Latin Lovers

REVIEW: ‘Et tu, Brute?: The Best Latin Lines Ever’

Et tu Brute (Death of Caesar) by William Holmes Sullivan / wikimedia commons
May 14, 2023

"Why are we learning Latin?" It’s the perennial question we Latin teachers face. It’s sensible to ask regarding a dead language, and students wouldn’t be wrong to think of complaining about Latin as participating in a hallowed tradition. The newest response to those age-old complaints comes from British classicists Harry Mount and John Davie in Et tu, Brute?: The Best Latin Lines Ever. The subtitle has a straightforward promise: the ultimate goal is to show Latin is worth the effort.

The authors do something smart at the beginning of the book by drawing attention to Latin’s concision. They confront the idea that Latin is "pompous and grandiloquent" by pointing out that Latinate English words tend to be long and highfalutin, but the Latin language itself is marked by economy. The book sets Latin lines alongside English translations and thereby demonstrates Latin’s aptitude for brevity—you know, the soul of wit. The beautiful line, "There are tears at the heart of things" (Aeneid 6.847) in Seamus Heaney’s translation is just three words in Vergil’s original (sunt lacrimae rerum). For something more fun, there’s Ovid’s Ut ameris, amabilis esto: "If you want people to like you, be likable."

Once they’ve taken readers through the streets of Pompeii to the palaces of the emperors, up to Vatican City and down to huts in Roman Britain, the authors allow themselves to wax eloquent about "the world’s most influential language." Somewhat charmingly, they sound like a typical Latin teacher when they conclude: "The fundamental reason for reading Latin is because it’s the language of Western civilization; because, inscribed in Latin, lie the secrets of our deepest cultural memory."

It’s a big claim. Do they prove it?

To make their case, they go low before going high. Chapter 1 covers graffiti and advertisements—sometimes the same thing, in cases such as the Pompeian prostitute who wrote, "I’m yours for two bronze coins" near the courthouse. The authors seem to delight in lewdness more than, I suspect, the parents of classical schoolboys—and moms and dads would regret giving Et tu, Brute? to their little Latin learner. Beyond the obscene graffiti, the explicit poetry in chapter 3 will test your stomach. Roman attitudes about women and sexual coercion were decidedly pre-modern. But part of our "cultural memory"? Sure.

The book seems aimed at those who’ve left their schooldays behind yet feel some pull to explore the classics. The authors try enticing readers with obscenity and sex, which presumably would’ve spiced up class in high school. It’s shock value and education on Roman social mores. Students generally haven’t learned about Baiae, "a favourite haunt of the idle rich on the coast of Campania," but visiting it shows how elites cavorted. It seemed like a jumping-off point to examine how sex intersected with Rome’s politics and cultural conflicts, but it isn't. There’s one brief story about Claudius’ wife taking another man while he’s away and trying to orchestrate a coup, and not much else. Game of Thrones (seasons 1-5) this is not.

Still, they don’t miss the opportunity to examine some of the best of Roman thought. The senator Cicero on growing old is beautiful and touching, and plenty of Latin maxims are worth remembering. There’s also plenty that isn’t especially notable. Perhaps the line, "I hope your girl stops your kiss with her hand and lies as far away from you in bed as she can" had some kind of sizzle when Horace used it, but it falls flat here. Later in the book, the authors admit that Latin jokes "are not really very funny now."

Now, Latin insults, those have some punch. Cicero’s even cost him his head. "You assumed a man's toga and at once turned it into a prostitute's frock," he said about Mark Antony. "At first you were a common rent boy; you charged a fixed fee and a steep one at that." Cicero had more where that came from, and Antony was not amused—requiescat in pace, Cicero.

Then, the book goes from history to… gardening? In a sort of intermission, the authors argue that retaining Latin binomial nomenclature is vital to communication between international gardening enthusiasts. Apparently, this is a major issue for British conservatives. Jettisoning an internationally recognized system does sound foolish. I can’t tell an ageratum from an azalea, but I’m with the pro-Latin side on this one.

After the horticultural interregnum, the book runs through Roman history and culture, including baths and feasts, bread and circuses, the class system, the political system, religion and family values, Christianity’s rise, Mount Vesuvius’s eruption, and more. The connection to Latin can get tenuous during this trip through the centuries. I’m happy to reread Pliny’s letters about Pompeii’s destruction, but reprinting them without much illumination or even just commentary seems half-baked.

Worse, some ideas work against the book as a whole—even the title itself. "Et tu, Brute?" isn’t in the running for greatest Latin line ever; Julius Caesar didn’t even say it. And it pales in comparison to his best work, including veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"); alea iacta est ("The die is cast"); and what he actually told Brutus (in Greek): "You, too, my child?" The authors admit as much in a brief aside, saying "You, too, my child?" is both historically accurate and more moving, and then they leave the words "Et tu, Brute?" entirely. The reader can’t help but think, Then why’s that the title of your book?

They also promote the idea that Romans didn’t smile because there’s no known word for "smile" in Latin, although it’s commonly taught that ridet can mean "smiles" (in addition to "laughs"). But later in the book they translate a form of ridet as "smile," without explanation. And they succumb to the temptation of getting too clever with colloquialisms. Carpe diem becomes "so get a bloody move on," and the concise dignity of Horace’s phrase is obscured. (The traditional "seize the day" appears earlier in the book, but, analyzing the poem, the authors abruptly tinker with it—unsatisfactorily.)

Possibly the handiest section is the glossary of common Latin phrases. Yet even here I found myself stung with disappointment. The most delightful tidbit new to me was the Latin origin of willy-nilly (velis nolis: "whether you like it or not"), which turns out… probably not to be true, as will I, nill I appears Germanic in origin. (Both likely came from a shared Indo-European root.)

There are fun nuggets throughout, and it’s a readable highlight reel of Roman history for novices or those looking to brush up. It provides food for thought about pithy writing, but it doesn’t leave you thinking Latin is "the language of Western civilization" as much as it’s a language of Western civilization. Does it contain "secrets" that necessitate learning it? Et tu, Brute? surely shows there’s a lot of salacious writing in Latin that you didn’t hear in school, but the book is less likely to convince you to learn Latin yourself.

Et tu, Brute?: The Best Latin Lines Ever
by Harry Mount and John Davie
Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $18

Paul Crookston, a former journalist at National Review and the Washington Free Beacon, teaches Latin at Potomac Classical Conservatory in Alexandria, Va.

Published under: Book reviews , history