Suffering for a Lack of the Latin Language

Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 7.72

I used to tell you that Cestius, because he was Greek, suffered because of a lack of Latin words though he had an abundance of ideas. Thus, whenever he dared to describe something more broadly, he often stalled especially when he attempted to imitate some great genius.

This is the issue in this controversy. For, in his story, when he was telling about how his brother was given to him, he was pleased by this lonely and sad description: “night was laid out, and everything, judges, was singing under silent stars.” Julius Montanus, who was a companion of Tiberius and an exceptional poet, was claiming that he wanted to imitate Vergil’s line: “it was night and all the tired animals over the earth, the races of birds and beasts, were held by a deep sleep.”

Soleo dicere vobis Cestium Latinorum verborum inopia hominem Graecum laborasse, sensibus abundasse; itaque, quotiens latius aliquid describere ausus est, totiens substitit, utique cum se ad imitationem magni alicuius ingeni derexerat, sicut in hac controversia fecit. Nam in narratione, cum fratrem traditum sibi describeret, placuit sibi in hac explicatione una et infelici: nox erat concubia, et omnia, iudices, canentia sideribus muta erant. Montanus Iulius, qui comes fuit , egregius poeta, aiebat illum imitari voluisse Vergili descriptionem:

nox erat et terras animalia fessa per omnis,alituum pecudumque genus, sopor altus habebat

Cats doing cat things: sleep, play with mice, and take an unhealthy interest in caged birds from a medieval bestiary

Oxford University: Bodleian Library

Antiquity! (Instrumental Version)

nos et venturo torquemur et praeterito

We are tortured by both the future and the past.


If you studied Classics in college, you probably heard some sales pitch like this:

Classics is an eminently practical discipline, and you should study it because it offers you the critical thinking toolkit necessary to be a productive citizen in the 21st century. Students of Classics often secure successful employment in such diverse fields as computer science, law, media, and medicine.

If you are studying Latin in high school, you probably heard some sales pitch like this:

Latin is the most practical language to take: it improves your English vocabulary, helps you earn a better SAT score, and distinguishes you on college applications. Plus, if you are planning on going into medicine or law…

These sales pitches do what sales pitches always do: dupe the mark who believes them. But more importantly, these sales pitches commodify the study of Classics, and package it as something which has practical instrumental value. Yet, in truth, Classics is lumbering and unwieldy as an instrument, and can be compared to riding a horse to work: great if you’re into that sort of thing, but certainly not the fastest way to achieve some particular practical end. Classics has always been at least a little recondite, and certainly never practical, but these sales pitches tend to turn the field into an empty shell which can be filled with your personal hopes and used to convey you to the next step of the professional ladder. Indeed, I think that the attempt to sell Classical study as an instrument for the achievement of some end other than the understanding of and delight in the ancient world is not only morally dubious in an age of skyrocketing tuition, but also likely contributes to the steady decay which set in long ago.

We are already rapidly hurtling toward an age of wholesale and universal instrumentality, in which all of our ideas, feelings, and actions are directed toward the goal of making us better instruments for the achievement of no particular end other than the maintenance of an increasingly efficient system of production and consumption. We now strive for instrumentalized efficiency in everything we do. How many of our actions are not directed toward filling some quota on a health app, garnering further Twitter followers, or seeking some other form of existential validation in the countless metrics which can now be readily applied to every facet of our lives? The ‘high-score’ was noble teleology in the video arcade, but now even our leisure is a thinly-veiled form of work. This ‘leisure’ is hardly the otium cum dignitate of the Roman elite, who disdainfully eschewed labor to pursue literary, historical, or philosophical studies. We have bought into the notion of commodification so thoroughly that our lives are now nothing more than readily packaged and processed collections of data points ready to be sold and harnessed for the sole purpose of selling us and harnessing us further. In a world filtered by Instagram and Twitter, it is hard to believe in authenticity, and one begins to feel that experience unmediated by and undirected toward further commodification is no longer possible.

Ardent enthusiasts for the development of artificial intelligence range from those who think that it will simply spare us from tedious labour, to those who seem to hope that it renders us, as thinking beings, entirely obsolete. Whatever your stance on it, the rapid development of AI has ushered in a new crisis of nihilism. If we will never be as smart or as untiring as a computer in a world which only values practical utility, why not just invest in some sturdy rope now? A student once asked me what it was like to have devoted my life to Classics, something which is generally regarded as wholly useless. I responded that, if tech culture and AI continue to develop as planned (hoped?), then everyone else will have devoted their lives to pursuits which, in their own way, were also wholly useless.

