in Culture, Language, Pedagogy

Happy Birthday: Roman Style?

Propertius III. 10, 1–4.

  1. Mirabar, quidnam visissent mane Camenae,
  2. ante meum stantes sole rubente torum.
  3. natalis nostrae signum misere puellae
  4. et manibus faustos ter crepuere sonos.

It’s Cynthia’s birthday, and Propertius says that the muses have visited him early in the morning, standing before his bed in the red light of dawn, to give him the sign. They clap their hands three times, making auspicious sounds. Propertius follows with a list of wishes for a clear, beautiful, joyous day with a few literary allusions. He asks Cynthia to pray to the gods, then to put on that number she wore the first time he saw her. Her religious duties satisfied, they’ll stay up through the night with wine and dancing, and finally retire to their room to do what lovers do.

What interests me here is something that’s been nagging at me for about a week. I’ve always heard from other teachers of Latin that we should use an exclamatory accusative to say ‘happy birthday!’, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s not the same as saying ‘ursam!’ on the occasion of a bear attack. You’re not just drawing attention to a birthday.

And now with Saturnalia upon us it occurred to me that we should expect something like ‘io Saturnalia!’

I suggested as much on Twitter today, and was pleasantly surprised when a Google Books search revealed a note by Joseph Scaliger on those lines of Propertius above. Scaliger, commenting on the last line, says that while clapping they used to say ‘io Natalis’ just as they said ‘io Saturnalia.’

It’s not conclusive, but I’m happy to find myself in the same camp as Scaliger.

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  1. Great work! I always feel uncomfortable when students ask this in class. For I felt the same sort of dread as when discussing what a non-attested principal part of Greek “would be.”


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