perjury, perjury, in the highest degree

The tyrannous and bloody act is done,
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, who I did suborn
To do this piece of ruthless butchery.Richard III IV.iii.1–5

The criminal act of “suborning perjury” now frequently appears in headlines, and it probably won’t be disappearing soon. The verb “suborn,” however, hasn’t become any more familiar to my eye. It’s still Latinate legalese, no more colloquial than sua sponte.

I recently came across the Shakespeare passage above, and it caught my attention because it’s not perjury being suborned, but “ruthless butchery.” Can we suborn any kind of crime, or even other non-criminal acts? Time to put some of those lexicographical muscles to work.

My first hunch was that “suborn” had something to do with “ornamenting” or “dressing up” misleading language—the Latin verb ornare is a buzzword of ancient rhetorical theorists in discussions of decorating speech with literary figures appropriate to its content. But this chiefly rhetorical understanding of “ornamentation” didn’t quite make sense for something like “ruthless butchery.”1 On top of that problem, here Shakespeare suborns people (“who”), not actions. Rather than “decorate,” he “incites” or even “commands” when he suborns.

Turning to the classical period, this notion of suborning a person (rather than an action) dominates among Roman authors. Early Latin examples suggest an original meaning removed from the strictly legal context we use today, and it means something more like “to equip” or “to supply” a person with an instrument.2 In one Ciceronian speech (Phil. 13.32), we find pecunia Brutum subornastis (“You supplied Brutus with money”), and in one of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales (24.5), he writes of a homo non eruditus nec ullis praeceptis contra mortem aut dolorem subornatus (“a man neither learned nor supplied with any teachings to defend against death and pain”).

Sometimes, we might supply a person not with “money” or “teachings” but instead with an actual “ornament.” I like one example from Petronius (36.2), where we find a leporem … pinnis subornatus—a “rabbit decked out with feathers”—at Trimalchio’s feast. (ut Pegasus videretur, he continues. This avian bunny is supposed to look like Pegasus, apparently?) To ornament a person or a thing, of course, might verge into deception. Just as one suborns a rabbit with a feathery costume, one might suborn a person with a disguise, and this deceitful kind of “ornamenting,” it seems, draws us closer to our English criminal idiom.

Even Cicero, who writes well before Petronius, uses subornare to denote this sort of “dressing up” a person for the purposes of deception: he accuses someone of having “suborned a false witness” (Falsum subornavit testem Roscius, Q. Rosc. 51). But it’s still not exactly suborning the perjury itself, but instead suborning (“gussying up”? “preparing”?) a person to provide it.

The OED reports that this original, ancient meaning of disguising or preparing a person in order to commit criminal acts persists even in contemporary culinary writing.3 One can dress up a false witness (falsus testis) in the garb of truth-telling, and perhaps Shakespeare could disguise murderers with a smile before committing “ruthless butchery.” (In that sense, one might suborn an assassin or an Iago but not, say, a Michael Myers.) To “suborn” isn’t just to “recruit,” but maybe something like “to clothe in disarming kindness” or “to bedeck with false innocence.”

In a way, then, our contemporary formula of “suborning perjury” reminds me of the ill-chosen vagueness in the passive voice: “mistakes were made,” “the victim was shot.” Who are the actors? Who agreed to butcher? Which witness agreed to lie? Viewed through that grammatical lens, our current idiom for suborning an act rather than a person elides the crime’s conspiratorial dimension. As the Bard would remind us, your dirty work doesn’t just “get suborned.” You have to find someone to do it.


  1. The first definition listed in the OED affirms that one can suborn not just perjury but any “crime or misdeed” (OED 1a).
  2. The first definition in the OLD is “To supply, equip.”
  3. OED 1a: “A. Bourdain in K. Williamson Rovers Return (1998) 121 I’d even suborned one of his prep cooks, so he’d feed me information, regularly, on what was going on in Jimmy’s kitchen.”

practice, practice, practice

He is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.Testimony of Michael D. Cohen, Committee on Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, February 27, 2019

 

So things done are called just and moderate whenever they are such that the just person or the moderate person would do them; whereas a person is not just and moderate because he does these things, but also because he does them in the way in which just and moderate people do them. So it is appropriate to say that the just person comes about from doing what is just, and the moderate person from doing what is moderate.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1105b5-11, trans. Rowe and Broadie

ancient wisdom review at commonweal

I’ve got a new review of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (Princeton) of Greek and Latin translations over at Commonweal. In short, the series is a mixed bag: some of its texts haven’t been refreshed in Harvard’s Loeb series for several decades, so a new edition is very welcome. But the Ancient Wisdom series sometimes renders its ancient texts as especially lifeless banalities. Here’s the beginning, head over to Commonweal to read the rest:

The market for bilingual editions of ancient Greek and Latin books is dominated by the Loeb Classical Library series from Harvard University Press, the iconic green and red hardbacks (often simply called “Loebs”) that have helped generations of classics undergraduates untangle Cicero’s convoluted syntax. At their debut in the last century, Virginia Woolf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called Loebs “a gift of freedom” because, by placing Latin and Greek texts opposite their English translations, these volumes recognized “the existence of the amateur.” Nowadays these attractive volumes appeal not only to the philological laity but also to those for whom books are objects to be seen and not read. Loebs have even appeared in the glossy photographs of Martha Stewart Living—what better way to round out a living room’s red color scheme than with a “1930s Chinese Chippendale-style fish tank” and a few crimson editions of Ovid?

Princeton University Press, then, is entering a competitive publishing niche with its new series of similarly portable and stylish hardcover books, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.” That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement from the current offering of Loebs. By presenting “the timeless and timely ideas of classical thinkers in lively new translations” from first-rate scholars, Princeton’s collection will be helpful for readers looking for updated renderings of these canonical texts. Although new and updated Loeb editions still appear every year, some of the translations are ancient, even for centrally important works from classical antiquity. The Loeb of Cicero’s De Amicitia, the work translated in Princeton’s new How to Be a Friend, was published in 1923, and the Loeb of Epictetus’s Handbook, part of Princeton’s How to Be Free, is now ninety years old. For Loebs that need a refresh of idiom and style, Princeton is doing Woolf’s amateur classicist an overdue favor, especially because these two new Princeton volumes in particular also include the original ancient texts facing the translations.