As they say in the classics

The poster and trailer for the new film about Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup have been revealed.

Invictus? Why does it have a Latin name? Seems a bit odd for a film set, well, here in South Africa. And the blissful rainbow nation depicted in the film may seem like ancient history, but I’m pretty sure no one was actually speaking an ancient language.

As it happens, the title comes from the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley (the one with the famous line about being the “master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul”), and it means “unconquered”. But who’s going to know that?

There is something satisfyingly pretentious and overblown about using Latin. Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur (anything said in Latin sounds profound). Even ordering something at the bar is given a certain gravitas. Da mihi sis cerevisiam dilutam? I’ll have a light beer, thank you. And that’s the thing. Most people are only ever exposed to Latin through the mottoes emblazoned on their school uniforms, if at all. So why do I care?

I studied classics at university, and I have always been fascinated with the way people relate to the classical world. It is, I suppose, partly because I am desperate to try to prove that the discipline has relevance, so every reference to classical civilisation is leapt upon and devoured.

Not that it usually goes down well. There is, perhaps, nothing more painful to a classics student than watching a story that has endured through the ages being torn apart by Hollywood, sweetened and served on a garish, imitation platter. And I pity anyone who tries to watch any such adaptation with me. Troy? The shields didn’t look like that! Patroclos was Achilles’s friend (“special” friend, even), not his cousin! 300? The oracle was a crazy old indecipherable bat, not some floaty hotty in diaphanous layers. I think I might even have pointed out that the Spartans never actually fought against monsters.

So why study it at all? Classical departments at universities all over the country are shrinking, if they have not disappeared altogether. It isn’t enough for a discipline to be interesting anymore, and if that discipline can be accused of Eurocentrism, then its fate may well be sealed. But is it irrelevant? I’m not so sure.

One of the things that becomes obvious when reading the stories of the ancients is that human behaviour has not changed. When you read the historians, like Herodotus and Thucydides, you can see that people have always been wary of those who live beyond their borders. You can see how those in power built monuments to their vanity, and tried to place themselves among the gods and heroes of the age. But that didn’t fool the citizens, who, because they were familiar with myth and tragedy, knew that those gods and those heroes were flawed and deeply fallible. You can see, when reading the satire of Horace and Juvenal, that a population that took itself too seriously only set itself up for ridicule.

And, perhaps the most “useful” part of all, you can see how the ancients understood symbols: symbols of power, symbols of partisan loyalties, and symbols that signified victories.

That’s something we do pretty well today. It may have been repeated ad nauseum, and I have no doubt that it will be milked for all it’s worth in Invictus, but the symbol of Mandela in a number 6 jersey is (if you will allow me a damp, sentimental moment) still one of the most positive symbols we have to draw on as a nation. And it is pretty potent. In any language.

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Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule. Read more from Lisa Van Wyk

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