Maffeius on the effect of incendiary weapons (1546)

Maffeius,telling the story of the Second Siege of Diu (1546), describes the effects of the thrown incendiary weapons (ardentia iacula) used by both sides. They did less damage to the Portuguese than to the Gujarati soldiers, he says, because of the cotton clothing they wore, and the closeness of their formations (Historiae Indicae [1588] 13.45):

Quos autem flamma comprehendisset, ii, abiectis armis, cum simul vestimenta proiicere non valerent, ceterosque ab iis adiuvandis exuendisve sui quemque periculi metus averteret, caeci amentesque crebro cum gemitu incerto vestigio extra ordines ferebantur. Hinc deformatos vultus, exusta lumina, pendentem e nudatis artubus cutem ac velut in lora dissectam horrendo spectaculo cerneres.


Moreover, those whom the flame had engulfed threw away their weapons and, as they could not remove their clothing and fear of the danger kept the rest of their comrades from helping to strip them, they ran blind and mad beyond their ranks in uncertain wandering, screaming all the while. It was a horrific spectacle: disfigured faces, burned out eyes, skin hanging from naked limbs as if flayed to ribbons.

Maffei had various written sources, and also a live informant who was present. His Latin can be ornate and periodic when discussing complex matters, but also intensely vivid in story telling. Note how he

  • spotlights the unfortunate men (quos … ii),
  • focuses on the emotions and desperation of the Gujaratis (non valerent … metus … caeci amentes)
  • employs the vivid 2nd person singular cerneres, used also  by his beloved Livy, and in a similar context in Apuleius (Met. 4.14, looking at destruction:  passim per plateas plurimas c e r n e r e s iacere semiuiuorum corporum ferina naufragia).

The scene is focalized through the eyes of the Portuguese within the walls, but Maffei takes us close enough to see the haunting, burned out eyes (exusta lumina) of the victims. This phrase might be borrowed from Plautus, Men. 842, minatur mihi oculos exurere, but notice the substitution of the more poetic lumina for oculos. The equally poetic incerto vestigio (as opposed to something like errantes or palantes) is full of pathos. Maffei’s rhetorical virtuosity shows in the climax of the last sentence quoted, with its inconspicuous simile, in the balanced phrasing and the interlaced and chiastic word order throughout.

Maffei uses the grotesque rarely, but in a fuller narration such as this it helps him convey some of the horror of (for him and his readers) modern warfare.


Dickinson Latin Workshop 2018: Maffeius, Historiae Indicae

Dickinson Latin Workshop 2018: Maffeius, Historiae Indicae

July 12–17, 2018

The Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop is intended for teachers of Latin, as a way to refresh the mind through study of an extended Latin text, and to share experiences and ideas with Latinists and teachers. Sometimes those who are not currently engaged in teaching have participated as well, including retired teachers and those working towards teacher certification.

Christopher Francese (Dickinson College)
Leni Ribeiro Leite (Federal University of Espírito Santo, Vitória, Brazil)

The text for 2018 will be taken from the Historiae Indicae of Giovanni Pietro Maffei (1536–1604, Latin name Maffeius). This 16-book history tells the story of the Portuguese voyages of conquest and discovery in the sixteenth century around the coast of Africa, to the Malabar Coast of India, on to Malacca, China, and Japan. It was widely read and admired all over Europe in its time, and draws on a variety of sources, some of which are now lost. We plan to read the sections of the work that describe the wonders of China, Brazil, and the Indian Ocean.

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

Maffei’s Latin is elegant, but not difficult. Contemporaries compared his style to that of Caesar. Yet he is no humble imitator, and the hallmarks of his writing are clarity and variety. In the words of fellow historian Faminio Strada, “nothing anywhere unkempt or careless; indeed, elegant perfection from beginning to end—unless his only fault is that he has no faults.” His vocabulary is strictly classical, except when he needs terms for unfamiliar items, such as “tea” (chia) or “pangolin” (cabim); even so, for “chopstick” he manages to find an appropriate word in Varro and Pliny the Elder, paxillus (“small stake, peg”). Though no full commentary exists, the moderators will supply notes on such special usages.

The participation fee for each participant will $400. The fee covers lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Dickinson cafeteria, the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as wireless and wired internet access while on campus. The fee does not cover the costs of books or travel. Please keep in mind that the participation fee, once it has been received by the seminar’s organizers, is not refundable. This is an administrative necessity.

Lodging: accommodations will be in a student residence hall near the site of the sessions. The building features suite-style configurations of two double rooms sharing a private bathroom, or one double and one single room sharing a private bathroom.

