The New Testament of Vergil: Vergilian Fulfillment and Transcendence in Vida’s Christiad

Marco Girolamo Vida’s Vergilian-style epic on the life of Christ does more than present the familiar story in epic dress, argues Carl Hamilton (’21), it successfully solves a key problem in Renaissance approaches to Vergil.

The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 - 1561)
The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561) Image: Getty Museum

Could Vergil, who died 19 years before Christ’s birth, have been a Christian? Had he somehow read the Old Testament? Was he unwittingly a vessel for Christian ideas? Many Renaissance readers idolized the beauty and eloquence of the poet but were uneasy about his pre-Christian origin. They tried to find ways to argue that Vergil’s poetry was consistent with, or even prophetically expressive of, Christian truth. Commentators used allegory to find hidden Christian messages in his works, especially the Eclogues and the Aeneid.

No author reconciled Vergil and Christianity better than Marco Girolamo Vida in his 1535 work the Christiad (The Epic of Christ). The Christiad dramatically narrates the life of Christ from Holy Week until Pentecost in 6,000 Latin hexameter lines in the style of Vergil’s Aeneid. When published, some scholars, such as Bartolomeo Botta, saw the work as the final overthrow of Vergil. Students could now learn proper Latin and Christianity at the same time, without the immoral pagan content. But since Mario Di Cesare’s 1964 landmark work, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic, scholars have begun to appreciate Christiad’s unique synthesis of Classical and Christian ideas.[1]

The language of the Bible, especially of the Gospels, is basic. It lacks the poetic flourish of Cicero or Vergil so beloved by Renaissance readers. This lack of polish in the Bible proved troublesome for many previous Christians, such as Saints Augustine and Jerome. The well-known story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead is told quite simply in St. John’s Gospel (11: 33–43 Douay- Rheims):

Jesus, therefore…groaned in the spirit, and troubled himself…And Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind, have caused that this man should not die? Jesus therefore again groaning in himself, cometh to the sepulchre… And Jesus lifting up his eyes said: Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast heard me…because of the people who stand about have I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. When he had said these things, he cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come forth.

But Vida uses this simplicity to his artistic advantage. He transforms the journalistic recounting of John into a scene of high drama (Book 1, lines 262–280, trans. Gardner):

From all the neighboring mountains the entire population …filled the city…The hero [Christ] stood motionless in the very center, his hands and eyes raised to heaven, and in the silence of prayer he called to his Father. In equal silence and tension the townspeople observed him, wondering what he might command… Twice his face went white. Twice he groaned in his breathless chest and nodded his noble head. And lo, the doors of the tomb suddenly seemed to tremble. All at once, a sudden fear froze the blood in each of the onlookers and a chill invaded the depths of their hearts. Finally, the son of God addressed these words on high: “Father in heaven, until now you have never denied my prayers…This great populace [has] seen how vast your power is. Now, you servants…remove the marble lid of the tomb.”

The dialogue of the Jews in John become visual cues, as frozen blood and a chill fills the onlookers. Vida capitalizes on Christ’s double groaning in John to express His complete grief in face, chest and head “twice…twice.” Most dramatically, the silent prayer of Christ mirrors the silence of the onlookers, as if time, too tense to move, has stopped for a brief moment. But notice that, for all the heightened tension, Vida retains the moral content of John. Christ is not a sensationalist miracle-worker, but the pious Son of God. We see him suffer and groan, as in John. This pain continues throughout the Christiad to emphasize the cruelty of the Savior’s Passion. Vida thus successfully transmits a Christian message through a dramatic, Vergilian medium.

It was not enough for Vida merely to imitate Vergil. In fact, his age demanded more. Vida lived in a time of peculiar balance in Italy, where the intellect and the faith were both held in high esteem. His Italy was modern enough that the learning of the ancients was no more an immediate threat to Catholic orthodoxy, but traditional enough that no challenge to the Magisterium would be tolerated.

In the religious realm, Protestantism was nascent, and Pope Leo X, Vida’s patron, condemned Luther’s heresies in the 1520 bull Exsurge Domino. In the intellectual community, scholars, although enamored with Vergil, struggled to make his writings wholly consonant with Christianity.

One such scholar, Christoforo Landino, said there were two theologies present, the ancient and Christian, theologica prisca and theologica nostra. According to Landino, these were “two branches of the same stream.” The job of the commentator was to reconcile them. This reconciliation came mostly through allegory, where Vergilian concepts were said to represent Christian ideas. Vergil’s poem Eclogue 4, called “Messianic” by some Christians because of its apparent prediction of Christ’s birth, was the center of this analysis (Eclogue 4.4–10 trans. Fairclough in the Loeb):

Now is come the last age of the Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

According to the common Christianizing allegorical reading, the Virgin mentioned is the Virgin Mary; the descent from heaven represents the incarnate God-Man Christ sent by God the Father; and the golden race (gens aurea) represents the Christians. But this reading is blind to the poem’s context. Even St. Jerome in the late 300s called it childish. Renaissance commentators were eventually forced to admit the failure of attempts to Christianize Vergil. The Aeneid, after all, posits reincarnation of souls in Book VI, a wholly non-Catholic doctrine.

In the Christiad, Vida boldly reverses the method of the commentators who tried to use Christianity as a means of understanding Vergil—a doomed project due to the differences between the two. Instead, Vida uses Vergil as a means to understand Christianity. We see this change when Vida puts these famous lines from Eclogue 4 into the mouth of Mary before the Annunciation. Here Mary recalls her thoughts before the Angel Gabriel visits her (Book 2, lines 303-312):

For my part I kept recalling the teachings of the ancient prophets. But one above all remained fixed in my mind, placed there surely by some higher power. All the prophets had predicted that a royal virgin, who was without taint of the marriage bed and remained, astonishingly, a virgin, would bring into the light of the world a king of angels; and that, immediately upon his coming, there would be happiness everywhere and a golden age would arise throughout creation.

