Archive for the ‘Reception’ Category


The Weather Channel gets classical

The Weather Channel has decided to name winter storms, and the choices are sometimes hilarious.

Here are the classical choices, with the official explanations:

Athena: The Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspirations, justice, mathematics and all things wonderful.

I think one of my former students ‘wrote’ this after doing a quick web search. Gods are always summed up as ‘the god of X,’ which quickly becomes ‘X, and, Y, and Z,’ and on and on, often including synonyms and bizarre interpolations.

Brutus: Roman Senator and best known assassin of Julius Caesar.

Okay. But why not mention both Lucius and Marcus Junius Brutus? For that matter, why Brutus, and not a real monster, like Briareus?

Caesar: Title used by Roman and Byzantine emperors.

Is there anyone in the world who thinks of the title Caesar before the most important bearer of the name?

Draco: The first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece.

Come on! Make it fun! Talk about the fact that he gave his name to the adjective ‘draconian’ because his penalties were so harsh. As harsh as a wicked winter storm? Hmm?

Euclid: A mathematician in Ancient Greece, the father of geometry.

Well, he lived in Alexandria, not on the Greek mainland. But make a connection … maybe to the geometric patterns in snowflakes.

Helen: In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the daughter of Zeus.

Ah, yes: Helen, the one and only daughter of Zeus. If only there was an interesting story or two one could tell about her.

Jove: The English name for Jupiter, the Roman god of light and sky.

Right. Because it’s not the Latin root or anything (Iuppiter, Iovis, Iovi, Iovem, Iove). Also, the god of light and sky? This sounds like vaguely barbarian religion in bad fantasy fiction. Or a song by Sting.

Luna: The divine embodiment of the moon in Roman mythology.

Also known as the moon.

Magnus: The Father of Europe, Charlemagne the Great, in Latin: Carolus Magnus.

Why Charlemagne and not Pompey? And why not mention that it means big or great, which might apply to a storm?

Nemo: A Greek boy’s name meaning “from the valley,” means “nobody” in Latin.

I suppose there could be a modern Greek name derived from τὸ νέμος, but I think it’s an erroneous claim for the source. Clearly they were thinking of the film Finding Nemo, and latched onto whatever vaguely classical connections they could find. They got lucky with the Latin.

Plato: Greek philosopher and mathematician, who was named by his wrestling coach.

While the Academy did apparently bear a sign barring the “un-geometried”, I think it’s a stretch to call Plato a mathematician.

Saturn: Roman god of time, also the namesake of the planet Saturn in our solar system.

Saturn is linked with Kronos, but Kronos (the god) is not chronos (time).

Triton: In Greek mythology, the messenger of the deep sea, son of Poseidon.

Is Triton a messenger? I thought he was a sort of nebulous sea god (or gods, the Tritones), blowing a conch to calm the sea.

Virgil: One of ancient Rome’s greatest poets.

Ahem: one of the world’s greatest poets. And it’s spelled Vergil. This isn’t the 19th century.

Zeus: In Greek mythology, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and the gods who lived there.

So who ruled over the rest of the world?


Verbal Artistry in Vergil: Word-Order in Aeneid 1.368

As Venus tells Aeneas the story of Dido, she tells him how Dido and her allies (socios, 360) acquired the territory of Carthage: they bought as much land as they could surround with a bull’s hide:

  1. mercatique solum, facti de nomine Byrsam,
  2. taurino quantum possent circumdare tergo.

Again, word-order reinforces the sense: the words for “bull’s” (taurino) and “hide” (tergo) themselves surround or encircle “how much land they could surround/encircle” (quantum possent circumdare). The repeated “t” sound at the beginning of these two words that go together and begin and end the line gives extra balance.

Incidentally, Pharr notes that the famous line-ending dux femina facti (364) was “stamped on the medals struck to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British in 1588, while Elizabeth was queen of England.” I’m not sure if this is true: see here, for instance; though it at least seems to have been used in such a way retrospectively. Anyone out there know if such medals were made during Elizabeth’s reign?


Cicero on books and the soul

I’m a hunter by nature, but what I hunt are words and meanings in books and now on the internet. One of the things I like to pursue is the origin of popular attributions, but the game is often quite elusive.

This one has been quoted often enough, and declared apocryphal:

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

I’ve found the source, and he was a learned and interesting man who was an admirer of Darwin, a defender of archaeological sites, and most famously the man who gave Bank Holidays to the U.K. (We’ll ignore his opposition to Irish Home Rule.)

The young Cicero reading (in a soulful nook?)

Sir John Lubbock wrote an essay for the Contemporary Review vol. 49 (1886) under the title ‘On the Love of Reading.’

