A Word Overwrought: Longinus on Verbal Tumescence

Longinus, On the Sublime 1.3.3-5

‘For although they often believe that they are inspired, they are not carried away by a god but they are fooling around. As a general rule, it seems that being puffed up is among the the most difficult things to avoid. For, naturally, all those who strive to be grand are carried away into this fault as they attempt to avoid the accumulation of weakness or dryness, perhaps believing in the idea that “slipping in the pursuit of great things is still a noble mistake.”

Ah, but tumors are evil things if they are in bodies or words, those empty voids all misshapen and most often compelling us to the opposite of what we wanted. For, as they say, “there’s nothing dry as dropsy”. But while overwrought writing aims to surpass the sublime, childishness is the polar opposite of aiming high. It is completely ugly, small-minded, and in truth the least noble evil of all.”

πολλαχοῦ γὰρ ἐνθουσιᾶν ἑαυτοῖς δοκοῦντες οὐ βακχεύουσιν ἀλλὰ παίζουσιν. ὅλως δ᾿ ἔοικεν εἶναι τὸ οἰδεῖν ἐν τοῖς μάλιστα δυσφυλακτότατον. φύσει γὰρ ἅπαντες οἱ μεγέθους ἐφιέμενοι, φεύγοντες ἀσθενείας καὶ ξηρότητος κατάγνωσιν, οὐκ οἶδ᾿ ὅπως ἐπὶ τοῦθ᾿ ὑποφέρονται, πειθόμενοι τῷ “μεγάλων ἀπολισθαίνειν ὅμως εὐγενὲς  ἁμάρτημα.” κακοὶ δὲ ὄγκοι καὶ ἐπὶ σωμάτων καὶ λόγων οἱ χαῦνοι καὶ ἀναλήθεις καὶ μήποτε περιιστάντες ἡμᾶς εἰς τοὐναντίον· οὐδὲν γάρ, φασί, ξηρότερον ὑδρωπικοῦ. Ἀλλὰ τὸ μὲν οἰδοῦν ὑπεραίρειν βούλεται τὰ ὕψη, τὸ δὲ μειρακιῶδες ἄντικρυς ὑπεναντίον τοῖς μεγέθεσι· ταπεινὸν γὰρ ἐξ ὅλου καὶ μικρόψυχον καὶ τῷ ὄντι κακὸν ἀγεννέστατον.

No, Virginia, There is No Tragic Flaw

Aristotle, Poetics 1452e34-1453a9

“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be  be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.

[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”

γον, ἐφεξῆς ἂν εἴη λεκτέον τοῖς νῦν εἰρημένοις. ἐπειδὴ οὖν δεῖ τὴν σύνθεσιν εἶναι τῆς καλλίστης τραγῳδίας μὴ ἁπλῆν ἀλλὰ πεπλεγμένην καὶ ταύτην φοβερῶν καὶ ἐλεεινῶν εἶναι μιμητικήν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἴδιον τῆς τοιαύτης μιμήσεώς ἐστιν), πρῶτον μὲν δῆλον ὅτι οὔτε τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἄνδρας δεῖ μεταβάλλοντας φαίνεσθαι ἐξ εὐτυχίας εἰς δυστυχίαν, οὐ γὰρ φοβερὸν οὐδὲ ἐλεεινὸν τοῦτο ἀλλὰ μιαρόν ἐστιν· οὔτε τοὺς μοχθηροὺς ἐξ ἀτυχίας εἰς εὐτυχίαν, ἀτραγῳδότατον γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἐστὶ πάντων, οὐδὲν γὰρ ἔχει ὧν δεῖ, οὔτε γὰρ φιλάνθρωπον οὔτε ἐλεεινὸν οὔτε φοβερόν ἐστιν· οὐδ’ αὖ τὸν σφόδρα πονηρὸν συμβαῖνον. ὁ μεταξὺ ἄρα τούτων λοιπός. ἔστι δὲ τοιοῦτος ὁ μήτε ἀρετῇ διαφέρων καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ μήτε διὰ κακίαν καὶ μοχθηρίαν μεταβάλλων εἰς τὴν δυστυχίαν ἀλλὰ δι’ ἁμαρτίαν τινά, τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ, οἷον Οἰδίπους καὶ Θυέστης καὶ οἱ ἐκ τῶν τοιούτων γενῶν ἐπιφανεῖς ἄνδρες.

