Any general history of Latin as a second language must explain how it has continued to attract learners for two millennia. What trait of the language has remained a motivating factor for learners even as cultures have undergone fundamental change? Such an account can in fact be given if we examine not merely the ideals of well-educated elites, but also the behavior of more marginalized groups excluded from the usual educational channels. While the former have justified Latin education on utilitarian grounds, the latter, in their interactions with Latin, have consistently treated it as a language of power, which can be harnessed to control the uninitiated.
Educators have often advertised Latin as a means to fulfill certain life-goals of the second language learner, which are reflected in the particular educational techniques that they employ. In the western Roman Empire, acquisition of Latin was a prerequisite for provincial peoples in their interactions with Roman administrators; bilingual glossaries helped them to acquire the words needed for everyday use (Dickey, Hanson). With the fall of Rome, Latin endured as the language of learning and religion; medieval Latin education focused on the skills of dialectic reasoning, deemed necessary for theological inquiry (Fried). Renaissance Latin-learners pursued the more worldly goal of persuasive writing and speech in civic contexts; education therefore emphasized the study of Roman orators and the honing of rhetorical skills (Grafton and Jardine). In the late 19th century, Latin was recast as a mental discipline, which would strengthen the logical faculties of the learner; instruction focused on the formal, grammatical aspects of the language (Stray). Most recently, the language has been marketed as a means to greater awareness of other cultures; students learn the language through stories that depict Roman life in primers such as the Cambridge Latin Course.
While these appeals to utility offer some explanation of students’ motivations at particular moments in history, they give no single, compelling reason for the enduring appeal of Latin. If we expand our investigation to include educationally marginalized groups, we find an enduring belief that the language possesses an inherent power, which can be accessed to gain control over others. Ordinary folk in Roman and Medieval Britain drew on this supposed power, formulating curses and charms in substandard Latin (Simón, Pettit). A similar attitude existed in the Renaissance: Shakespeare, who knew but “small Latin,” implies that Prospero’s magical books are Latin texts (Lyne); with their power, Prospero summons and subjugates the spirit Ariel. Following the decline of magic, Latin established an empire in secular classrooms. All too often, ineffective teachers drew on the perceived authority of the language in attempts to force it on unwilling, failing pupils (Waquet).
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels reflect such beliefs in the inherent power of Latin. At Hogwarts, there is no instruction in Latin per se, but wizards learn spells in a half-Latin argot. Muggles are utterly excluded from the language, and Voldemort is able to control them through his own command of spells. But all is not as dark as it seems. While none of Rowling’s characters is a Latin scholar, she herself studied Classics at Exeter University. For many readers, she is their first teacher of Latin, affording them a subtle introduction to the genuine beauty of the language, which lies behind its illusory mask of power.