By William Fitzgerald

Latin is a beautiful language but very different from English. One really important difference is the case system. The meaning of words in a sentence does not depend on their position but on their case, so words can be positioned anywhere without losing their meaning. This can mean that reading Latin, especially Latin poetry, is a bit like doing a jigsaw, piecing the words together into a coherent English meaning. That can be very frustrating but in this marvellous book Fitzgerald (Professor of Latin at Kings College, London) shows how this freedom to position words wherever they are most effective actually enriches the poem allowing a far greater interplay between the words in a stanza and a more subtle and richer development of meaning than we can achieve in English.

At the same time he brings out the differences in personality between the different poets: the well known Catullus, Horace, Virgil and Ovid are there but also the lesser read but equally good Lucretius, Propertius and Lucan. Their poetry is affected by the changing politics of their time; Horace and Virgil experienced the Civil War as young men and their poetry expresses relief that the war is over. Ovid offended Augustus and ended his life in exile while Lucan, after a glorious flowering, was forced by Nero to commit suicide at twenty five. There are surprises. Catullus’ poetry can be stunningly beautiful, deeply sensitive about love and feelings; or it can be mocking, sarcastic and on some occasions positively obscene.

As the title tells us the book is intended for those with little or no Latin. All poems are given in the original but with excellent translations. It is actually such a good book that even those with reasonably good Latin will enjoy it. It is clearly written, always entertaining, deeply informative and makes one want to get back to reading Latin again. How I wish Professor Fitzgerald would write on How to Read Latin Prose to open up some of the wonderful prose writers of the Latin world, too.