Don’t Borrow Money from Catullus…Or Rihanna

Editorial note: while you procrastinate for another few weeks on your syllabus, this guest post from Theodora Kopestonsky can serve up some essential inspiration.

When I listen to the radio in the car, I am struck by the way modern songs reflect the same concerns that we see in antiquity. Different poems come to my mind and sometimes, if my brain is really tuned in and I’ve been reading a lot of Latin poetry, I’ll start to translate the lyrics. U2’s One (1991) does this to me all the time… “Ūnus amor, Ūnus sanguis, Ūna vīta…”

This got me thinking about how to incorporate pop music into the classroom and led to a pedagogy article about Latin love poetry. Beyond romantic relationships, Latin (and Greek) poetry talk about many other relevant issues like violence, war, loss, and more.  Catullus, one of my favorite poets, also addresses a more mundane issue: lending money to a friend. In Catullus 103, the poet complains about Silus’ delay in repaying a debt.

aut sōdēs mihi redde decem sestertia, Sīlō,
deinde estō quamvīs saevus et indomitus:
aut, sī tē nummī dēlectant, dēsine quaesō
lēnō esse atque īdem saevus et indomitus.

Either give me back the ten grand please, Silus,
And then you can be a prick or whatever:
Or, if the money makes you happy, I beg you, stop
Being a pimp and be a prick again.

That’s a lot of money to trust to another person which explains why Catullus got so riled up and starts calling Silus names. Whether or not he actually lent the money or is just imagining a situation (which is very possible) is not important here. The point is the irritation and lack of funds at his current moment. Anyone who has given money to a trusted friend and then been burned can relate to the frustrating rage. I found that Rihanna echoes this concern more explicitly and violently in her 2015 song, Bitch Better Have My Money.[1]

Y’all should know me well enough.
Bitch, better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff.
Pay me what you owe me.
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like brrap, brrap, brrap (0:11-0:19, 0:43-0:50).

In posturing lyrics like Catullus, Rihanna calls out her friend, threatening violence, if the money is not returned. The deliberate spoken words emphasize the frustration of the singer. If the sentiment is that same, why not try to echo it in Latin. So, of course, I did.

Nunc bene mē cognōvistī
Scelesta, mea tibi redōnanda est pecūnia
Mē nē iubē dēmonstrāre, sōdēs
Da mihi quod mihi debēs.
Nōlī assimilāre tē oblīvitam esse, indīcō
ictūs, -tūs, -tūs, -tūs.

The first line echoes Catullus’ language in poem 72.5 where he says he knows Lesbia (nunc te cognovi). Scelesta returns from Catullus 8.15 to act as the invective, though canicula or canis could also be used. This line and the title of the song also provides the necessary pejorative name-calling also present in Catullus’ poem. I used a passive periphrastic (redōnanda est) to show obligation for the return of the money. Stationing pecunia at the end of the sentence also then mirrors Rihanna’s original placement of money.  Imperatives in the next two lines express Rihanna’s demands. The short words create a nice staccato effect similar to the manner in which Rihanna sings. Constructing the negative command with nolle allows for a recognizable construction which eases into an indirect statement.  The use of an onomatopoeia for gunshots in English creates an ominous mood. In order to reflect the similar repetition and emotion, I translated shot as an ictus which implies an arrow or spear hit as seen in verse (e.g. Ov. Met. 12.74).

Jumbled pile of Roman coins
Roman Coin Hoard, Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
The repetition of the shot and the sound of a strike is expressed with –tus which acts as an echo to the full word, but it also imitates the staccato of multiple projectiles hitting the mark or the recoil of a weapon such as a ballista after firing. Rihanna herself utilized syllable echoing at the end of a lyric in repeating “-ella” in her hit, Umbrella (2008). Moreover, the term ictus is used to indicate a rhythmic stress in poetry (or music) so it plays with the concepts already discussed (Becker). The repetition of me and mihi highlights the singer’s agency or role as it is highlighted in the original. Grammatically, this translation is deliberately straightforward (I am not a poet) but I think it is accessible for students of Latin still learning. Obviously, I’ve lost the meter here but, the placement of words and word choices can be relevant as I have shown.

