How to Pronounce Ancient Greek

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“Erasmus’ name is linked with the Erasmian pronunciation of Greek, with the result that modern Greeks to a man – except the few trained philologists among them – curse him loud and long. Having learnt the languages from books, rather than from the lips of Greeks, he very naturally insisted on the pronunciation that had been current at the time when the script was formed. Nor was he even the first person to do so (as Ingram Bywater has demonstrated with rare learning); that was the Spanish humanist Antonius Nebrissenis, and no less a man than Aldus Manutius shared his view. Now that scholars have come to realize that every language in every age sounds differently as spoken by different people, and that in the course of time the accepted pronunciation of the written characters also changes, the dispute has lost its relevance. How we are to pronounce, or try to pronounce, ancient Greek is a purely practical question that admits of no universally valid answer, and the idea of condemning the living language of modern Greece as ugly, because, like ours, it has lost its sonority, is one that no scholar at least should ever entertain.”

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I Move My Die from the Sacred Line

Erasmus, Adagia 1.25: 

“Diogenianus thinks that this has roughly the same force as the previous saying: Κινῶ τὸν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς, that is, I move my die from the sacred line. This is said of those who are about to make a last desperate attempt at something. Julius Pollux, explaining the saying in his ninth book, says that the adage comes from a certain game of dice, which was set up such that each of the contestants had five stones placed on as many lines. From this, even Sophocles said πεσσὰ πεντέγραμμα, that is, dice of five lines. Between those lines, each one a fifth, there was one in the middle which they called sacred. One who moved the die from the middle was said to have moved it from the sacred line. But that didn’t hapen, except when the matter demanded it, as when a player resorted to desperate remedies. Plato takes up this adage in the fifth book of his Laws: Καθάπερ πεττῶν ἀφ᾿ ἱεροῦ, that is, just as from the sacred die. 

Plutarch, in the book which is called Whether the Republic Should Be Run By An Old Man, Τελευταίαν ὥσπερ τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς ἐπάγουσιν ἡμῖν τὸ γῆρας, that is, They allege that old age is to us the end, as if it were the sacred line, which is understood to be a most grave charge. Plutarch also says in his commentary On the Comparison of Terrestrial and Marine Animals: Φέρε κινήσαντες τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς βραχέα περὶ θειότητος αὐτῶν καὶ μαντικῆς εἴπωμεν, that is, Come on, having removed the die from the sacred line, we will say a bit about their divinity and divination. Again, in Against Colotes the Epicurean, Εὐθὺς οὖν τὸν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς κεκίνηκεν ὁ Κολώτης, that is, Colotes moved his die from the sacred line straightaway, which is to say that Colotes took the most extreme step at the outset, so that he could attack the judgment of Apollo concerning Socrates. He also writes, in the life of Martius Coriolanus about the Roman state disturbed by Coriolanus’ threats, Ἄρα τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς ἀφῆκεν, that is, He tossed away the die taken from the sacred line. For, in desperate matters, one takes refuge in supplication by sacrifices, priestesses, initiators, augurs, etc. Theocritus even alluded to this in his Bucolics:

Καὶ τὸν ἀπὸ γραμμᾶς κινεῖ λίθον

that is,

‘And he moves the stone from the little line’

about which I have written elsewhere.”

Related image

Movebo talum a sacra linea.xxv

Idem pollere putat Diogenianus : Κινῶ τὸν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς, id est Sacrae lineae talum moveo. De iis, qui extrema parant experiri. Id Julius Pollux libro nono exponens ait a ludo quopiam tesserarum natum esse adagium. Lusum autem fuisse hujusmodi, ut utrique ludentium essent calculi quinque totidem impositi lineis  ; unde et Sophocles dixerit πεσσὰ πεντέγραμμα, id est tesserae quinque linearum. Inter eas lineas, utrimque quinas, unam fuisse mediam, quam sacram vocabant ; unde qui talum movisset, is sacrae lineae talum movere dicebatur. Id vero non fiebat, nisi cum res posceret, ut ludens ad extrema confugeret auxilia. Usurpat hoc adagium Plato libro De legibus quinto : Καθάπερ πεττῶν ἀφ᾿ ἱεροῦ, id est Tanquam a sacra tessera. Plutarchus in libro, qui inscribitur An seni sit gerenda respublica : Τελευταίαν ὥσπερ τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς ἐπάγουσιν ἡμῖν τὸ γῆρας, id est Postremam nobis tanquam a sacra linea senectam allegant, hoc est veluti causam gravissimam. Idem commentario De comparatione terrestrium ac marinorum : Φέρε κινήσαντες τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς βραχέα περὶ θειότητος αὐτῶν καὶ μαντικῆς εἴπωμεν, id est Age moto talo a sacra linea paucis de divinitate eorum et divinatione dicamus. Rursum idem Adversus Colotam Epicureum : Εὐθὺς οὖν τὸν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς κεκίνηκεν ὁ Κολώτης, id est Protinus igitur talum a sacra movit Colotes, hoc est statim id quod est gravissimum aggressus est, ut impugnaret Apollinis de Socrate judicium. Idem in vita Martii Coriolani de civitate Romana ob Coriolani minas perturbata : Ἄρα τὴν ἀφ᾿ ἱερᾶς ἀφῆκεν, id est Sublatam a sacra linea tesseram misit. Desperatis enim rebus ad deorum religionem confugiebat supplicatum missis sacrificis, aedituis, initiatoribus, auguribus etc. Huc allusit Theocritus in Bucoliastis :