He opens with a sentiment that could be echoed today:

Of all the privileges we enjoy in this nineteenth century there is none, perhaps, for which we ought to be more thankful than for the easier access to books.

It’s funny that I was able to access his essay through Google Books, which bypasses the physical object to make access even easier. But early in the essay he says the following, which is the source of the popular quotation:

Cicero described a room without books as a body without a soul. But it is by no means necessary to be a philosopher to love reading.

This essay was reprinted in several other publications, and was evidently so widely-read that some had false recollections of reading the line in Cicero.

So how could an accomplished polymath get something like this so wrong? Was he a fraud?

If he was anything in this instance he was probably too reliant on memory or too free in his interpretation, but it’s not a far leap from Cicero’s words:

postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit mens addita videtur meis aedibus.

– Cicero, ad Atticum IV.8

Translations tend to differ and take the word mens in quite different senses. (For example, a ‘soul’ has been added, according to E.O. Winstedt’s Loeb translation.) Heberden’s translation in the old Bohn edition, which seems a likely source for someone like Lubbock, says that ‘a new spirit has seemed to animate my house.’

To me it seems to say that an ordered library is like the brain of a house, but whether you think of as a soul, a spirit, or a mind, the comparison is clear: the home is endowed with a human property. And if it was no empty of books before, the books were of little use in their disordered state.

So let’s emend the thought (acknowledging that it isn’t a quotation) and say that a home without a library is like a body without a mind.


The myth of New Rome

Recently a minor debate arose on the Byzans-L listserv as to whether Constantinople was originally named by Constantine ‘New Rome’ (in Greek Νέα Ῥώμη, in Latin Nova Roma). I’ve read this claim uncritically a number of times in a number of sources, some of whom are quite good scholars, but it’s a bit like one of those popular attributions that no one ever bothers to check because Oscar Wilde (or Mark Twain) would have said something like that. We read it enough, we hear it enough, and we trust that the tradition we’ve received is accurate.

This is not 'New Rome.'

A case was made that the use of New Rome as a name for Constantinople was based on a sort of power struggle among the Churches of the East, and while the reasoning is sound and I accept the argument, I’m more concerned with the notion that New Rome was ever considered a name in the early period.

Adherents to the ‘New Rome’ position point to Canon III of the First Council of Constantinople (AKA the Second Ecumenical Council) of 381 CE:

Constantinopolitanus episcopus habeat priores honoris partes post Romanum episcopum, eo quod sit ipsa nova Roma

(The Bishop of Constantinople may have the better parts of honor after the Bishop of Rome inasmuch [the city] is itself a new Rome.)

This does not say that Constantinople was named ‘New Rome’ but that it was a new Rome, i.e., the seat of the Empire, a claim that no other city could make. If Rome was princeps urbium, then so was Constantinople, and it and its officials should be on similar footing.

It’s the city’s status, not its name that matters. By this logic the city council of New London, CT could officially decree for their mayor an equal share in the honors afforded the mayor of London, England. But would they?

The other source often cited does not say New Rome at all, but ‘a second Rome.’ This is the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates of Constantinople (1.16):

ἴσην τε τῇ βασιλευούσῃ Ῥώμῃ ἀποδείξας͵ καὶ Κωνσταντινούπολιν μετονομάσας͵ χρηματίζειν δευτέραν Ῥώμην νόμῳ ἐκύρωσεν·

(After making it known that it was equal to Rome under his administration and renaming it Constantinople, he decreed by law that it conduct its business as a second Rome.)

The crux here is the word χρηματίζειν, which many want to read in the sense ‘to take and bear a title or name,’ but the problem with this is that, again, it makes no sense to say that having changed the name to X, Constantine decreed that it take the name Y.

Think about that again: after he renamed it Constantinople he decreed by law that it be named Second Rome? Apply some thought.

The usual meaning of χρηματίζειν is to to do business, and specifically the business of the βουλή or the ἐκκλησία. Not only is Constantinople on the same footing as Rome, but it will follow the administration of Rome.

All of this talk of a ‘new Rome’ or a ‘second Rome’ has nothing to do with the city’s name, but with its status and administration.


Volkswagen gets mythical

I saw this on the way to work today:

That’s the Volkswagen Phaeton, and maybe I’ve been living under a saxum, but I’d never heard of one before.

Normally we’d approve of a classical reference, but, uh … didn’t he die in a fiery wreck or something?


The Roman filibuster

While exploring the teachers’ site for Ecce Romani I came across a brief presentation comparing the Roman and American senates, which included a very dubious claim:

The use of italics suggests that 'filibuster' is a Latin word.

Senators often stalled a vote using a tactic called the filibuster, in which senators made lengthy speeches to delay legislative action. The filibuster is still used by members of the United States Senate.

