Marcellus Rests from the Arian Heresy to Complain about Greek Proverbs

Marcellus of Ancyra was a Bishop of the 4th century CE best known for his opposition to the Arian heresy (the belief that Jesus was a son of god, separate from god, and subordinate to him). But he also wrote a treatise on Greek proverbs of which we have a fragment. As far as I know, there isn’t an easily available translation of this fragment (125), so here it is.

Palaiophron did most of the work translating this and deserves the credit for the good parts. One thing to note, here Marcellus regularly speaks of τῶν ἔξωθεν which the LSJ glosses as “foreigners” (or, as my father, a Mainer, used to say “people from away”). But in ecclesiastical Greek, the phrase is equivalent to οἱ ἕξω which means “outsiders” i.e. non-Christians—in this work, the term is likely used to distinguish non-Christian sayings from the Biblical proverbs.


Marcellus, fr. 125 On Greek Proverbs

“It is not out of place, I think, to remind you at present of a few proverbs of non-Christians.

‘EITHER HE DIED OR HE TAUGHT LETTERS’  This proverb, aimed at the appearance of writing, one could take as being spoken against those who teach reading and writing, since another one among them says “You were teaching letters, I was wandering around.” Those who wrote commentaries claimed that this is not so. Rather, they say that the Sicilians—after conquering the Athenians in battle—preserved only those who supported the foundations of education and led them off as teachers for their children while slaying all of the others. A few survivors who returned, when asked by the Athenians about the men who did not fare as well, responded that it was said, ‘EITHER HE DIED OR TAUGHT LETTERS.’

What about this “The She-goat [takes] the knife”?  Someone might think (if I may offer the things said about this saying first) that the proverb is functions entirely on account of the fact that a goat being sacrificed looks at the knife. But the ancients did not say so. For the proverb was not so used, even if it held this force (for it was the natural consequence to think this from empirical observation), but rather they said that this proverb was applied for those who invited evils upon themselves. For they say that Medea, when she killed her children in Corinth, left the knife there; and that when Corinthians were leading a goat to sacrifice, contrary to the oracle given to them that they would lack knives, the goat stirred about and uncovered Medea’s dagger with its foot, and it was sacrificed using that dagger.

What does ‘ENOUGH OF TREES?’ signify?’ someone may ask. It is not easy to understand [this] proverb. The ancients, as they said, used to eat acorns because they lacked food derived from agriculture. Since, as they thought, this produce [i.e. agricultural produce] was found later, they turned their minds to it and rejoicing in the change said ‘Enough of trees!’ And this is what they said the proverb meant.

Again, since it is discussed in many different books as another proverb repeated by wise men, we should now discuss what those who have tried to interpret it have written. […] But, so that we may refute Asterios, even though he, with his experience in these subjects, knows well that the meaning of a proverb must be discovered through non-Christians sources, nevertheless currently pretends to ignorance, so that he may seem to plausibly obscure his own meaning through the use of proverbial speech.

The proverb is ‘THE SKILL OF GLAUCUS.’ Wise non-Christians, when they mention this proverb, explain it differently. One says that a certain Glaucus, had become very knowledgeable about a certain art, which was the most wonderful of many, and which perished simultaneously with him on the sea, since no one learned of it. Another, bearing witness to the highest ability in music attained by Glaucus, say that he fabricated four discs and that tapping them in harmony made a perfect symphony of sound—this is what he says the proverb is about. Still another person thinks that laying among the offerings to Alyattes was a krater and a stand for the krater, a production of Glaucus of Chios. Yet another says that Glaucus dedicated a bronze tripod to Delphi, and after he finished this work and he struck it soundly, the feet and the part laid above them—along the crown at the top of the cauldron and the rods which were fastened along the middle—all sounded out with the noise of a lyre. And yet another interpreter holds that the proverb is spoken about a certain Glaucus who earned the reputation of having done too much.

You see how this illustrates the difficulty of proverbs and its cause: not even those who wish to explain the same proverb can settle upon the same interpretation. Thus, the meaning of a proverb is a difficult thing to ascertain, and it seems so even to non-Christians. On which account, even someone of their wise men, collecting together the proverbs spoken differently by many people, wrote six books about them, two of them being about proverbs in poetry and the other four being about proverbs in prose. But non-Christians called them proverbs for no other reason, as it seems to me, than because they met with the Proverbs of the wisest Solomon and learned from them that nothing they communicate can be learned clearly or with ease. And they, wishing to emulate that prophetic writing, wrote in the same style as that. Then, because they were unable to conceive of any other name more proper than that, they called them proverbs.”