The first event will be an introductory dinner at 6:00 p.m., July 12. The final session ends at noon on July 17, with lunch to follow. Sessions will meet from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. each day, with the afternoons left free for preparation.

Application deadline: May 1, 2018.

Fee deadline: June 1, 2018.

TO APPLY: please contact Mrs. Terri Blumenthal, by the application deadline. The fee is due in a check made out to Dickinson College, by the fee deadline.

For more information please contact Prof. Chris Francese (


A mysterious animal in Maffeius

A story in Maffeius’ Indic Histories Book 5 concerns a fighter named Noadabegua from Malacca who fought the Portuguese bravely and died, pierced with dozens of wounds, but the wounds did not bleed until an arm band was removed that contained the bone of a certain local animal. When the arm band was removed all his blood flowed out at once, as if a vase had been shattered. mirum dictu! comments Maffeius. The mystery here is the identity of the animal: os animalis cuiusdam Sionii (cabim incolae appellant). In the book from which this comes both Sionii and Cabim are capitalized. Neither word appears in any Latin dictionary I have access to, nor is there anything of use in the very large LLT-A and LLT-B databases of later Latin published by Brepols, and which I have access to at work. Here is the whole passage.

Qua in re illud vel in primis accidit memorabile. Vehebatur quadam e navibus iis Naodabegua Malacensis, unus ex eorum numero qui nuper in Sequeriae exitium conspiraverant. Is in itinere oppressus ab Lusitanis cum egregie dimicans aliquamdiu restitisset, multis demum confossus ictibus ita corruit ut e patulis vulneribus nihil omnino cruoris manaret. Mox inter spoliandum corpus, ut primum detracta eius brachio est aurea armilla (mirum dictu) tamquam vase confracto ita sese cum anima universus repente sanguis effudit. Cuius rei stupore defixi Lusitani cum de captivis causam quaesissent, cognovere inclusum esse in armilla os animalis cuiusdam Sionii (cabim incolae appellant) cuius in sistendo sanguine virtus efficacissima sit. Id ipsum os deinde cum in Lusitaniam devehendum esset una cum pretiosis aliis rebus naufragio periit. Atque in hunc modum barbarus ille concepti in Sequeriam facinoris poenas acerba persolvit morte.

Presumably Sionius is an adjective referring to a nearby place or people; I’m thinking the nominative form of the animal in Latin would be cabis. But what is this magical critter whose bone can stop the flow of blood?

Globalizing Latin with Maffeius

One of the hidden treasures of neo-Latin prose is the Historiarum Indicarum libri XVI (1588)[1] by the Italian Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Maffei (1536–1604, Latin name Maffeius). It tells the story of the Portuguese voyages of conquest and discovery in the sixteenth century around the coast of Africa, to the Malabar Coast of India, on to Malacca, China, and Japan. While Maffeius himself did not travel to the East, he spent eight years collecting material and writing in the royal archives in Portugal, and his work is based on a variety of documents, including letters from Jesuit missionaries, some of which are now lost. The full-scale ethnography of China in Book 6 is of particular importance as a shaper of European images of China in this period. First published in Florence, it went through eight separate editions by 1600, was included in a two-volume edition of all of Maffei’s Latin writings in 1747, and was last printed in Vienna in 1752.[2] There has so far been no modern Latin edition or English translation.

Portrait of Maffei by Giovanni Battista Moroni , ca. 1560-65.

Portrait of Maffei by Giovanni Battista Moroni , ca. 1560-65. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image source: Wikimedia.

The text merits renewed attention on three main grounds. First is the quality of the Latin. Maffei was a superb linguist (with enough Japanese to publish translations of Japanese texts and to act as an interpreter), a celebrated writer in both Tuscan and Latin, and a famously meticulous Latin stylist. After his early education in his home city of Bergamo and an apprenticeship in Rome under the head of the Vatican Library, Maffei gained the chair of rhetoric in Genoa on the recommendation of Paulus Manutius. While in Genoa in 1565 he submitted his name to the Jesuits, and shortly thereafter returned to Rome and became professor of rhetoric at the Collegium Romanum. He gained fame all over Europe in 1570 on the publication of his Latin translations of Acosta’s history of the early Portuguese voyages to the Indies and associated Jesuit letters. On the strength of this work he was invited by the learned Prince (and Cardinal, later King) Henry of Portugal to tell the whole story in a style worthy of the subject matter. After Henry’s death in 1580 the work was finished under the auspices of Philip, king of the now united Spain and Portugal, to whom the book is dedicated.

