"O tempora! O mores!"

Certainly Cicero would have repeated his famous exclamation over the times and morals of ancient Rome if he could have seen Marshall High School's 20th centruy orators, dressed in white "devolution" jumpsuits and translating television commercial slogans from Latin to English.

But on second look Cicero, the revered Roman orator and philosopher whose head and hands were cut off for some questionable blasphemies, might actually have approved of the creative colloquies exchanged last weekend at Woodson High School's 1981 Latin Bowl.

"Give the English translation for this TV slogan," came the command from the contest moderator. "Agemur!"

The Lake Braddock High School team frenetically rang their buzzer.

"We are driven!" A frizzy-haired brunette was bursting with the correct answer. Her school's cheering section screamed on cue.

And purists, take note: The competition among 125 teams from Virginia, Maryland and the District wasn't confined solely to classical pop. The true grit of ancient studies also was in contention, as budding scholars grappled with friendly grammatical constructions such as the double dative, the ablative absolute and the jussive subjunctive.

By the gods, the laurel-crowned citizens of Rome couldn't have been anything but pleased to see the turnout of about 500 kids weaned on video but keen on Latin. And they would have been equally impressed by Maureen O'Donnell, the super-teacher who organized the event. Her student admirers say membership in the Woodson Latin club has jumped more than 200 percent because of her professorial reputation.

The final round of the competition saw teams from J.E.B. Stuart, Lake Braddock and Handley high schools battling over questions most obscure. As one Woodson observer said, these players were "the cream of the crop."

How many of us remember the riddle of the Sphinx, (loosely translated: "What walks on four legs in its first years, on two legs in its middle years and on three legs in its final years?") much less the answer?

The classicists from Stuart not only shot out the answer to the riddle (man), but they also got points for knowing who in ancient times answered it (Oedipus) and who wrote the three Greek tragedies in which Oedipus was the main character (Sophocles).

But the creme de la creme turned out to be the Latinists from Handley High in Winchester, Va. They were a varied crew, consisting of Chris Apostles, whose father speaks modern Greek at home and who comes to his knowledge of Latin through five years of French study; Leslie Flowers, who traveled to Pompeii for a first-hand look at Roman archeology and culture; John Rice, a veteran of national-level Latin Bowls in years past, and Kim Haines, whose demure looks belied her ruthless mastery of the finest points of Latin grammar.

Members of all the teams, from the "inexperienced" level on up, answered questions many of the erstwhile Latin students among us would be ashamed to admit we've forgotten. Some of the trivia queries were obscure, some commonplace. Here's one that tipped the scales for Handley, one that any self-respecting former Latin student should be able to answer:

"What are the first three words of Virgil's "Aeneid"?