Procrastination: A Greek and Roman Tradition

Our word ‘procrastination’ is pretty much a direct borrowing from Latin (first attested in English in 1548, according to the OED–we really delayed in adopting it!). There was also a brief-lived adaptation of Latin cunctatio (delay) in English cunctation, cunctatory, cunctatious (etc.) but, thankfully, that fell into disuse. Eventually.

Here are some Greek and Roman thoughts on delay:

From the Suda:

Ἀμβολία: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: Hesitation: postponement
Ἀναβάλλειν: To Delay
Ἀνάθεσις: ἡ ὑπέρθεσις: A delay: postponement
Διαμέλλει: ἀναβολῇ χρῆται: He/she put something off: to employ procrastination.

A few proverbs from the Suda

“The wings of Daidalos”: used of those who employ delay because they lack a prosthetic.

Δαιδάλου πτερά: ἐπὶ τῶν δι’ ἀπορίαν προσθήκης χρωμένων παρελκύσει.

“The hedgehog would put off childbirth.” This proverb is applied to situations that become worse with delay”

Ἐχῖνος τὸν τόκον ἀναβάλλῃ: λέγεται ἐφ’ ὧν τὸ ἀναβάλλεσθαι πρὸς χείρονος γίνεται.

Image result for Medieval manuscript hedgehog

Terence, Andria 206

“Dave, this is no place for sluggishness or procrastination.”

Dave, nil locist segnitiae neque socordiae,

Propertius, 1.12

“Why can’t you stop flinging a charge of laziness at me—
The claim that Rome, Ponticus, is making me procrastinate?”

Quid mihi desidiae non cessas fingere crimen,
quod faciat nobis, Pontice, Roma moram?

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

Cicero, Letters (to Atticus) 10.9

“Fearing this, I fell into this delay. But I might achieve everything if I hurry—if I procrastinate, I lose.”

hoc verens in hanc tarditatem incidi. sed adsequar omnia si propero: si cunctor, amitto.

Cicero, Letters to Friends (Caelius Rufus to Cicero, 87)

“You know how slow and barely effective Marcellus is. And Servius too, the procrastinator….”

nosti Marcellum, quam tardus et parum efficax sit, itemque Servium, quam cunctator

Thucydides, 2.18

“The Peloponnesians believed that when they arrived they would have captured everything outside still immediately, except for his procrastination…”

καὶ ἐδόκουν οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι ἐπελθόντες ἂν διὰ τάχους πάντα ἔτι ἔξω καταλαβεῖν, εἰ μὴ διὰ τὴν ἐκείνου μέλλησιν

Demosthenes, Second Olynthiac 23

“It is no surprise that Philip, when he goes on campaign himself, toiling and present at every event, overlooking no opportunity or season, outstrips us as we procrastinate, vote on things, and make official inquiries.”

οὐ δὴ θαυμαστόν ἐστιν, εἰ στρατευόμενος καὶ πονῶν ἐκεῖνος αὐτὸς καὶ παρὼν ἐφ᾿ ἅπασι καὶ μήτε καιρὸν μήθ᾿ ὥραν παραλείπων ἡμῶν μελλόντων καὶ ψηφιζομένων καὶ πυνθανομένων περιγίγνεται.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

Minucius Felix, Octavius 13

“Shouldn’t everyone should respect and imitate the procrastination of Simonides, the lyric poet? When he was asked by the tyrant Hiero what he thought about the nature of the gods, first he asked for a day to think about it. On the next day, he asked for two more days. And he requested another two when reminded again!

Finally, when the tyrant asked the cause of so much delay, he responded that to him “the truth became as much more obscure as the time spent pursuing it”. To my taste, matters that are uncertain should be let as they are. When so many impressive minds disagree, decisions should not be made rashly or speedily for either side to avoid entertaining an old woman’s superstition or the loss of all religion.”