A plague upon ‘usefulness’ and ‘practicality’! One can readily imagine a computer performing countless tasks better than humans, but could it ever care? I am writing this only because I feel some concern for the world which I inhabit, and similarly I studied Classics because I cared about it. Certainly, I felt some of the allurements of ‘academic rigor’ and ‘distinguishing oneself from the vulgar mob’ and ‘broadly applicable skills’ and whatever other codswallop was offered up at the time, but this mode of enticement only really appeals to those who are sold on the project anyway.

Classics cannot be important because it ‘teaches critical thinking’ – many other subjects do, and computers already excel at analysis.

Classics cannot be important because it will be ‘valued by employers’ –  employers only value that which tends to increase the bottom line. Within a few decades, the term ‘employer’ itself will be outmoded, as companies will no longer be on the lookout for anything with a beating heart.

Classics cannot be important because it ‘exercises a humanizing influence’ or some similar claptrap; I know some Classicists who are roundly horrible people.

Classics is important only because people are capable of caring, in the broadest sense, about the world. Efforts to popularize parts of antiquity, especially in the form of podcasts as well as fresh and exciting new translations of ancient texts, have a broad appeal which is hardly reflected in institutional enrollment in Classics programs. Indeed, I have more students in my high school Latin class (100 out of a total student population of 2,700) than there were Classics majors in my entire university (67 out of a total student population of 25,000). People care about, are interested in, and feel excited by the study of antiquity in ways which cannot and will never be reflected in institutionalized study. Some of my students hate studying Latin, but they will read through massive volumes of Roman history with rapt attention, or discuss the Odyssey in translation with the same enthusiasm that they feel for Star Wars.

As a discipline, we ceded the field when we granted concessions to the language of ‘practicality’ and ‘job readiness’ in the first place. Indeed, I suspect that we have all been duped by a system which wants ‘job-ready’ graduates now only to fill a brief gap between the present moment and a future in which employers may fall back on the more appealing expedient of an entirely non-human labor force. People like Classics because it is interesting. I would ask, rhetorically, whether we feel similarly compelled to justify, in practical terms, our aesthetic and even spiritual pleasure in, say, a mountain vista, but I also know that in America a view is only beautiful if there is no material profit to be had from its destruction.

The large gap between the number of people interested in antiquity and those who study it professionally helps to point the way forward. The future of Classics will depend much less on conferences and far more on podcasts and popular books. Depending on your position in the field, such a suggestion may sound either novel and appalling or hopelessly worn and passé, but it applies more broadly to all of the humanities. Professionalized art, literature, and music have always been hard, but I doubt that becoming more obscure and recondite would help matters.

This is not an anomalous position for the field, either. Classical study was for some time a pursuit for passionate “amateurs”, and between Petrarch and Gibbon one could easily name a host of figures who made meaningful monuments to Classical learning which are far better remembered than any academic monograph. Undoubtedly, the privilege of Classical study in securing a position in the British Civil Service in the 19th century and the explosion of academic institutions in America along with its concomitant development into the rigidly professionalized system of today contributed substantially to the number of people who were employed in some professional capacity as a result of Classical study, but this connection between antiquity and employment has always been the most tenuous of threads.

What space, then, does Classics occupy in our intellectual and cultural sphere? Well, it’s there if you care. Never will more than a tiny fraction of the population want to study Greek and Latin, and we should stop telling potential students that ancient languages are useful for building vocabulary or demonstrating a unique commitment to diverse study or – the worst justification of them all – that the ‘rigor’ of Classical languages is a uniquely challenging type of mental gymnastics which will make you better prepared for other mental activity. The study of ancient languages is only useful in making you better at ancient languages.

The institutional study of Physics has always seemed to me the most closely parallel case to that of Classics. Our educated public loves the study of Physics; most of your friends probably enjoy watching shows with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and likely mourned the death of Stephen Hawking. Yet, for all of this popular enthusiasm, very few people actually get Physics degrees, and despite our very vocal support for ‘STEM’ in this country, some Physics departments face the threat of total closure just as Classics departments do. Why? All of that talent pool for Physics is attracted to the more instrumentalized and readily-monetized department of Engineering. Just as in Classics, only a few who make it to the end of a PhD program end up being able to secure the dream of an academic position in Physics. Generally, our society is not structured to reward study for its own sake.