Καὶ τὸν ἀπὸ γραμμᾶς κινεῖ λίθον,

id est

Atque a lineola lapidem movet,

de quo nobis et alias facta mentio.

The Boots of Maximinus (Plus Some Disparaging Remarks on Tall People)

Erasmus, Adagia 1.1.21:

The boots of Maximinus is said commonly of those who are both coarse and rather tall. Julius Capitolinus relates this adage in his life of the emperor Maximinus, saying, ‘For since Maximinus was eight feet tall (nearly eight and a half), some people placed his shoes – that is, his military boots – in a grove which lies between Aquileia and Aritia (some read Arzia here, but others prefer Anagnia and Aritia), because it is agreed that it was in its track and measure greater than the foot of any human. From this fact the adage the boots of Maximinus is commonly drawn when talking about tall and bumbling people.’ So says Julius.

The proverb will therefore be more correctly employed if it be spoken with hatred or contempt, because that Maximinus (from whom the proverb is agreed to stem) was the most hateful both to the senate and the people of Rome, certainly because he was a native of Thrace, and of a lowly extraction, and finally because he was a man of barbarous and wild manners. Indeed, even now, it is common for people of outstanding height to hear poorly, as though they are careless and lazy.”

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Caliga Maximini (XXI)

Caliga Maximini vulgo dictitatum est in homines insulsos et immodicae proceritatis. Id adagii refert Julius Capitolinus in vita Maximini imperatoris Nam cum esset, inquiens, Maximinus pedum, ut diximus, octo et prope semis, calciamentum ejus, id est campagium regium, quidam in luco qui est inter Aquileiam et Aritiam, (Arziam legunt quidam, alii malunt inter Anagniam et Aritiam) posuerunt, quod constat pede majus fuisse hominis vestigio atque mensura. Unde etiam vulgo tractum est, cum de longis atque ineptis hominibus diceretur : Caliga Maximini. Hactenus Julius. Ergo proverbium rectius usurpabitur, si cum odio contemptuve dicatur, propterea quod is Maximinus (unde natum esse constat) invisissimus esset pariter et populo Romano et senatui, quippe Thrax natione, deinde sordido genere, postremo moribus barbaris ac feris. Quinetiam nunc homines insignitae proceritatis vulgo male audiunt, tanquam socordes atque inertes.

The Razor Against the Whetstone

Erasmus, Adagia, 1.1.20:

Ξυρὸς εἰς ἀκόνην, that is, the razor to the whetstone. This is usually said of those who have fallen by chance into those states of affairs which they did not desire. A razor is not able to fall more unfavorably than if it comes against the whetstone. The old saying of Horace is not dissimilar to this: ‘one seeking to slide his teeth against the coin ends up breaking them.’ This would be readily suited to one who, desirous of doing someone else harm finds someone by whom he is harmed in turn, and whom he cannot harm himself. Since indeed, a razor, if it run up against anything soft, cuts it apart; but if it runs against the whetstone, it is beaten back. Tarquinius considered this, when he said that he had in his mind that Actius Navius, the augur, would cut a whetstone with a razor, intending that the razor would have no power against the whetstone. Yet, the augur did what Tarquinius thought was impossible. Livy relates this in his first book.

