Friday, December 20, 2013

Carpe diem, cave canem, and all that Latin jazz

 "Latin me that, my trinity scholar, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan!"—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
60 percent of English words come from Latin
I picked up Carpe Diem: Put A Little Latin in Your Life thinking it would be a glossary of phrases that had migrated into English, but it was so much more than that. There is a chapter of about 40 pages devoted to the meanings of common Latin phrases (like habeus corpus, subpoena, and cave canem), but author Harry Mount also provides a grounding of Latin grammar and vocabulary whilst never failing to entertain with his sidelights on Roman culture and its enduring influence. Here are some interesting factoids you may or may not have known.
—The Greeks pronounced the name of their goddess of victory, Nike, Kneekay. (The Romans called her Victoria.) An aspect of Athena (Roman Minerva), Nike was believed to assist in bringing victory in war if a cause was just. This sculpture is from a special temple on the Athenian Acropolis that was dedicated to her.
—Vestal virgins were allowed to leave the temple and marry at age 33. Woe betide them, however, if they engaged in any hanky panky before then: they were buried alive and their lover was flogged to death. On an more upbeat note, if a condemned man met a vestal on his way to the scaffold, he was pardoned automatically. (If I had been a family member, I would definitely have tried engineering something!)
—Christmas originally combined the Roman winter festival Saturnalia (celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture) and the northern pagan ritual Yule, which honored the sun god Mithras. This happened on December 21, the shortest day of the year. Yule logs were burned and kisses exchanged as a fertility ritual under the mistletoe. Not until 350 AD did Pope Julius I decide that Christ's birth would be celebrated on December 25 as an inducement for pagan Romans to join in.
—According to Mount, Thomas Jefferson was "an obsessive Romanist." When he was Secretary of State, he insisted that Washington's federal buildings be classical. In 1791, he advised architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant to follow classical designs for the Capitol: "I should prefer the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years." A self-taught architect, Jefferson followed his own dictum by using classical models for the State Capitol in Richmond, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (above left), and his own nearby home, Monticello.
—I never really looked into what the SPQR symbol lofted by all those legionnaires in historical epics meant. It stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus—the Senate and the Roman people. 
Cave canem!
—The great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse (seen at left with his wife, Ethel) won a classical scholarship in 1897 at Dulwich College, where he acquired a liking for Aristophanes (whom he called "slangy"). In The Girl on the Boat, he gives a Latin lesson on how the iambic verse form came about.
Nothing is more curious than the myriad ways in which reaction from an unfortunate love-affair manifests itself in various men. No two males behave in the same way under the spur of female fickleness. Archilochum, for instance, according to the Roman writer, proprio rabies armavit iambo. It is no good pretending out of politeness that you know what that means, so I will translate. Rabies—his grouch—armavit—armed—Archilochum—Archilochus—iambo—with the iambic—proprio—his own invention. In other words, when the poet Archilochus was handed his hat by the lady of his affections, he consoled himself by going off and writing satirical verse about her in a new metre which he had thought up immediately after leaving the house. That was the way the thing affected him. 
—Here's what Mount calls "the cleverest show-off joke in the history of the British Empire." When in 1843 Sir Charles Napier was charged with taking the Indian city of Miani in the province of Sind, he did so with dispatch, and later wrote a one-word telegram, "Peccavi," ["I have sinned"/Sind] back to the Indian office.  
Above right: General Sir Charles Napier leading a charge in India; below: a mosaic from Pompeii.
Annuit Coeptis—"He has favored our undertaking"—is taken from Virgil's Aeneid and appears on the Great Seal of the United States as well as on the dollar bill. The phrase under the pyramid signifies "the beginning of the new American era" according to the designer of the seal, founding father Charles Thomson. It also comes from Virgil, this time Eclogue IV, a pastoral poem. The line is "Magnus ab integro seclorum nascitur ordo." In context: "Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung / Has come and gone, and the majestic roll / Of circling centuries begins anew: / Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign, / With a new breed of men sent down from heaven."


  1. Sometimes I marvel at the synchronicity of things. I was about to search the Daedalus site for a Latin primer, because I stupidly sold mine back to the school, thinking I would never want to look at it ever again. Then you post this!
    Caveat: A little Latin is a dangerous thing. It'll bring out the geek in anyone.

    1. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!