The Consolation of Ancient History (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Praefatio 1)

“If I am going to complete something worth its effort as I record the tale of the Roman people from the beginning I do not know clearly; if I knew, I would not dare to say—since I have observed that this subject is of some antiquity and well-worn thanks to every new generation of authors who believe that they can establish something more certain in the events themselves or that they can improve upon rough antiquity by their skill in writing. However this turns out, it will be sufficient for me to have used my strength to make a record of the deeds of the planet’s foremost people. If my repute fades into obscurity among such a crowd of writers, I will be consoled by the nobility and greatness of those whose names precede me.

The subject, furthermore, is a tremendous undertaking, one that must be traced back over seven hundred years and which, though based in rather modest beginnings, has increased to such a size that it strains under its own weight. I also doubt that, for most readers, the first periods and the times near them will offer much in the way of pleasure; instead readers will rush to recent affairs during which a people who have long been powerful are bringing themselves to ruin. In contrast, I seek out a somewhat different reward for my labor: whenever I can turn my mind to these ancient affairs, I distract it from all the troubles which our age has been witnessing for years for as long as I contemplate the bygone days. Even if I cannot hide from the truth, since the mind of the historian mulls over every concern, it nevertheless brings some solace.”

 

Facturusne operae pretium sim si a primordio urbis res populi Romani perscripserim nec satis scio nec, si sciam, dicere ausim, quippe qui cum veterem tum volgatam esse rem videam, dum novi semper scriptores aut in rebus certius aliquid allaturos se aut scribendi arte rudem vetustatem superaturos credunt. Utcumque erit, iuvabit tamen rerum gestarum memoriae principis terrarum populi pro virili parte et ipsum consuluisse; et si in tanta scriptorum turba mea fama in obscuro sit, nobilitate ac magnitudine eorum me qui nomini officient meo consoler. Res est praeterea et immensi operis, ut quae supra septingentesimum annum repetatur et quae ab exiguis profecta initiis eo creverit ut iam magnitudine laboret sua; et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint, festinantibus ad haec nova quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt: ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca [tota] illa mente repeto, avertam, omnis expers curae quae scribentis animum, etsi non flectere a uero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Semantic Change and the Challenges of Linguistics: Varro, On the Latin Language, V.2-3

Varro, On the Latin Language, V 2-3

“…The first part, where we consider why and from where words develop, The Greeks call etymology; the second part is semantics. I will speak of these two categories in the following books together but more sparingly of the second.

These things are often rather obscure because every word that has been used does not still exist; the charge of time has made some forgotten. Moreover, every word that still exists, since it may be subject to misuse (applied incorrectly, for example) may not be wholly the same (since many words are altered by changes in spelling). And not every word has its origin from roots based in our own language. Many words indicate a different thing now from what they used to mean: for example, hostis (“enemy”). For, people who used this word in the past meant a foreigner who followed his own native laws; now when they use it they mean what used to be called perduellem (“enemy”).”

priorem illam partem, ubi cur et unde sint verba scrutantur, Graeci vocant etymologian, illam alteram peri semainomenon. De quibus duabus rebus in his libris promiscue dicam, sed exilius de posteriore.

Quae ideo sunt obscuriora, quod neque omnis impositio verborum exstat, quod vetustas quasdam delevit, nec quae exstat sine mendo omnis imposita, nec quae recte est imposita, cuncta manet (multa enim verba litteris commutatis sunt interpolata), neque omnis origo est nostrae linguae e vernaculis verbis, et multa verba aliud nunc ostendunt, aliud ante significabant, ut hostis: nam tum eo verbo dicebant peregrinum qui suis legibus uteretur, nunc dicunt eum quem tum dicebant perduellem.

The Challenges of Etymology and Historical Linguistics: Varro, On the Latin Language, V. 5

“The passing of time degrades most things; it destroys many. The man you saw as a handsome boy you find distorted in old age. A third generation does not see the same man the first witnessed For this reason, the things which memory has stolen from our forebears, despite the work of Mucius and Brutus to track the fugitives down, cannot be brought back. If I am not able to track things down, I will not be slower because of it, but quicker in pursuit if possible. For the shadows in the forests where these things must be sought are not modest and there are no worn paths to the places we want to pursue—and, certainly, no few obstacles which may stand in the tracker’s way.”

Vetustas pauca non depravat, multa tollit. Quem puerum vidisti formosum, hunc vides deformem in senecta. Tertium seculum non videt eum hominem quem vidit primum. Quare illa quae iam maioribus nostris ademit oblivio, fugitiva secuta sedulitas Muci et Bruti retrahere nequit. Non, si non potuero indagare, eo ero tardior, sed velocior ideo, si quivero. Non mediocres enim tenebrae in silva ubi haec captanda neque eo quo pervenire volumus semitae tritae, neque non in tramitibus quaedam obiecta quae euntem retinere possent.

Marcus Terentius Varro was a Roman scholar who lived from the time of the Gracchi until after the Battle of Actium (116 BC to 27). He wrote 25 books on the Latin language, of which we have barely 20%

The Mind Rules All: Sallust, Bellum Jurguthinum, 1

“The race of man complains wrongly about its nature, namely the fact that it is feeble in strength, limited in years and ruled more by chance than virtue. To the contrary, you can realize through contemplation that nothing else is greater or more extraordinary—that human nature lacks only perseverance instead of strength or time. The leader and ruler of mortal life is the mind. When it proceeds to glory along virtue’s path, it is fully powerful, potent and famous; it does not need fortune since fortune cannot grant or revoke honesty, perseverance, or any other good quality from any man. But a mind seized by desires is dedicated to laziness and worn by obedience to physical pleasure; accustomed to ruinous temptation for too long, when, thanks to sloth, strength, age and wit have diminished, only then is the weakness of nature at fault. Every man shifts his own responsibility to his circumstances.”

[1] Falso queritur de natura sua genus humanum, quod inbecilla atque aevi brevis forte potius quam virtute regatur. Nam contra reputando neque maius aliud neque praestabilius invenias magisque naturae industriam hominum quam vim aut tempus deesse. Sed dux atque imperator vitae mortalium animus est. Qui ubi ad gloriam virtutis via grassatur, abunde pollens potensque et clarus est neque fortuna eget, quippe quae probitatem, industriam aliasque artis bonas neque dare neque eripere cuiquam potest. Sin captus pravis cupidinibus ad inertiam et voluptates corporis pessum datus est, perniciosa libidine paulisper usus, ubi per socordiam vires tempus ingenium diffluxere, naturae infirmitas accusatur: suam quisque culpam auctores ad negotia transferunt.

I can’t help but thinking that maybe Sallust had read (or heard) the beginning of the Odyssey where Zeus complains that Aigisthus ignored divine warnings (1.32-34)

ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται.
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ’ ἔμμεναι• οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε’ ἔχουσιν

“Mortals! They are always blaming the gods and saying that evil comes from us when they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness.”

But, of course, there is a typically eclectic blend of Roman philosophy in Sallust’s statements: some Stoicism, an echo, perhaps, of Empedocles and much more….