While I did this as an example, just thinking about these transformations and translations can be really rewarding in or out of the classroom. It is a mental (or even class) exercise which challenges you to think beyond the Classical corpus. Why not give it a try or even ask your students to try? You can ask for song-poem parallels, simple translations done as a group, or more analytical reflections on composition. Stephen Kershner has provided excellent detailed guidelines on how to formally incorporate this type of Latin composition to a class. (He also furnishes a translation of Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit, Bad Blood.) Really, most songs can be converted into Latin, if you are willing to be creative. The process makes students understand better translation and word choices.

So next time you are in the car listening to the radio or reading poetry, maybe you’ll see a new connection. In creating and explaining adaptions, we all (students, teachers, enthusiasts) can learn a little bit more about Latin, our own culture, and the fact that no one likes late payment!

[1] Rihanna’s song is responding to a topic in rap music about pimps, but she is flipping the paradigm

Theodora Kopestonsky is a senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she is a supervisor for the Beginning and Intermediate Latin program. Her research focuses primarily on Greek religion and practice, Corinthian studies, and nymphs, but she regularly teaches Latin, Classical archaeology, myth, and ancient civilization courses. 

All In On Literary Life

Leon Battista Alberti,
On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature (Part VI):

“Yet, although the authority and reasoning of many stood against me, yet in some way it seemed that the case of literature stood otherwise. Yet I entertained an opinion of this sort, that, while those most erudite of men might judge for their own reasons that there were many disadvantages attending upon literature, and while they might think that the study of literature was to be subordinated to that of all other studies, I nevertheless thought that literature should take priority over all else. From that point, I so dedicated myself to the understanding of literature, that nothing could be declared splendid in literature which I did not seek in both my mind and my will – nothing which I did not pursue with my labors, with my care, with my nightly vigils, and nothing which I did not cultivate with the greatest diligence and reverence.”

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Mihi vero quamvis multorum auctoritas rationesque obstarent, tamen nescio quo pacto de litteris aliter videbatur: erat enim eiusmodi apud me opinio ut, dum illi viri eruditissimi suis rationibus multa litteris incommoda adiudicarent, ego esse litteras censerem longe iucundissimas, dumque ceteris omnibus disciplinis illi cultum litterarum postponendum putarent, ego litteras rebus omnibus preponendas ducerem. Denique ita me cognitioni litterarum dedicaram omnino, ut nihil in litteris preclarum esse diceretur quod illud animo et voluntate non appeterem, quod laboribus, cura atque vigiliis non prosequerer, quodve summa diligentia et observantia quantum possem non excolerem.

Regretting a Life in Literature

Leon Battista Alberti,
On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature (Part V):

“I had often heard a great number of the most serious and most erudite men recalling those things about the study of literature which could not unjustly drive anyone away from literature and the desire of learning. Among their other many and various convictions which they adduced, they confessed openly that they were certainly not those sorts of people (though they had achieved much in the realm of literature) who, if their time were returned to them, would not think that it more profitable to undertake any other mode of life than to return to literature.

From this opinion, it was not only far from my opinion that I judged that they especially who left no time untouched by literature spoke otherwise than they truly felt, but it also happened that I judged them blameworthy for this. It seemed beyond their duty if these learned men were deterring the youth from literature, or if intelligent men were pursuing those things which they knew were hardly becoming. Thus it happened that, when I would question a large number of the educated with some diligence, it was clear that in almost all cases their very mind was dissociated from the study of literature, to which they had been in the greatest degree devoted.”

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Sepe audiveram plerosque gravissimos eruditissimosque viros de studiis litterarum ea referentes que non iniuria possent a litteris discendique cupiditate ununquenque avertere. Ceteras enim inter persuasiones, quas quidem multas ac varias adducebant, palam profitebantur se minime illos esse, quanquam litteris profecissent, qui, si tempora restituerentur, non quidvis aliud vite genus subire quam ad litteras redire commodius ducerent.

