This Latin Day t-shirt has always been my personal favorite for some reason. It was the logo used by my colleague and friend Hugh Lee during Latin Day in 2000 when the theme was Greek and Roman athletics. The Latin is from Juvenal, and reads “A sound mind in a sound body”. Good luck with that after going through the ordeal that was Latin Day!
Such a mundane title! And it sound as though you are advertising! What?!?!? Are you going to start to sell t-shirts with the Dancing Faun logo on them? And if not, what is there to say about t-shirts? Who the hell will be enticed to read this? You’ve given your reader absolutely no compelling reason to scroll down. Maybe it’s time to put down the key-board and start again when you have something of interest to impart!
Oh but these are very different t-shirts, for these are Latin Day T-Shirts.
Okay, you say, I’ll bite: what on Earth is Latin Day? Is it in honor of our Hispanic neighbors? No – not Latino, Latin. As in bo bis bit. As in e pluribus unum, of the genus sic semper tyrannis. We are talking Julius Caesar, not Cesar Chavez. Latin Day was the brainchild of my dear friend and former colleague in the Classics department at Maryland, Greg Staley, back in the 1980s. It was a great idea and a great concept that worked for many years.
But what was it? Well, each year a faculty member in our department was in charge of writing and coordinating a 90-minute show that revolved around some theme of classical antiquity. These included Roman politics, Roman entertainment, women in Classical Antiquity, ancient athletics, and ancient mythology. The show included contests with audience participation, t-shirts handed out to the students, and sing-alongs, all tied to a single unifying dramatic theme; it also entailed writing a lesson plan for teachers for the day. My colleagues will excuse me if I focus on my own experience, but naturally I’m more familiar with that and can speak to it. Let me preface that the event took place on a single day, usually in November, and was, no pun intended, quite a production, that included the incredible and awesome help of a professional actor who I think all of us came to consider a wonderful and close friend, Reid Sasser.
The concept of Latin Day was great: bring roughly a thousand high school students on campus, put on a show, and try to get them stoked up about ancient culture as something beyond stodgy old texts gathering dust in the basement of a library. I think the department did a damn good job at it. I will never forget the first time I did Latin Day. It was 1998 and my theme of choice was mythology. We got surprisingly edgy when it came to writing the script, which I vetted among my colleagues. Now mythology is hard to teach to high school students because, like it or not, ancient mythology is all about begat, which is a polite Biblical term for fornication. Moreover it was in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal – and who could resist?!?!?!?! So I centered the show around the myth of Aeneas and the foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus; I also threw in a good dose of the myths about early Rome, and, it being around Halloween when I put on the show, we included a costume contest, of which I wish to the gods I still had photos, and I’m sure someone back in my old department still does!
The “Mourning Athena” (a sculpted relief from Classical Athens) served as the logo for my Latin Day; the Latin is from Vergil and reads, “Away, away ye who are uninitiated!” (scilicet into the mysteries of producing Latin Day for 1000 hormonal teens!) If she looks forlorn it may be due to the condition of the shirt – this photo was taken of it AFTER it was washed.
On the whole the show went well, except for the fact that the grad students who did the acting were not all that good qua actors (sorry, but after 16 years, longum aevi humani spatium, the truth must be told!) The most hair-raising part of the whole thing was coordinating a costume contest in which students dressed up as a Roman hero, heroine, or deity, and gave a little spiel about who they were. Why harry? There were some awesome costumes – and the winner was a young girl who put together a marvelous costume of the goddess Ceres (the goddess of grain), right down to her gorgeous blue dress and her necklace of Cheerios! But during the show something unexpected happened – a girl from the German school got up on the stage in a one-piece swim suit with a surf board. She was supposed to be Cloelia, a famous Roman maiden captured in the early Republic by the invading Etruscans, led by Lars Porsena (the Swedish Etruscan!), who subsequently led a heroic escape of Roman youth from the Etruscan camp by swimming the Tiber. Now doing this in front of a group of 1000 where there are about 500 guys, all with raging adolescent hormones . . . well, indiscrete to say the least. Hoots, hollers, and a few “will you marry me’s” were hurled from the audience like they were the primi pila from Caesar’s legions. Oooof. A tense moment to say the least, but memorable as well! Oh yes, well, to answer your burning question, Ceres won the contest – though there were unforgettable entries by a Romulus, a Remus, a Cerberus, and other assorted deities.
This shirt was the design of Judy Hallett, our department chair during most of my years at Maryland, and an outstanding mentor for many a budding Classicist, including myself! The Latin is a quotation from Suetonius’ Life of Caesar attributed to Caesar and translates, “The die is cast” (in reference to his crossing the Rubicon and starting a civil war with his rival Pompey the Great). No, that’s not a light reflection on the shirt – it’s clean, just stained permanently with the dirt from our farm.
I was “artistic director and producer” of the show twice while at Maryland, once in 1998 and again in 2004, and both times I ended the program with a sing-along. The second time I composed a song about the Magna Mater, or Great Mother, a deity “imported” into Rome in the third century BC, sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a verse of which was as follows:
Now Zeus has a thing for Nereids and is ever on the make,
Dian’ Bacchus Ceres Leto, children at enormous rate,
But with the Magna Mater he will never have a date,
Her hair she’ll wash at eight . . .
