The Joys and Perils of Keeping a Latin Diary

Lee Lanzillotta

I first began keeping a Latin diary in August 2022. While traveling to Iceland with my family and ex-boyfriend, I bought one of those overpriced little notebooks that museum giftshops sell. As we waited for takeoff on the last day of the trip I began writing in Latin, partly to keep my ex from reading over my shoulder and partly as a kind of joke (I’d recently reread The Secret History by Donna Tartt, in which a Latin-language diary is a plot point). Either way, I’m glad I began.

In those days I was already in the habit of scribbling short sentences to help commit newly-learned vocabulary to memory, something I still do when reading or preparing for an exam. During a three-week Latin course I’d attended that July – my introduction to the world of spoken Latin – I’d even written a truly atrocious Latin-language Batman fanfiction which I proudly performed at the program’s ending recitation, to the great confusion of the other participants. Still, my active use of Latin at that point was largely limited to translating sentences from North and Hillard. This I did sporadically, struggling to commit to something so, well, horrendously dull. Reading and listening to Latin for a few hours each day was significantly easier for me than completing these exercises, because I genuinely enjoyed the former.

Fresco of a woman reading (and writing?), 1st cent. AD, Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Yet the diary, I quickly discovered, was much easier to keep up than self-assigned homework. That’s not to say it was a work of eloquence or true Latinity. All of my earliest entries were in the present tense, the sentences short  and the vocabulary limited. They contained gratuitous mistakes which I cringe at now, most particularly when it came to oratio obliqua, or indirect speech. Rereading these passages I can see that I’ve improved significantly over the past six months, which is comforting at least.

I cannot say why I continued to write in the diary, but I did.

Never before in my life had I managed to keep a journal that was anything more than hasty bulletpoints for so many consecutive months. Perhaps I found it freeing to write in a language few people can easily read without a dictionary or grammar. Of course, I was ever wary of allowing the project to stray too far from its purpose – to improve reading comprehension. I write Latin not to be read, but to read better myself. Even from the beginning, I made a point of using it to record what I’d read and to practice using newly-learnt words or phrases. After a few months I also began writing down new vocabulary and pleasing phrases in the back, allowing the notebook to serve a dual purpose. Even the mere act of copying out favored lines from whatever I happened to be reading seemed to help them stick in my mind. Of course, using them actively to express my own thoughts works far better.

The ineluctability of principle parts…

Therefore, this is something I continue to do. For example, not long after coming across the phrase in rostris (“in the pulpit”) I wrote: “Postremo in rostris Stephanus nobis de sua tragoedia, quae inscribitur Medea, loquebatur.” (“Afterwards, in the pulpit Stefano [Vittori] spoke to us about his tragedy, which is titled Medea”). Another phrase I’ve been getting a lot of usage out of recently is se conferre (“to take/bring to”), as in the sentence: “Post primam scholam ad popinam me contuli ad prandendum.” (“Following the first class I took myself to a cheap eating establishment to have lunch.”). Iter facere also appears a fair amount, as in “Illo ipso die tramine iter faciebam videndae turris notae gratia ad rusticum oppidum, quod non tam procul domo est.” (“That very day I had made a journey by train to a rural town, which is not so far from my home, for the sake of seeing a famous tower”)

By September, I switched to writing mostly in the past tense and imperfect, because I generally write some hours after the events I’m describing have occured. In December I began using the pluperfect to discuss events predating those of the day being discussed, because this seemed logical (“Heri fessissimus hominum hora undecima somnum me dederam.” – “yesterday I, the most tired human, gave myself over to sleep at 11PM”). Now I also occasionally write in the present tense when discussing my current opinions and thoughts, particularly regarding whatever I happen to be reading (“Cicero scripserat in amicitia nihil esse fictum et nihil esse simulatum. Hae sententiae mihi perplacent” – “Cicero had written that in friendship nothing is false and nothing is simulated. These views please me very much”). I make an effort to work in hopes for the future, as well as upcoming plans, so that I have a reason to use the future and future perfect (“Proxima aestate una scholas artis graece loquendi scribendique audiemus” – “Next summer we will attend classes on reading and speaking Ancient Greek together”). Thus I give myself a reason to practice the active use of various tenses on a daily basis.

Young woman writing, Gesina ter Borch, 1655 (Mauritshuis, The Hague, Holland).

Over Winter break, when I spent the vast majority of my time reading, I sometimes filled multiple pages with ruminations on the various works I’d been working through. Forcing myself to summarize and even reflect upon the contents of, say, a letter of Seneca the Younger’s or a passage of Cicero’s requires me to read carefully. In this way I hold myself accountable, keeping myself from merely skimming – something I’m prone to doing when tired, because at this point I can get the general gist of what more familiar authors are saying without reading too closely. Still, skim-reading is a terrible habit and one I really must break, since it prevents me from fully comprehending the words before me.