Sebastiano Ricci, Tarquin the Elder consulting Attus Nevius the Augur

Novacula in cotem (XX)

Ξυρὸς εἰς ἀκόνην, id est Novacula in cotem. Dici solitum in hos, qui forte in eas res inciderunt, in quas minime volebant. Neque novacula potest incommodius cadere, quam si in cotem incurrat. Ab hoc non ita multum abhorret illud Horatianum : Et fragili quaerens illidere dentem / infringet solido. Recte accommodabitur et in eum, qui laedendi cupidus tandem hominem nactus est a quo vicissim laedatur, cum illi nocere non possit. Siquidem novacula, si in molle quippiam inciderit, dissecat ; si in cotem, retunditur. Huc respexit Tarquinus, qui dixit sibi in animo esse, ut Actius Navius augur novacula cotem discinderet, significans in cotem nihil posse novaculam, quanquam ab augure factum quod ille fieri posse non credebat. Refert Livius libro primo.

The Matter Is on the Hinge

Erasmus, Adagia 1.1.19

“The matter is on the hinge.”

“This saying is not wholly dissimilar to the last: the matter is on the hinge, which Servius suggested was a proveb as he related that of Vergil: ‘she will hardly withdraw from such a hinge of affairs’ and he thinks that it has this sense, as if one were to say, ‘The matter is at the deciding point.’ Cicero says instead, ‘the hinge turns on that,’ by which he means ‘the whole affair depends upon that.’ Quintilian, in his tenth book, writes, ‘I may remain silent concerning those (about whom I do not care) who neglect to consider where the hinge of the cases is turned.’

Quintilian also says in his fifth book, ‘If he confesses, he could argue that his garment could have been bloody for many other reasons; if he denies that his garment is bloody, he lays the hinge of the affair out on this claim, in which – if he be convicted of falsehood – he will be ruined in the rest of his subsequent claims.

The proverb is taken from doors, which are held up and turned about upon hinges.”

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Res est in cardine (xix)

Huic non omnino diversum est illud : Res est in cardine, quod Servius proverbium esse admonuit enarrans illud Maronis : Haud tanto cessabit cardine rerum, putatque perinde valere, quasi dicas Res est in articulo. M. Tullius In eo cardo rei vertitur dixit pro eo, quod est : ex hoc tota res pendet. Quintilianus libro decimo : Nam ut taceam de negligentibus, quorum nihil refert, ubi litium cardo vertatur. Idem libro quinto : Nam si fatetur, multis ex causis potuit cruenta esse vestis ; si negat, hic causae cardinem ponit, in quo si victus fuerit, etiam in sequentibus ruit. Sumptum ab ostiis, quae cardinibus sustinentur volvunturque.

On The Razor’s Edge

Erasmus, Adagia 1.1.18:


“That old saying, which was taken from Homer and made into a famous adage by the greatest authors, is hardly dissimilar to the ones previously mentioned: Ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἀκμῆς, that is, on the razor’s edge or on the point of the knife, which is to say, at the most decisive point. Thus Nestor puts it in the tenth book of the Iliad:

Νῦν γὰρ δὴ πάντεσσιν ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἵσταται ἀκμῆς

Ἢ μάλα λυγρὸς ὄλεθρον Ἀχαιοῖς ἠὲ βιῶναι,

That is,

‘Now the matter stands on the edge of the knife:

Whether the Achaeans life, or whether they be consumed by a sad fate.’

Sophocles, in Antigone, writes:

‘Consider carefully, now that you have stepped upon the razor’s edge.’

There are also the words of the seer Tiresias as he warns Creon to be wise, since he is set amidst the greatest danger.

Again, in the Epigrams:

Εὐρώπης Ἀσίης τε δορυσθενέες βασιλῆες,

Ὑμῖν ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἵσταται ἀκμή,

That is,

‘Kings of Europe and Asia, powerful in war, now both of your fortunes are set upon the razor’s edge.’

About Menelaus and Paris, fighting in single combat to determine which would take hold of Helen, Theocritus writes in his Dioscuri:

Ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρας ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἤδη ἐόντων,

That is,

‘The certain salvation of humans standing on the point of the sword.’

This seems to be taken from the street swindlers, who walk upon the edges of swords, or from those who handle blades with their hands (as the published scholia suggest for this author).”

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In acie novaculae.xviii

Nec abhorret a superioribus illud, quod ab Homero sumptum maximisque celebratum auctoribus in adagionem abiit : Ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἀκμῆς, id est In novaculae cuspide sive acie, pro eo, quod est : in summo discrimine. Sic enim in Iliadis decimo loquitur Nestor :

Νῦν γὰρ δὴ πάντεσσιν ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἵσταται ἀκμῆς

Ἢ μάλα λυγρὸς ὄλεθρον Ἀχαιοῖς ἠὲ βιῶναι,

id est

Nunc etenim cunctis sita res in cuspide ferri est,

Vivantne an tristi exitio absumantur Achivi.