This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.

from Beekes 2010


The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.

Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.

[The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this]

Seneca on the Faults of Historians

Seneca the Younger, Nat. Quest. 7. 16

“This has been said against the arguments; now I must speak against the witnesses. Euphorus’ authority need not be attacked with a great effort—he is a historian. Some of these types gain commendation by telling of incredible things and they excite a reader with something amazing when he would probably do something else if he were guided through more common events.”

Some historians believe anything; others overlook much. Some are unaware of a lie; but others find it pleasing. The first type do not avoid misinformation while the second seek it out. That’s enough about the whole nation of historians who do not think that their own work can be praised and achieve popularity unless they spice it up with lies. Indeed, Euphorus is not one of ‘religious’ fidelity. Often he is deceived, and often he deceives.”

Contra argumenta dictum est, contra testes dicendum est. Nec magna molitione detrahenda est auctoritas Ephoro: historicus est. Quidam incredibilium relatu commendationem parant et lectorem, aliud acturum si per cotidiana ducetur, miraculo excitant; quidam creduli, quidam neglegentes sunt; quibusdam mendacium obrepit, quibusdam placet; illi non evitant, hi appetunt. Haecin commune de tota natione, quae approbari opus suum et fieri populare non putat posse, nisi illud mendacio aspersit. Ephorus vero non est religiosissimae fidei; saepe decipitur, saepe decipit.

The Greeks Were Poetic Thieves (or, Clement Doesn’t Get Poetry)

Clement of Alexandria was an early church father who wrote a book of miscellany entitled the Stromata (“turnings”). In book 6, he takes on Greek plagiarism.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata book 6.2 (Go here for a full translation of this masterpiece)

“Come on, let us put forth the Greeks as witnesses against themselves for their theft. For when they steal their material from one another they show that they are thieves and they illustrate, even if unwillingly, how they secretly expropriate the truth from us to their own tribes. If they do not spare themselves, they will hardly spare us.

I will not mention the beliefs of philosophers, since they all agree  in writing—lest they appear ungrateful—that they have gathered the precepts of their beliefs from those that hold the greatest authority through Socrates.

Once I have offered a few testimonies of the authors most famous and most frequented among the greats and I have unveiled their thieving ways—and after I have done this through a few periods—I will turn to what remains.”

After Orpheus wrote “There is nothing more doglike and frightening than a woman” and Homer wrote in the same way “there is nothing more dreadful and doglike than a woman”. After Musaios wrote “Since craft is much better than strength”, Homer wrote “the woodcutter is much better by wit than by force”.

Again, after Musaios wrote:

In the same way that the fertile field grows plants,
Some fall from the ash-trees and in turn others grow.
So too the tribe and race of man twists and turns.

And then Homer wrote later

The wind makes some leaves fall to the ground and tree
Blooms and grows others, when the spring’s season comes
That’s the way it is with the race of men: one grows, another dies.

And after Homer said: “It ain’t right to boast over men who have been killed.” Arkhilokhos and Kratinos said, “it is not noble to brag over men who have died.”

φέρε μάρτυρας τῆς κλοπῆς αὐτοὺς καθ’ ἑαυτῶν παραστήσωμεν τοὺς ῞Ελληνας· οἱ γὰρ τὰ οἰκεῖα οὕτως ἄντικρυς παρ’ ἀλλήλων ὑφαιρούμενοι βεβαιοῦσι μὲν τὸ κλέπται εἶναι, σφετερίζεσθαι δ’ ὅμως καὶ ἄκοντες τὴν παρ’ ἡμῶν ἀλήθειαν εἰς τοὺς
ὁμοφύλους λάθρᾳ διαδείκνυνται. οἱ γὰρ μηδὲ ἑαυτῶν, σχολῇ γ’ ἂν τῶν ἡμετέρων ἀφέξονται. καὶ τὰ μὲν κατὰ φιλοσοφίαν σιωπήσομαι δόγματα, αὐτῶν ὁμολογούντων ἐγγράφως τῶν τὰς αἱρέσεις διανεμομένων, ὡς μὴ ἀχάριστοι ἐλεγχθεῖεν, παρὰ Σωκράτους εἰληφέναι τὰ κυριώτατα τῶν δογμάτων. ὀλίγοις δὲ τῶν καθωμιλημένων καὶ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησιν εὐδοκίμων ἀνδρῶν χρησάμενος μαρτυρίοις, τὸ κλεπτικὸν διελέγξας εἶδος αὐτῶν, ἀδιαφόρως τοῖς χρόνοις καταχρώμενος, ἐπὶ τὰ ἑξῆς τρέψομαι.