οὐδὲν γὰρ ἄτοπον, οἶμαι, ἐν τῷ παρόντι ὀλίγον τῶν ἔξωθεν ὑπομνῆσαί σε παροιμιῶν.
ΑΛΛ’ Η ΤΕΘΝΗΚΕΝ Η ΔΙΔΑΣΚΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ. ταύτην τὴν παροιμίαν πρὸς μὲν τὸ φαινόμενον τοῦ γράμματος ὑπολάβοι ἄν τις κατὰ τῶν γράμματαδιδασκόντων εἰρῆσθαι· ἐπεὶ καὶ ἕτερός τις τῶν παρ’ αὐτοῖς «ἐδίδασκες γράμματα, ἐγὼ δ’ ἐφοίτων» ἔφη. τὸ δ’ οὐχ οὕτως ἔχειν οἱ τὰ ὑπομνήματα γράψαντες ἔφασαν· ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὴ ᾿Αθηναίους Σικελιῶται, φασίν, πολέμῳ νικήσαντες μόνους
ἔσῳζον τοὺς παιδείαν σκηπτομένους, διδασκάλους αὐτοὺς τοῖς παισὶν ἄγοντες, τοὺς δὲ ἄλλους πάντας ἐφόνευον, ἐξ αὐτῶν δή τινας φυγόντας καὶ ἐπανελθόντας ἐρωτωμένους τε ὑπὸ ᾿Αθηναίων περί τινων διαφερόντων αὐτοῖς ἔφασαν εἰρηκέναι ΑΛΛ’ Η ΤΕΘΝΗΚΕΝ Η ΔΙΔΑΣΚΕΙ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ.

τί δὲ καὶ τὸ ΑΙΞ ΤΗΝ ΜΑΧΑΙΡΑΝ; νομίσειεν ἄν τις [εἰρῆσθαι], ἵνα θῶπρότερον τὰ περὶ αὐτῆς λεγόμενα, πάντως που διὰ <τὸ> τὴν θυομένην αἶγα εἰς τὴν μάχαιραν ἀφορᾶν εἰρῆσθαι τὴν παροιμίαν. ἀλλ’ οὔτι γε τοῦτ’ ἔφασαν οἱπαλαιοί· οὐδὲ γὰρ παροιμία ἦν ἂν ἡ λεχθεῖσα, εἴγε τοῦθ’ οὕτως εἶχεν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἀκόλουθον ἦν ἐκ τῶν φαινομένων ἐννοεῖν), ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τῶν ἑαυτοῖς κακὰ προξενούντων εἰρῆσθαι τοῦτό φασιν. φασὶν γὰρ Μήδειαν ἐν Κορίνθῳ τὰ τέκνα ἀποκτείνασαν κατακρύψαι τὴν μάχαιραν αὐτόθι· τοὺς δὲ Κορινθίους κατὰ χρησμὸν αὐτοῖς δοθέντα αἶγα μέλαιναν ἐναγίζοντας ἀπορεῖν μαχαίρας, τὴν δὲ αἶγα σκάλλουσαν τῷ ποδὶ τὴν Μηδείας ἀνευρεῖν μάχαιραν καὶ αὐτῇ τυθῆναι.

τί δὲ τὸ ΑΛΙΣ ΔΡΥΟΣ σημαίνει; φησί τις· οὐ γὰρ δυνατὸν ἐκ τοῦ προχείρου γιγνώσκειν τὴν παροιμίαν. οἱ παλαιοί, ὡς ἔφασαν, πρὸ τῆς τοῦ σίτου γεωργίας βαλανηφαγοῦντες, ἐπειδὴ ὡς ᾤοντο ὁ καρπὸς οὗτος ὕστερον εὑρέθη, ἐκείνῳ προσέχοντες τὸν νοῦν καὶ τῇ μεταβολῇ προσχαίροντες ΑΛΙΣ ΔΡΥΟΣ ἔλεγον· καὶ τοῦτο τὴν παροιμίαν ἔφασαν εἶναι.

