I read Latin and Greek as an undergraduate (mainly with a view to Indo-European linguistics) and have long sought a book I could recommend to friends and family who want to know something about classical languages. I thought A NATURAL HISTORY OF LATIN would be just the thing, but I found the book rather problematic.
A NATURAL HISTORY OF LATIN is a translation and adaptation by Merethe Damsgaard Sorensen and Nigel Vincent of Tore Janson's original "Latin; Kulturn, historien, spraaket" published in Stockholm in 2002. The book is written at a high school level, avoiding jargon and explaining matters as clearly and simply as possibly. Janson starts at the very beginning, with Latin as a single descent of the Indo-European proto-language, a small language confined to Rome overshadowed by its strong neighbour Etruscan. He introduces the major writers of Latin literature, and even quotes passages from the major poets, giving the original Latin and a translation.
Since Latin is a remarkably tenacious language, holding on long after the disappearance of Roman society, and Janson discusses the use of Latin by the Roman Catholic Church, philosophers, and natural scientists. While Janson talks of the rise of new languages after the fall of the Roman Empire that were descended from Latin yet no longer Latin, I was baffled by his omission of the Strasbourg Oaths, which many readers find an entertaining example of language change.
Though Janson avoids discussion of morphology (the changes the endings of Latin words can go through) in the main of the book, the end of the book contains a 35-page appendix on Latin grammar so that the curious reader can learn more. There is also a basic vocabulary of the most common and influential Latin words, and a collection of common phrases and expressions.
In spite of covering many of the basics of the use of Latin, I found the author injected his own personal biases into the text far too often. Some of my other reviews have complained about his comparison of Cato with Fascist party members, Epicurius with Karl Marx, his assertion that Julius Caesar commited genocide. Now, these are intriguing matters, but Janson makes the comparisons so flippantly that it just drags the level of the text down. Beyond these, there are other problematic passages. For example, after discussing Catullus' poems to the boy Juventius, Janson writes, "That a man might be in love with both women and men did not cause any great surprise in antiquity... It was not regarded as deviant behavior." Such a blanket statemetn is dishonest, for while the elites of Roman society condoned pederasty, grown men who took the passive role in homosexual acts were despised in the strongest sense. Just look at the character of the cinaedus in Petronius' "Satyricon", for example.
The author loves to get his digs in at Christianity as well, with a revisionist goal that goes against the long traditions of Oxford University Press' classicist publishing. Of Tertullian, whom classicists have long admired for his eloquent defence of his faith in front of Roman persecution, Janson writes, "[His books'] most striking characteristic is their spiteful attitude to everyone who thought differently from Tertullian himself." Later he writes, "It was not easy to know at the time who actually was a heretic. It depended on who was successful in having their view of original sin or the Trinity finally accepted as the true teaching of the Church." And of St Augustine, Janson writes, "His ideas are strange or even repugnant. This is especially true of the idea of original sin." The doctrine original sin hardly began with Augustine, nor is it a concept limited to Christianity among the world religions (Buddhism, for instance, has us stuck in cycles of samsara because of lusts and desires).
With his peculiar biases, Janson betrays the fine tradition of Oxford University Press' books on the classical world, and I find the book too enervating to recommend to others. Maybe I should look at Joseph Farrell's Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times instead.