Metrics and Style in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Haydon Alexander (’24) argues that the relative quickness of Ovid’s hexameter lines is a key aspect of his style.

Towards the end of his life, Ovid wrote letters to friends in Rome describing the misery of his exile on the frontier of the empire in what is now Romania. In a letter addressed to Cornelius Severus Ovid considers the reasons why he no longer gets any enjoyment out of writing poety (Epistulae ex Ponto 4.2.33–34):

or because composing a poem with no one to recite it to

is just the same as dancing [lit. “making rhythmical gestures”] in the dark.

 sive quod in tenebris numerosos ponere gestus,

quodque legas nulli scribere carmen, idem est.

Ovid doesn’t mean that he is sad that his poems aren’t being read (in fact, his exilic poetry was sent to Rome and was read). Rather, he sees his writing as joyless without a live audience to spur him on. The way Ovid describes dancing (“making rhythmical gestures”) is significant, since numerosus can refer to both rhythmical movements of the body and rhythmical speech, and Ovid himself in a famous passage uses the word numerus to mean “poetic meter” (Amores 1.1.1).  Ovid’s letter from exile gets at the joy of performing Ovid’s work live, and one of the principal reasons for this is because of Ovid’s deep mastery of meter. The importance of meter is easily lost when we read silently, so to that end, we will explore below some of the special qualities of Ovid’s metrics, and the way in which he discusses meter directly in his work.

In his surviving corpus Ovid wrote in only two meters . In the Metamorphoses, the nominally epic poem which describes the history of the world told in myth, he wrote in dactylic hexameter, in which each line has six feet of either a long and two short syllables (a dactyl) or two long syllables (a spondee). This is the meter of Homer, Hesiod, and Vergil, among other writers of epic poems, and it is first discussed critically by Aristotle, who considers it to be the proper meter of epic poetry (Poetics 1459b. See Morgan 2000: 99–120, esp. 99-100). For a more in-depth look at how the meter looks in practice with visuals and video accompaniment, look here and here.

Perhaps his most famous (in infamous) work, the Ars Amatoria, “The Art of Love,” a supposedly didactic but also highly unserious set of poems on seduction, was composed, like the rest of his works apart from the Metamorphoses, in elegiac couplets: lines are in pairs, the first of which is metrically identical to a dactylic hexameter, and the second of which is a dactylic pentameter, i.e., a hexameter line with five rather than six feet (See Claasen 1989 and Herr 1937). This is a meter which was also pioneered by Ancient Greeks, and was commonly used for love poetry in the first century B.C. Rome by Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid himself. The ways in which Ovid uses meter in tandem with a vast array of poetic devices is the subject of many complete books, so we will focus here on some of the most distinguishing ways that Ovid plays with meter, and also some of the unique flair that come from his metrical self-awareness in his own writing.

Ovid is often self-referential and metaliterary. At the start of the Amores, Ovid’s poetic collection depicting a love affair with a woman he calls Corinna, he argues with Cupid concerning his meter (Amores 1.1.–2 trans. Slavitt 2011):

Arms and the violent deeds of men fighting in battle …

Those are the noble subjects I would address

in the grave meters suited to grave matters, but no,

Cupid appeared to trim my lines by a foot.

Arma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam

edere, materia conveniente modis.

par erat inferior versus—risisse Cupido

dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem.

In the first place, he puns on the meter, writing that Cupid steals his “foot,” referencing the fact that the elegiac couplet has one fewer foot than the equivalent 2 lines of dactylic hexameter. But more than this, it is clear that he gives particular weight to the thought of meter, opening the work with the “grave meter” he is talking about is dactylic hexameter. Conversely, he calls his elegiac couplets “Rather more informal, playful even­­­–despite my serious aims” (nec mihi materia est numeris levioribus apta, 1.19–20 trans Slavitt).  He writes as if he is trapped by his metrical choice. Of course, he makes that choice himself, but this is an instance where Ovid is close to talking to his audience about how important meter is to him.

So, Ovid uses meter as a shortcut to let his reader know what to expect, and he uses the history of both his meters to prime his readers for what his works will contain. Indeed, the Amores all deal with love, and as he promises, not in a particularly serious way. Ovid writes a ridiculous scene (1.6) that has him lying outside the door of his love, begging the doorman to let him in. Another reads like a limerick about “an over-the-hill playgirl” (1.8).