Mary’s talk of “the teachings of the ancient prophets” and the “royal virgin” points firmly toward the foretelling of the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 and its fulfillment through Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:23. But the quote of Vergil from Eclogue 4 in the final line forces a reconsidering of the preceding lines. Now, “all the prophets” become pagan poets, and the virgin who will bear Christ becomes the virgin of Eclogue 4.  By speaking these words, Vida has Mary become a prophetic vessel herself. She embodies Eclogue 4’s prophesy of the golden age, and in so doing eliminates need for the allegorizing commentator. Vergil’s words are now Christian words, as are his prophesies. Vergilian scholar  Craig Kallendorf calls this melding “a true fusion of Christian and pagan.” The connection between Vergil’s words and Christian meaning becomes explicit. Both Old Testament and Vergilian prophecy become fulfilled in Christ.

After Mary’s speech, Vida goes on to describe what exactly Eclogue 4’s fulfillment looks like in practice, namely the elevation of the Church over pagan Rome. In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas, the mythic founder of Rome, and the Sibyl, his guide, visit the underworld. While there, they receive prophecies from Aeneas’ father Anchises. He tells them that Rome’s mission is to “spare the conquered and subdue the proud.” In Christiad, Christ likewise receives a prophecy from God His Father before His death which clarifies what the “golden age” will be. The Father says that “Even Rome, that proud city laden with empire … will subject to you her fasces and the reins with which she rules the world.”

By using the word “proud,” as Vergil did, Vida implies that Rome, instead of having to conquer the proud, has become proud itself because of its conquering. This inversion of the word “proud” forces us to recognize what J. Christopher Warner, a scholar of biblical epic, calls “the gulf that is continuously asserted between [the Christiad] and its poetic model.” Vida’s gulf here posits that the proud pagan Rome failed, so it is the Church’s place to fill the void. By filling this void, Vida thus asserts that the Church’s Rome has fulfilled Anchises’ prophesy, and by extension Vergil’s, better than Vergil’s own Rome ever could.

In Book VI, Vida ends his poem by quoting Eclogue 4 one last time (Book 6, lines 985-986):

A golden race now rose up throughout the world

And the most beautiful age of all was just beginning

Where Vergil said “will spring up” (surget), Vida here says “now rose up” (surgit). How appropriate that this present tense verb reflects both cause and effect: because Christ is risen, the new race now rises with him. Instead of making an allegory out of Vergil, Vida here realizes his words. The Church is now definitively the fulfillment of Rome, and Christ’s disciples are the golden race.

Vida’s Christiad solves the problem of the Renaissance commentators. The narrative progression of the work, from prophecy (Book I) to fulfillment (Book VI), tracks the convergence of ancient and Christian theology into one stream. Instead of settling for the theological impasse and casting off Vergil, Vida instead crafted a poem which makes Vergil essential to its vision. He accomplished a rare feat: not only the enjoyment, but the understanding of his own work depends upon that of another. The greater the knowledge of not only Vergil, but also the Bible, one has before reading the Christiad, the more fulfilling a reading of the text will be. To close with a quote of Saint Paul, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face.” Vida has transformed Vergil’s prophecies, seen before in a riddling way, into face to face, or page to page, realizations of Christian truth.

[1] Mario Di Cesare, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

Catullus 63: Looking at the Data of the Diction

The diction of Catullus 63 is elevated and poetic, but at certain key moments become notably plain and prosaic, as can be seen through a statistical look at the words he uses, argues Tessa Cassidy (’20)

Cybele, Goddess of Civilization, from the Goddesses of the Greeks and Romans series (N188) issued by Wm. S. Kimball & Co. 1889
Cybele, Goddess of Civilization, from the Goddesses of the Greeks and Romans series (N188) issued by Wm. S. Kimball & Co. 1889. Metropolitan Museum.

The sixty-third poem in Catullus preserved collection deals with the story of Attis, a follower of the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele. At the climax of the poem Attis castrates himself to become one of the Cybele’s priests. While the subject matter in itself is interesting, as it causes you to wonder what could drive someone to do such a thing, looking at the combination and use of diction are also very interesting. Catullus, while using poetic word choice throughout, does not stick to one certain theme. Rather, we see Greek and “Asian” diction (i.e., Greek associated with Asia Minor, present day Turkey, Cybele’s homeland) along with diction that evokes the imagery of the wild animals. This raises the question as to what it means when Catullus deviates from the poetic structure he creates throughout the whole poem. I will attempt to address this question using R.G.G. Coleman’s explanation of poetic diction in context of the poetic register, along with research compiled on the relative poeticism scores of synonyms, a project that I worked on with Beth Eidam.

Critics have taken various views on the structure and key themes of Catullus 63. For Gerald N. Sandy, the constant imagery throughout the poem is centered around that of herds and wild beasts. Sandy looks at the specific diction used to describe Attis and the environment to draw this conclusion.[1] The reason for this, Sandy writes, is because the idea of the “herd-predator may very well be rooted in the cult traditions of Cybele.”[2] John P. Elder focuses more broadly on the poem, asserting that there should be emphasis on Catullus’ general curiosity and the intrigue of writing about such a wild subject in the Roman poetic context. Elder focuses at one point on the how the use of speeches in poem act as good transition points and emphasis on the emotion.[3] This idea is what has caused me to narrow my focus onto Attis’ second speech, where he reflects and laments the dire consequences of his castration. It is in this speech that we see a deviation in the general structure of the poem and what allows to see the emotional anguish of Attis. I think that this idea works with Sandy’s point of the generally wild imagery of the poem, because without this imagery as a backdrop Attis’ second speech would not stand out as much.