᾿Ορφέως τοίνυν ποιήσαντος·
ὣς οὐ κύντερον ἦν καὶ ῥίγιον ἄλλο γυναικός,
῞Ομηρος ἄντικρυς λέγει·
ὣς οὐκ αἰνότερον καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο γυναικός.
Γράψαντός τε Μουσαίου·
ὡς αἰεὶ τέχνη μέγ’ ἀμείνων ἰσχύος ἐστίν,
῞Ομηρος λέγει
μήτι τοι δρυτόμος περιγίνεται ἠὲ βίηφι.


Πάλιν τοῦ Μουσαίου ποιήσαντος·
ὡς δ’ αὔτως καὶ φύλλα φύει ζείδωρος ἄρουρα·
ἄλλα μὲν ἐν μελίῃσιν ἀποφθίνει, ἄλλα δὲ φύει·
ὣς δὲ καὶ ἀνθρώπων γενεὴν καὶ φῦλον ἑλίσσει.
῞Ομηρος μεταγράφει·
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει, ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
Πάλιν δ’ αὖ ῾Ομήρου εἰπόντος·
οὐχ ὁσίη κταμένοισιν ἐπ’ ἀνδράσιν εὐχετάασθαι,
᾿Αρχίλοχός τε καὶ Κρατῖνος γράφουσιν, ὃ μέν·
οὐ γὰρ ἐσθλὰ κατθανοῦσι κερτομεῖν ἐπ’ ἀνδράσιν,
Κρατῖνος δὲ ἐν τοῖς Λάκωσι·
φοβερὸν ἀνθρώποις τόδ’ αὖ,
κταμένοις ἐπ’ αἰζηοῖσι[ν] καυχᾶσθαι μέγα.
Αὖθίς τε ὁ ᾿Αρχίλοχος τὸ ῾Ομηρικὸν ἐκεῖνο μεταφέρων·
ἀασάμην, οὐδ’ αὐτὸς ἀναίνομαι· ἀντί νυ πολλῶν, ὧδέ πως γράφει·
ἤμβλακον, καί πού τινα ἄλλον ἥδ’ ἄτη κιχήσατο·

Why Start In Medias Res? (Hint: Liars Do This…)

Homer, Odyssey 9.14–15

“What shall I say first and then last—
When the Ouranian gods have given me many pains?”

τί πρῶτόν τοι ἔπειτα, τί δ’ ὑστάτιον καταλέξω;
κήδε’ ἐπεί μοι πολλὰ δόσαν θεοὶ Οὐρανίωνες.

Schol. T ad Hom. Od. 9.14 ex 1-12

“This is how he increases attention by creating expectation, which is a device one might use in a proem. For it is necessary that he acquire the goodwill of his audience for himself and attention for his speech so that they might welcome him as he speaks and they might internalize the things he says of the deeds and they might learn in what way Odysseus handled [everything] in general as he both praises himself but also demonstrates the number and strangeness of his experiences—this clarifies his purpose, from where he was present, and what he wants. This is why he begins the material of the longer narrative with “bringing me from Troy….”

