Posted by Dennis » 7 Comments »
Quoth Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard,
‘When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education.
Hans clearly presents this as a quotation, presumably from a classical source, but there seems to be no real antiquity to it. At least not in that form. It may be a distortion of a passage in Plutarch, as the page linked suggests, a suspicion I had come to just before reading that page. Plutarch had actually said that Alexander wept upon hearing that there were infinite worlds, realizing that he had not yet conquered even one of them.
The mistake is easy enough to understand. A) Everybody knows that Alexander conquered the world, B) we hear that Alexander wept … hm … something about other worlds … ah-ha! C) Alexander wept when he realized there were no other worlds to conquer!
Variations on the theme crop up throughout 19th century works in much the same form as today, namely as vague references to something we all just know to be true. One book review I found from 1842 uses a slight variant and justifies itself by saying, ‘the books tell us,’ suggesting that it was already a commonplace:
Alexander wept for other worlds to conquer, the books tell us, because, forsooth, he had marched with an army in one direction through countries whose utmost extent was about two-thirds that of the United States.
This is clearly drawn from the passage in Plutarch referred to above, though through some intermediate source that has blurred the original and offered the wrong context. (Incidentally, the review in which this crops up is for a work of alternate history by Louis Geoffroy, apparently one of the first of its kind.)
Even before this and for long after it was a commonplace in English grammar and composition books. Searches like those I performed with Google Print show wild variations more than a century and a half ago, indicating that this non-classical quotation was, even then, used by those professing a classical education, doubtless unchecked by others eager to maintain the same pretense.
It’s clear in their contexts that earlier writers such as Calvin and Molière understood the original, but the repetition of an obscure quotation seems, in this case, like a particularly romantic game of telephone.
In fact, I wonder now if a misreading of Calvin wasn’t the original culprit. Calvin used the reference in his interpretation of Psalm 146 (‘3. Trust not in princes; in the son of man in whom there is not safety. 4. His breath shall go forth; he shall return to his earth, in that day his thoughts  shall perish.’):
When he says that in that day all his thoughts perish, or flow away, perhaps under this expression he censures the madness of princes in setting no bounds to their hopes and desires, and scaling the very heavens in their ambition, like the insane Alexander of Macedon, who, upon hearing that there were other worlds, wept that he had not yet conquered one, although soon after the funeral urn sufficed him.
That Calvin juxtaposed this event closely with Alexander’s death (which I’m not sure Plutarch hints at) made it easier to confuse conquering no world with conquering this world, a feat acknowledged by all for Alexander, who died young.
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David Meadows, the rogue classicist, is wondering about an epigram of Martial that is bandied about here and there to support the claim that ‘the Romans’ (always a loaded phrase) would toast their ladies with a drink for every letter of their names. Unable to find the epigram due to the old-fashioned habit among old-fashioned writers of forgoing citations (as though everyone with a proper education should recognize every classical reference, as when Tully ruefully remarked … you get the picture), David has asked for help in locating a verse translated in part as ‘Six cups to Naevia’s health go quickly round!’
That would be Martial 1. 71:
Laevia sex cyathis, septem Iustina bibatur,
Quinque Lycas, Lyde quattuor, Ida tribus.
Omnis ab infuso numeretur amica Falerno,
Et quia nulla venit, tu mihi, Somne, veni.
The custom, via this epigram, has even found its way into the Oxford Latin Dictionary under bibo 1 d, ‘to toast (a name, by drinking once for each letter).’
Let Laevia be drunk with six glasses, Justina seven,
Lycas five, Lyde four, Ida three.
Let all my loves be recounted from the Falernian (wine) consumed,
and since none comes, you, Sleep, come to me.
David was right, I think, in suspecting the claim to be spurious in that the context makes it clear that this wasn’t a custom, but simply a sad and lonely night for poor old Martial, drinking himself to sleep over thoughts of girls gone by.
That’s why I’ve translated bibatur as ‘let her be drunk’ rather than ‘let her be toasted.’ The idea of a toast is misleading. Martial is not ‘drinking to the health’ of all the girls he knew before; rather, the alcohol acts as a surrogate for each.
It’s heart-breaking, really.
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I’m conflicted. Is this a compliment?
I’m a great fan of your site, and wish I’d known of the grad school cheat sheet when I was a student…I’m a great fan of your site, and wish I’d known of the grad school cheat sheet when I was a student…
Or is it an ad?
I wonder if you’re familiar with the blog by the TLS classics editor, Mary Beard http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/ – she discusses various aspects of classics (which she teaches at Cambridge) and today’s entry discusses why the Romans didn’t drink cocktails and why they should have
Either way, I’m honored as the author of that e-mail works for the TLS. Even if other (more consistent) blogs received similar messages, it’s the TLS.
So that will allow me to rest on my laurels a bit more during what’s left of Winter break. I’ll play some more Nintendo Wii, read some soul-destroying books on education and teaching, and develop more lesson plans. What I am unlikely to do, however, is blog, so I reckon Mary Beard will have to keep picking up the slack for the Campus (I jest).