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid plays around with expectation. Because the work is written in hexameters, we are asked to consider it an epic. However, it skirts many of the “rules” to which earlier epics adhere. Most obviously, it does not have a unified narrative in the way that the works of Homer or others have. Moreover, Ovid does not adhere to his own statement in the Amores about “grave meters,” because like the rest of his works, Ovid is often deeply unserious in tone. An example is when he tells the story of how Tiresias is blinded in a short story that talks about Jupiter and Juno arguing about who gets more pleasure from sex (3.316–38). This is hardly the stuff of grand stories, but it is in Ovid’s “epic.”

Metrically, Ovid’s epic differs from that of his slightly earlier contemporary, Vergil. Metrical analysis shows that Vergil’s Aeneid is relatively dominated by spondees, the feet which have two long syllables. This means that his work encourages the speaker to slow down and to luxuriously take in each line. The Metamorphoses has more dactylic lines, with many feet consisting of a long followed by two short syllables (see Ben Johnson’s online tutorials on the metrical composition of Ovid and of Vergil; and Herr 1937: 5). This results in a poem which gallops along relatively quickly, contrasted with Vergil’s statelier pace. One of many illustrative instances is when he tells of Apollo’s chase of Daphne (Met. 1.525-39). During the lead up to the chase, as Apollo realizes that his words will not convince her to be with him, the lines move slowly, but as the chase commences and reaches its climax, the lines become more dactylic, making the poetry move faster and faster. This is one instance where Ovid uses speed to evoke the content of his verse. This results in a tone which matches the tenor of Ovid’s writing which is opposed (though neither superior or inferior) to Vergil: where Vergil feels grand and momentous, Ovid does something else: his writing is foremost pure, unadulterated entertainment that moves. A visualization of a typical passage in which spondees are coded green (courtesy of the website Hypotactic) shows the extent of the tendencies.

Scanned Ovid
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.525-40. Scanned passages of Metamorphoses and the Aeneid show the difference in scansion between the works. Dactyls are shown in orange and Spondees in green.
Scanned Vergil
Vergil, Aeneid 1.525-540. Particularly in the middle of Ovid’s passage, at the height of Apollo’s chase of Daphne, note the differences in dactyls and spondees. Graphics courtesy of hypotactic.

But it is not merely in the Metamorphoses where Ovid is uniquely dactylic. In a study of the elegiac couplets of Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus, Maurice Plautner (1951: 36–37) found that the line type with four dactyls (the most “galloping” line) occurs 6.7% of the time in Ovid’s elegiac work, more than three times as often as that of Tibullus and over five times as often as in Propertius (see Greenberg 1987). Conversely, lines with four spondees (the type of line which most encourages slowing down) are far less likely to occur in Ovid, about five time less likely than in Tibullus and more than eight times less likely than in Propertius. So, it is not only in the Metamorphoses that Ovid uses the mechanics of meter in ways different from his contemporaries and those who came before him.

Why did Ovid make his poetry move more quickly than that of his contemporaries? Why, when he says his opinion on what hexameters should be in his early works, does he contradict himself when he writes without the “epic grandeur” (Jones 2007: 10–11) for which he himself advocates? Does he actually believe in a “proper” meter for each type of poetry? And indeed, why is he self-referential about him poems in his own work? Peter Jones (2007: 11–15) suggests that Ovid is keenly aware that he shouldn’t (and probably can’t) recreate the spark of his epic predecessors when he writes the Metamorphoses, and that this is what inspires him to write such a unique epic. Applying this insight to meter, we can see why Ovid was so intentional and unique about meter. He attempts to modernize the poetic form by removing what he perhaps saw as the dust and stuffiness from Vergil and providing something modern and entertaining in a new way. He might get at the entertainment from mere subject matter, but as the saying goes, “it’s all in the delivery.” By galloping along through his poetry, Ovid brings new life into old stories in the Metamorphoses, and similarly, he brings new levity to much of the scenes of his elegiac works, and through self-reference, he almost begs his audience to notice the difference. Moreover, where Vergil and other predecessors focus on the epic, yet inherently distant and even somewhat sanitized, grand old scenes to elicit reactions from his audience, Ovid takes all the little absurd scenes and jolts his audience through them, making them feel a range of emotions: a range which can only occur to full effect with the speed and inevitability of a live poem, sung in its unique galloping meter.