Qua ego sententia esse eos presertim qui nullum tempus vacuum litteris pretermitterent a mea tantum opinione aberat, ut non modo aliter quam sentirent dicere illos arbitrarer, sed eosdem etiam propemodum inculpandos existimarem. Nam preter officium videbatur si docti deterrerent iuvenes a litteris, vel si prudentes viri ea sequerentur que parum conducere intelligerent. Ea re fiebat, diligentius plurimos litteratos cum percunctarer, tum in omnibus fere hunc ipsum animum comperire alienum videlicet a studiis litterarum, quibus essent maximopere dediti.

The Tantalus of the Library

Isaac Casaubon, Letter to Claude Saumaise (DXLIII)

“I received your letters, and the ancient epigrams which you added. How can I show my gratitude for these? To be sure, you can guess how grateful I am from my almost shameless petition for them. So, I’m ashamed of myself for giving you so much vexation. I do not understand the method and aim of your studies. And so, believe me, I am concerned about you and your health – I think of you as a brother. I exceed you in age, but you have outstripped me with the miraculous gifts which instilled in me long ago a marvelous expectation for you. Just spare your intellect, have some concern for your health, enjoy the joy of your age and preserve yourself in this, your youth, so that you can when you are older complete those studies which cannot be completed except by you.

I seem to see you like Tantalus in the middle of the water, for you cannot enjoy all of the riches of the Palatine Library. I can sense your avidity from your letters, and I also know with what violent force you are driven on to your studies. This makes me fear for your little body. Otherwise, I will write at another time about the poems which you sent – now I am extremely busy. If you see the [???] of Bongars, you will know from it what my cares are. For I have set aside my Polybius for the meantime. Farewell, my dearest friend.”

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Is There a Charm in Sounds of Greek?

John Trumbull, The Progress of Dulness:

“Come ye, who finer arts despise,

And scoff at verse as heathen lies;

In all the pride of dulness rage

At Pope, or Milton’s deathless page;

Or stung by truth’s deep-searching line.

Rave ev’n at rhymes as low as mine;

Say ye, who boast the name of wise,

Wherein substantial learning lies.

Is it, superb in classic lore,

To speak what Homer spoke before,

To write the language Tully wrote,

The style, the cadence and the note?

Is there a charm in sounds of Greek,

No language else can learn to speak;

That cures distemper’d brains at once,

Like Pliny’s rhymes for broken bones?

Is there a spirit found in Latin,

That must evap’rate in translating ?

And say are sense and genius bound

To any vehicles of sound?

Can knowledge never reach the brains.

Unless convey’d in ancient strains?

While Homer sets before your eyes

Achilles’ rage, Ulysses’ lies,

Th’ amours of Jove in masquerade,

And Mars entrapp’d by Phoebus’ aid;

While Virgil sings, in verses grave,

His lovers meeting in a cave,

His ships turn’d nymphs, in pagan fables,

And how the Trojans eat their tables;

While half this learning but displays

The follies of the former days;

And for our linguists, fairly try them,

A tutor’d parrot might defy them.

Go to the vulgar ’tis decreed,

There you must preach and write or plead:

Broach every curious Latin phrase

From Tully down to Lily’s days:

All this your hearers have no share in,

Bate but their laughing and their staring.

Interpreters must pass between,

To let them know a word you mean.

Yet could you reach that lofty tongue

Which Plato wrote and Homer sung;

Or ape the Latin verse and scanning,

Like Vida, Cowley or Buchanan;

Or bear ten phrase-books in your head;

Yet know, these languages are dead,

And nothing, e’er, by death, was seen

Improved in beauty, strength or mien,

Whether the sexton use his spade,

Or sorcerer wake the parted shade.

Think how would Tully stare or smile

At these wan spectres of his style,

Or Horace in his jovial way

Ask what these babblers mean to say.”