Sophocles in Antigone :

Φρόνει, βεβὼς αὖ νῦν ἐπὶ ξυροῦ τύχης

Sunt etiam Tiresiae vatis verba Creontem admonentis, ut sapiat in tanto constitutus periculo. Rursus in Epigrammatibus :

Εὐρώπης Ἀσίης τε δορυσθενέες βασιλῆες,

Ὑμῖν ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἵσταται ἀκμή,

id est

Europae atque Asiae reges Mavorte potentes,

Nunc vobis utrisque novaclae in acumine est.

De Menelao ac Paride singulari certamine decernentibus, uter Helena potiretur. Theocritus in Dioscuris :

Ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρας ἐπὶ ξυροῦ ἤδη ἐόντων,

id est

Certa salus hominum jam ferri in cuspide stantum.

Sumptum videtur a circulatoribus, qui in cuspide gladiorum ingrediuntur, aut ab iis, qui ferrum manu contrectant, ut admonent in hunc auctorem aedita scholia.

Driven to a Narrow Pass

Erasmus, Adagia 1.1.17:

“Now my forces are driven to a narrow pass.”

Terence, in his Self-Punisher, signifies the same thing with a separate allegory when he writes, ‘my forces are now wholly driven into a narrow strait.’ The metaphor is taken from the army, which struggles when enclosed in an unfavorable position and surrounded by enemies in such a way that it is difficult to escape.”

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Nunc meae in artum coguntur copiae. xvii

Rem eandem diversa significat allegoria Terentius in Heautontimorumeno, cum ait : In angustum oppido nunc meae coguntur copiae. Metaphora sumpta ab exercitu, qui laborat iniquo conclusus loco et undique obsidetur ab hostibus, ut difficile sit effugere.

Between the Hammer and the Anvil

Erasmus, Adagia 1.1.16:

“Μεταξὺ τοῦ ἄκμονος καὶ σφύρας, that is, between the anvil and the hammer. Something not dissimilar to this is related by the theologian Origen in a certain homily on Jeremiah in these words: (for we want Greek). There is now among nations a certain proverb, now worn out by being commonly bandied about in vulgar parlance, so that they say of those who are pressed by anxieties and weighty evils, that they are between the hammer and the anvil.”

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Inter malleum et incudem.

Μεταξὺ τοῦ ἄκμονος καὶ σφύρας, id est Inter incudem et malleum. Huic non dissimile refertur ab Origene theologo quadam in Hieremiam homilia his quidem verbis : (nam Graeca desideramus) Jam quoddam est apud nationes tritum vulgi sermone proverbium, ut de his qui anxietatibus et ingentibus malis premuntur, dicant : Inter malleum et incudem.

Between the Altar and the Knife

Erasmus, Adagia, 1.1.15:

“Tyndarus, one of the captives in the play of that name by Plautus, was caught red-handed in the middle of his scheming. Having no device by which he could escape, he said

Now I am utterly destroyed. Now I stand between the altar and the knife, and I don’t know what to do.

Apuleius, in the eleventh book of his Golden Ass, writes:

At a time when the hardness of poverty was interfering with my life, I was – as the ancient proverb has it – being put to torture between the altar and the knife .

Apuleius, however, explains the saying allegorically as referring to the priesthood to which he was about to be initiated, and the poverty which was harder than a rock, on account which no resources were at hand. It is clear that this has been taken from the earliest ceremonies of striking up a treaty, in which the Fetial would strike a pig while pronouncing these words: ‘whoever breaks this treaty first, let Jupiter smite him just as I smite this pig with this rock.’ But though the proverb has flowed this way and that, it is clear enough that it was usually applied to those who, in their perplexity, are driven to the most extreme danger.”

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Inter sacrum et saxum.xv

Tyndarus apud Plautum, alter e captivis, cum jam proditis dolis esset deprehensus nec haberet, quanam arte possit elabi,

Nunc ego, inquit, omnino occidi.

Nunc ego inter saxum sacrumque sto, nec quid faciam scio.

Apuleius Asini sui libro undecimo:

Plurimum ergo duritia paupertatis intercedente, quod ait vetus proverbium, inter sacrum et saxum positus cruciabar.

Explicat autem Apuleius allegoriam adagii videlicet alludens ad sacerdotium, cui erat initiandus, et paupertatem saxo duriorem, per quo non suppetebant sumptus. Sumptum apparet ex priscis foederis feriendi ceremoniis, in quibus fecialis porcum saxo feriebat haec interim pronuntians : Qui prior populus foedus rumpet, Jupiter eum feriat, quemadmodum ego porcum hoc lapide ferio. Sed undecumque fluxit adagium, satis liquet dici solitum in eos, qui perplexi ad extremum periculum rediguntur.

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