All scholars and commentators note the unusually high degree of high poetic diction and Grecism in this poem. Beth’s and my statistical research on the use of Latin synonyms can help quantify and qualify this picture, and help us better understand the poeticism of Catullus 63. R.G.G. Coleman makes the point that the poetic register cannot be defined by looking for characteristics that are only present in poetry, but one will find the definition by comparing the diction, devices and meter to that of prose.[4] “It is not just the presence of this or that linguistic item that is definitive, but rather the texture a whole passage, formed from the accumulation of other ingredients summarized in the concluding paragraphs,” such as meter, special vocabulary, archaism, Grecism, metaphor, and other poetic devices.[5]

It is through the idea that you must look at poetic diction in relation to prose that inspired the more data driven end of this research project. That is the goal to compile a set of synonyms from Döderlein’s Hand-book of Latin Synonyms, using Opera Latina’s LASLA database. The LASLA database, which is a system that has complied the works of nineteen different Latin writers, allows you to get the number of occurrences through works of those nineteen writers. We used this database to calculate the relative poeticism of a word.  Here is a visual example of what exactly the equation we used to make create a poeticism score using AMO (to love) as the example:

calculation used to create poteicism scores

As you can see, amo, amare has the poeticism score of .90 which puts it very high on the poeticism scale, the highest score being 1.0, which would mean zero occurrences of the word in prose. We kept track of the scored synonyms using a spreadsheet, which also completed the calculations for us.

Coleman’s article does not use such data, but his discussion helps put the data in context. He makes the point that the words of Catullus 85 are common and devoid of blatant poeticism, but it still an incredibly moving poem in spite of its plainness.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

   nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. You may well ask, why I do so.

I do not know, but I feel it and suffer. (trans. C.H. Sisson, 1967)

Coleman notes that there is nothing poetic about the vocabulary in the poem as it is generally pretty plain, however it still conveys an incredibly deep and poetic tone.[6] I thought that given this assertion it would be interesting to use the poeticism scale to see if it matched up with Coleman’s view of the plainness of the vocabulary. Below I have taken the verbs from the poem and provided a table with the poeticism score calculations along with their synonyms to compare.

Poem verb odi amo facio requiro nescio fio sentio excrucior
Poeticism score .81 .90 .59 .69 .71 0.58 .68 .81
Synonym invideo diligo gero rogo ignoro no synonyms cognosco No synonyms
Poeticism score .70 .49 .57 .57 .47   .37  
Synonym     ago       intellego  
Poeticism score     .59       .17  

 

As you can see, the numbers don’t automatically prove Coleman’s point. Most of the verbs in the poem our well over the .50 line. Even when you compare the synonyms to each other, Catullus’ choices evidently seem more poetic. However, this does not negate the point Coleman makes, for you have to take the relative commonness of the verbs into account. Odi (I hate) and amo (I love) are both more common than their synonyms, it should also be considered that verbs of feeling especially around love might be more prevalent in poetic works due to the subject matter. Requiro (“ask”) is an outlier, as rogo is much more prosaic in comparison. But their poeticism scores are not entirely different. Sentio and fio are different, because while there are potential synonyms to compare to, synonyms relative definitions do arcuately convey Catullus’ meaning.

This does not take away from Coleman’s argument, but strengthens it, since Coleman does not believe that we can define the poetic register in isolation and especially not just through vocabulary. If anything, the scores proves the importance of the looking at the sentence as whole. Even though the words are more poetic on the scale, they are not exotic, but instead words that one might use when describing the torment of emotion, and it is this simplicity that make makes it effective. Everyone is able to understand the feeling of love and hate, and the torturing ambiguity that those feelings can bring. If we had simply looked at the verbs and in the context of the poeticism scale, the meaning would have been lost from the poem and from Coleman’s argument that relatively common diction can still be used in a poetic context. With all of this in mind it is time to use the same methodology I used to analyze Catullus 85 and delve into Catullus 63.

At certain points of Attis’ lament the relatively plain vocabulary and structure makes the consequences of such a bizare subject approachable to Catullus’ Roman audience and thus create a connection through the translatable tragedy. For this purpose, I will not go over the entire speech but focus on two lines that nicely represent Catullus’ use of plain diction within the speech. Let us look then at lines 59–60: “patria, bonis, amicis genitoribus abero?/Abero foro, palaestra, stadio et gymnasiis?”  (Will I be absent from the father land, good things, friends and family? / Will I be absent from the forum, the palestra, the stadium and the gymnasium? )

Poem Word patria bonus amicus gens forum palaestra stadium gymnasium
Poeticism Score .63 .52 .68 .66 .51 .87 .25 .75

The diction in these lines in general is, statistically speaking, not very poetic, and some parts again seems to reference Rome. Palaestra and gymansium stand out a little, but they still conjure up normal parts of Greek social life.[7] Stadium too should fit in with palaestra and gymansium, but the common use of it in measurement contexts seems to have skewed the score toward prose. The reason for the relatively plain score for the words could mean that Catullus was trying to bring this image into a more translatable context, similar to that of Catullus 85. That is, he does not need to pepper these lines with poetic diction to show Attis’ despair and loss, rather the plainness seems to augment his lament. Imagine the lament of an exiled college student: “Will I be away  from the classroom, my stuff, my friends and my roommates? Will I be away from the dining hall, the football games, and the library?” The words are simple, and because of this the aguish of the exile from them would also be easily understood and felt.

