Ben Palatnik, 16 (left), and Ravi Kodali, 17, both of Brookfield Academy, ready their catapult for the War Machine contest.
The Park Hotel on the Capitol Square looks like the set of an Animal House remake. Throngs of teenagers donning expertly tied togas appear to have taken over the hotel. But a youthful reboot of I, Claudius, the award-winning 1970s BBC series which treated Roman history with significantly more reverence, would be a better guess.
“Latin is not a dead language for us,” says Sam Hoyt, a West High junior and one of 467 students from across the state participating in the Wisconsin Junior Classical League’s 59th annual convention, Jan. 26 to 28. “The language is very much alive, and we take it seriously, even while having fun. And we do have a lot of fun. Especially at state convention.”
During the three-day event, everything not just old, but ancient, is new again as self-professed Latin nerds come together to celebrate the language, literature and culture of early Greece and Rome. This year, 14 schools participated, the most yet, according to Gale Stone, who is affectionately called Mags, short for Magistra (teacher in Latin). She’s a Latin teacher at West High and one of the chairs of this year’s convention.
“Interest in Latin is definitely growing,” says Stone. “I’m currently teaching five classes, and one of them has 37 students. Studying Latin offers so much in terms of analytical and critical thinking skills. When teaching Latin I am teaching students how to be strong readers at the most fundamental level.”
A highlight of the convention is Friday, when the second and third floors of UW-Madison Union South feel like a modern-day version of the Colosseum. The competition is fierce. Students challenge each other in Impromptu Oratory, where they attempt to give speeches that would rival Cicero or Socrates. They also compete in visual art, costume and essay contests. The majority of students that attend joyfully take tests, lots of tests, to demonstrate their mastery of Latin derivatives, Hellenic history, mythology and the like.
But two of the more spectacular convention events are the Certamen and War Machine contests. Certamen, Latin for “competition,” is a fast-paced quiz-bowl-style showdown with classics-themed questions. “Certamen is exciting because it forces you to take risks, think on your feet, and work as a team,” says Margot Armbruster, a junior at private Brookfield Academy and the MVP of last year’s national championship Certamen team. “No matter how much you’ve studied you can still lose a round if you buzz in too late on a question or start arguing with your team. The game never gets boring.”
The War Machine contest uses a completely different skill set. The challenge here is to build a fully functional, authentic “torsion-powered” ballista (a catapult used in ancient warfare for hurling large stones) and then use it to throw a 12-inch dowel with a rubber stopper the farthest distance with the most accuracy. Jack West, a senior at Rufus King International School, a public magnet high school in Milwaukee, hopes for a repeat performance. “We won distance last year and hopefully will win again,” he says. “A win for accuracy would be nice this year, too.”
But for Keely Lake, Latin teacher at Wayland Academy, a boarding school located in Beaver Dam, the study of the Classics doesn’t just provide the opportunity for fun and games; it also allows students to reflect on important contemporary themes. “In class I’ve had students complete projects that compare ancient refugees to refugee populations today,” Lake says. “I hope students leave with the understanding that while these issues may have been around forever, they are still quite worthy of solving.”
Saturday morning’s award ceremony publicly confirmed which convention participants had the right to boldly proclaim three of Latin’s most famous words, “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Although not every student could literally claim to be a conqueror, they could all at least pronounce the phrase correctly.
Correct pronunciation of veni, vidi, vici: In Classical Latin, the “v” would have been pronounced as a “w” and the “c” would have been hard. So the phrase is pronounced “Waynee, weedee, weekee”
Fabric needed to create a toga: 4 to 6 yards for adults
Hours a week Margot Armbruster studies for Certamen during the summer, in advance of the national championship: 34. Five hours a day solo, six days a week. Four hours with her team, one day a week
Latin grammatical cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative and locative
Madison schools teaching Latin: Madison West, Edgewood
Roman politician that Donald Trump most resembles, according to Phillip Freeman, classics professor at Luther College: Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue who refused to play by the rules