τί πρῶτόν τοι ἔπειτα] ὅσα αὔξει τὴν προσοχὴν, προσδοκίαν ἐμποιῶν, ὅπερ ἐστὶ τεχνικὸν ὡς ἐν προοιμίῳ· δεῖ γὰρ παρὰ τῶν ἀκουόντων ἑαυτῷ μὲν εὔνοιαν ἐπισπᾶσθαι, τῷ δὲ λόγῳ προσοχὴν, ἵνα τὸν μὲν λέγοντα ἀποδέξωνται, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων ἐπιθυμήσωσι τὰ λεγόμενα καὶ μάθωσιν ὅπερ δι’ ὅλου κατώρθωκεν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἑαυτὸν μὲν ἐπαινέσας, τὸ δὲ πλῆθος καὶ τὴν καινότητα τῶν πραγμάτων ἐνδειξά-μενος δηλοῖ τὴν προαίρεσιν καὶ πόθεν παραγίνεται καὶ τί βούλεται, εἶθ’ οὕτως καὶ τὰ μείζονος διηγήσεως ἄρξηται “᾿Ιλιόθεν με φέρων” (39.). T.

Horace, Ars Poetica 148-149

“He always rushes to the action and steals
His audience to the story as if it is already known…”

semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res
non secus ac notas auditorem rapit

Dio Chrysostom, Oration 11.25-26

“For once he tried to describe the war which happened between the Achaians and Greeks, he did not begin from the beginning, but from wherever he chanced. This is what nearly all liars do, as they embellish and re-weave their tales, never wishing to speak in the order of events.

For, they are less than clear in this way; otherwise, they would be shown false by the tale itself. This can be seen happening now in the courts of law and other places where men lie with skill. But people who wish to show what has happened, as each thing occurred, report in this way: first thing first, second thing second and everything else in order.

This is one explanation for why Homer does not begin his poem naturally; another is that he wished to obscure the beginning and the end the most and to obtain the opposite belief about these things. This is why he does not dare to narrate the beginning and the end clearly, nor does he promise to say anything about them. If he does mention them at all it is in passing and brief and it his clear he is mixing it all up. For he does not dare nor was he able to address these things readily.

This is what happens with liars especially, when someone is saying many different things about a matter and going on about them, because they want to hide some part of it the most, they don’t speak in an organized way or appeal to their audience by ordering things in the same place but where they are most deceptive. This is because they are ashamed to lie and hesitate to proceed, especially when it is about something serious. For this reason, liars do not speak in a loud voice when they come to this moment. Some people stutter and speak unclearly; others act as if they don’t know the truth but heard this from others.

Whoever speaks something true does it fearing nothing. Nor then has Homer spoken about the abduction of Helen or even about the sack of the city simply or in a free manner. Instead, as I was saying, even though he was so very bold, he stumbled and swooned because he knew he was speaking the opposite to the truth and was lying about the very substance of his affair.”