Meter is just one of the things that make Ovid’s poetry unique, but it is reasonable to suspect that it might have been the thing that Ovid thought most unique about his work. Thus, in a moment in his later poems which reads in a “sad clown” sort of way, he puns on his meter by saying (Tristia 1.15-6):

Go, book, and greet places dear with my words:

I will touch them with what ‘foot’ I may.

vade, liber, verbisque meis loca grata saluta:

contingam certe quo licet illa pede

He goes on to ask forgiveness if his work is not as good for his not being in Rome to write and present it (1.35–49). Even towards the end of his life, he is still self-conscious and self-referential concerning meter. He seems to think that in exile he has lost control of his work because he cannot express himself in meter. So, unlike the modern argument that meter constrains poetry, for Ovid, meter is essential to the character of his work. Without his intense attention towards and self-awareness of his meter, the unique attitude which Ovid achieves in his work would lack its enduring strength.


Claasen, Jo-Marie. 1989. “Meter and Emotion in Ovid’s Exilic Poetry,” Classical World 82.5: 351–365.

Greenberg Nathan A. 1987. “Metrics of the Elegiac Couplet,” Classical World 80.4: 233-41.

Herr, Margaret Whilldin. 1937. “The Additional Short Syllables in Ovid,” Language 13.2: 5–31

Jones, Peter. 2007. Reading Ovid: Stories from the Metamorphoses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morgan, Llwellyn. 2000. “Metre Matters: Some Higher-Level Metrical Play in Latin Poetry,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 2000.6: 99–120.

Plautner, Maurice. 1951. Latin Elegiac Verse: A Study of the Metrical Usages of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slavitt David R. 2011. Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ovid and the Female Experience

Ovid’s mythological heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to, argues Kimberly Tyson (’25)

Heroides (“Heroines”) by the Roman poet Ovid is a series of verse letters written in the voices of mythological women. Each character composes a letter to her lover, airing grievances that both her lover and the reader might disregard as inconsequential. But Ovid explored these intense emotions of mythological women towards their romantic partners to highlight the experiences of women in real life. Ovid illustrated the universal themes of abandonment, honor, and agency through the amplified frustrations of mythological women to make the reader understand these experiences through a female lens.

woman's hand writing a letter
Portrait of Penelope, detail from Héroïdes ou épitres d’Ovide, traduites par Octavien de Saint Gelais. Huntington Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid emphasized the range of emotions from fear to fury in the heroines’ reactions to abandonment. Abandonment defines the Heroides but affects each character differently. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, worries that her husband Odysseus, absent for the past twenty years, “could be captive now to a foreign love” (1.76). Phyllis laments to Demophoon that “like a madwoman I even had your damaged ships rebuilt…ready for your desertion” (2.45–49), and Aeneas similarly abandons Dido once her usefulness ended (7.9–10.) Briseis is no queen, but a slave who feels “contemptible, forsaken,” with “fear shak[ing her] bones” at her fate if Achilles leaves her behind (3.81–82). The cause of their worries vary: some fear for their own security, or what their lover himself will suffer. The heroines struggle to cope with the loss, suffering at home unlike their ambitious lovers. They often have little say in their lover’s departure, even when they wield vast societal power otherwise.

The heroines’ own dignity—as well as the honor they bestow upon their lovers—are united in their righteous anger. Phyllis cries to Demophoon, “The lover and the woman were deceived by your words: may the gods let this be the one thing you are known for!” (2.55–56). Dido tells Aeneas she hopes “the image of the wife you cheated would stand before your eyes” (7.63–64). Queen Hypsipyle curses Jason and his new wife Medea to “‘live man and bride in an accursed bed!’” for his infidelity (6.163–164). The heroines’ wrath is completely justified: their lovers were the first to break the heroines’ trust. Even when they can do nothing about it, the women fully express the truth of their own experience.