I’ve also found that copying the structure of particularly long and difficult sentences helps with my reading comprehension, allowing me to internalize the steady rhythm of the language and preventing me from needing to take it apart like a puzzle. After all, I study Latin because I adore literature, poetry, and philosophy. If I wanted to decode things, I’d study cryptography. Therefore, I made a point of shamelessly copying some of Cicero’s sentences, replacing references to, say, Catiline with details relevant to my own daily life. One night, when lamenting my insomnia, I wrote rather grandly: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Hypne, patientia mea? Quem ad finem effrenata iactabit crudelitas?” (“For how long will you, Hypnos, keep abusing my patience? To what end shall your unrestrained cruelty boast?”).

Manuscript Book, a mural in the “Evolution of the Book” series by John White Alexander, 1896 (East Corridor, Great Hall, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC, USA).

Writing in my diary helps me maintain more basic grammatical knowledge. For example, early last semester my professor pointed out that I appeared to be struggling with the perfect passive periphrastic (a.k.a. the gerundive). She suggested I memorize the phrase “Karthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) – advice I’d heard before but which had failed to help. After all, I’m not much of a military history guy. Unable to find a similarly iconic line which both demonstrated this grammatical construction and stuck easily in my mind, I tried to devise something relevant to my life. It didn’t take me long to decide on “Gaius basiandus est” (“Jack[1] must be kissed”). The destruction of Carthage is, for me, wholly abstract and largely uninteresting. Kissing handsome friends, on the other hand, is not. There’s a reason I memorized Catullus 5 long before reading a single line of Livy!

From that day forward, I committed myself to using various constructions of the gerundive and gerund in the diary on a regular, if not daily, basis. For example, just this week, I wrote: “In mentem venit multos versus Ovidii mihi esse legendos. Ergo carminis legendi causa ad universitatem redii.” (“I remembered that I needed to read many lines of Ovid. Therefore for the purpose of reading the poem I returned to the university.”). Similarly, I try to work in the ablative absolute wherever I can, all too often in the form of the phrase “capite mihi dolente” (“with my head hurting”). I attempt to use the supine often, usually in the context of wanting to go to sleep (“cubitum ire volens exercitia finivi” – “wanting to go to bed I finished my homework.”), although it doesn’t come up as often as these others do.

Certainly, writing in this manner is not without its absurdities and challeges. Even ordinary matters seem hysterical due to my grandiose imitation of famous orators. Also, the lack of ancient vocabulary for modern concepts such as potato chips has led to some frankly bizarre sentences like “esuriens nimis solani tuberosi orbiculorum consumebam” (“Being hungry I consumed too many of the little orbs of potato”). One might argue that this is a sign that I spend too much time writing about matters unrelated to Latin literature. I cannot say I disagree, exactly. Still, practice is practice. I make an effort also to source my words for modern concepts from either teachers or a correspondent who studied in the Vivarium, because they have far more experience in these matters. In a pinch I also use this online Neo-Latin Lexicon.

Some excerpts from the Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Contemporary Latin, 2 vols, Latinitas, Vatican, 1992), reproduced from the excerpts given here. The fullest list for modern English terms in Neo-Latin is the Morgan-Owens Neo-Latin Lexicon, freely available here.

Writing like this on a daily basis has vastly increased my vocabulary, while also helping motivate me to read more and requiring me to think in Latin. Exercises, such as those in North and Hillard which rely on translating predetermined phrases from English, lack this benefit. Also, forcing myself painstakingly to copy the structure of Cicero’s writing also seems to have taught me to write longer sentences more freely and spontaneously, although naturally nothing as complex or elegant as anything the master himself would have written. I’ve noticed as well that, as the months have passed, I’ve been spending far less time compulsively checking a dictionary or grammar as I once did. My confidence and abilities have certainly increased.

Keeping a diary in Latin is definitely something I would suggest to other intermediate and advanced students who enjoy active Latin, particularly if they have even more advanced friends with whom they can study or if their school offers composition classes. There’s no doubt that without friends and tutors who can catch my mistakes and help me correct myself, my Latin would be far worse. Of course, a more diligent student than me might be able to check their own work. Either way, simply writing isn’t enough, even if you make a habit of it, one must also make an effort to write well. And keeping a Latin diary is a particularly useful tool in the quest to increase comphrehension and enjoyment of the Latin language.

Lee Lanzillotta is an undergraduate student at the American University of Rome, majoring in Classics and Archaeology. He enjoys Latin of all eras.


1 The real name is changed.