In conclusion, the future of professionalized Classics looks bleak, but in truth, everything looks bleak on the blighted horizon of our techno-capitalist utopia. I regularly encourage my graduating students to study what means most to them – what they care about – because soon the notion of the ‘unemployable degree’ will be wholly outmoded when all degrees are unemployable. When robots and supercomputers are doing all of our accounting, medicine, and engineering in addition to physical and service labor, our pursuit of the inherently interesting and our experience of meaning for its own sake will likely be all that is left to us.

Selling the study of Classics on the basis of anything other than its inherent ability to fascinate the human mind is a losing strategy. The battlefield of practicality and employment was lost long ago when the first microprocessor was developed. I have no doubt that the instrumentalization and commodification of every aspect of our private and public lives will continue apace, but I hope that from the dystopian wreckage we can at least salvage one salutary relic of an earlier time: maybe we can return to thinking about antiquity not as a mine from which to extract conference papers and monographs, but as a vista which we climb to see for its own sake.


Jacques Louis-David, Belisaire

St. Patrick Says: Pray Pray Pray, Food’s on the Way!

St. Patrick, Confession 19:

“After three days we reached land and made a journey through a desert; food was lacking, and famine prevailed over them, and one day the captain began to speak to me,

‘What’s all this, Christian? You say that your God is great and all powerful; why can you not say a prayer for us? We’re being sorely tried by famine. It’s hardly likely that we will see any other person out here.’

I then confidently replied to them,

‘Turn yourselves, in your faith and from all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that he send food to you today, enough for your journey, because he has an abundance everywhere.’

And, with the help of God, so it happened. There, a flock of pigs appeared in the road before our eyes, and the men killed many of them, and remained there for two nights. They were much revived, and their dogs too were restored, because many of them had fallen off and been left half-dead on the road. After this, they gave the greatest thanks to God, and I was honored in their eyes, and from this day they possessed food abundantly. They even found honey of the forest and offered part to me, and one of them said, ‘It is a little offering.’ Thanks to God, I ate none of it.”

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et post triduum terram cepimus et uiginti octo dies per desertum iter fecimus et cibus defuit illis et fames inualuit super eos, et alio die coepit gubernator mihi dicere: ‘Quid est, Christiane? tu dicis deus tuus magnus et omnipotens est; quare ergo non potes pro nobis orare? quia nos a fame periclitamur; difficile est enim ut aliquem hominem umquam uideamus’. Ego enim confidenter dixi illis: ‘Conuertimini ex fide ex toto corde ad Dominum Deum meum, quia nihil est impossibile illi, ut hodie cibum mittat uobis in uiam uestram usque dum satiamini, quia ubique habundat illi’, et adiuuante Deo ita factum est: ecce grex porcorum in uia ante oculos nostros apparuit, et multos ex illis interfecerunt et ibi duas noctes manserunt et bene refecti et canes eorum repleti sunt, quia multi ex illis defecerunt et secus uiam semiuiui relicti sunt, et post hoc summas gratias egerunt Deo et ego honorificatus sum sub oculis eorum, et ex hac die cibum habundanter habuerunt; etiam mel siluestre inuenerunt et mihi partem obtulerunt et unus ex illis dixit: ‘Immolaticium est’; Deo gratias, exinde nihil gustaui.

Tessered Latin and Greek: A Lexical “Wrinkle in Time”

There is a great story in the Daily Beast about Greek (and a little Latin) in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This blog has a little cameo…

Sometimes when I talk to students about my childhood I get the sense that it seems almost as distant and different from theirs as some of the texts from Ancient Greece I encourage them to read. I listened to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back on the radio. I remember getting cable installed. I never sent an email until I went to college. I used to check out vinyl records from the library to listen to Cinderella and the JungleBook!

Ah, the library. I grew up in rural Maine and the local free libraries were, in a way, the center of my childhood. My father was deaf from birth; reading was what we all did as a family. And it was the one realm in which I never felt limited. My parents never told me what to read, when to read or, more importantly, what not to read. We just went to the library every week and they set me free.

At some point in elementary school, I took it upon myself to read the entire collection of Newbery award books. There was a list prominently displayed in the kids’ room at a few different libraries we frequented. I am pretty sure I read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King first and soon after Robert Obrien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I love both books and when I noticed the medal on the cover, connected it to the list and just started in on it.