Through the analysis of Catullus 63 with the poeticism scale, we can come to understand a key technique that Catullus uses in order to convey a deep poetic meaning, similar to that of Catullus 85. In a complex manner he builds up a poem with distinctly standard and highly poetic structure. It is with this structure as a backdrop, that Catullus draws the most on emotion to emphasize the tragedy and torment of Attis’ situation through his deviation. On the topic of why Catullus chooses this poem, I like Elders’ explanation the most: the topic of emasculation shown through the cultic practices of the priests of Cybele would have been horrifying and intriguing, leaving the only safe route to explore the situation, through literary works. Catullus then explores the plight of a Greek character but using Roman nuances to make the story translatable to his audience.

 

[1] Gerald N Sandy, “The Imagery of Catullus 63,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 99 (1968): 389–399, at 390.

[2] Sandy, “The Imagery of Catullus 63,” 399.

[3] John P. Elder, “Catullus’ Attis,” The American Journal of Philology 68, no. 4 (January 1, 1947): 375.

[4] R.G.G. Coleman, “Poetic Diction, Poetic Discourse and the Poetic Register” Proceedings of the British Academy (1999): 22.

[5] Coleman, “Poetic Diction,” 92.

[6] Coleman, 55.

[7] Ruurd Nauta, “Catullus 63 In a Roman Context.” Mnemosyne 57, no. 5 (2004): 624.

Classical Studies at Dickinson College in the Nineteenth Century

Over the course of the nineteenth century classical ideals of eloquence and erudition endured in new guises as rote memorization and recitation of Latin and Greek texts receded, argues Drew Kaplan (’20)

Hand written title page of a Latin graduation speech given by a student at Dickinson in 1847.
Hand written title page of a Latin graduation speech given by a student at Dickinson in 1847 (Dickinson Archives)

In 1841, incoming Dickinson College sophomore Charles Stinson wrote to his father expressing doubts about his academic abilities. After meeting with college president John Durbin, Stinson “passed an examination, and the conclusion is, as I expected, that I am wholly unprepared to enter the Sophomore class. So here I was without knowing scarcely what to do.” Stinson’s progress in the ancient languages was well behind his peers, his abilities akin to that of a freshman. He suggests that, if his father approves, he should purchase extra lessons and continue his education despite these troubles, or else return home to work on the family farm.[1] Stinson was not atypical, and in this period of expanding college access many students arrived under-prepared for the established course with its heavy emphasis on Latin and Greek. By 1874, Professor of Modern Language William Trickett was reporting to the Trustees that “majority of applicants for admission to the College fell below the usual requirements” in Greek, both in their understanding of the grammar and reading abilities. Frustrated with teaching unqualified students, Trickett proposes a “change [of] methods of teaching [… w]ith improved best books, with better selections from … the modern languages.”[2]

From the late 18th to early 20th centuries, American higher education went through a period of tremendous change, both in curriculum and teaching methods. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, emphasis on the classical languages, and what moral lessons could be gleaned from classical texts, formed a major portion of the college curriculum.[3] Latin and Greek texts were taught by recitation, in which students would be required to repeat memorized passages to their professors and peers in the original language and answer questions on grammatical and other points of detail. Classical texts were valued as models of eloquence, and for many years a Latin oration was required of every student at graduation. Students were not required, nor expected, to conduct research into a particular sub-field, or even specialize during their studies. The summation of the course of study was a course in moral philosophy, typically taught by the president of the college. This era of American education was that of generalism, but this general education involved far larger doses of classical languages than even the most dedicated of classical studies majors encounter today.

As the nineteenth century progressed this system began to change. New topics, such as the physical sciences and modern languages entered the curricula, while the emphasis on the classics began to fade. Although some elements of traditional classicism were abandoned, an emphasis remained on the cultivation of eloquence. What had changed was the eloquence itself, or, more properly, what constituted eloquence. It was not that the colleges and universities stopped teaching eloquence and erudition. Instead, those values were shifted more towards English, French, and German literature. An 1849 student publication at Dickinson, The Collegian, the virtues of reading widely in works designed to induce “poetic fire.” The purpose of literary reading, according to the Collegian, was foster a sense of fellowship and “to stir the slumbering powers of a young man, to nerve his inactivity, to inflame his ambition, and fire his genius.”[4] The fourth issue featured extracts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, followed immediately by a discussion of the life and philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of Prometheus Unbound (1820).[5] The fact that the issue included translations from both a Greek tragedian Aeschylus and a discussion of the related but more contemporary lyrical drama by Shelley is a sign of the shift toward including modern literature beside classical in the definition of eloquence and erudition.

