Lecta Delecta 2014, The Year’s Best Ancient Literature

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Kate Brassel, @satiricallykate

Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, ca. 1647, on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

I came across this painting while preparing to take my Intermediate Latin students on a trip to the Met. We had been reading Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae, which, it turns out, is sometimes a hard sell to clever, capable sophomores at life’s starting line.

Under a crescent moon, wearing the funereal cypress leaves, Rosa is in the act of inscribing a gold-ish skull with a phrase beginning “ἠνί ποῖ ποτε…” on the (un)certainty of death’s arrival. Supporting this project is a volume labeled “SENECA.”

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Rosa was something of an artistic hustler: In addition to being a sought-after painter, he was also an actor, printmaker, and satirist in the Roman style (Be still, my heart!). This proud, energetic young man painted himself as an inhabitant of ancient Stoic meditations on death.

This self-portrait struck me as a wonderful picture of what my students and I were attempting on our best days: to take Seneca’s ideas and words seriously and diligently, but not without a sense of humor.

Patrick Burns, @diyclassics:

“Aiunt Graecam Latinamque linguam iampridem mortuas esse.”—M.A. Muretus Oratio XVII (1583!)

Earlier this year, I tweeted a challenge to mainstream media editors—print a story about Latin without using the word “dead.” Of course, the whole “Latin is dead” thing is easy copy, a journalistic strawman “Why study a dead language? Because it’s not really dead!” “Latin is back! And it never went away!” Worst of all, the charge is not even remotely new.

Over the past few months, I have been reading W. Stroh’s »Latein ist Tot, Es Lebe Latein!«, a great book about Latin’s perpetual passing. Stroh argues that Latin’s slow-motion demise started pretty early, around the time of, well, Augustus. Over the next two millennia, the language would experience multiple comebacks accompanied by a steady stream of terminal illnesses, flatlines, jumpstarts, and resurrections. Stroh writes that the origin of the “dead language” dismissal is unclear, but it goes back at least to the 16th century and cites the quotation from Muretus, my 2014 lectum delectum.

What Muret (and Stroh) remind us is that the classical languages have been on the defensive literally for centuries. And Muret’s quote even has that familiar push-pull, us-them 21st-cent.-journalistic feel. His next line, my emphasis: “Ego vero eas NUNC DEMUM…vivere et vigere contendo.” Plus ça change and all that—I for one am looking forward to attending Latin’s many funerals and wakes in the new year. Maybe I’ll even receive another birth announcement.

(If you’re interested, you can get a better idea of Latin’s quasi-quietus following the hashtag #vixit on Twitter.)

Joseph Howley, @hashtagoras

Epictetus (ed. Arrian), “Discourses” 1.4

When everything other scholars write about an author whose canonical status is “philosopher” engages with him in abstract, philosophical terms, it’s easy to come to the conclusion—before you have read his work—that the work is in fact only of abstract, philosophical interest. But I could only read Aulus Gellius’s boasts about him and his friends picking up Epictetus’s “Discourses” so many times without picking them up myself, and sure enough, the “Discourses” are rhetorically and conceptually fascinating even to a non-philosopher like myself. I really fell in love four essays in, when Epictetus himself talks about the picking up of books, in his discussion of the nature of progress in philosophy. As frequently in the Discourses, he’s trying to make his ideas concrete, accessible, and familiar to his audience. “Suppose,” he says, “that I said to an athlete, Show me your shoulders!, and then he answered, Look at my dumbbells! What I want to see is the effect of the dumbbells.”

By the same token, he goes on, if he were to ask you to demonstrate your progress in philosophy, the last thing you should do is show off all the philosophical books you are reading. Books, he says, are just equipment; and like that ten-in-one home gym you ordered from the shopping channel but never use, merely possessing them does not mean you have improved yourself with them. You can’t display your learning by displaying your books—all you will display is your materialism. And even if you have been working out, the work (τὸ ἔργον) is outside of you, but the progress (ἡ προκοπή) is within.