Contemporaries compared him to Caesar and Tacitus, but he is no slavish imitator, nor is his Latin as mannered as that of the other great Latin historian of the era, Paolo Giovio. His hallmarks are clarity, elegance, and variety. In the words of fellow historian Famiano Strada, “nothing anywhere unkempt or careless; indeed, elegant perfection from beginning to end—unless his only fault is that he has no faults.”[3] At one of the debates held at the literary salon sponsored by Christina Queen of Sweden at the Palazzo Farnese in the 1650s the question was posed which two authors one should want preserved if all the others should perish, choosing one pro antiquitate, another pro Latino idiomate. The consensus was that, among ancient authors, they would keep Plutarch, among works prized for Latin style, those of Maffeius.[4]

The second reason to turn to Maffeius now is that the text deserves to be better known to historians of the early modern period and the age of exploration. For most of the 20th century, when the dominant geo-political force was the north Atlantic alliance, scholars naturally tended to focus on the early period of contact between Europe and the Americas. The resurgence of China and other Asian powers has created renewed interest in the early history of European colonialism in the Indian Ocean and Pacific areas as well. The importance of the 16th century Latin sources to Atlantic studies has long been recognized, and led to modern editions and studies of authors such as Peter Martyr.[5] But Latin in Asia is still “the great terra incognita of Renaissance literary history.”[6] Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s excellent new study on Europeans’ early contacts with India, for example, neglects the Latin sources in favor of the undeniably important vernacular ones, and does not mention Maffeius.[7] The only substantial discussions of Maffei by historians known to me are by  Donald Lach and, more recently, Stefano Andretta.[8] A readable Latin text, combined with English and Portuguese translations, will make the work better known.

The third reason to make Maffeius better known is to foster the study of Latin in the areas that Maffeius discussed, particularly China. As witnessed by numerous recent conferences and publications, the study of ancient Greek and Latin is blooming in China and Japan.[9] Maffei’s Historiae Indicae would be of interest both to historians from those countries who study European colonialism from their own perspectives, and to students who want to learn to read Latin with a text of direct relevance to the history of their own countries. In particular I hope to edit Book 6, on China, in collaboration with a Chinese scholar, with notes to the Latin in Chinese, and comparison with what the Chinese sources to check the accuracy of and contextualize Maffeius’ and other European observers’ assertions about China in the later Ming period.[10] As the study of the Latin and Greek classics becomes globalized, neo-Latin about Asia and Maffeius in particular can play an important role in both scholarship and pedagogy. Study of such European neo-Latin texts should be coupled with the study of the Latin versions of the Chinese classics, and the wider use of Latin in Asia in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[11]

[1] Ioannis Petri Maffeii Bergomatis e Societate Iesu historiarum indicarum libri XVI. Selectarum item ex India epistolarum eodem interprete libri IV. Accessit Ignatii Loiolae vita postremo recognita, et in opera singula copiosus index. Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1588.   

[2] Ioannis Petri Maffeii Bergomatis e Societate Iesu historiarum indicarum libri XVI. Vienna: Trattner, 1752.

[3] From Prolusiones Academicae (1619) II.iii, quoted by Félix Sánchez Vallejo, “Quartus imminet dies saecularis a morte insignis cultoris Latinitatis, Ioannis Petri Maffei,” Latinitas 51 (2003), 50–55, at p. 53.

[4] Pierantonio Serassi, Vita Maffei, in Jo. Petri Maffeji Bergomatis e Societate Jesu opera omnia Latine scripta, nunc primum in unum corpus collecta, variisque illustrationibus exornata, vol. 1 (Bergamo: Petrus Lancellottus, 1747), xxi.

[5] Andrew Laird, “North America,” in Sarah Night and Stefan Tilg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 525–540.

[6] Zweder von Martels, “Asia,” in Philip Ford et al., eds., Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World: Macropaedia (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 849.

[7] Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 63.

[8] Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe. Vol. 1: The Century of Discovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 803–805. Stefano Andretta, “Modelli di santità nelle Historiae indicae di Giovanni Pietro Maffei,” Monaci, ebrei, santi: studi per Sofia Boesch Gajano: atti delle Giornate di studio “Sophia kai historia,” Roma, 17-19 febbraio 2005 (Rome: Viella, 2008), 451–470.

[9] Kathleen Coleman, “Nondum Arabes Seresque Rogant: Classics Looks East.” Society for Classical Studies Blog, October 16, 2016.

[10] Lach, op. cit., p. 745.

[11] See Noël Golvers, “Asia,” in Sarah Night and Stefan Tilg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 557–574.