Arthur Cohen observes that college life during the 19th century was understood “as a system for controlling the often exuberant youth and for inculcating within them discipline, morals and character.”[6] Classical texts, along with religious training, were the principal means to this end, with the emphasis in the case of the classics on civic and political aspects of virtue. Winterer observes the drawing of a parallel between the United States, Greece and Rome during the period; when the leaders of these classical societies had exhibited civic virtue, exemplified by both knowledge of their histories and the ability to make convincing arguments with rhetoric, their democratic and republican systems of government had triumphed. Rule by the people “depended upon the civic virtue of their citizenry to withstand corruption, private ambition and dependence, the relentless forces of decay.”[7]

The “Course of Study” documents preserved in the Dickinson Archives articulate the educational ideals of the time and chart the process of curricular change. One catalog from the 1830s notes that the purpose of its educational endeavor “is to excite, rather than to pretend to satisfy, an ardent thirst for information; and to enlarge the capacity of the mind.”[8] In 1823, incoming first year students would be instructed in geography, algebra and English literature. However, the primary focus is on classical texts; first years would begin with Xenophon and Sallust followed by Homer, while sophomores would read texts such as Livy, the juniors Demosthenes, and the seniors Tacitus and select tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, among others.[9] From these authors students could glean virtues such as the discipline of Ajax, the cunning of Odysseus, vigorous democratic oratory in from Demosthenes[10] and in Republican self-sacrifice from the Roman historians, and poetic eloquence from the Greek tragedians. In addition, students would learn rhetoric both from classical speeches and by means of a dedicated class on the topic.[11] Cohen notes that such a strong emphasis on the classics “could be justified as practical training for all careers.” Because college educated individuals were expected to enter “the higher reaches of their professions, [… a] knowledge of rhetoric and Greek and Latin could certainly be justified as useful.”[12]

Rote recitation and an obsessive focus on grammar, however, could provide barrier to imbibing the higher lessons contained in the ancient texts. At Dickinson, where the primary method of instruction was the recitation,[13] students were expected to be able to recite texts and discuss elements from their work with the professors or fellow students.[14] Winterer remarks that the teaching system for classical languages was “so laborious and unpleasant for students that it became synonymous with much that was wrong with the colleges at the time.”[15] In 1836, college president John Durbin[16] noted that an unnamed student appreciated his method of instruction as it was “encouraging challenge and debate, even letting the young men believe they had lured him away from the routine of presentation and recital.”[17] However, other students held views differing from the student referenced by Durbin. Writing in 1848, Dickinson College student Christian Humrich reflected that his Latin Professor lacked the same flare as Durbin in his instruction, while his Greek professor was inspiring. Humrich consequently fell behind in his knowledge of Latin.[18] Moreover, in 1847, student Henry Clay Dallam asked a friend to buy him a translation of the plays of Sophocles. This was so that he could pass his recitations without doing his own translations.[19] Indeed, Winterer observes that the model of recitation and memorization often failed to instill any real degree of knowledge into students; many graduated with little ability in the classical languages.[20]

Cohen observes that the practicality of a classical education had come into doubt by the mid-19th century.[21] The United States was changing, affected economically by the industrial revolution, and as the college-going population increased and broadened, topics such as the physical sciences, English literature, and foreign languages were added the college curricula.[22] Ellen Lyon, daughter of a Dickinson College trustee, remarked in 1840 that the purpose of higher education was no longer just to prepare individuals for a career in public service. Although a knowledge of history is important to Lyon as “[i]t shows the evil effects of vice and the superiority of virtue,” that knowledge must be counterbalanced with knowledge in other fields.[23]

The curricula themselves were slow to adapt. In 1823, students only studied a rudimentary level of non-classical subjects; there was some mathematics and some science. The overwhelming portion of what students studied consisted of classical literature; there was no modern foreign language and what was taught on the English language focused on grammar rather than literature.[24] Dickinson College had not much changed which authors were read until the later part of the century. In the 1850s, juniors still read Demosthenes and first years still read Xenophon just as in 1823. What had was the addition of French to the course of study, alongside the option for a small level of Spanish or Italian.[25] By 1879 though, students were instructed in a wide selection of mathematical topics, inorganic chemistry, physics, the literature of Shakespeare, the history of Guizot, and the French and German languages.[26] Moreover, the classical texts had to some degree been swapped. Sallust, Livy, and Xenophon remained, but they were now supplemented by Ovid, Seneca, Horace, and notably, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.[27]

Alongside these changes came the advent of literary societies, student run organizations centered around fostering a common interest in literature. These societies aimed towards the same ends as the colleges but tended towards the use of modern rather than classical literature. Dickinson College had two, Belles Lettres and Union Philosophical Society (UPS). Cohen calls societies of this type “colleges within colleges.” Many issued their own diplomas to students upon graduation from the college. Both UPS and Belles Lettres did this. Belles Lettres had first come to the college in 1795 and offered lessons on public speaking. Eventually the membership of Belles Lettres and UPS encompassed nearly the whole student body.[28] The societies also boasted impressive libraries, with the library of each society individually containing more works that the library of the college by 1874. Moreover, the 1850s witnessed the first instance of student journalism at the college. Far from journalism in the modern sense, The Collegian, published by the cooperation of UPS and Belles Lettres, is more akin to a literary magazine containing works intended for student interest. The first issue, published in March 1849, contained among other works a translation of the Hymn to Jupiter of Cleanthes, alongside contemporary literary compositions.[29] Among students, there had remained an emphasis on the study of the virtue of the classical world. Students, however, could seek this in a forum separate from the college curriculum, and especially in a forum where they would not be required to recite the texts in the original as a precondition for learning from them.

Higher education remained an essential element of professional preparation, but, to some extent, the students took this process of higher education on themselves in the model Basil Gildersleeve termed “cultured erudition,” and which became the guiding principle of the modern liberal arts curriculum that developed in the early 20th century. The moral lessons and eloquence of Sophocles will still be available to him, but without the additional effort of translation. Students of the college remained interested in erudition and eloquence throughout the period, with the classics becoming just one of many routes students could take to this end.  The evolution of the classical curriculum at the college, and the experiences of the students, well evidences the persistence of classical ideals in American higher education at small colleges gradually shorn of the rigors of classical pedagogy. The values of erudition and eloquence remained, even as the strict focus on classical grammar was giving way to the cultivation of these values by other subjects. But as always, substantial curricular change was slow indeed. Dickinson College would not come to make the classical languages optional until 1947.[30]

[1] Letter from Charles Stinson to His Father. Dickinson Archives, I-DayL-1972-1.

