How to Read Latin Sentences No Matter How Long

One thing people often struggle with when reading Latin is the length of the sentences. For most English-speakers in particular, the sentences are just so long, it can feel like a puzzle rather than one continuous thought.

So what’s the solution?

Well, I’ve spoken in another post about the way Latin can be understood as a walk or tour through an art gallery, where the details are just as important as the journey itself. That’s a huge help, but today I’d like to talk about another way of looking at that, which I might call the ‘by-the-way-ness’ of Latin. This technique of understanding will help a lot in learning to read Latin no matter how long the sentences are.

Put simply, Latin is a language of little asides, like saying ‘I went to the house - which, by the way, belong to Marcus’. That kind of thing.

Let me give you an example from Seneca:

Tamen, si tibi videtur, accipe a me auxilia quibus munire te possis. (13th Letter)

Tamen, 'anyway’, Seneca says - and then adds the aside si tibi videtur, ‘if it seems to you’ (i.e. ‘if it seems agreeable to you’:

accipe a me auxilia - take my advice.

'Oh, and by the way, quibus munire te possis - ‘with which you can fortify yourself’.

This is a pretty simple example, but it shows the point fairly well. The idea is that Latin word order and sentence structure is built on this notion of asides. At every point the Romans make a point or a statement and then they qualify it with a little ‘by the way’, something to help you identify and understand that point, something to explain it and help you to visualise it and fix it in your mind.

If you start reading Latin and really trying to think and picture these phrases as little asides, little ‘by the way’s, then you will find not only will you start to understand a lot more, but - what is especially useful to read Latin - you will find it will help you remember the thought of the whole sentence, even in really long sentences!

Don’t believe me? Let me give you an example of a long Latin sentence from that most horrid of long-sentence writers, Cicero:

Tum Velleius fidenter sane, ut solent isti, nihil tam verens, quam ne dubitare aliqua de re videretur, tamquam modo ex deorum concilio et ex Epicuri intermundiis descendisset, "Audite" inquit "non futtilis commenticiasque sententias, non opificem aedificatoremque mundi Platonis de Timaeo deum, nec anum fatidicam Stoicorum Pronoeam, quam Latine licet Providentiam dicere, neque vero mundum ipsum animo et sensibus praeditum, rutundum, ardentem, volubilem deum, portenta et miracula non disserentium philosophorum, sed somniantium. (De Natura Deorum, I, 18)

I know what you’re thinking: how could anyone possibly read and understand this sentence in one go? This is super long, and for most people, pretty unintelligible without puzzling through it bit by bit. But here is where our by the ways come in handy.

Let me take it bit by bit and see how much you remember by the end:

Tum Velleius fidenter - Then, Velleius, confidently

little aside: sane - of course

By the way: ut solent isti - as those (i.e. ‘those kinds of people’) tend to do

oh, and by the way, the way they tend to do it is: nihil tam verens - fearing nothing at all

Just to clarify, when I say ‘not fearing anything’ I mean: quam ne dubitare aliqua de re videretur - as it doesn’t seem to them to be any doubt about anything

Just to drive the point home: tamquam modo ex deorum concilio et Epicuri intermundiis descendisset - kind of like he’d just come from a council of the gods or Epicurs’s intermundia

"Audite" inquit - he said ‘listen’

Just to clarify, when I say listen: "non futtilis commenticiasque sententias - not to futile and false opinions

Oh, and also: ‘non opificem aedificatoremque mundi Platonis de Timaeo deum - to to the craftsman and builder-god of Plato’s Timaeus

and again: nec anum fatidicam Stoicorum Pronoeam - nor to that old woman woothsayer of the Stoics, Prooea

Speaking of her: quam Latine licet Providentiam dicere - whom in Latin might be called Providentia

To return to who you shouldn’t listen to: neque vero mundum ipsum animo et sensibus praeditum - definitely not to the world itself, (as though) gifted with a mind and feelings

By the way: rutundum, ardentem, volubilem deum - (the world is) a round, burning, and twisting god

And now a big ‘by the way’ to the whole sentence: portenta et miracula (all these things I’ve described are) portents and miracles

non disserentium philosophorum, sed somniantium - not of the debates of philosophers but of dreamers.

How’d you go? Hopefully thinking about it in terms of building up little asides helped you to see that what at first appeared an incredibly daunting and impossible-to-read sentence, turns out to be a fairly simple idea, that is easily understood in English: He’s describing how Velleius comes out confidently as all his kind (Epicureans, by the way), do, i.e. confidently as if they’re on a mission from god, and tells people not to listen to pretty much anyone because they’re all just dreamers, not real thinkers.

Not so hard, was it? I’d suggest running through both the examples of this post a few times to try to really get the idea in your head. Then, when you’ve got a feel for it, try to practise it in your normal reading. Don’t stress about it, of course, and definitely don’t turn it into an opportunity for analysis, because language is for communication, not analysis. Instead, just use it as a means of understanding, an aid to that communication.

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