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Salvete Omnes: The History of the Latin Oration

By Stephanie K. Clifford, Crimson Staff Writer

Though the surroundings of Harvard's first Commencement--a lone building and an apple tree--were sparse, the ceremony was the equivalent of an obstacle course for the Class of 1642.

To receive the "Booke of Arts" that symbolized the degree, graduates had to undergo tests in classical tongues at the ceremony, proving themselves and dazzling the distinguished audience (or so administrators hoped).

A key showcase for such academic prowess was the Latin Oration, an address by a top graduating scholar to the audience.

Three-hundred and forty-nine years later, the Latin Oration is one of the few Commencement traditions that has held, as Harvard administrators are still eager to impress the audience with students' skills.

In 1642, though, Latin, Greek and Hebrew were familiar languages to the audience. Then, graduates used the orations to showcase speaking skills before influential elders who could give them jobs. Forget about interviews--it was prowess in Latin conjugation that counted.

On Commencement Day 2000, Kathleen A. Stetsko '00 will stand before a similar audience of proud parents and influential community members.

Her career isn't on the line; she's already taken a job at Sombasa Media in Boston.

Her academic ability isn't being tested; Stetsko will graduate with a degree magna cum laude in Classics.

And, unlike in 1642, the crowd won't understand what she's talking about. In colonial times, all students and most educated audience members underwent rigorous training in Latin composition and declamation.

But classics courses at the College have been voluntary since 1868. This spring, not even 100 graduates took Latin language courses, and only 25 students will graduate with a degree in classics this year.

Why, then, does this outdated tradition persist?

Well, because Harvard loves outdated traditions.

Richard F. Thomas--chair of the Committee on Commencement Parts, which judges the oration submissions, and a classics professor--guesses as much.

There's "no good practical reason, any more than there is for all of us putting on funny robes and hats, which are also products of medieval Latin culture," he says.

For her part, Stetsko contends that the oration is entertaining even for non-classicists, and the foreign tongue poses a unique challenge. (The 11 drafts that she has completed in preparation for her moment in the limelight suggest just how much of a challenge.)

Stetsko's original submission to the Committee on Commencement Parts had to include both the Latin speech and its English translation, and she says she has always thought of the two as a "unit."

"The overwhelming majority of non-classicists in the audience just makes it more fun," she says.

Those who know Latin will have their fun, too--Stetsko reveals that "there are several places where the Latin itself is a bit of a joke."

"Granted," Stetsko adds, "there are only about 10 people in the crowd that might get the joke, but that's half the point, really."

Though the tone of Stetsko's oration is light, administrators see the Latin Oration as a symbol of Harvard's dignified history.

"Its survival is lost in the mists of time, but I think it is a nod to tradition and a certain sign that Harvard still takes ancient learning seriously," says University Marshal Richard M. Hunt.

Will the Latin Oration ever die a quiet death? Probably not.

Commencement traditions are reviewed regularly, but administrators stick to the "if it ain't broke" school of thought.

"We, and I mean everyone connected with the organization of the Commencement, are always thinking about better ways of changing the rituals. But we don't engage very often in making changes because most of us are happy with the tried and true and pleasing," Hunt says.

Commencement Debauchery

Still, the Commencement program has strayed from its classical origins over the years.

Happily for today's graduates, disputations in Latin on theses philologicae et philosophicae, including propositions by Aristotle and Duns Scotus, is no longer a requirement at Commencement.

As Harvard moved away from its beginnings as a Christian seminary, Greek and Hebrew, which with Latin were necessary to study scripture, lost their importance. The Greek and Hebrew orations disappeared somewhere along the way.

The debauchery of Commencement is something long-gone, too. Sure, today's seniors have the Last Chance Dance and the Moonlight (Booze) Cruise, but those events don't include the prostitution and fortune-tellers that colonial Commencement celebrations promised.

Puritan New England offered few outlets for fun; throughout the region, Harvard Commencement was known as a bacchanalian celebration, the great holiday of the Commonwealth.

Medicine men and acrobats raised tents on the fringes of Harvard's campus; gypsies and beggars crowded the streets.

Cantabrigians made preparations as if a hurricane were approaching: taking a break from their usual program of hellfire and brimstone, preachers warned their congregations to put furniture out of harm's way.

Harvard tried to rein in the festivities, outlawing Commencement dancing in 1760 and cracking down on alcohol (especially the troublesome liquor-soaked "plumb cakes").

Inside the walls of the meetinghouse, where Commencement addresses were given, the scene was a little more sedate.

Dressed in ruffles and silk stockings, with shiny buckles topping stockings, knees, and shoes, the graduates tried to stay awake; many stayed awake all night to preserve the hairdressers' work of wigs and powders.

At one colonial Commencement, the first Latin oration was delivered "in a heavy manner," noted a bored Samuel Eliot Morrison, Class of 1708.

Happily for him, the second Latin oration was interrupted by a fight outside of the meetinghouse; six men and a constable were beating two drunken English soldiers.

By one Commencement in the 1890s, the audience was getting a little tired of the orations, delivered in a measured manner that didn't vary from presenter to presenter.

"The six Bachelors who recited the prize-compositions were perfect in their memory," noted George Birkbeck Hill, an Oxonian who published a book on Harvard life after several months of observation. "Their action--no doubt the result of training--was too monotonous. There was a movement of the hand so unvaried and mechanical that it added nothing to the force of the words."

Stetsko, though she too has been well-trained (members of the Committee on Commencement Parts, including a representative from the American Repertory Theater, have advised the orators) is hoping to move beyond mechanical delivery.

"I'm starting to get a bit nervous about having all those people looking at me, but I tend to deal well with pressure," she says.

As for engaging the audience, Stetsko has a plan: "I intend to be a bit of a ham," she reveals.

If that doesn't work, she says, "I'm just going to make sure to bring my good luck charm with me."

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