Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
By CATHERINE PRICE
Published: October 9, 2005
DON'T get Andrea Goldstein started on "Troy," the 2004 film based on Homer's "Iliad" that starred Brad Pitt as Achilles. A freshman at the University of Chicago, Ms. Goldstein, 18, was so incensed after seeing the movie that she wrote an anti-"Troy" polemic in her high school newspaper.
"On an absolute value scale of 10 to -10, this film gets a -7," she wrote, granting it a generous 3 points for set design and for its casting Orlando Bloom, whom she said did a good job "playing himself," as self-involved Paris. "It's like a train wreck: you stare in fascinated revulsion."
She's not alone in such objections. "It made too many changes to the story," said Callie Morris, 20, a junior at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. " 'The Iliad' existed for thousands of years and didn't need anyone to tamper with it."
Ms. Goldstein and Ms. Morris belong to a small but steadily growing subculture of young Americans who turn to Ovid for romantic advice and who care more about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus than that of Angelina Jolie and Mr. Pitt. Some love the history, others the mythology and the literature, and others the languages. But all of them are sticklers for historical accuracy, and they all say that no Hollywood director has anything over Homer when it comes to epics.
Communicating with one another through classes, conventions or the Internet, they can drop words like chiasmus and synecdoche in casual conversation; have favorite Greek gods and goddesses; and call themselves nerds - with pride.
These nerds are at the gates. The number of students taking Latin is down from the turn of the 20th century; in 1905 an astonishing 56 percent of American high school students studied it. But the number has increased since it hit bottom in 1976, said Richard LaFleur, a former president of the American Classical League. A 2002 survey by the Modern Language Association showed a 14.1 percent increase (to 29,835 from 26,145) in the number of college students taking Latin since 1998 (ancient Greek was up 27.2 percent - to 20,858 from 16,402 - in that same period), and 7,892 students took the Advanced Placement exam for Latin this year, up from 4,142 in 1995, according to the College Board.
The National Latin Exam has experienced perhaps the most growth. When it was first offered in 1977 approximately 6,000 students took it. This year 134,873 students did.
For some students figuring out ancient languages itself is fun. Although many English words can trace their roots back to Latin (most estimates hover around 65 percent), the language's grammatical structure is very different from that of English. Nouns are grouped into four main families, called declensions, and each can take at least five endings, depending on their part of speech. (Subjects have different endings than direct objects, for example.) Latin has no set word order, which means that simply finding a sentence's verb can be a challenging game of hide and seek.
"I like math and logic and puzzles and history and literature and always thought that Latin was the perfect combination," said Tara Burton, 14, a high school freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. "You figure out the grammar like it's a code, and then have the reward of getting to read this great literature."
For Ms. Burton and other aficionados of the classics, books are only the beginning. Every year the Junior Classical League organizes a national convention that draws students for five days of what Zachary Fenno, 18, the League's president, describes as a Latin summer camp.
"I'd attend every year for the rest of my life if I could," said Mr. Fenno, of Fargo, N.D., who plans to major in classics and genetics. This summer the convention, in Columbia, Mo., assembled 1,424 students and organizers to compete in sports, costume shows, oratory contests and a classics-theme trivia game called Certamen, a version of Jeopardy with questions about grammar, mythology, history and culture.
"It's just kind of mind blowing," said Al Dungan, 68, who was league president from 1953 to 1954. "Some of these kids practice all year long."
As with any subculture, the Internet has become a welcome meeting place for teenagers. A fan group dedicated to Cassandra, the Trojan prophet cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed, has 185 members. Another site, dedicated to fans of Greek mythology, has postings that range from a discussion of female mythological characters to a question about the correct spelling of the Greek word for "honor," which one group member's posting indicated that she planned to have tattooed on her ankle (or, as she put it, her "Achilles heel").
In some cases fans assume online identities based on the characters they admire. Ms. Morris uses Cassandra as her screen identity. She chose the name before knowing the character, but now refers to it online as "my soul's name."
In 10th grade Ms. Goldstein used her account on a popular blogging service called LiveJournal to start an online role-playing game about the Trojan War. Participants acted out the war through discussion boards and instant message conversations.
And unlike the filmmakers of "Troy," Ms. Goldstein and her fellow moderators cared about accuracy. "We have to stay true to 'The Iliad' and traditional mythology," they wrote in one of the 16 community rules listed for the site. "Cassandra can have a fling with Aeneas, but she can't go to Italy with him, because it didn't happen." But why would these stories, written more than 2,000 years ago, appeal to teenagers today?
"Are you kidding?" asked Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr., 57, president of the American Classical League. "Those are great stories!"
Mr. Kitchell, who helped start what he calls "the great counteroffensive" in the 1970's against the decline of Latin in the United States, seems to be onto something. Kelsey Turbeville, 18, a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts said she had to hold back tears when she translated the part in 'The Iliad' where Hector dies. "I was on the subway," she said, "so I managed not to cry."
At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, students present a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, with offerings like balloons and glow sticks. Ms. Burton of Exeter said, "I never feel that sense of being casually close to other writers the way I do to Catullus or Cicero. I imagine the modern scenario of what Catullus would write if he had a blog, or what Cicero would say if he went on Fox News."
FOR Zach Herz, 19, a sophomore at the University of Chicago, ancient literature has an appeal that goes beyond the words themselves.
"What the classics give you is an understanding of our culture as the last expression of forces that have been in play for thousands of years," he said. "It makes you a little bit more modest, makes you understand that you're part of something big, of this great cultural thing that will go on after you're dead and that started before you ever were born."
And as for his thoughts on "Troy," he said it's a modern reflection of a different time. "The Greeks were comfortable with gods ruling their lives in a way that we're not. Instead of being a movie about Zeus and Poseidon and all that, it's a story about Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt is apparently our new god."