Latinitas Columbiana — The Latin Landmarks of Columbia University

Columbia has a cutting-edge paranormal studies laboratory, but look at this library:


The frieze of Butler Library, which dominates the southern half of the Morningside Heights campus, proclaims the University’s penchant for the ancients to all the tourists on the 116th Street walkway. There are poets (Homer, Vergil), orators (Demosthenes, Cicero), and philosophers (Plato, Aristotle). On the sides of the library, you will see Dante, Cervantes, and Billy Shakespeare, but the oldest guys get the best real estate.

But Columbia’s campus extols antiquity through more than just a laundry list of required texts. Scattered throughout campus are Latin inscriptions.

Let’s take a walk, shall we?

Opposite the northern face of Butler Library sits Alma Mater, the unofficial mascot of the university. Her name, “Nourishing Mother,” is of course a Latin moniker in itself.


She presides over the “urban beach” that is Low Plaza, designed and built by McKim, Mead & White, the Neoclassical dream team responsible for the Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan Library, and the West Wing of the White House. A stone plaque in the middle of the plaza bears McKim’s name:


The Latin on this plaque is great: “The monuments of the architect look down from above throughout the years.” Nice thought, right? The real magic with this Latin phrase is the careful consideration of meter. Shakespeare was a master of iambic pentameter (e.g., “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), but for many poets from antiquity, the dactylic hexameter was the weapon of choice. (You can listen to a rather…enthusiastic recitation of it here.) McKim’s plaque, too, follows this metrical pattern. I leave the extra-credit scanning for you budding Latinists out there.

As we walk south toward Butler, we’ll pass a sundial in the middle of campus. This sundial, sadly, is no longer functional. Instead of a metal pole, this sundial once relied on a giant marble sphere to cast its time-telling shadow. (The marble sphere was discovered, broken, in Michigan.)

There is a small Latin phrase affixed to the base. It announces to passers-by “Await the Hour. It will come.”:


The hour never comes for this sundial. Without its marble sphere, the sundial lies naked in the sun. (Maybe this is why some students are dependably late for class….)

[A brief aside: This isn’t the only sundial inscription I’ve seen recently. I stayed with my friend Gabriele outside Florence this summer, and he has this sundial on the side of his B&B. It reads Sine Sole Sileo — “Without the sun, I am silent.”]


You can’t enter Butler Library if you’re not granted access through the university, but the most interesting Latin is right in the foyer. A gently-sloping dome covers the room, and at its center is a brief quotation from the seventh letter of Seneca the Younger (4 BC — 65 AD).


It reads Homines dum docent discunt — Men learn while they teach. Seneca’s writing is frequently pithy and witty — and therefore very quotable. You often find his writing in grade school mottoes. The Spence School across town, in fact, uses a reversed Senecan quotation: Non scholae sed vitae discimus (“We learn not for school but for life.”) The original quotation, Non vitae sed scholae discimus, bemoaned the Romans’ excessive literary pursuits.

Leaving Butler Library, we head back north across the eastern edge of the South Lawn. The building just south of the central walkway of campus is Hamilton Hall, so named for Columbia College’s most famous alum, Alexander Hamilton, Class of 1777. His statue — one of three in Manhattan — stands before the entrance to the building. Hamilton Hall is home to the Dean of Columbia College, and its lobby, like the frieze of Butler Library, enshrines central figures of a Columbia education in its architecture:



To the left of the doors into Hamilton Hall, we find the longest inscription in this brief tour. It’s notable not just for its length but also for its succinct telling of the history of the university.


Huius collegii olim regalis nunc Columbiae dicti regio diplomate an[no] Dom[ini] MDCCLIIII constituti in honorem dei optimi maximi atq[ue] in ecclesiae reiq[ue] publicae emolumentum primus hic lapis positus est Sept[embris] die XXVII an[no] Dom[ini] MDCCCCV

The first stone of this College, once called “King’s” and now called “Columbia,” established by royal charter in 1754 AD in honor of God the Almighty and for the benefit of both Church and State, was placed here on the 27th day of September in 1905 AD.

As we are told here, the University was started under a royal charter of King George II in 1754 (the oldest in the state and the fifth oldest in the country). Appropriately, its name then was King’s College. Originally, the campus was downtown on Madison Avenue and then later moved to its uptown home in Morningside Heights, so the date given here for the construction of Hamilton Hall is much later than the date of the university’s founding.

We notice the appeal to both religious and civic benefit in this inscription. They are two interests that lead us to our final two inscriptions. One, on the frieze of St. Paul’s Chapel at 117th and Amsterdam, announces the religious purpose of that building (“On behalf of the Church of God”):


(Columbia is not an explicitly religious institution today although there is still a University Chaplain and several religions represented on campus.)

Our last stop is Kent Hall, which sits on the northern side of the walkway at 116th Street, directly across from Hamilton Hall. There we see an inscription above the doorway. It reads Ius est ars boni et aequi (“Law is the art of goodness and justice”):


(My lawyer friend laughed when I read this to him. :( )

Today, Kent is home to the illustrious offices of the registrar and ID center, not the Law School. The Law School moved across Amsterdam Avenue in 1960 into a, well, differently styled building. Kent’s inscription, thankfully, did not leave with the lawyers.

And our Latin, thankfully, did not leave with the Romans.