In Romania, Latin holds out

Mihaela RODINA
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Romania's government proposed dropping Latin classes last year, but faced an unexpected outcry

Just like Asterix's small village held out against the Romans, 2,000 years later in Romania a fight is on to keep Latin alive just as it dies elsewhere in Europe.

Latin is compulsory at all Romanian schools for one hour a week in the final year of middle school -- ages 13 to 14 -- and for older pupils studying literature.

This makes Romania an outlier in Europe. Even Italy, the cradle of Roman civilisation, abandoned compulsory Latin for all middle school pupils in 1977.

But this is under threat. Romanian education reforms last year proposed abandoning Latin in order to allow children to focus on subjects "more in step with modern times".

This prompted an unexpected outcry, however, with backers of Latin organising an online petition and bombarding the government with complaints.

"Many voices in society mobilised to defend Latin," recalls Theodor Georgescu, professor in classical languages at Bucharest University.

"It's not normal for a government or a minister to decide the fate of a language studied in Europe for millennia," he told AFP.

Latin forms not only "the foundation of humanist culture" but also the bedrock of Romanian, the only Romance language spoken in mostly Slavic eastern Europe, he said.

- 'Patriotic duty' -

Cowed by the resistance, the Romanian education ministry performed a U-turn and kept the one hour of compulsory Latin in place.

Gheorghita Cucu, a Latin teacher at the I.C. Bratianu school in the southern town of Pitesti, was pleased.

"The Latin language is a language of culture, it's the language of our ancestors, and it's a patriotic duty to learn it," Cucu said.

In her lessons she teaches a mix of Latin grammar and proverbs interspersed with bits of Roman history, seeking to refute that it's a "dead language".

"Latin is still alive in the Romance languages that it produced," like French, Italian and Spanish, said Alexandru Cretu, one of her star pupils.

"The literature helps as well, because, as we know, Latin culture is the basis of European culture," he said.

And it's good for thinking too.

"It structures your thoughts and helps you make connections more easily, thanks to its grammar," Cretu said.

He and three others will take part in an international Latin competition in May in Arpino in Italy, the former ancient city of Arpinum and birthplace of the Roman orator Cicero.

Cucu hopes that, like other pupils in the past, they will cover themselves in glory.

- Ceausescu versus Moscow -

Romania has long caught the eye of various empires, from the Romans to the Ottomans to Austro-Hungary and in the 20th century, Russia.

And Latin "has been used throughout history as a political weapon," said Professor Georgescu.

In the Soviet era from 1945 to 1989, Russia went out of its way to snuff out Romanian culture, seeing it as a threat to Slavic hegemony, he said.

Under orders from Moscow, the Romanian communist authorities banned the teaching of Latin in 1948. A major reform in 1953 sought to purge the "Latin excess" in Romanian script.

But in the 1970s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, seeking to exert some independence from Russia, made Latin compulsory again in middle schools.

"Even if this was a political decision, the result was beneficial for pupils," Georgescu said.