I connected with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time almost immediately. That famous start: “IT was a dark and stormy night.” My father used these very words all the time before he would start telling us some ridiculous tale. The world in this book was also one like mine: it was dark (as often the case in rural Maine) and, with our long winters, it was also stormy.

It also deploys that initial scale that works so well–it starts small and simple: Margaret in her room or at the kitchen table, complaining of school, lovingly tolerating her precocious brother. But it was also a world that promised that the stark simplicity it presented was a mere facade over something much more complex–that behind the austere and disappointing world, there were other worlds. In short, the promise of a tale like L’Engle’s was the very promise of the libraries I so loved–that there are ways out of this world into countless others.

I have never reread this book as an adult, but every time I think of it: it is dark, I am in third grade, but there is a light dawning on the horizon. So, when the journalist Mimi Kramer (@nhmeems) contacted me over twitter to ask about the Greek and Latin in A Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction was shock. There is Greek and Latin in L’Engle’s novel? There is, and, as she tells in her fine story on it, it is messed up. And how it has stayed messed up itself is a story worth reading and telling. It is, a bit depressingly, a very adult and mundane mystery, but, for me at least, it provides a passage through time.

The author J.S. Bangs–to my knowledge–was the first to post online about the problems with the Greek. As you can read there or in Kramer’s article, whoever transcribed the quotation from Euripides (most likely from a quotation book cribbed poorly from Stobaeus) confused lamdas for etas and nus for upsilons, giving us the aesthetically displeasing fairly impossible: “Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ for the text printed as Euripides fr. 761 in Stobaeus: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών. The book’s translation, moreover, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything” obscures what I see in the Greek which is a near koan, “nothing is unexpected, and one must expect everything.”

The story of trying to fix this has its own story. The Greek is off in the blog post (to be pedantic): the initial breathing and the vowel in the final participle need adjustment: ἄελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρεών, (not the displayed Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν). And even in a recent edition where the Greek has been mostly fixed, the rough breathing on that initial Alpha remains.

But that is a quibble. I am surprised (but not overly so) that I remember nothing of this; but a little shock that this bad Greek has lasted over 60 years! (And that is the story Mimi Kramer tells, much better than I could do so. And she keys us into another mystery. In the same scene, but a little earlier, the mysterious Mrs. Who speaks Latin!

“Finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis,” Mrs. Who
intoned. “Horace. To action little, less to words inclined.”

The translation she quotes, however, does not match up well with the Latin provided. To be fair, Horace is a bit of a punk: I think he is virtually untranslatable–but, for those readers who know Latin well, can we bring any light to this dark night?

Here are the full lines from Loeb’s translation by Rushton Fairclough

Horace Sermones 1.4

“The gods be praised for fashioning me of meagre wit and lowly spirit, of rare and scanty speech.”

di bene fecerunt, inopis me quodque pusilli
finxerunt animi, raro et perpauca loquentis.

More literally (but with a much inferior rhythm, I would suggest “The gods have done well: they made me of a small and minor spirit, one who speaks rarely and little”. The proffered translation in A Wrinkle In Time is “To action little, less to words inclined”, which seems to be a combination of only the second halves of the couplet (…inopis me quodque pusilli…raro et perpauca loquentis).

So, a working theory Kramer and I discussed for this is simply that someone who didn’t know Latin picked this Horace out of a quote book where there were two lines each of Latin and English and, because only the second line of English was selected, selected only the second line of Latin too. The translation first appears in a 19th century anthology of Richard Steele’s essays for The Spectator and The Tattler, as a reprint of Spectator No. 19 (March 22, 1711). In the typical fashion of 18th-century literary essayists, Steele and Addison prefixed a Latin epigraph to each of their essays without translation. The English version, then, was provided by the compiler of the anthology as a service to those readers without Latin. The English rendering must have made an impression on someone, because it reappears at the beginning of the 20th century in a dictionary of phrases and classical quotations. The full English translation is;

Thank Heaven that made me of a humble mind;
to action little, less to words inclined.

Guess what else is in that very dictionary? You guessed it, the Euripides fragment on page 129 with the correct Greek with the very translation offered in A Wrinkle in Time.

So, we have a half couplet plucked from Horace and a line poorly transcribed from Euripides. Can any lovers of language (and L’Engle) propose something more generous? Is she reading the Latin differently? Am I reading it wrongly?