Ἐπιχειρήσας γὰρ τὸν πόλεμον εἰπεῖν τὸν γενόμενον τοῖς Ἀχαιοῖς πρὸς τοὺς Τρῶας, οὐκ εὐθὺς ἤρξατο ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρχῆς, ἀλλ᾿ ὅθεν ἔτυχεν· ὃ ποιοῦσι πάντες οἱ ψευδόμενοι σχεδόν, ἐμπλέκοντες καὶ περιπλέκοντες καὶ οὐθὲν βουλόμενοι λέγειν ἐφεξῆς· ἧττον γὰρ κατάδηλοί εἰσιν· εἰ δὲ μή, ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ τοῦ πράγματος ἐξελέγχονται. τοῦτο δὲ ἰδεῖν ἔστι καὶ ἐν τοῖς δικαστηρίοις καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις γιγνόμενον οἳ μετὰ τέχνης ψεύδονται. οἱ δὲ βουλόμενοι τὰ γενόμενα ἐπιδεῖξαι, ὡς ξυνέβη ἕκαστον, οὕτως ἀπαγγέλλουσι, τὸ πρῶτον πρῶτον καὶ τὸ δεύτερον δεύτερον καὶ τἄλλα ἐφεξῆς ὁμοίως. ἓν μὲν τοῦτο αἴτιον τοῦ μὴ κατὰ φύσιν ἄρξασθαι τῆς ποιήσεως· ἕτερον δέ, ὅτι τὴν ἀρχὴν αὐτῆς καὶ τὸ τέλος μάλιστα ἐπεβούλευσεν ἀφανίσαι καὶ ποιῆσαι τὴν ἐναντίαν δόξαν ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν. ὅθεν οὔτε τὴν ἀρχὴν οὔτε τὸ τέλος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ἐκ τοῦ εὐθέος, οὐδὲ ὑπέσχετο ὑπὲρ τούτων οὐδὲν ἐρεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ εἴ που καὶ μέμνηται, παρέργως καὶ βραχέως, καὶ δῆλός ἐστιν ἐπιταράττων· οὐ γὰρ ἐθάρρει πρὸς αὐτὰ οὐδὲ ἐδύνατο ἐρεῖν ἑτοίμως. συμβαίνει δὲ καὶ τοῦτο τοῖς ψευδομένοις ὡς τὸ πολύ γε, ἄλλα μέν τινα λέγειν τοῦ πράγματος καὶ διατρίβειν ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς, ὃ δ᾿ ἂν1 μάλιστα κρύψαι θέλωσιν, οὐ προτιθέμενοι λέγουσιν οὐδὲ προσέχοντι τῷ ἀκροατῇ, οὐδ᾿ ἐν τῇ αὑτοῦ2 χώρᾳ τιθέντες, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἂν λάθοι μάλιστα, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο καὶ ὅτι αἰσχύνεσθαι ποιεῖ τὸ ψεῦδος καὶ ἀποκνεῖν προσιέναι πρὸς αὑτό, ἄλλως τε ὅταν ᾖ περὶ τῶν μεγίστων. ὅθεν οὐδὲ τῇ φωνῇ μέγα λέγουσιν οἱ ψευδόμενοι ὅταν ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἔλθωσιν· οἱ δέ τινες αὐτῶν βατταρίζουσι καὶ ἀσαφῶς λέγουσιν· οἱ δὲ οὐχ ὡς αὐτοί τι εἰδότες, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἑτέρων ἀκούσαντες. ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ἀληθὲς λέγῃ τι, θαρρῶν καὶ οὐδὲν ὑποστελλόμενος λέγει. οὔτε οὖν τὰ περὶ τὴν ἁρπαγὴν τῆς Ἑλένης Ὅμηρος εἴρηκεν ἐκ τοῦ εὐθέος οὐδὲ παρρησίαν ἄγων ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῖς οὔτε περὶ τῆς ἁλώσεως τῆς πόλεως. καίτοι γάρ, ὡς ἔφην, ἀνδρειότατος ὢν ὑποκατεκλίνετο καὶ ἡττᾶτο ὅτι ᾔδει τἀναντία λέγων τοῖς οὖσι καὶ τὸ κεφάλαιον αὐτὸ τοῦ πράγματος ψευδόμενος.

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Miniature of Sinon from the Vergilius Romanus. He was a liar too.

“Enough About Plato”: Dionysius on Prose Style

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Letter to Gnaeus Pompeius 2

“And you yourself, bestie Geminus, were clear in holding the same opinion about the man in your letter in which you write verbatim: “in other types of composition it is easy to fall somewhere between praise and blame—but in ornament, what does not succeed, fails completely. For this reason, it seems right to me not to interrogate these men for their few failures but for the greater number of their successes.”

And later after this you say these things an addition: “Even though I am able to mount a defense for all of these passages or most of them, I do not dare to speak against you. But I do take this one point hard—that  it is not possible to succeed impressively in every way unless you take these kind of risks and enter those situations in which it is necessary to stumble”.

We don’t diverge from one another—for you agree that it is necessary that one who has great aims sometimes stumbles while I say that Plato in reaching for sublime, magnificent, and surprising phrases did not succeed all the time, but that his mistakes occupy only a small portion of his total attempts. I also add that this is one way in which Plato is less than Demosthenes—for his heightened style at times slips into emptiness and unpleasantry; for Demosthenes this happens never or rarely at all. That’s enough about Plato.”