Ovid explored the women’s lack of agency in their relationships, sometimes contrasting it with their agency in other parts of their lives. Dido furiously asks Aeneas “Who’d give possession of his fields to an unknown?” like she did. (7.17–18). She reminds him of her accomplishments: “[I] endured harsh journeys, pursued by enemies…and I won this shore, I founded Carthage…a cause of envy” (7.113–122). She desperately promises, “If your mind’s eager for war…we’ll have no lack of enemies to offer” (7.157–159). In contrast, Briseis is a non-Greek slave with zero agency who relies on the love and mercy of her superior Achilles, whose decisions control her future (3.1–2, 59–62, 99–102). The queens exert agency separate from their lovers, through their own station and merit, which initially lets them choose to assist their lovers. But their lack of agency in their relationships consumes them, lovers robbing them of power.

Penelope’s frustrations with Odysseus represent those of real-life women who must intelligently manage their lovers’ absence. Penelope berates Odysseus for making her “fear everything, insanely, [with] my anxieties…open to wide speculation” (1.71–72). Penelope uses her demure fidelity against the suitors who have besieged her home, making her an unwilling hostess in Odysseus’s absence. (1.84–86, 91–95). Ovid demonstrated her quiet, effective intelligence and strong internal motivations despite the arrogant men around her. Penelope’s complicated feelings about Odysseus are a nuanced representation of women’s real-life concerns. Phyllis, however, cannot cope with being exploited by Demophoon.

Ovid used Phyllis to explore the bleaker experiences of women who suffer betrayal by men they trusted after offering their support. She is the most pitiful of all the women in the Heroides, reflecting the depression of well-meaning women who undeserving men take advantage of, and for whom the women remain desperate. Phyllis gave everything to Demophoon and received nothing but heartbreak. Phyllis is a warning against naivete, wasting away as she pines for Demophoon’s unlikely return (2.99–102). Her suffering is passive and desolate, but the images she conjures of suicide—“The tide will carry me, abandoned, to your shore” —are almost dream-like (2.131–144). Through Phyllis, Ovid represents the fallacy of naïve trust and romanticism, which results in the exploitation of a woman with a good heart.

Dido, in contrast, is much angrier about her turmoil. Ovid uses Dido’s unhinged emotional perspective to demonstrate the terrifying extent of women’s anger toward traitorous lovers. Queen Dido is a powerful character, but her love for Aeneas has reduced her to unbecoming, dramatic behavior. She desperately wants Aeneas to marry and rule alongside her, even declaring, “If you are ashamed of me being your wife, let me be called not bride, but host; as long as she is yours, Dido will endure to be whatever you wish” (7.167–169). Dido’s anger and desperation at his betrayal is deranged, but Ovid validated her fury. He acknowledged women’s full, unpretty breakdowns, and licensed not being strategically subdued like Penelope, nor weepy like Phyllis. Ovid took Dido seriously as a complex, powerful woman who demands both his and the reader’s attention.

He treated Briseis with similar care, though her situation requires a different degree of understanding. Ovid portrayed Briseis’s enslavement with nuance to highlight her unique suffering and elaborate on her marginalization. Briseis lost her livelihood to the Greeks in the Trojan War but feels that her master Achilles “alone made up for them,” (3.51) even though she worries he will “reject and shun [her]” (3.55-56). Briseis has the least societal power of all the heroines, particularly when Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon takes her away from Achilles, who is “idle, and slow to anger” in recovering her, for which he has absolutely no obligation (3.21–24, 3.39–42). Ovid explored her unique position at the bottom of society to demonstrate the full female experience. The reader feels uncomfortable and hopeless on her behalf as shares her confusion about the future state of her life. These mythological characters enabled Ovid to exaggerate and dramatize their problems which are relevant and understandable to his audience.

Ovid used the inherently dramatized stories of these mythological women to emphasize the universal struggles they portray. Because they are mythological characters, the heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to. The suffering of being abandoned by a lover has transcended women’s lives throughout history. Even when one’s lover is gone because of duty or necessity, anger and frustration arise from the fear of loss, infidelity, and abandonment. Terrifying questions persist: What will happen to my lover? Why can’t he stay safe with me? Will someone else take advantage of me? Though Ovid was not necessarily unique among his contemporaries in depicting well-developed female characters, by exclusively dedicating the Heroides to female characters, Ovid demonstrated their perspectives to a higher degree.

