by Deirdre Kelly
photography by Sofie Kirk
In Sarah Blake’s classical studies classes at York University, Latin comes alive as a language of hope and survival in such works of ancient literature as Virgil’s Aeneid.
Written during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor, the epic poem narrates the journey of Aeneas, mythic founder of Rome, following the fall of Troy. Metaphor and allegory abound, making it a work of enduring literary value. But it was its theme of massive disruption that compelled Blake, an associate professor in the Department of Humanities, to want to teach it to a small group of students during the pandemic lockdowns.
“It’s a story about a group of survivors of a devastating war who struggle to find a new safe place to live, losing parents, friends and lovers along the way, battling fear and despair, trying to interpret the mysterious signs of the universe – dreams, omens, prophecies – while also trying to decide when to take a risk and what to leave behind,” she explains.
Professor and students pored over Virgil as a group, in the original Latin. Sorting through the ancient verb tenses, among other linguistic arcana, brought the class closer together, even at a time of remote learning.
“Reading the poem in the original Latin gives it a powerful vividness, an intimacy,” shares Blake, presently at work on a book about what ancient Romans thought about the material world.
“As students of Latin, we’re often reading it really slowly to catch all the grammar, so you sit with each word, each line, for some time. It makes for a moving reading experience.”
As a foundational language, Latin also reminds us that the past is in the present, there to remind us of ancient struggles, wisdoms and insights that never go stale, as revealed by a rereading of the Aeneid.
“It is the story of a peaceful nation in Italy being invaded by settlers – the Trojan refugees – who bring violence and war as they look for a new home,” Blake says. “The poem insists on multiple perspectives and voices. These are contemporary human stories that will resonate with any reader. They get me every time.” ■