Article from Caroline Taggart, Author of The Classics

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The Classics
By Caroline Taggart,
Author of The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus’s Throne to the Fall of Rome

Do you know Latin? How about Greek? Odds are you know more than you think. The influence of these “classical” civilizations is incredibly widespread. The classics have left their mark on our language, architecture, history, and even our popular literature.

We still talk about a “Midas touch,” because of the mythical character who asked the god Dionysus to make everything he touched turn to gold. These days we tend to think of the Midas touch — a seemingly effortless ability to make tons of money — as a good thing. However, the original Midas had to crawl back to Dionysus and beg for mercy when he realized that the “everything” that was turning to gold included his food, drink and, in some versions of the story, his daughter.

In the political world, the Athenians invented democracy over 2,500 years ago, when Cleisthenes introduced the idea of giving citizens — well, male citizens, in those days — the vote, regardless of wealth or class. From this time on, any man over the age of 30 was entitled to register with his local deme — a smaller version of the modern American counties, and derived from the word demos meaning “the people” — and have a say in every major public decision.

If you turn to popular literature, you’ll find some good examples in the Harry Potter series. Most of Harry’s spells are based on Latin words, and the evil Draco Malfoy is named after an extremely harsh Athenian lawmaker.

On top of all that, the ancient Greeks invented the Olympic Games and are to blame for almost every problem you have ever come up against in math class. The Romans came up with a calendar that stayed in use until 250 years ago and gave us the names of all our months; they also pioneered the concept of putting glass in windows and built some of the best and straightest roads in the whole world — they were built by soldiers who went everywhere on foot, so it was in their best interest to make the route from anywhere to anywhere as short as possible.

So it seems we owe those Greeks and Romans a whole lot. Try this short quiz to see how much has been passed on to you: You may know more about the classics than you think.

1) The classics were alive and well in the nineteenth century. In fact, the first name of one U.S. president (in office in the second half of the century) is distinctly classical in origin. Who was he, and who was he named after?

2) Before Andrew Johnson, President Abraham Lincoln had a vice president who also possessed a classical name: Who was he, and who was he named after?

3) Latin expressions often appear in sentences with a financial context. What does a pro rata salary mean?

4) Latin also arrives on the scene in crime fiction. What is a modus operandi? And what, strictly speaking, is an alibi?

5) The three classic orders of architecture range from the Doric (the oldest and simplest) to the Corinthian (the most recent and ornate). What’s the name of the one in between?


1) Ulysses S. Grant (president 1869-77); Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the Greek hero, who gave his name to Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus fought in the Trojan War; he had a reputation for being wily and some say that the Trojan horse was his idea. Once the war was over he took 10 years to get home. What happened to him on the way is the subject of The Odyssey, and the reason we now use that word to mean any long, adventurous journey.

2) Hannibal Hamlin (vice president 1861-65); Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who fought against Rome in the third and second centuries B.C. For a long time, Carthage, a city in North Africa, was Rome’s only real rival in trade and influence in the Mediterranean. The two powers fought many wars over the years; the one involving Hannibal is famous, because he used elephants in battle. The Roman historian Livy tells us that they “terrified the horses not only by their appearance but by their unaccustomed smell and caused widespread panic.” Sadly the elephants weren’t used to the cold weather and, after marching through sunny Spain, many of them died crossing the Alps on the way to Italy.

3) Pro rata literally means “in proportion.” So if you work a three-day week you are paid three-fifths of the complete salary, for example, $50,000 pro rata.

4) A modus operandi is “a way of working,” such as when a criminal is known to always work alone or carry a knife rather than a gun. An alibi is evidence that you were somewhere else at the time of the crime. It is often used to mean an excuse, but that isn’t really correct.

5) The Ionic. Doric columns are sturdy and plain, Ionic ones are slimmer and have four spiral scrolls at the top, and Corinthian columns are decorated with the leaves of the plant known as bear’s breeches, Acanthus mollis. Many antebellum plantation houses have Ionic columns. The Capitol in Washington, D.C. features the Corinthian style. The original Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is the best place to see Doric columns, but the replica in Nashville, Tennessee, is the next best thing.

© 2010 Caroline Taggart, author of The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus’s Throne to the Fall of Rome

Author Bio
Caroline Taggart,
author of The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus’s Throne to the Fall of Rome, has been an editor of non-fiction books for nearly 30 years and has covered nearly every subject from natural history and business to gardening and astronomy. She has written several books and was the editor of Writer’s Market UK 2009.

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Check back tomorrow for my review of The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus’s Throne to the Fall of Rome!

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