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Learn Latin

December 2016


Lesson 24

So far, we’ve only translated individual sentences. Now it’s time to embark on something more substantial: the opening to Caesar’s Gallic Wars

This used to be the staple diet for Latin-learning schoolboys; that’s why its opening line became so famous. The account was written by Julius Caesar himself, recalling his victories, from 58 BC to 50 BC, over the tribes of Gaul  in modern France and Belgium.

The Gallic Wars are written in nice, clear, simple prose. There is nothing here that you haven’t already learned in your lessons so far.

The number-one rule of all Latin translation is subject-object-verb. However many times you repeat it to yourself, it often flees the brain the moment you’re presented with some tricky Latin. Remember: quite often the subject is contained in the verb, as in ‘Puellam amo’, ‘I love the girl’. And so the simple rule of thumb is:

1 Look for a subject in the nominative.

2 If there is no obvious subject, it will probably be wrapped up in the verb.

3 Once you’ve located the subject and verb, look for the object, in the accusative. Again, there might not be an actual object, particularly when the verb is intransitive, i.e. a verb like ‘to be’, which doesn’t take an object.

4 Once you’ve located the essential subject-object-verb skeleton of the sentence, fit the other pieces of the sentence around it. Caesar’s Gallic Wars is written in simple Latin but the sentences are long, so there’s quite a lot of fitting the other pieces around that central skeleton.

That said, Caesar got his word order a bit all over the place in his first famous sentence, which you must now have a go at translating. The first seven words are written in a word order that is strangely English:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.’ 

Easy enough? See if you can translate the rest of Caesar’s opening passage.

‘Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit. Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important, proximique sunt Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, quibuscum continenter bellum gerunt.’

There: you have translated your first big chunk of original, first-century BC Latin. 

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This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now