Cicero, Cato, Catilina et Cetera

April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Latin Selections / Florilegium Latinum (Moses Hadas and Thomas Suits, ed.)

Florilegium is an unfamiliar word, a word that doesn’t readily convey its meaning until one  remembers, or guesses, that it comes from the same root as ‘floral’, and so means a collection or bouquet of flowers. The Greek word for a flower, on the other hand, is anthos, and the corresponding word for a bouquet is, therefore, ‘anthology’. I don’t really have too much to say about this slim volume of snippets from famous Latin works. It is a ‘Dual Language’ book: the novelty involved is the juxtaposition of the original Latin, on even numbered pages, with the English translation on the facing, odd numbered, pages. I believe the format is intended to make the book a useful tool for students of Latin, as it allows for easy flipping back and forth across languages.

As a young man, I used to pride myself on being something of a polyglot – besides English, I speak four Indian languages with tolerable fluency, and have two years of high school Sanskrit and one undergraduate term worth of German under my belt. Also, I once survived three months in Brussels armed only with a friendly smile and the words “Je ne comprends pas, je ne parle pas Francais, parlez vous Anglais, s’il vous plait?” I used to believe (mistakenly, as it happens) that it was elegant to pepper my writing with different languages, including, inter alia, Latin. People said it added a certain je ne sais quoi to my writing; later, I realized that was because they literally didn’t know what – didn’t know what I was saying, that is. In other words: problema muy grande.

I may have continued to write badly, but I no longer harbor polyglottal ambitions; they have given way to a mild enthusiasm for etymology and philology. I enjoy tracing Indian words back to their Sanskrit, Farsi or Arabic roots, and European words to their Greek or Latin ones, and reflecting on the many relationships between languages. Perhaps this enthusiasm is linked to my intrinsically humanist view of life: if words of different languages can share common origins, then, at some level, people can’t be all that different from each other, and should be able to get along.

Etymology, in fact, is the main pleasure I extracted from the Florilegium. I would read the page on the right, in English, and whenever I came across a catchy epigram, which was very often ( ‘No one was as poor as he was at birth’, for example, from Seneca’s De Providentia or ‘What times! What morals!” from Cicero’s In Catilinam Oratio Primio), I would scan the left side, to see if I could recognize the original phrase from a pageful of Latin (‘nemo tam pauper vivit quam natum est’, and ‘O tempora! O mores’, respectively) . It is a surprisingly satisfying game, and not too difficult, either, once you learn to guess intelligently.

Other than that: not a lot to say. I found that Ovid was a great story-teller, that nasty political speeches have not changed much since Cicero’s day (a month after I published this post, James Carville wrote this), that Livy was a sceptical historian after my own heart, that Julius Caesar was a bit of a braggart, and that Seneca’s moral philosophy was surprisingly readable and applicable in today’s world. Quamquam quid loquor? Why am I still talking? Nobody reads these men any more, and there is little point in trying to change public opinion about the joys of reading classical works; I would only end up looking ridiculous. Vir prudens non contra ventum mingit. Go on, google it.

Egredere ex urbe, Catilina! Cicero holds forth at the Senate, moments before Catiline and his party stage a walkout. Painting by Cesare Maccari, courtesy Wikipedia.


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