αὖθίς τε ἑτέρας παροιμίας ὑπὸ πλείστων τῶν παρ’ αὐτοῖς σοφῶν ἐν πλείστοις καὶ διαφόροις βιβλίοις εἰρημένης, τίνα περὶ αὐτῆς γεγράφασιν οἱ τὰς παροιμίας ἑρμηνεῦσαι προελόμενοι ἀναγκαῖον ἐν τῷ παρόντι μνημονεῦσαι, * * * ἀλλ’ ἵν’ ἐλέγξωμεν ᾿Αστέριον, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν αὐτὸν μαθημάτων εἰδότα μὲν ἀκριβῶς τὸ τῆς παροιμίας ἐξαίρετον, ἐν δὲ τῷ παρόντι ἄγνοιαν προσποιηθέντα, ἵνα τὸ ἑαυτοῦ βούλημα διὰ τῆς τοῦ παροιμιώδους ῥητοῦ χρήσεως πιθανῶς κατασκευάζειν δόξῃ. ἔστιν δὲ ΓΛΑΥΚΟΥ ΤΕΧΝΗ. ταύτης οἱ ἔξωθεν σοφοὶ τῆς παροιμίας μνημονεύσαντες διαφόρως αὐτὴν ἐξηγήσαντο. ὁ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῶν τις ἔφη, Γλαῦκόν τινα ἐπιστήμονα τέχνης τινὸς γεγονότα † πολλῶν οὖσαν θαυμασιωτάτην, ἀπολέσθαι ἅμα ἐκείνῳ κατὰ θάλατταν, μηδενός πω διακηκοότος αὐτῆς. ἕτερος δέ, τὴν ἐπ’ ἄκρον μουσικῆς ἐμπειρίαν μαρτυρήσας τῷ Γλαύκῳ, τοὺς κατασκευασθέντας ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ δίσκους χαλκοῦς φησιν τέσσαρας, πρὸς τὸ ἐμμελῆ τινα τῆς κρούσεως τὴν συμφωνίαν τῶν φθόγγων ἀποτελεῖν· ἔνθεν τε εἰρῆσθαι τὴν παροιμίαν. ἄλλος δέ τις ᾿Αλυαττικῶν ἀναθημάτων φησὶν ἀνακεῖσθαι κρατῆρα καὶ ὑποκρατήριον θαυμάσιον, Γλαύκου Χίου ποίημα. ἕτερος δέ, Γλαῦκον αὐτὸν ἀναθεῖναι εἰς Δελφοὺς τρίποδα χαλκοῦν, οὕτω δημιουργήσαντα τοῖς † παχέως τε κρουομένου, τούς τε πόδας, ἐφ’ ὧν βέβηκεν, καὶ τὸ ἄνω περικείμενον καὶ τὴν στεφάνην τὴν ἐπὶ τοῦ λέβητος καὶ τὰς ῥάβδους διὰ μέσου τεταγμένας φθέγγεσθαι λύρας φωνῇ. καὶ αὖθις ἕτερος, ἀπὸ Γλαύκου τινὸς δόξαντός τι πλέον πεποιηκέναι εἰρῆσθαι τὴν παροιμίαν.

ὁρᾷς, ὅπως τὸ δυσχερὲς τῆς παροιμίας καὶ διὰ τούτου δείκνυται, διὰ τοῦ μηδὲ ἐπὶ τῆς αὐτῆς ἑρμηνείας στῆναι τοὺς τὴν παροιμίαν ταύτην ἐξηγήσασθαι βουληθέντας. οὕτως δυσεύρετόν τι πρᾶγμα τὸ τῆς παροιμίας καὶ παρὰ τοῖς ἔξωθεν εἶναι δοκεῖ. διὸ καί τις τῶν παρ’ αὐτοῖς σοφῶν συναγαγὼν τὰς ὑπὸ
πολλῶν καὶ διαφόρως λεχθείσας παροιμίας, εἰς αὐτὰς γέγραφεν ἓξ βιβλία, δύο μὲν τῶν <ἐμ>μέτρων, τῶν δὲ ἀμέτρων τέσσαρα. ταύτας δὲ παροιμίας ὠνόμασαν οἱ ἔξωθεν δι’ οὐδὲν ἕτερον, ἐμοὶ δοκεῖν, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὴ ταῖς τοῦ σοφωτάτου Σολομῶνος Παροιμίαις ἐντυχόντες καὶ γνόντες δι’ αὐτῶν ὅτι οὐδέν ἐστιν ἐκ τοῦ προχείρου σαφῶς τῶν ἐν αὐταῖς εἰρημένων μαθεῖν, καὶ αὐτοὶ ζηλῶσαι τὸ προφητικὸν βουληθέντες γράμμα τὸν αὐτὸν ἐκείνῳ γεγράφασι τρόπον. εἶτα ὡς μηδὲν ἕτερον ὄνομα
κυριώτερον ἐκείνου ἐπινοῆσαι δυνηθέντες καὶ ταύτας παροιμίας ὠνόμασαν.

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