. Yet, for political and structural reasons there isn’t space to rehearse here, Classics as a discipline historically restricted that opportunity mainly to élite white men. And though things are changing, it’s still hard to find a Classics conference that isn’t pretty monochrome. Given that I had heard something about Paideia’s efforts to improve in this respect, I took the opportunity to ask Aminata to tell me more about what they are doing. She described with obvious enthusiasm the Teaching Literacy with Latin programme, now active in several elementary and middle schools across the US, and the Paideia Greece and Rome prize, which provides scholarships to enable students in financial need to attend their Living Latin in Rome and Living Greek in Greece high school courses. While it’s very good to hear about initiatives like these that aim to extend access to Classics and bring ancient languages to students from backgrounds other than those that have traditionally accessed our discipline, there is always more that can be done, and all of us in Classics need to keep pushing ourselves and each other to go further. In the spoken Latin field there is an extra layer of challenge because so many of the most fluent Latin speakers are men, something which has absolutely nothing to do with ability and everything to do with opportunity.

But let me not end on a negative note. I started this article by describing what I hoped to get out of attending the conference: learning, stimulation, enjoyment, and networking. Each of those aims was met, and I’m very glad indeed that I went. When one is accustomed to having to explain, and all too often justify, one’s enthusiasm for active pedagogy to sceptical colleagues (though not, tellingly, to students), it is more than reassuring to spend an entire weekend with like-minded classicists from different parts of the world and to be reminded that, though active language teaching may still be a minority interest, one shares the space with so many talented, scholarly, and frankly inspiring individuals. This may have been my first Living Latin in New York City conference, but, dis volentibus, it will not be my last.


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Melinda Letts

Dr. Melinda Letts is Tutor in Latin and Ancient Greek Languages at Jesus College, Oxford, Lecturer in Classics at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and Chair of Oxford Latinitas Ltd.


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