καὶ σύ γε αὐτός, ὦ βέλτιστε Γεμῖνε, ὁμοίαν ἐμοὶ γνώμην περὶ τἀνδρὸς ἔχων φαίνῃ δι᾿ αὐτῆς γέ τοι τῆς ἐπιστολῆς, ἐν οἷς κατὰ λέξιν οὕτω γράφεις· ῾ἐν μὲν γὰρ τοῖς ἑτέροις σχήμασι ῥᾴδιον πεσεῖν μέσον τι ἐπαίνου καὶ μέμψεως· ἐν δὲ τῇ κατασκευῇ τὸ μὴ ἐπιτευχθὲν πάντῃ ἀποτυγχάνεται. διό μοι δοκεῖ τούτους τοὺς ἄνδρας οὐκ ἐκ τῶν ἐπικινδυνοτέρων οὐδὲ ἐλασσόνων, ἀλλ᾿ ἐκ τῶν πλείστων καὶ εὐτυχηθέντων ἐξετάζειν᾿. καὶ μετ᾿ ὀλίγα πάλιν ἐπιλέγεις ταυτί· ῾ἐγὼ δὲ καίπερ ἔχων ἀπολογήσασθαι ὑπὲρ ἁπάντων ἢ τῶν γε πλείστων οὐ τολμῶ σοι ἐναντία λέγειν· ἓν δὲ τοῦτο διισχυρίζομαι, ὅτι οὐκ ἔστι μεγάλως ἐπιτυχεῖν ἐν οὐδενὶ τρόπῳ μὴ τοιαῦτα τολμῶντα καὶ παραβαλλόμενον, ἐν οἷς καὶ σφάλλεσθαι ἐστὶν ἀναγκαῖον.᾿ οὐδὲν διαφερόμεθα πρὸς ἀλλήλους· σύ τε γὰρ ὁμολογεῖς ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι τὸν ἐπιβαλλόμενον μεγάλοις καὶ σφάλλεσθαί ποτε, ἐγώ τέ φημι τῆς ὑψηλῆς καὶ μεγαλοπρεποῦς καὶ παρακεκινδυνευμένης φράσεως ἐφιέμενον Πλάτωνα μὴ περὶ πάντα τὰ μέρη κατορθοῦν, πολλοστὴν μέντοι μοῖραν ἔχειν τῶν κατορθουμένων τὰ διαμαρτανόμενα ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ. καὶ καθ᾿ ἓν τοῦτο Πλάτωνά φημι λείπεσθαι Δημοσθένους, ὅτι παρ᾿ ᾧ μὲν ἐκπίπτει ποτὲ τὸ ὕψος τῆς λέξεως [τῶν λόγων] εἰς τὸ κενὸν καὶ ἀηδές, παρ᾿ ᾧ δὲ οὐδέποτε ἢ σπανίως γε κομιδῇ. καὶ περὶ μὲν Πλάτωνος τοσαῦτα.

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Goodbye Cato, Cicero and Sallust: Loving Literature until It Hurts

Aurelius to Fronto

“Am I supposed to study when you are in pain—especially when you are in pain because of me? Should I not voluntarily punish myself with every kind of discomfort? It is deserved, by Hercules. What other person caused the pain in your knee which you wrote increased last night, except for Centumcellae, except for me? What can I do when I cannot see you and I am tortured with worry? And, in addition, even if I could study, the courts prohibit it since, as those who know say, they consume whole days.

Nevertheless, I sent you today’s maxim and yesterday’s commonplace. We traveled on the road the whole day yesterday. Today it is difficult to do anything but the evening maxim. Do you, you say, sleep so long a night? I certainly can sleep, for I am big on sleep. But it is so cold in my room that I can barely reach my hand from my clothes!

In all honesty, what distracted my mind the most from studies especially was that, because I love literature too much, I was a burden for you at the Harbor, as events proved. So, then, goodbye to all the Catos, the Ciceros, and the Sallusts, provided that you are well and that I may see you healthy even without books.

Farewell, my greatest joy, my sweetest teacher.