[2] Faculty Report to the Board of Trustees, Dickinson Archives, RG1-2_2.2.35 Languages.

[3] Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) 3.

[4] “Editor’s Table,” The [Dickinson] Collegian, March 1849.

[5] “Extract from the Prometheus Chained to Aeschylus” and “Shelly.” The Collegian, June 1849.

[6] Arthur M. Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 23.

[7] Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, 19.

[8] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1834 – 1835) 12

[9] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1823 – 1824), 7–13.

This should not be read as an all-inclusive list of topics studied by students during the period. Rather, it is a selection.

[10] Specifically, the speech De Corona.

[11] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1834 – 1835) 15–16.

[12] Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education, 29.

[13] One such source for this is the diary of Horatio Collins King, a 19th century Dickinson College student. He refers to his daily recitations in various subjects. King, Horatio Collins. Diary, 1854-1858. MC 1999.9, Horatio Collins King Family Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[14] This system is similar to the tutorial system used by some institutions, amongst them the University of Oxford.

[15] Winterer, Culture of Classicism, 33.

[16] At the time, the college president often taught a senior capstone course in moral philosophy.

[17] Charles Coleman Sellers, Dickinson College; a History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 203.

[18] Christian Humrich to Samuel Davis. May 1848. I-Original-undated-15. Record Group 2/2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. In the letter, Humrich spells “Xenophon” using the Greek. I have chosen to instead present the name translated.

[19] Henry Dallam to W. Boyd Williams. 5 October 1847. I-WilliamsW-1957-1. Record Group 2/2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[20] Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, 36.

[21] Cohen, The Shaping of American Higher Education, 51.

[22] Ibid., 38, 63.

[23] Ellen Lyon, “What Branch of Study is Most Important in the Education of a Young Lady.” I-Original-undated-16. Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[24] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1823 – 1824) 7–13.

[25] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1853 – 1854) 15–16.

[26] “Course of Study.” Catalogue of the Officers & Students of Dickinson College, (1878 – 1879) 14– 16.

[27] “Course of Study.” Catalogue and Register of Dickinson College for the Academical Year. (1879 – 1880) 20 –23.

[28] Sellers, Dickinson College: a History, 93.

[29] “A Translation of Cleanthes’ Hymn to Jupiter.” The Collegian, March 1849.

[30] Sellers, Dickinson College; a History, 550.

Searching for Poeticism in Latin Synonyms

Close study of synonyms can reveal much about the language and thought of the ancient Romans, argues Beth Eidam (’20), using the example of words revolving around the concept of “shame”

Illustration: Max Klinger, Shame (from the series A Love) 1887–1903
Max Klinger, Shame (from the series A Love) 1887–1903. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Some words are innately more poetic than others. Imagine if Robert Frost had opened his iconic poem with “two highways separated in a yellow forest.” Swapping out just a few words for less lovely synonyms changes the entire tone. The line no longer reads like a thoughtful poem but rather a lost traveler describing their predicament. This is the power of vocabulary.

Latin synonyms operate the same way. Ensis (“blade”) serves as the poetic counterpart to prosaic gladius (“sword”), amnis (“torrent”) to flumen (“river”), and virgo (“maiden”) to puella (“girl”). Non-native speakers of Latin (which means all of us) naturally have a hard time hearing these tones and nuances without many years of reading. Modern data science, however, can allow us to immediately perceive and even quantify the level of poeticism in Latin words, thus allowing for a richer appreciation and understanding of Latin texts.

Tessa Cassidy and I created a database of Latin synonyms based on Johann Döderlein’s Handbook of Latin Synonyms (1858), and then added frequency data collected over many years by a Belgian research project called the Laboratory for the Statistical Analysis of Ancient Languages (Laboratoire d’Analyse Statistique des Langues Anciennes or LASLA). Here is a typical entry in Döderlein’s book, discussing the adjectives acer (“keen”) and vehemens (“very eager”):

ACER; VEHEMENS. Acer (ὠκύς) denotes eagerness in a good sense, as fire and energy, in opp. to frigidus, like ὀξύς): but vehemens (ἐχόμενος) in a bad sense, as heat and passion, in opp. to lenis; Cic. Or. ii.49, 53, like σφοδρός. (iv. 450.)[2]

Each synonym is listed with its Greek equivalent and additional Latin words that clarify its meaning when applicable, with English explanations and citations from Latin authors that exemplify the specific meaning he describes. Tessa and I took on the entries in the first half of Döderlein’s handbook, each of us taking responsibility for one quarter of the whole book. My section came out to 546 words.

We then used the LASLA’s Opera Latina interface to query their database and find out how many times each word occurs in prose and poetic texts. LASLA’s database is not totally comprehensive but is nonetheless extensive, containing 2,104,866 word forms, each carefully examined by a scholar to determine which dictionary headword (or “lemma”) it derives from. This made sure, for example, that no instances of the noun acer meaning “maple tree” were mixed up with the instances of acer the adjective meaning “keen.” The LASLA data derives from 154 works by nineteen authors.[3] With the help of LASLA’s lemma search tool, Tessa and I gathered numbers on total uses, prose uses, and poetry uses in the LASLA corpus for each synonym. A sample entry from our data spreadsheet below illustrates how we organized our findings:

 

Doederlein lemma Logeion lemma LASLA 1 LASLA 2 LASLA 3 total count prose count raw poetry count adjusted poetry count poeticism score (0-1)
ABESSE ab-sum, abesse, āfuī, āfutūrus ABSVM 727 509 218 972 0.66

 

The first column lists the form of the dictionary head word (lemma) as listed by Döderlein, the second a full dictionary form as found at the dictionary site Logeion, the third lists the form or forms used by LASLA, followed by the numbers retrieved by searching the lemma(s) in LASLA’s Opera Latina database.