The kids loved it, and the most enjoyable entertaining thing about it was seeing how far we could push the edge of the “naughtiness” envelope and even sometimes go all “meta” with parody and self-awareness of the silliness of the whole thing. I think the greatest moment in my years of participating in the event was when Greg had an advertising contest for Latin. Students did parodies of advertisements that were current at the time on behalf of Latin, and at this particular time former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole was doing an advert for Viagra. Well, one of the schools submitted an entry with a male student made to look like Bob Dole (it was a very good job) with women hanging all over him and he promoted a cure, not for ED (erectile dysfunction) as Bob Dole was doing, but for LD (Latin dysfunction) – it was way over the top, but an absolutely hilarious and brilliant piece of satire.
As an aside, I’ve often wondered just how Classics were taught before the new sexual openness of the 1960s and 70s. How could anyone teach mythology honestly and with integrity, in particular without the benefit of greater scope for talking about human sexuality. It is still a difficult and controversial matter when it comes to its introduction in middle and high school, but there it is.
On the whole, Latin Day was a real raucous, fly by the seat of your pants operation (“Wait, I’m a Latin professor, not a screen-play writer or director or producer” I used to think as the blind panic that was November would approach), in no small part because we absolutely could not go a single minute beyond the allotted 90 because of the bus schedule. Go over and people would start to walk out. I recall one year an absolutely masterful improvisation by Greg who was on head sets back stage with the actor out on stage making it up as they went as it became apparent they were going to go over time the last 10 or 15 minutes of the show – the presence of mind of both Greg and Reid in that instance was indeed impressive, and kudos to all of my colleagues, because they all had moments like that (though that one was particularly memorable).
My colleague and friend Lillian Doherty, now department chair, had this as her t-shirt design for her theme on Women in Classical Antiquity. It is a bit too light and frayed for me to wear now, but still does yeoman’s work by keeping the sun at bay when I wrap it around my head. The photo does not show the sweat stains (ugh!)
It was in the nature of a big party every year, since I think everyone was pretty useless at the end of the day because it was easily the biggest day for our department each year – a huge group effort went into it as one can imagine. The next couple of hours were spent cleaning up the campus theater we used, breaking down the crude sets that we re-used annually, and then heading back to the department for a little after show celebratory lunch. We had the generous support of other individuals on campus who would sometimes get involved, with what I always felt was the invaluable support of Jim Thorpe, a studio artist who designed our t-shirt and program logo which was also used on the programs we handed out. We also received very generous financial assistance from outside supporters.
Alas, Latin Day’s demise came when the campus decided to renovate Tawes Theater, and we effectively lost the only venue on campus that was affordable and viable for the event. However there had been some decline in the years leading up to Latin Day’s end. School regulations were becoming increasingly restrictive, as was curriculum; the expense and budgeting of the program was also becoming increasingly fraught. It is hard to say how much the kids, middle and high school aged, enjoyed or got from the program. When we cleaned out the theater we would find most of the programs discarded, and the occasional shredded t-shirt on the floor. But events like this are the same as teaching in a sense: it is an act of faith and hope, casting your bread upon the water as it were.
Another favorite shirt of mine designed by Eva Stehle – I liked her design so much that I think I have more of these than any other. This one is also from the very first Latin Day in which I participated.
Over the years I accrued quite a collection of the t-shirts, which we all wore with our suit and dress jackets on Latin Day. I’d end up with one to four shirts in my drawer somehow after each program. In the years leading up to my final departure from Maryland I thought that I was well stocked for a life-time supply of t-shirts that I could wear with sweats to lounge around the house, or to wear when I went for a walk or bike ride in the area. Today, however, a once thriving community of t-shirts that I thought would see me through the remainder of my days – in light blue, burgundy red, white, cream, black – is in rapid decline, something I thought that I would never see.
The t-shirt from my last Latin Day. The design was based on a Greek vase painting and shows Hercules leading Cerberus out of the Underworld.
They have been assailed with the stains of grease, manure, paint, dirt, grass, and hay as I daily wear them in my farm work. They have been nibbled and hoofed by goats, befouled by birds, and torn on fence staples. The underarms are fast wearing and before their final demise I suspect all of them will turn into tanks. The collars on almost all are frayed. The lovely logos are fading rapidly on most. Except for the black ones. The black ones I can only wear inside or in winter; one step into the sun and they become instantly hot and extremely uncomfortable. The lighter white one, the one that sports Women in Classical Antiquity on the front, is the worst, perhaps because I have long since stopped using it as a t-shirt and now use it as a keffeya on my head in the summer heat. I prefer that to a hat, which makes my head terribly hot. I would be surprised if anyone has worn them more than I have – in fact I will make my former colleagues a wager that no one will wear theirs out faster. What the folks down at Sheridan Market make out of them when I come in, in my filthy shorts and sandals these days looking for all the world like a bum or one of the local meth heads after working all day in the summer heat, I can only guess.
It is strange for me to think now how a simple sartorial article can come to represent a life transition and the passage of time, but these days, as they lose something with each wash, they have become dying mementos. Time becomes a little less friendly to them each washing, as they turn to tumbled, faded monuments to a past life, commemoratives of my mid-thirties and early forties. They are in a condition that I never thought to see them in during those “Latin Day” years, a reminder of paths taken, of paths changed, of people once daily in my life, of all of those students on the cusp of adulthood who have now most likely finished college, gotten married, and have children of their own, some no doubt soon about to study Latin in middle school themselves. “Time, Fate, and Suffering instructs me to be content” begins Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, as he ends his wanderings in Athens to take his leave of this world. The simple articles of cotton and dye scattered today in hampers, on floors, fence posts, and resting in dresser drawers, could easily say the same, as could those whom they clothe.