Egone ut studeam quom tu doleas, praesertim quom mea causa doleas? Non me omnibus incommodis sponte ipse adflictem? Merito hercule. Quis enim tibi alius dolorem genus, quem scribis nocte proxima auctum, quis alius eum suscitavit, nisi Centumcellae, ne me dicam? Quid igitur faciam, qui nec te video et tanto angore | discrucior? Adde eo quod etiamsi libeat studere, iudicia prohibent, quae, ut dicunt qui sciunt, dies totos eximent. Misi tamen hodiernum γνώμην et nudiustertianum locum communem. Heri totum diem in itinere adtrivimus. Hodie difficile est ut praeter vespertinam γνώμην quicquam agi possit. Nocte, inquis, tam longa dormis? Et dormire quidem possum, nam sum multi somni; sed tantum frigoris est in cubiculo meo, ut manus vix exseri possit. Sed re vera illa res maxime mih-animum a studiis depulit, quod, dum nimium litteras amo, tibi incommodus apud Portum fui, ut res ostendit. Itaque valeant omnes Porcii et Tullii et Crispi, dum tu valeas, et te vel sine libris firmum tamen videam. Vale, praecipuum meum gaudium, magister dulcissime.


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Fronto on Cicero: A Font of Eloquence with Predictable words

M. Cornelius Fronto to Marcus Aurelius (c. 139 CE) 1.3

“Up to now, you have perhaps been wondering in what number I might place Marcus Cicero who is the peak and the origin of Roman eloquence. I think that he used the most beautiful words all the time and that he was ahead of all other orators in making magnificent whatever topic he wished to illustrate. But, he seems to be to have been less than scrupulous in selecting his words—either because of the hugeness of his mind, in avoidance of extra work, or because of a trust that without even seeking it he would find present what barely appears when others search for it.

And so, as someone who has repeatedly read all of his writings most carefully, I believe that I have sensed that he managed every kind of word most effectively—direct words, metaphors, simple and compound words—and what shines through everywhere in his writings, noble words and often quite charming ones. But still, in all of his speeches you will discover very few works which are uncommon or unexpected, the types of words which cannot be hunted down without study, and concern, and work, and a great memory of old poems.

I am calling an uncommon and unexpected word one which is offered beyond the hope or expectation of those reading or listening so that, if you take it away and ask the reader to finish the meaning, he would discover no other word or at least none so well matched to what the phrase means.”

3. Hic tu fortasse iamdudum requiras quo in numero locem M. Tullium, qui caput atque fons Romanae eloquentiae cluet. Eum ego arbitror usquequaque verbis pulcherrimis elocutum et ante omnes alios oratores ad ea, quae ostentare vellet, ornanda magnificum fuisse. Verum is mihi videtur a quaerendis scrupulosius verbis procul afuisse vel magnitudine animi vel fuga laboris vel fiducia, non quaerenti etiam sibi, quae vix aliis quaerentibus subvenirent, praesto adfutura. Itaque comperisse videor, ut qui eius scripta omnia studiosissime lectitarim, cetera eum genera verborum copiosissime uberrimeque tractasse, verba propria translata simplicia composita et, quae in eius scriptis ubique dilucent, verba honesta, saepenumero etiam amoena: quom tamen in omnibus eius orationibus paucissima admodum reperias insperata atque inopinata verba, quae non nisi cum studio atque cura atque vigilia atque Vat.145multa veterum carminum memoria indagantur. | Insperatum autem atque inopinatum verbum appello, quod praeter spem atque opinionem audientium aut legentium promitur, ita ut, si subtrahas atque eum qui legat quaerere ipsum iubeas, nullum aut non ita significando adcommodatum verbum aliud reperiat.

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Quintilian: Advice for Judging Great Authors

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.24-26

“Let the reader not be persuaded as a matter of course that everything the best authors said is perfect. For they slip at times, they give in to their burdens, and they delight in the pleasure of their own abilities. They do not always pay attention; and they often grow tired. Demosthenes seems to doze to Cicero; Homer naps for Horace. Truly, they are great, but they are still mortals and it happens that those who believe that whatever appears in these authors should be laws for speaking often imitate their lesser parts, since this is easier—and they believe they are enough like them if they emulate the faults of great authors.

Still, one must pass judgment on these men with modesty and care to avoid what often happens when people condemn what they do not understand. If it is necessary to err in either part, I would prefer readers to enjoy everything in these authors rather than dismiss much.”

