Love it or loathe it, you’ve no doubt suffered for your Latin. This suffering is parodied superbly in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the eponymous hero is caught trying to write “Romans, go home” on the walls of the governor’s palace. His encounter with the centurion, like so many of Python’s sketches, satirises the traditional English education system, which its writers and performers were privileged (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have experienced.
Those of us that have been through the process of robustly traditional Latin teaching can recognise not only the threats and the pressure imposed by the “teacher” in this scene, but also the inescapable fact that traditional Latin teaching involved the repetitive translation of numerous and apparently nonsensical sentences, with little to no acknowledgement of their actual meaning or indeed their cultural milieu; this is brilliantly parodied by the centurion’s apparent obliviousness to Brian’s purpose, his blind focus on the grammatical corrections and his final insistence that Brian re-write his insult a thousand times.
So, to the Latin. Brian writes Romanes eunt domus, by which he means “Romans, go home!” The centurion points out to him that it does not mean this, but rather something which equates to “people called ‘Romanes’, they go, the house.” So let’s examine the centurion’s corrections.
The Latin for Roman, Romanus, is a 2nd declension noun. When the centurion demands to know what it “goes like” Brian comes up with annus, but you may have used the paradigm dominus or servus. This is Brian’s first correction, when he remembers that the nominative plural of Romanus is Romani, not Romanes (which would make it a 3rd declension noun). This is why the centurion translates Romanes as “people called ‘Romanes’” – it is a nonsense word in Latin, so is assumed to be an unfamiliar name of an unfamiliar group – something the Romans were quite used to, in fact, and they usually placed foreign words into the 3rd declension, a group in which nouns can end in anything at all in the nominative singular.
The centurion next challenges Brian on the verb eunt, from the horribly irregular ire. Brian is able to conjugate the verb correctly in the present tense and able to identify that eunt is therefore 3rd person plural present indicative. As the centurion points out, however, “Romans, go home!” is an order, so the imperative is required. Brian struggles but comes up with the imperative (i) to which the centurion replies with my favourite line, “HOW MANY ROMANS?” Brian is forced to realise that the plural imperative is required: ite.
At last, we come to the noun domus, where the centurion actually makes a mistake. Brian is challenged to name the case that is used for “motion towards”, as in his statement the Romans are being instructed to go towards their home. He at first comes up with the dative, a common mistake made by students who understandably confuse the indirect object (I give water to the girl) with motion towards (I go to the shops). As so often, it is the English that is confusing, for we use the same word (“to”) for expressing these two very different concepts. Threatened by the centurion’s sword at this point, Brian comes up with ad domum, which is more or less correct. However, domus is a noun which tends not to follow the preposition ad and is usually placed solely in the accusative case to express motion towards. Some nouns just work like that. The mistake that the centurion then makes is to insist that Brian identify this case as the locative. While domus does indeed have a locative, this is actually domi and would mean “at home” – it would not be used to express the notion of heading towards home. So the Latin that Brian ends up with (Romani, ite domum) is correct, but the final piece of grammatical reasoning is wrong – domum is accusative, not locative.
I bet you wish you hadn’t asked now.