Simonidis Melici nonne admiranda omnibus et sectanda cunctatio? Qui Simonides, cum de eo, quid et quales arbitraretur deos, ab Hierone tyranno quaereretur, primo deliberationi diem petiit, postridie biduum prorogavit, mox alterum tantum admonitus adiunxit. Postremo, cum causas tantae morae tyrannus inquireret, respondit ille ‘quod sibi, quanto inquisitio tardior pergeret, tanto veritas fieret obscurior.’Mea quoque opinione quae sunt dubia, ut sunt, relinquenda sunt, nec, tot ac tantis viris deliberantibus, temere et audaciter in alteram partem ferenda sententia est, ne aut anilis inducatur superstitio aut omnis religio destruatur.”

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos.              5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

A Suggestion for a Friday Night: Propertius, 2.1.43-46

“The sailor talks about the winds, and the ploughman about the bulls; the soldier counts his wounds, and the shepherd his sheep. We engage in our own little battles on a narrow bed. People should grind away the day doing what they’re good at.”

“Propertius And Cynthia At Tivoli” – Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon

navita de ventis, de tauris narrat arator;

enumerat miles vulnera, pastor oves;

nos angusto versamus proelia lecto:

qua pote quisque, in ea conterat arte diem.

Eternal Fame, or Specks of Gold in a Sh*theap? – Early Reception of Ennius

In response to a comment about Ennius’ reputation in Joel’s post from yesterday, I began to wonder about the reception of Ennius’ poems.  I remembered that Ennius was cited by practically every (surviving) Roman poet of the Golden Age, but  I could not recall a consistent portrait emerging from these references. The only anecdote which readily stuck in my mind was the one of Vergil, cited by Donatus and Cassiodorus, saying that he was “looking for gold in the shitheap of Ennius.” Yet this is a late reference, and likely a totally fabricated story. As such, I dug through all of the major surviving Roman poets of the 1st century BC for direct references to Ennius, in order to form some sort of rough sketch of Ennian reception at the time. I omitted any prose authors (especially Cicero) in order to keep the search limited to the manageable which seemed appropriate for slapdash online posting, but I may later delve deeper into the subject. For now, here is a brief summary of early Ennian reception:

One of the recurring themes among the poets who mention Ennius is his lack of art or technical skill. This may be readily attributed to the fact that he was, in effect, a pioneer of Latin versification; we ought not to be surprised if his compositions lack the polish of the later writers who took him to task for his roughness:

And as grave Ennius sang of Mars with his own style – Ennius, the greatest in talent, but wanting in art.

utque suo Martem cecinit grauis Ennius ore,
Ennius ingenio maximus, arte rudis:
Ovid, Tristia II

The work which you ask for is a mortal thing, but I am seeking eternal fame, that my praises might be sung the world over. Homer will live on, while Tenedos and Ida still stand, while the Simois churns its rapid waters into the sea. Hesiod, too, will live, while the grapes teem with must and Ceres falls when cut by curved sickle. Callimachus will always be sung all over the world, though more for his skill than his native talent. No loss will ever befall the Sophoclean buskin; Aratus will last as long as the sun and moon. As long as there be a lying slave, a harsh father, a saucy madam and a pleasing prostitute, Menander will live on; Ennius, lacking art, and windy-mouthed Accius have a name that will die in no age.

Mortale est, quod quaeris, opus. mihi fama perennis
    quaeritur, in toto semper ut orbe canar.
vivet Maeonides, Tenedos dum stabit et Ide,
    dum rapidas Simois in mare volvet aquas;               10
vivet et Ascraeus, dum mustis uva tumebit,
    dum cadet incurva falce resecta Ceres.
Battiades semper toto cantabitur orbe;
    quamvis ingenio non valet, arte valet.
nulla Sophocleo veniet iactura cothurno;               15
    cum sole et luna semper Aratus erit;
dum fallax servus, durus pater, inproba lena
    vivent et meretrix blanda, Menandros erit;
Ennius arte carens animosique Accius oris
    casurum nullo tempore nomen habent.      

Ovid, Amores 1.15.7-20

This appears rarely in the noble trimeters of Accius, and presses upon the verses of Ennius, sent onto the stage with a great weight, with the shameful fault either of hasty workmanship lacking art, or lack of technical skill.

…Hic et in Acci
nobilibus trimetris adparet rarus, et Enni
in scaenam missos cum magno pondere uersus               260
aut operae celeris nimium curaque carentis
aut ignoratae premit artis crimine turpi.