Neque id statim legenti persuasum sit, omnia quae summi auctores dixerint utique esse perfecta. Nam et labuntur aliquando et oneri cedunt et indulgent ingeniorum suorum voluptati, nec semper intendunt animum, nonnumquam fatigantur, cum Ciceroni dormitare interim Demosthenes, Horatio vero etiam Homerus ipse videatur.  Summi enim sunt, homines tamen, acciditque iis qui quidquid apud illos reppererunt dicendi legem putant ut deteriora imitentur (id enim est facilius), ac se abunde similes putent si vitia magnorum consequantur. Modesto tamen et circumspecto iudicio de tantis viris pronuntiandum est, ne, quod plerisque accidit, damnent quae non intellegunt. Ac si necesse est in alteram errare partem, omnia eorum legentibus placere quam multa displicere maluerim.

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Comparing Domitian to Ovid, Lucan and Friends: Quintilian With Some World-Class Shade

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1

“Atacinus Varro acquired his name as a translator of other’s work—he certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, but in truth he has little to commend for improving an ability in speaking. Ennius, we should adore as we would groves sacred with age whose ancient trees have less beauty than they have religious awe. Others are closer to this time and are more useful for our subject. Ovid is certainly indulgent in his epic verse and too in love with his own genius, but still should be praised for some things. Cornelius Severus, moreover, even if he was a better metrician than a poet, still would have claimed second place for himself if he had finished his Sicilian War to the standard of his first book.

An early death kept Serranus from reaching his potential, yet his youthful works demonstrate special ability and a desire for correct form that is especially admirable in one so young. We recently lost a lot in Valerius Flaccus. Saleius  Bassus had a forceful poetic ability—it did not improve with age. Rabirius and Pedo are worth a read, if you have extra time. Lucan is forceful, intense, and famous for his quotability, but, if I may say what I really think, a model more for orators than poets.

I am listing these authors because care for the lands of the earth has distracted Germanicus Augustus [Domitian] from the pursuits he began—it seemed insufficient to the gods that he be the greatest of poets. But, still, what could appear more sublime, more learned, and more outstanding by every account than the works of this young man who put the empire aside? Who could sing of wars better than the one who wages them in this way? Whom would the deities of these arts heed more closely? To whom would Minerva more easily unveil her own arts? Future generations will explain these things more fully, for now this praise is constrained by the glare of his other virtues.”

Atacinus Varro in iis per quae nomen est adsecutus interpres operis alieni, non spernendus quidem, verum ad augendam facultatem dicendi parum locuples. Ennium sicut sacros vetustate lucos adoremus, in quibus grandia et antiqua robora iam non tantam habent speciem quantam religionem. Propiores alii atque ad hoc de quo loquimur magis utiles. Lascivus quidem in herois quoque Ovidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen partibus. Cornelius autem Severus, etiam si sit versificator quam poeta melior, si tamen (ut est dictum) ad exemplar primi libri bellum Siculum perscripsisset, vindicaret sibi iure secundum locum. Serranum consummari mors inmatura non passa est, puerilia tamen eius opera et maximam indolem ostendunt et admirabilem praecipue in aetate illa recti generis voluntatem. Multum in Valerio Flacco nuper amisimus. Vehemens et poeticum ingenium Salei Bassi fuit, nec ipsum senectute maturuit. Rabirius ac Pedo non indigni cognitione, si vacet. Lucanus ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus et, ut dicam quod sentio, magis oratoribus quam poetis imitandus. Hos nominamus quia Germanicum Augustum ab institutis studiis deflexit cura terrarum, parumque dis visum est esse eum maximum poetarum. Quid tamen his ipsis eius operibus in quae donato imperio iuvenis secesserat sublimius, doctius, omnibus denique numeris praestantius? Quis enim caneret bella melius quam qui sic gerit? Quem praesidentes studiis deae propius audirent? Cui magis suas artis aperiret familiare numen Minerva?  Dicent haec plenius futura saecula, nunc enim ceterarum fulgore virtutum laus ista praestringitur. Nos tamen sacra litterarum colentis feres, Caesar, si non tacitum hoc praeterimus et Vergiliano certe versu testamur


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