Ovid examined his chosen themes through a lens that illuminates the nuances of female suffering. Ovid refrained from demeaning the women’s experiences and fleshed them out with their own motivations, emotions, and actions without the distraction of male perspectives. He filled in a gap in his own storytelling and brought forth a necessary set of poems that voiced all female perspectives on the themes of abandonment, honor, and agency. Even though some of the heroines exert astounding political and social power, all experience their world in a distinctly female way. Men do not take the heroines seriously and treat the women’s desires as trivial in contrast to their own heroic goals. If the heroines were men, their lovers would not treat them with such callous disrespect.

Ovid used the mythological women of the Heroides to explore the full range of women’s experiences with abandonment, honor, and agency. He contrasted the characters both against each other and the freedom and dominance of their lovers. Penelope conveys the intelligent tact that women must display when their lover’s absence has made them lose agency in their lives. Phyllis’s desolate emotions represent the depression of kind, exploited women, though Dido’s reaction to the same situation is much more furious. Through Briseis, Ovid explored an enslaved women who is keenly aware of her lack of agency. The characters’ dramatic stories let Ovid illuminate real women’s suffering for his audience and validate women’s experiences throughout time.

Ovid’s Thank You to Roman Women

Lindsay Werner (’25) examines the roles of women in Roman religion, as seen in Ovid’s Fasti

How did ancient Roman women participate in religious rituals and pray to the gods? How did Roman religion reflect the values of Roman women? We can find partial answers to these questions in Ovid’s Fasti, sometimes translated as “The Book of Days” or “On the Roman Calendar,” a long Latin poem published in AD 8. The Fasti explains the origins and practices of Roman religious festivals, as well as the origins of constellations, for the first six months of the year. Ovid uses these celebrations to show the role of Roman women in religion, in which he states, in the case of the Matronalia, what the women say in their prayers, which shows the significance of their words to the gods. During Book 4 of the Fasti, which covers the month of April, women separately honored Venus, the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, and Ceres (goddess of grain). For Venus, Ovid tells us how the women would bathe the statue after taking off her jewelry (4.133–39). He also explains how Cybele came to Rome. A woman named Claudia Quinta prays to Cybele, asking the goddess to help her move the boat and prove that she is a virgin, and Claudia manages to move the boat (4.255–328). Each of these festivals reflected the values of women within Roman culture and religion. While the festivals of Lupercalia and Matronalia focused on piety and fertility, as well as them being married, the festival of Cybele emphasizes the importance of chastity for Roman women.

Watchcase cover: Alcyone Praying to Juno
Watchcase cover: Alcyone Praying to Juno. Jean II Reymond French, Limoges, ca. 1615–25. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To understand women in Roman religion, however, we first need to explore how this religion differs from others. Roman religion didn’t have one sacred text. The Romans worshiped many gods, sacrificed animals or dedicated votives such as statues or temples to these gods, and they were accepting of other gods from different pantheons by associating the other gods with their own. The Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, was very popular in ancient Rome and was associated with the Roman goddesses Ceres and Venus. Modern religions such as Christianity differ from Roman religion in many ways, such as in having one sacred text and worshiping one God. Some might assume that women are treated similarly in ancient and modern religions. True, both religions are patriarchal, but there are significant differences when it comes to gender. The Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to be a part of the higher ranks within the church, like becoming priests or the Pope. Ancient Roman religion, by contrast, had both male and female priests. Female priests in Rome show that some parts of their religion weren’t completely male dominated. There were many female priests in Roman religion (DiLuzio 2016: 79). A few among many in Rome would be the Vestal Virgins, as well as another priest named Alexandria who served the gods Bacchus and Isis, as recorded on her tombstone (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 302). Although Rome was a patriarchal society, the presence of female priestesses conveyed how women would show their piety to the gods.

Some modern religions try to control the lives of women, telling them what they can’t wear, or what they can’t do, because it goes against their sacred texts. In Roman religion, women weren’t being fully controlled in the same way as they are in some monotheistic religions. Monotheistic religions pray to one male god, while polytheistic religions, such as the Romans, pray to several female deities, such as Diana and Juno. These goddesses are both respected and feared in the same way as the male gods. This switch from multiple female goddesses to one male God could be seen as a lack of respect towards women in certain monotheistic religions.