As someone who loves literature, I take perverse pleasure in not allowing there to be mistakes. So, for instance, where our Horace above has famously declares that even Homer nods (that is, loses track of stuff), many interpreters instead have declared, no, impossible! And we engage in mental acrobatics to show how even mistakes are actually signs of hidden deeper meaning.

So, maybe the ‘wrong’ Greek is not wrong at all. Perhaps it is really an invitation to contemplation of absurd erudition. Or, even more importantly, perhaps it is a secret message–an anagram or something, which, if decoded, will open up for us passages to universes unknown.

(Ok. I was a kid again there, still hoping to skip dimensions….)

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This is the over of the book I read.

Filthy Friday: The Scepter of Priapus

Priapea, XXV:

“This scepter, which was cut from a tree

will never again be green with leaves.

This scepter which lusty ladies look for

and even kings desire to hold,

which our noble sodomites shower with kisses

will wend its way through the thief’s guts

all the way to his rod, his testicular hilt.”

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Hoc sceptrum, quod ab arbore est recisum
nulla et iam poterit virere fronde,
sceptrum, quod pathicae petunt puellae,
quod quidam cupiunt tenere reges,
quoi dant oscula nobiles cinaedi,
intra viscera furis ibit usque
ad pubem capulumque coleorum.

The Problem with the Ides of March: Not Enough Cicero, Not Enough MURDER

Cicero, Epistulae Familiares 10.28.1 (To Trebonius)

“How I wish that you had invited me to that most sumptuous feast on the Ides of March! We would now have no little scraps if you had. But now you have with them such difficulty in preventing that divine benefit which you bestowed upon the Republic from exciting some complaint. But, though it is hardly right, I am on occasion angry with you, because it was by you – a noble man indeed – it was by you and by your good service that this pest [Marc Antony] was led away and still lives. Now you have left behind more trouble for me alone than for everyone else.”

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Quam vellem ad illas pulcherrimas epulas me Idibus Martiis invitasses! reliquiarum nihil haberemus. at nunc cum iis tantum negoti est ut vestrum illud divinum <in> rem publicam beneficium non nullam habeat querelam. quod vero a te, viro optimo, seductus est tuoque beneficio adhuc vivit haec pestis, interdum, quod mihi vix fas est, tibi subirascor; mihi enim negoti plus reliquisti uni quam praeter me omnibus.

Cicero on the “Unforgettable Ides of March”

Cicero, Letters to Atticus (14.4) 10 April 44

“But should all these things befall us, the Ides of March may console. Our heroes too accomplished most gloriously and magnificently everything it was in their power to do. For the rest, we need money and troops, neither of which we have.”

Sed omnia licet concurrant, Idus Martiae consolantur. nostri autem ἥρωες quod per ipsos confici potuit gloriosissime et magnificentissime confecerunt; reliquae res opes et copias desiderant, quas nullas habemus


Cicero, Letters to Brutus  I.15 (23) 14 July 43

“Therefore, come here, by the gods, as fast as possible; Convince yourself that it would do your country no greater good if you come quickly than you did on the Ides of March when you freed your fellow citizens from slavery.”

subveni igitur, per deos, idque quam primum, tibique persuade non te Idibus Martiis, quibus servitutem a tuis civibus depulisti, plus profuisse patriae quam, si mature veneris, profuturum.


Cicero, Letters to Brutus, 1.15 (23) July 43

“After the death of Caesar and your unforgettable Ides of March, Brutus, you will not have lost sight of the the fact that I said that one thing was overlooked by you—how much a storm loomed over the Republic. The greatest disease was warded off thanks to you—a great blight was cleansed from the Roman people—and you won immortal fame for your part. But the mechanism of monarchy fell then to Lepidus and Antonius—one of whom is more erratic, while the other is rather unclean—both fearing peace and ill-fit to idle time.”

Post interitum Caesaris et vestras memorabilis Idus Martias, Brute, quid ego praetermissum a vobis quantamque impendere rei publicae tempestatem dixerim non es oblitus. magna pestis erat depulsa per vos, magna populi Romani macula deleta, vobis vero parta divina gloria, sed instrumentum regni delatum ad Lepidum et Antonium, quorum alter inconstantior, alter impurior, uterque pacem metuens, inimicus otio.

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The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini


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