The Roman poet Ovid put it best: "Rident stolidi verba Latina" -- Fools laugh at the Latin language.

Despite centuries of decline, Latin is far from a dead language. It is even making a comeback of sorts among a select group of cognoscenti. Take the recent scene in the mountains near Rome: 30 Latin aficionados cavorted together, pouring wine into a stream and chanting odes by Horace in his original tongue.

Leading them was the Rev. Reginald Foster, a papal Latinist and a Carmelite monk from Milwaukee, who barked commands in English and Latin.

Foster, 63, is a professor at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, where he takes the unusual approach of teaching Latin as a living language.

He also runs an intense eight-week summer session for advanced students, which included the recent romp in the Roman hills at Horace's villa.

Latin has not been spoken widely for over a thousand years. Only its grammar and literature are usually studied today. But the sounds of Cicero and Virgil are resurging among an ever wider audience, largely because of schools like Foster's.

"I don't like certain methods, memorizing and jamming it, treating the language like a dead frog, or something like that," Foster said. Instead, his students learn sight reading, listening comprehension and Latin conversation.

Other schools using a similar approach include the University of Louvain in Belgium, a high school in Campania, Italy, and the University of Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky in the United States.

Dirk Sacre, a professor and neo-Latin expert at the University of Louvain, said spoken Latin is growing in popularity, citing an increase in the number of high school teachers signing up for courses.

"I don't think there's a general tendency to say that we're talking in Latin these days in schools or universities," Sacre said. "But, it's an acceleration, certainly. Seminars are happening more and more in Europe and the U.S., and there are more and more people trying to teach Latin as a living language."

But he added that "hostilities and repugnances" still exist among traditionalists.

Among Latin fans, however, expressions slip their way into everyday conversations, said Nicholas Sylvester, an undergraduate at Harvard who studied with Foster this summer.

"Hello" becomes "salve." "I don't know" is "nescio." "Ne fle" is "don't worry," or literally, "don't cry."

Still, it's not for everyone, though Foster's classes do attract a diverse crowd.

This summer's group included Gretchen Triulzi, 62, a mother of six who decided to return to a language she loved studying as a child, and Sophie Hanina, an 18-year-old medical student from London who couldn't imagine being a doctor without studying Roman epic writers first.

"It's the most eccentric bunch I've ever met," Sylvester said.

"People are exaggerations of themselves. Think about the person who leaves their kids home, their family, their job, their lives. Think about people who come to Rome on their honeymoons -- to study Latin. That is the type of person in this class!"

For newlyweds Sarah and Patrick Miller of North Carolina, Foster's class was a natural culmination of their courtship. They met while studying Latin in college.

"We have romantic dinners where we talk in Latin," said Patrick Miller, 31.

A possible pickup line? Try "Accipe vinum, puella pulchella," or "Have some wine, pretty lady."

Spoken Latin peaked in the 2nd century, when the Roman empire spread from modern-day England to Iran. After the empire fell, local languages displaced it everywhere but at schools and universities.

For centuries spoken Latin found an enclave in the Roman Catholic Church, where it was used in the celebration of Mass. But even church Latin went into decline after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which allowed priests to celebrate Mass in the vernacular.

Sylvester admitted that chatting in the language of ancient poets could be considered "very pretentious." But he said that speaking Latin helps him understand the texts he wants to read.

"There's no need to justify to the hoi polloi," Sylvester said. "The world wouldn't be interesting without academics."

The Rev. Reginald Foster, of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, teaches Latin as a spoken language to a growing number of enthusiasts.