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Americans and Unpleasant Truth

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams:

“With the Lodges, education always began afresh. Forty years had left little of the Palermo that Garibaldi had shown to the boy of 1860, but Sicily in all ages seems to have taught only catastrophe and violence, running riot on that theme ever since Ulysses began its study on the eye of Cyclops. For a lesson in anarchy, without a shade of sequence, Sicily stands alone and defies evolution. Syracuse teaches more than Rome. Yet even Rome was not mute, and the church of Ara Cœli seemed more and more to draw all the threads of thought to a centre, for every new journey led back to its steps–Karnak, Ephesus, Delphi, Mycenæ, Constantinople, Syracuse–all lying on the road to the Capitol. What they had to bring by way of intellectual riches could not yet be discerned, but they carried camel-loads of moral; and New York sent most of all, for, in forty years, America had made so vast a stride to empire that the world of 1860 stood already on a distant horizon somewhere on the same plane with the republic of Brutus and Cato, while schoolboys read of Abraham Lincoln as they did of Julius Caesar. Vast swarms of Americans knew the Civil War only by school history, as they knew the story of Cromwell or Cicero, and were as familiar with political assassination as though they had lived under Nero. The climax of empire could be seen approaching, year after year, as though Sulla were a President or McKinley a Consul.

Nothing annoyed Americans more than to be told this simple and obvious–in no way unpleasant–truth; therefore one sat silent as ever on the Capitol; but, by way of completing the lesson, the Lodges added a pilgrimage to Assisi and an interview with St. Francis, whose solution of historical riddles seemed the most satisfactory–or sufficient–ever offered; worth fully forty years’ more study, and better worth it than Gibbon himself, or even St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, or St. Jerome. The most bewildering effect of all these fresh cross-lights on the old Assistant Professor of 1874 was due to the astonishing contrast between what he had taught then and what he found himself confusedly trying to learn five-and-twenty years afterwards–between the twelfth century of his thirtieth and that of his sixtieth years. At Harvard College, weary of spirit in the wastes of Anglo-Saxon law, he had occasionally given way to outbursts of derision at shedding his life-blood for the sublime truths of Sac and Soc:–


The Latin was as twelfth-century as the law, and he meant as satire the claim that he had been first to explain the legal meaning of Sac and Soc, although any German professor would have scorned it as a shameless and presumptuous bid for immortality; but the whole point of view had vanished in 1900. Not he, but Sir Henry Maine and Rudolph Sohm, were the parents or creators of Sac and Soc. Convinced that the clue of religion led to nothing, and that politics led to chaos, one had turned to the law, as one’s scholars turned to the Law School, because one could see no other path to a profession.”

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The Learned Traveler Abroad

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad:

“At two in the morning we swept through the Straits of Messina, and so bright was the moonlight that Italy on the one hand and Sicily on the other seemed almost as distinctly visible as though we looked at them from the middle of a street we were traversing. The city of Messina, milk-white, and starred and spangled all over with gaslights, was a fairy spectacle. A great party of us were on deck smoking and making a noise, and waiting to see famous Scylla and Charybdis. And presently the Oracle stepped out with his eternal spy-glass and squared himself on the deck like another Colossus of Rhodes. It was a surprise to see him abroad at such an hour. Nobody supposed he cared anything about an old fable like that of Scylla and Charybdis. One of the boys said:

‘Hello, doctor, what are you doing up here at this time of night?—What do you want to see this place for?’

‘What do I want to see this place for? Young man, little do you know me, or you wouldn’t ask such a question. I wish to see all the places that’s mentioned in the Bible.’

‘Stuff—this place isn’t mentioned in the Bible.’

‘It ain’t mentioned in the Bible!—this place ain’t—well now, what place is this, since you know so much about it?’

‘Why it’s Scylla and Charybdis.’

‘Scylla and Cha—confound it, I thought it was Sodom and Gomorrah!’

And he closed up his glass and went below. The above is the ship story. Its plausibility is marred a little by the fact that the Oracle was not a biblical student, and did not spend much of his time instructing himself about Scriptural localities.—They say the Oracle complains, in this hot weather, lately, that the only beverage in the ship that is passable, is the butter. He did not mean butter, of course, but inasmuch as that article remains in a melted state now since we are out of ice, it is fair to give him the credit of getting one long word in the right place, anyhow, for once in his life. He said, in Rome, that the Pope was a noble-looking old man, but he never did think much of his Iliad.”