Now, it isn’t the notion that Roman senators did such a thing, but the suggestion that they did something called a ‘filibuster.’ I knew, of course, that the Romans had no such word (and you can easily find the etymology of this relatively modern term if you’re interested), but the use of italics (not to mention the wording) suggests that filibuster is a Latin word. Wikipedia and other sources talk in similar terms and leave the same impression, even if no explicit claim is made.

There was no single word for such an act, but there were phrases which Cicero has left to us in several places throughout his speeches and letters:

diem consumere
‘to waste the day’
diem dicendo eximere
‘to take away the day through speaking’
noctem postulare
‘to ask for a night’

The first two are synonymous and correspond to the filibuster, but the third is considered a polite alternative. Imagine a respected senator informing the house that, in his opinion, ‘we should sleep on this.’ If his influence were great enough, the issue might not be raised again.


I’m about to get medieval on Christmas

The following is a sort of Christmas carol from the Colmar manuscript, dated to the 12th century.

De nativitate domini.

  1. Fregit Adam interdictum
  2. et reliquit hoc delictum
  3. posteris miseris
  4. poenam culpae veteris;
  5. libera conditio
  6. mergitur in vitio,
  7. viget in natura
  8. conjectura.
  9. o quanta miseria!
  10. Fregit homo pactum dei
  11. unde sumus omnes rei
  12. patimur, labimur
  13. aeternumque morimur
  14. donec virgo peperit,
  15. quae naturam praeterit
  16. sola praeter morem
  17. pium redemptorem.
  18. o quanta miseria!
  19. Hic adjutor opportunus
  20. a peccato liber unus
  21. exstitit, restitit
  22. hosti, qui nos perdidit;
  23. qui dum petit humilem,
  24. tentat ut vincibilem,
  25. satan enervatur,
  26. vincit, qui temptatur.
  27. o quanta victoria!

The Latin is weak but the sense is clear. The poem is composed in a triad (a trinity?):

It’s interesting that Satan isn’t mentioned in the beginning, but everyone must be expected to know how Adam broke the law, and that Satan was involved. It’s also odd that the piece should be titled ‘De nativitate domini’ (‘On the Lord’s birth’), since it’s really about sin.

The logic will always escape me, however, that the sins of the father should be visited upon the children (why are we all guilty, ‘sumus omnes rei’?) until god the father redeems the world through his child.


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You can’t beat a deal like that, so if you or someone you love is a Classical Geek like we are, this is great time to buy a shirt that will show the world in a fun way.


Bad Latin: Hayden-Harnett’s Veneficus Libri Bag

This does not say "magic book."

On the "spine" of the bag, the bad Latin "title."

I am always disappointed when I have to do a Bad Latin post, but this time is especially tough for me because I really like Brooklyn brand Hayden-Harnett.  They teamed up with Disney to produce a line of accessories inspired by the 70-year-old film Fantasia. Among these is the Veneficus Libri bag, a beautifully detailed design meant to look like a book. The name is an attempt at Latin, and is supposed to mean “magic book,” according to the description.  This phrase is printed on the bag itself, as if the title on the binding.

When I first saw the bag, I wanted to give Hayden-Harnett the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that the phrase veneficus libri was an attested term meaning “book[s] of the sorcerer.” This would be fitting for a bag inspired by Fantasia with its “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence.  A cursory Google search confirmed that the phrase veneficus libri appears a lot on the web.  I figured that veneficus was a fourth declension noun and libri was plural because there were several “books” in the tome in question.

When I looked it up, though, this idea was shot down.  Veneficus is a first/second declension adjective that can be used substantively to mean “sorcerer,” so it can only be nominative singular.  Realizing that the Latin was therefore “sorcerer of the book,” I looked further into that Google search, and found that the term only appears on websites devoted to magic and social networking games and the like, and doesn’t appear in a book or scholar search.

The source of this term is most likely our old friend, the online translator.  Put “magic book” into one, and you get veneficus libri.  I’d like to reiterate what Dennis said in his recent post, Good Psych, Bad Latin:  Those who would like to use Latin in their movie, jewelry, comic, or whatever, contact a Latinist– it only takes a moment longer to contact us than to input something into an online translator, but the payoff is not having something absurd printed on your commercial product.

A gracious and witty response from Hayden-Harnett.

We're blaming it on a 12th century scribal error: - ungrammatical Latin, but a beautiful bag -

A great stocking stuffer: the Classical Tradition

The Classical Tradition

Well, it may not quite fit into your stocking, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless, and Amazon has a great deal right now.

And I have to add that I thought the table of contents a bit funny:

This book is too busy being awesome to bother with the TOC.

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