The LASLA database contains more prose than poetry. 1,719,608 word forms derive from prose texts like Cicero’s speeches, while 385,258 are from works, like Vergil’s Aeneid, written in verse. This discrepancy means that the frequency of words in the two genres cannot be compared by the raw numbers. To reconcile this difference, we multiplied the raw number of poetic uses of a word by 4.46, the ratio of total prose uses over poetic in the LASLA corpus. We then used this adjusted poetry count to create a “poetic score” for each word. The score for every word falls between zero and one. A score of one indicates that a word is purely poetic and has no recorded prose uses in the LASLA corpus. The poetic score has allowed us to quickly identify which synonyms were used more often in poetry and which in prose; then the task becomes finding explanations for differences between synonyms.

Although synonyms have overlapping definitions, each conveys a certain nuance and is more apt to be used in different contexts. Acies basically means “a sharp edge,” but has a wide range of definitions, from “sharpness” to “keenness of mind,” “a piercing look,” even “pupil of the eye”; other extensions of the notion of “edge” have a military flavor, such as “a single battle line,” “the whole army,” and “battlefield.” Acies is common, with 654 total uses in the LASLA corpus, evenly distributed in poetry and prose. Its poetic score of 0.50 does not indicate any special poetic or prosaic value. Its synonyms, though rarer in the corpus, have much higher poetic scores. Cacumen carries a more specific sense of “sharpness” with definitions of “peak” and “summit” and has a score of 0.79. Acumen, drawing on the mental nuance of “cunning” or “wit,” has a poetic score of 0.77. Here we see the generality of acies diminishing its poetic score while its synonyms that have more specific senses to their definitions appear more poetic.

This is a phenomenon I observed generally: the breadth or specificity of definitions greatly influence the poeticism of Latin words. Authors all have goals in writing, sometimes to make an argument or tell a story. Whatever the goal, authors choose language that helps achieve their goals. Poets write to convey very specific thoughts and evoke certain emotions, as such, synonyms with more specific qualities to their definition are more useful in poetry than more general counterparts.

Iter is a common word meaning “a going,” “walk,” or “way.” These definitions can expand to “a march,” “a legal right of way,” and “method” or “course.” iter is at home in military writings, legal speeches, and even Horace’s poetic “Journey to Brundisium,” and scores 0.53 on our scale. The more specific synonyms are rarer and more poetic, such as Trames, a “crossroad” (only 29 total uses in the LASLA corpus compared to iter’s 958, but a poetic score of 0.89); and semita, “narrow footpath,” has a poetic score of 0.84. These synonyms were more valuable in poetry as they painted a clearer picture in the reader’s mind than iter with its broad range of definitions. Poets paint vivid images and express very specific ideas in their writing, so it makes sense that words with a stronger ability to convey precise ideas have greater poetic value.

We can use this data to uncover the delicate differences between Latin synonyms for “shame” and clarify the role that these words played in both literature and the value system of Rome. Pudor and its associated adjectives are the key terms for what we call shame. But the terms are culturally specific. According Robert Kaster, the Roman concept of pudor “denotes displeasure with oneself caused by vulnerability to just criticism of a socially diminishing sort.”[4] This kind of shame is reliant on an internal sense of doing what is right and an external force holding individuals accountable. True pudor can only exist with this balance of internal and external pressures. Without an internal moral compass one would only feel shame out of coercion, and without external standards to meet shame would just be a glorified form of self-regard.[5] Pudor is the force that pressures individuals to remain modest and decent, and also the shame that arises from immoral behavior.

Pudor itself has a score of 0.76, which reflects its relatively wide use in prose, compared to the highly poetic adjectival variant pudibundus (1.0). Pudens (“modest,” “bashful”) is neutral (0.49). Pudens represents shame as it is related to reputation.[6]  It is applied to individuals who have “a due sense of what one’s position requires” (OLD). Useful in legal cases where character is often an integral feature of a defense or prosecution, pudens is used frequently in Cicero’s speeches (out of 34 total uses of pudens in the LASLA corpus, 26 occur in court speeches of Cicero). In Pro Flacco, a first-century BCE defense of Roman praetor Lucius Valerius Flaccus, Cicero employs the antithesis of pudens and impudens to question the morality of the selected witnesses.[7] Cicero alludes to a rigged trial, calling the selected witnesses impudentes, “dishonorable,” while many other “learned and honorable men were not called to this trial.”[8] Cicero doubts the morality of the trial witnesses, and implies that they do not possess the personal responsibility that pudens evokes. Pudens, therefore, expresses the positive qualities of shame in its ability to produce responsible and respectable individuals. The utility of pudens in legal cases might explain its poetic score of 0.49, the lowest of all the synonyms and the only one with a lower poetic score than pudor.

Seneca the Younger’s play Hercules Furens details the turbulent life of Hercules constantly battling Juno’s hatred. At the climax of the play Hercules is driven to madness by divine power and kills his own wife and children. When his sanity returns to him, Hercules laments the carnage around him and begs his father, Amphitryon, and friend, Theseus, to explain what happened

cur meos Theseus fugit

paterque vultus? ora cur condunt sua?

differte fletus; quis meos dederit neci

omnes simul, profare. quid, genitor, siles?

at tu ede, Theseu, sed tua, Theseu, fide.—

uterque tacitus ora pudibunda obtegit

furtimque lacrimas fundit. in tantis malis

quid est pudendum?