Horace, Ars Poetica 258-262

Propertius in particular seems to focus on the gravity of Ennius as a foil to his own image as the Roman Callimachus in search of softer themes and softer expression. Yet, this impression of gravity which is attributed to him by Propertius is undercut by a note of Horace:

I dreamt that I reclined in the gentle shade of Helicon, where the water of Bellerophon’s horse did flow, and that I could sing, O Alba, your kings and deeds – ah, such a work! – with my instruments. I had brought my tiny mouth to those grand founts (from whence thirsty Ennius once drank, when he sang the Curian brothers and the Horatian spears, and the regal trophies carried on the Aemelian raft, and the victorious delays of Fabius, and the awful fight at Cannae, and the gods who turned to our pious prayers, and the Lares chasing Hannibal from the Roman land, and how Jupiter was saved by the voice of a goose). Suddenly, Phoebus saw me from a Castalian tree, and leaning on his golden lyre by the cave, said, ‘What business have you, you madman, with this stream? Who ordered you to undertake the work of a heroic poem?

Visus eram molli recubans Heliconis in umbra,
Bellerophontei qua fluit umor equi,
reges, Alba, tuos et regum facta tuorum,
tantum operis, nervis hiscere posse meis;
parvaque iam magnis admoram fontibus ora
(unde pater sitiens Ennius ante bibit,
et cecinit Curios fratres et Horatia pila,
regiaque Aemilia vecta tropaea rate,
victricisque moras Fabii pugnamque sinistram
Cannensem et versos ad pia vota deos,
Hannibalemque Lares Romana sede fugantis,
anseris et tutum voce fuisse Iovem),
cum me Castalia speculans ex arbore Phoebus
sic ait aurata nixus ad antra lyra:
‘quid tibi cum tali, demens, est flumine? quis te
carminis heroi tangere iussit opus?
Propertius, 3.3

Ah me, how light is the sound in my mouth! Yet, whatever flows from the tiny heart of this stream, all of it will serve my country. Let Ennius gird his sayings with a bristly crown: but Bacchus, give me the leaves of your ivy, so that Umbria may swell with pride as the birthplace of the Roman Callimachus!

ei mihi, quod nostro est paruus in ore sonus!
sed tamen exiguo quodcumque e pectore riui
    fluxerit, hoc patriae seruiet omne meae.
Ennius hirsuta cingat sua dicta corona:
    mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua,
ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Vmbria libris,
    Vmbria Romani patria Callimachi!

(Propertius, 4.1)

But I have said that he flows like mud, and often bears many things which must be removed from that which should remain. Yet tell me, with all of your learning, do you find nothing to criticize in great Homer? Does pleasing Lucilius change nothing of tragic Accius? Does he not also laugh at the verses of Ennius, which are lighter than the gravity of their subject, when he speaks of himself as not being greater than the things which he reproaches?

at dixi fluere hunc lutulentum, saepe ferentem               50
plura quidem tollenda relinquendis. age quaeso,
tu nihil in magno doctus reprehendis Homero?
nil comis tragici mutat Lucilius Acci?
non ridet versus Enni gravitate minores,
cum de se loquitur non ut maiore reprensis?

Horace, Sermones 1.10.50-55

Yet, Ennius is still given a certain amount of credit for his pioneering efforts. Lucretius and Horace both note the importance of Ennius as a bold adventurer in early Latin versification. Horace, in particular, focuses on his enhancement of Latin vocabulary by “bringing forth new names for things.”

No one knows what the nature of the soul might be, whether it be born, or whether it be inserted into us as we are born, and whether it die at the same time as us, or whether it visits the shadows and vast lakes of Orcus, or whether it insert itself into new flocks, as our Ennius has sung, who first brought down the eternally blooming crown from pleasant Helicon, to appear renowned through all of the Italian races.

ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai,
nata sit an contra nascentibus insinuetur
et simul intereat nobiscum morte dirempta
an tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas               115
an pecudes alias divinitus insinuet se,
Ennius ut noster cecinit, qui primus amoeno
detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam,
per gentis Italas hominum quae clara clueret;
Lucretius, 1.112-119

Yet what will the Roman give to Caecilius and Plautus, taken away from Vergil and Varius? Why am I, if I am able to obtain a little, envied, when the language of Cato and Ennius enriched their country’s speech, and brought forth new names for things? It has, and always will be possible to bring forth a name distinguished by some present thing of note.

…. Quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus, ademptum
Vergilio Varioque? Ego cur, adquirere pauca               55
si possum, inuideor, cum lingua Catonis et Enni
sermonem patrium ditauerit et noua rerum
nomina protulerit? Licuit semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen.

Horace, Ars Poetia 53-59

 

Horace also suggests that these early attempts at poetry have been sanctified by their age itself, giving expression to the old notion of gloria primis:

Ennius, a man wise, and brave, and even a second Homer (as the critics say) seems to have given rather light care to where the promises and dreams of Pythagoras fall. Naevius is not to hand, and clings to the mind as though he were almost recent? Such is the sanctity of every ancient poem.

Ennius, et sapiens et fortis et alter Homerus,               50
ut critici dicunt, leuiter curare uidetur
quo promissa cadant et somnia Pythagorea.
Naeuius in manibus non est et mentibus haeret
paene recens? Adeo sanctum est uetus omne poema.

Horace, Epistulae, 2.1.50-54

Yet, for all of the faults which these poets attribute to Ennius, they all accord to him a certain respect. Comparisons to Homer abound, and Ovid suggests that Ennius has earned his immortal fame:

What is sought by our sacred poets, except for fame alone? The sum of our labor inclines to this. At one time, poets were the concern of the gods and kings: ancient choruses bore off great rewards. Poets had a sacred majesty and a respectable name, and great wealth was bestowed upon them. Ennius, born in the Calabrian Mountains, deserved to be placed next to you, great Scipio. Now the ivy crowns lie without honor, and the waking, laborious care exercised by the learned Muses has the name of indolence. But vigilance is a help to Fame: who would have known Homer, if that eternal work, the Iliad, had been hidden?

Quid petitur sacris, nisi tantum fama, poetis?
     Hoc votum nostri summa laboris habet.
Cura deum fuerant olim regumque poetae:               405
     Praemiaque antiqui magna tulere chori.
Sanctaque maiestas et erat venerabile nomen
     Vatibus, et largae saepe dabantur opes.
Ennius emeruit, Calabris in montibus ortus,
     Contiguus poni, Scipio magne, tibi.               410
Nunc ederae sine honore iacent, operataque doctis
     Cura vigil Musis nomen inertis habet.
Sed famae vigilare iuvat: quis nosset Homerum,
     Ilias aeternum si latuisset opus?

Ovid, Ars Amatoria 3.403-414

Finally, Ennius is mentioned along with Homer, not just as a great poet, but also as one who relied on the assistance of Bacchus for his versification:

The sweet Muses almost smelled of wine in the morning; Homer may be proven to be a sot from his praises of wine. Father Ennius himself never sprang to the task of describing battles unless he got drunk first. ‘I will leave the Forum and the Well of Libo to the sober.”

uina fere dulces oluerunt mane Camenae; 5
laudibus arguitur uini uinosus Homerus;
Ennius ipse pater numquam nisi potus ad arma
prosiluit dicenda. ‘Forum putealque Libonis
mandabo siccis, adimam cantare seueris’:
Horace, Epistulae 1.19.5-9

Don’t Talk about Centaurs! Xenophanes on Proper Songs at a Symposium

 

Xenophanes, fr. B1 13-24

“First, it is right for merry men to praise the god
with righteous tales and cleansing words
after they have poured libations and prayed to be able to do
what is right: in fact, these things are easier to do,
instead of sacrilege. It is right as well to drink as much as you can
and still go home without help, unless you are very old.
It is right to praise a man who shares noble ideas when drinking
so that we remember and work towards excellence.
It is not right to narrate the wars of Titans or Giants
nor again of Centaurs, the fantasies of our forebears,
Nor of destructive strife. There is nothing useful in these tales.
It is right always to keep in mind good thoughts of the gods.”