This image is so charming, so intelligible, so funny, that it made me sit up and look more closely at the Discourses. They are, after all, one of these kinds of intellectual work that sits at the interface of the oral and the written, celebrating the precious, irreproducible oral experience of the teacher teaching while simultaneously attempting to provide a written, portable surrogate for that immaterial experience. But the image is also just so honest and real, so down to earth, that it helped me to read Epictetus not as intimidating and abstract philosophy but as a sociable, substantive attempt to speak to people about their own lives, and the difference between the object of study and the benefits of learning.

Ruth Sameth Loop, @MagistraLoop

Smith College’s slogan is in Greek: Ἐν τῇ ἀρετῇ τὴν γνῶσιν, rendered as “In Virtue [One Gains] Knowledge.”

1871

Charley McNamara, @quidagitur

Beroaldus Iunior (1453-1505), Poem for Hanno, Pope Leo X’s elephant:

Beroaldus Elephant

Monte sub hoc Elephas ingenti contegor ingens
Quem Rex Emanuel deuicto oriente, Leoni
Captiuum misit decimo; quem Romula pubes
Mirata est, animal non longo tempore visum
Vidit et humanos in bruto pectore sensus.
Inuidit Latii sedem mihi Parca beati,
Nec passa est ternos domino famularier annos.
At quae sors rapuit naturae debita nostrae,
Tempora, vos superi magno accumulate Leoni.

Leo X papacy began with an apocryphal-ish one-liner: “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He wasn’t the Leo the Great whose Latin prose has attracted the attention and admiration of today’s foremost Latinists. But this Medici pope nevertheless continues to captivate historians for his corrupt politics and outlandish expenditures. Today’s Roman cityscape is still dotted with his public art projects, conspicuously marked with the five balls of his papal coat of arms.

A notable resident of the Vatican during Leo X’s papacy was Hanno, the pope’s pet white elephant, given as a gift by the King of Portugal. (The same king would later give Leo a rather famous rhinoceros.) As you can see in the poem above, Hanno awed the Roman people, who saw human qualities (humanos…sensus) in the elephant’s friendly demeanor. The last two lines of this poem highlight Leo’s close relationship with Hanno, who probably died on account of the gold-laced laxatives administered for a case of constipation. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Hanno is buried under the Vatican parking lot inside the Apostolic Palace — not exactly the most dignified resting place, even for a pet. Rather than shift into first gear and drive over Hanno’s old bones, try reading Beroaldus’ clever and poignant hexameters in honor of the pope’s prized pachyderm.

Joe Sheppard, @sheppajoe

1) I saw this on the door of Prof. ______, along with compositions signed by students in her seminar on Latin metre, and I thought it was very nice!

magistra discipulis
nos docemus ut discamus
et discipulos amamus
qui et numeris scrutandis
et carminibus cantandis
nosmet docent cum docemus.
sic ex animo gaudemus
et discipulos laudamus
qui laborant ut discamus.

What I liked was that Prof. _____ used rhyming couplets (although that’s not so hard given Latin morphology), and, for a poem that is ultimately a bit nerdy and didactic, I found fun the wordplay and I guess paradox created by slamming together all the forms of discipuli, docere, and discere with different conjunctions. mihi placet!

2) So this year I feel like I haven’t been reading Latin so much as decoding crude, semi-literate graffiti — and then of course the editiones principes of those texts in neo-Latin (of varying quality…. I’m looking at you, Della Corte!). These two are from the so-called tituli picti recentiores of Pompeii — the advertisements and slogans painted on the walls during the final years of the city. In an election year they remind me of the old and very cozy friendship between money and votes:

Holconium Priscum ((duo))vir(um) i(ure) d(icundo) spectaculi spectantes rog(ant).

Cn(aeo) Alleio Maio principi munerarior[um] feliciter!

(The watchers of the spectacle ask (you to make) Holconius Priscus mayor.)
(All the best for Gnaeus Alleius Maius, prince among games’ sponsors!)