Why do Theseus and my father avoid my sight?

Why do they hide their faces?

Put off your tears. Speak out, who gave

all my (family) to death at once – why are you silent, father?

Then you, Theseus, tell me – by your loyalty, Theseus.

Each man silently covers his ashamed face and

pours out secret tears. What is shameful in such evils? [9]

Pudibundus (1.0) appropriately conveys the intense emotion of this scene in highly poetic terms. Since the adjective expresses a personal shame incited by displeasure in one’s own actions it would be easy to assign it to Hercules, who will spend the rest of the play overwhelmed by shame and guilt. However, Seneca deliberately focuses on the shame of the onlookers. While Amphitryon and Theseus are certainly ashamed on Hercules’ behalf, they are also displeased with themselves. Amphitryon has just witnessed the murders of his grandchildren. Theseus stood by as his friend descended into madness and compromised his honor. Their pudibunda ora show the internal shame they will carry forever from being helpless to intervene. This shame is emotional, personal, and irreparable. The emotional weight of pudibundus explains its only six total uses in the LASLA corpus, all poetic. Poets only employed pudibundus when they wished to convey very specific, personal shame.

Pudicus (“chaste,” and “subdued”) is highly poetic as well, with a score of 0.94. It has connotations of sexual purity. It is applied to bashful and modest individuals uncomfortable in the gaze of others.[10] Pudicus could best be categorized as a derivative of pudicitia, “sexual respectability.”[11] For Roman women especially, it was critical to preserve one’s reputation by being pudica. Conveniently, there were clear social guidelines in Rome on how to be a sexually respectable man or woman.[12] If one simply obeyed social expectations and gender roles, pudicus should be an easily maintainable label. The authors in the LASLA corpus who use it most often are Plautus and Ovid, which makes sense considering Ovid’s often raunchy content. In the Amores, Ovid’s narrator seems unsure that women can truly be pudica, but nonetheless asks that his interests at least feign that kind of modesty.

Non ego, ne pecces, cum sis formosa, recuso,

sed ne sit misero scire necesse mihi;

nec te nostra iubet fieri censura pudicam,

sed tamen, ut temptes dissimulare, rogat.

Since you are beautiful I do not ask that you not err,

but that it not be necessary for me, a wretch, to know;

nor does my censure demand that you become chaste,

but nevertheless, I ask that you attempt to not let it show.[13]

Ovid assumes that the object of his affection cannot truly be pudica because of her appearance, but he does not seem to care. If her reputation is intact it does not matter what she has done. Ovid’s concern further emphasizes that all kinds of shame in Rome were deeply intertwined with reputation and illustrates the role of external accountability in Kaster’s definition of pudor. Ovid declares that pudicus is determined not only by one’s actual actions, but by how others see and judge those actions. An individual can only be pudicus if the public regards them as such.

Another adjective meaning “possessed of shame” is castus (0.93). If pudicus is in the eye of the beholder, castus, as defined by Döderlein, refers to “chastity as a natural quality of the soul.”[14] It is a cousin of careo, the verb meaning “to be free from,” and castus the much rarer noun meaning “abstinence.”[15] Castus includes the sexual implications of pudicus but intertwines those nuances with personal character, not social reputation as pudicus does. Not only is a castus individual pure in a sexual sense, but they are clean of any moral stain by nature. In this way castus is almost the perfect combination of the nuances of pudicus and pudens.

Ovid and Propertius employ castus frequently, which is not surprising considering the focus of their poems on love and relationships. Propertius describes a happy couple in his Elegies, “O Postumus, [you are] blessed three and four times over in Galla’s chastity.”[16] The poem continues to praise Galla’s purity and inability to be corrupted in any way, even describing her as pudica a few lines down.

The value of shame in Rome was demanding yet vague. Individuals were expected to uphold a certain set of standards, but those standards could not be clarified by one word. The general nature of pudor’s definition begs for synonyms to clarify each facet of the value. Pudens, pudibundus, pudicus, and castus exemplify the value that nuance in synonyms had in literature, but they also reveal a greater poetic tendency to favor synonyms that convey a more specific sense of the general concept.

[2] Johann Döderlein. Döderlein’s Book of Latin Synonymes. Trans. by Rev. H.H. Arnold. Andover: Warren Draper, 1858. 3.

[3] Prose authors: Caesar, Cato, Curtius, Petronius, Plinius (the Younger), Sallustius, Seneca (Apocolocyntosis through De Vita Beata), Tacitus, Cicero. Poetry authors: Catullus, Horatius, Juvenalis, Lucretius, Ovidius, Persius, Plautus, Propertius, Seneca (Hercules Furens through Hercules Oetaeus), Tibullus, Vergilius

[4] Kaster, 4.

[5] Kaster, 8.

[6] Döderlein, 34.

[7] Pro Flacco, 9.8.

[8] Pro Flacco, 9.8. “…docti, pudentes, qui ad hoc iudicium deducti not sunt.” Author’s own translation.

[9] Hercules Furens, 1178. Author’s own translation.

[10] Döderlein, 34.

[11] Kaster, 9-10.

[12] Kaster, 10.

[13] Amores, 3.14.3. Author’s own translation.

[14] Döderlein, 34.

[15] Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

[16] Elegiae, 3.12.15. “ter quater in casta felix, o Postume, Galla” Author’s own translation.