Academics in Italy have launched a campaign to defend what little Latin and Greek is still taught in Italian schools, and possibly to reintroduce compulsory Latin for children aged ten to 14.
The campaign is in response to suggestions from schools and university minister Luigi Berlinguer that the liceo classico, the only branch of secondary education in which Latin and Greek are taught, should be reformed or eliminated.
Classicists and other academics met before Christmas, appropriately in Rome's Diocletian Baths, to set up a national coordinating structure to champion their cause. They agreed to hold a national convention in the new year and to try to influence Professor Berlinguer's policy on education reforms.
Many prominent Italian intellectuals have expressed their support. "Students who begin their university careers should have at least a basic knowledge of Latin, particularly if they are going to study literature, archaeology or history," said Elio Lo Cascio, who teaches Roman history at Naples University and is one of the leaders of the movement. "But beyond this, we feel a minimum of familiarity with the ancient languages and classical culture is essential to a complete education."
Latin was compulsory in Italian schools from age ten to 18 until the 1960s. Since then, it has been taught only a little to those who at 14 choose the liceo classico or the liceo scientifico. Greek, once compulsory for all, is now only briefly touched on in the classico.
The classical languages fell out of favour because they were seen as elitist and reactionary. Latin was also associated with the Church, which had opposed Italian statehood. Moreover, Mussolini's regime had made much of the ancient Roman history as a model for the nationalism, militarism and expansionism of the fascist dictatorship.
Eleonora Tagliaferro, a researcher of ancient Greek literature at Rome University, said: "Students who study classical subjects often do not have even a basic knowledge of the languages involved. So we have to organise extracurricular courses in elementary Latin and Greek. We do this voluntarily, in our own time, but it inevitably takes up energy and time which might be better used."
Professor Lo Cascio said: "Is it not sad that a young Italian, born on the very soil that produced Roman civilisation, can today walk by the Pantheon and not be able to read what is written on the architrave? We are not agitating because of some kind of vested academic interest, but because we want young Italians to have a better and more complete education."