My high school Latin teacher must have been in her sixties. She looked like she knew Julius Caesar up close and personal. I can’t remember her name but she sure made an impression. There she stood before the class with a bad case of declensionitis. Now it wasn’t as if we in her Latin class had been drafted. We had volunteered. Latin was an elective. We could just as easily taken Spanish. Since we lived in Texas, that would’ve made more sense.
But somewhere along the way the Ancient Romans cast their spell on me. If it had been offered, I would have taken Hebrew and written backwards. But there I sat in Latin class, conjugating verbs that Cicero probably never conjugated. And he was a conjugator in the first degree.
Also I had read that F. Scott Fitzgerald took Latin and I had this dream. I wanted to be not just any writer but a rich and famous one, go off to Hollywood and sleep with lots of great looking women. If Fitzgerald had done it, why not me? A pimply-faced kid with a poor self-image can dream, can’t he?
To train as a writer, I thought about taking Shakespeare. But he scared the bejesus out of me. People put him on such a pedestal. And still do. But Latin. I thought Latin would be such a lark. How hard could it be since the Neanderthals had spoken and written it? After all, pimples or not, I was a thoroughly modern adolescent.
And maybe, just maybe, speaking Latin might get me in with the in-crowd, or at least the intellectual crowd. I was a lonely kid. I wasn’t even geek enough to be a geek. I was so lonely for companionship I got a cat. I couldn’t even do that right. Should have gotten a dog, ’cause cats are not the most companionable of pets. I know there are cat owners who will disagree. But I have a cat and I’m telling you that has been my experience. Latinizing myself seemed like a plan. And who knew? There just might be a Zelda in my future. You gotta remember. I wasn’t the brightest light bulb in the store.
So there I sat among a bunch of other empty minds, waiting to be stirred by a language that had not been spoken in something like 1500 years. Then the the Declensionator sprang some news upon us. We had to drop our w and pronounce the v as a w.
We started demanded our double-u’s back. We became so riotous that three Roman lictors had to be brought in to calm us down. Finally she told us that she would allow us a pickum nickum on the school lawn if we would just calm down.
Once we calmed down, she spun us the tale of Gaius Julius Caesar. His Horatio Alger of a life only proved that any Roman patrician could grow up and be Dictator-for-Life if he applied himself and had a bit of luck. He started off with a family tree second to none but no cash. Being the ambitious kid he was, he had a hankering to conquer the world. Went off to Gaul (which was Latin for France) and gave a good whacking to the folks in Gallia Celtica, Belgica and Aquitania. The English translation for Gallia Celtica, Belgica and Aquitania is Any, Many and Minie Moe.
Pompey, the Big Cheese in Rome, was way none too happy. Told Gaius Julius that he had gotten too big for his toga and his knickers were showing. He needed to humble himself and come on home to Rome and beg the Senate to forgive him for being so successful.
Gaius was having none of that. He headed back to Rome with the Seventh Legion behind him. Unlike the Seventh Calvary, they were in no mood for a Little Big Horn and they were led by a general who was no Custer. He was more like Patton. All Gaius Julius wanted was a parade for doing to Gaul what Pompey wanted to do to him.
So he gave Pompey and the Senate the middle finger and marched on Rome. He did not become Caesar till he crossed the Rubicon, singing “We’re not gonna take it anymore.” From that day on, his business card said Caesar.
Pompey did a quick exit stage right and lit out for all parts east. Caesar followed and pretty soon he was veni-ing, vidi-ing and vici-ing all over the place, giving Pompey the what-fors here, there and everywhere. Caesar did the Napoleon thing. He went down to Egypt and all hell broke loose. Pompey lost his head over Cleopatra. Caesar was downright pissed. Only a Roman got to knock off another Roman.
Before he knew it, Cleo had Gaius calmed down. She spread her legs and Caesar went ga-ga over the original Lady Gaga. He, in his W. C. Fields of a voice, told her like he told all his girlfriends, “Veni, vidi, vici.” She retorted, with a Mae West that made Mae West think twice about using that voice of hers, “No, you veni-ed, you vidied, but I vici-ed, big boy.” She had him in the palm of her hands, showing him the pyramids.
The thing was that Gaius got bored. He’d seen all the pyramids he wanted to see. A pyramid here, a pyramid there, everywhere a pyramid. He saw so many pyramids they started reminding him of Stonehenge. All he needed was a Druid and he could have a human sacrifice. Now, wouldn’t that be a party? he thought. So he decided to get the hell out of Dodge and head back to Rome where the plebs worshipped the ground he walked on.
Bad idea. Before he knew it, he was etu-ing Brute’ all over the place. At that point, he had a bad case of the “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” And that was that. It was the good ol’ bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Of course, we Latineers in that high school class found all this fascinating, especially the part about Cleo spreading her legs and making ol’ Cez go gaga. We all shouted, “More, more.” Miss D thought real hard and asked, “You ever hear of a toga party?” Then the bell rang.
Over the months that followed, we learned orgy etiquette. We learned about the Roman hero, Biggus Dickus. We even conjugated a few verbs and learned ignoramus does not mean stupid. It is first person plural and it meant “we do not know.” And of course we didn’t. But what the hey. It was Latin.
I must admit that I was not a very good conjugater . Every time she asked me to conjugate, I pulled a Rush Limbaugh and changed the subject. If you can’t win, you take the conversation off in a different direction. I had been reading Livy’s “History of Rome, so I asked, “How about those Pubic Wars?”
She said, “Yes, they were really hairy.”
It all worked out. I managed to con my way through two years of Latin and end up with a B. I could now use the phrases carpe diem and per diem appropriately, and I knew semper fidelis was longhand for semper fi.
Soon I graduated and went out into the wide world, thanking my lucky stars that I would never have to conjugate another verb. Then it happened. I saw “The Life of Brian”. In it, there is this guy writing graffiti on a Jerusalem wall: “Romanes eunt domus.” A squad of Roman soldiers show up and the centurion starts correcting the zealot’s Latin, finally saying, “Romani ite domum! Now write it 100 times before sunrise, or I’ll cut your balls off.” I had nightmares over that one. I kept substituting Miss D for the centurion and I was the poor smuck of a zealot.
Could have happened. In a previous life.