χρὴ δὲ πρῶτον μὲν θεὸν ὑμνεῖν εὔφρονας ἄνδρας
εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις,
σπείσαντάς τε καὶ εὐξαμένους τὰ δίκαια δύνασθαι
πρήσσειν• ταῦτα γὰρ ὦν ἐστι προχειρότερον,
οὐχ ὕβρεις• πίνειν δ’ ὁπόσον κεν ἔχων ἀφίκοιο
οἴκαδ’ ἄνευ προπόλου μὴ πάνυ γηραλέος.
ἀνδρῶν δ’ αἰνεῖν τοῦτον ὃς ἐσθλὰ πιὼν ἀναφαίνει,
ὡς ἦι μνημοσύνη καὶ τόνος ἀμφ’ ἀρετῆς,
οὔ τι μάχας διέπειν Τιτήνων οὐδὲ Γιγάντων
οὐδὲ Κενταύρων, πλάσμα τῶν προτέρων,
ἢ στάσιας σφεδανάς• τοῖς οὐδὲν χρηστὸν ἔνεστιν•
θεῶν προμηθείην αἰὲν ἔχειν ἀγαθήν.

 

Propertius, 3.5.17

“Lydian Croesus is not that much different from Ithacan Irus.”

Lydus Dulichio non distat Croesus ab Iro

Note: Croesus, the king of Lydia, was famous for his wealth to such an extent that his name became associated with the stock character of the “rich man.” Irus is the beggar whom Odysseus nearly kills in a sparring match in The Odyssey.

Note 2: Perhaps a pithy quote is not effective if it requires a note substantially longer than the original expression in order to explain it to the general reader?

Love Is Tearing Me Apart: Tibullus, II.IV (1-12)

“Here I see my addiction, my mistress ready for me;
And so: farewell to my inherited freedom.
Here a sad slavery is granted and I am held by chains,
as Love never removes his bonds, though he burns me
whether I have earned it or made no mistake at all.
I burn, Oh I burn: remove the brands, you savage girl.
Oh, if I were but able not to feel such sorrow,
I would rather be a stone on the frozen cliffs
where the waves of the ruinous sea crush the shipwrecks!
Now the day is bitter and night’s shadow bitterer too.
Every second is dyed with a stinging poison.”

Hic mihi seruitium uideo dominamque paratam:
iam mihi, libertas illa paterna, uale.
seruitium sed triste datur, teneorque catenis,
et numquam misero uincla remittit Amor,
et seu quid merui seu nil peccauimus, urit.
uror, io, remoue, saeua puella, faces.
o ego ne possim tales sentire dolores,
quam mallem in gelidis montibus esse lapis,
stare uel insanis cautes obnoxia uentis,
naufraga quam uasti tunderet unda maris!
nunc et amara dies et noctis amarior umbra est:
omnia nam tristi tempora felle madent.

I have been in a longstanding debate with Palaiophron about the merits of Tibullus versus Propertius. I don’t know whether this segment proves his case, but it certainly does not help mine.

Here’s some Joy Division as an antidote. Or accelerant.

Valentine’s Day Vines: Greeks and Romans Say (Mostly) Nice Things about Love

What a Girl Wants: Mimnermus vs. Homer (Propertius 1.9.9-14)

What good to you is threnody, or crying over the walls built by Amphion’s lyre? In matters of love, a verse of Mimnermus is worth a lot more than Homer. Gentle Cupid would like to hear a softer strain. So please, put down those sad little books, and sing something that a girl would like to hear!

quid tibi nunc misero prodest grave dicere carmen
aut Amphioniae moenia flere lyrae? 10
plus in amore valet Mimnermi versus Homero:
carmina mansuetus lenia quaerit Amor.
i quaeso et tristis istos sepone libellos,
et cane quod quaevis nosse puella velit!

Greek Anthology, 5.88 (Rufinus): The Fire of Unrequited Love

“Fire-bearing love, if you haven’t the strength to light two equally afire
Either extinguish it or share the flame burning in only one.”

Εἰ δυσὶν οὐκ ἴσχυσας ἴσην φλόγα, πυρφόρε, καῦσαι,
τὴν ἑνὶ καιομένην ἢ σβέσον ἢ μετάθες.

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