In the Fasti Ovid reflects women’s concerns and tells them what they want to hear. Namely, if they want to have a good marriage, a good reputation, and kids, then they should pray to the gods. Additionally, women didn’t want to die in childbirth, which was more common before modern medicine, so he recommended that they pray to the goddess Lucina for an easy and safe delivery (2.449–452, 3.253–58). As scholar Elaine Fantham puts it, “…some of the most important aspects of religion in women’s lives in the books … [are] marriage, chastity, fertility, and childbirth” (Fantham 2002: 28).

One main goal in Ovid’s Fasti is explaining why they perform these rituals and festivals, and he adds the female perspectives to these festivals, especially the ones from February 15th (Lupercalia) and March 1st (Matronalia). He not only tells the audience what they do during those festivals, but he also explains the origins of the holidays. For the Lupercalia and Matronalia, these origins are especially important because Ovid is acknowledging the importance of these women’s needs by saying that they were there at the beginning of Rome itself, referring in both cases to the myth of the abduction of the Sabine women. An interpretation of this idea is that Ovid says nothing can get done without women, whether that is in the past or the present. In this way, he could be imagining this book being read to a female audience.

The Lupercalia was one of the important festivals for Roman women. During this festival, two men, chosen by priests, would run down the streets nude and they would strike women lightly with strips of the dead goat hide as they ran; since it was believed to give the women fertility, the woman would want to get hit by the goat hide (Shelton 1998: 381–82). The origin of the Lupercalia centers around the Sabine women who were taken from their home by Romulus, the son of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and the founder of Rome. He took these women by force because he needed to populate his new city, and since the Sabine men said no to having their women marry Roman men. After the woman had adjusted to their new homes and new husbands, they tried having children, but nothing worked. Both the men and the women prayed to Juno, the goddess of marriage, and for an answer. Juno came and told them that they had to let a goat “mount” the women (Fasti 2.441. “Let a sacred billy-goat mount Italian matrons,” as translated by Nagle 1995:69). A prophet understood what the goddess had meant. He killed a goat, and the women turned their backs so that they could be hit by the goat skin, and nine months later, the women had children (2.425–452). This myth also shows the importance of female fertility for Rome’s origins. According to Fantham, “fertility was even more vital to society and to the woman’s self‐respect than fidelity” (Fantham 2002: 29).

Although the women prayed to the gods for things that would help themselves, they would also pray for their household and community. As Fantham writes, “When the women supplicated, it was… for the whole community, not just for themselves, and … their private devotions [were] … made on behalf of their whole household, rather than just their personal needs” (Fantham 2002: 27).

Another important religious festival for women in Ovid’s Fasti is the Matronalia, which took place on March 1st. This festival honored the goddess Juno Lucina. During this festival, married women gave sacrifices and asked for help with childbirth. Men asked the goddess for their wives to continue having good health. There would also be gift giving between husband and wife, along with friends and special others (Dolansky 2011: 191–194). The origins of this holiday return to the Sabine women, since Ovid writes about how they were forcibly taken from their families, and about what happened after they had their kids. The Sabine men and Romans were going to war with each other because the Sabine men were still mad about their women being without their permission. The woman stopped the two sides, since they didn’t want to lose their fathers nor their husbands. They took their children and stood in between the two armies, and it worked (3.179–234). This festival relates back to the Lupercalia, since Roman women also prayed to the goddess Lucina for a fast and healthy delivery on both holidays (2.449–452, 3.253–58). During the Matronalia, the women dedicated flowers to Juno Lucina, put flowers in their hair, and prayed to the goddess saying the following, as recommended by Ovid: “ [Say] ‘Lucina, you have brought us all to light.’/ Say, ‘Come answer the prayers of a woman in labor.’/But if any of you is pregnant, let her loosen her hair and pray/ that the goddess gently ease her delivery” (3.255-58, trans. Nagle 1995: 87–88).

These prayers give us insight into what the women were asking the goddess for during the festival, which relates to their duties as mothers. With this origin myth, Ovid seems to focus on how these Sabine women brought unity to Rome, and the Matronalia celebrated that continued unity. The importance of motherhood is also shown in this story, since the women were able to stop the war by showing both sides their children, who were both Roman and Sabine. In addition, while referencing the role of women in Roman society from the Lupercalia, Fanny Dolansky points out the connection between childbirth and the state: “Childbirth was also … the vital service married women provided for the family, which ultimately benefited the state” (Dolansky 2011: 199). Women, however, weren’t only considered mothers in ancient Rome. They could be poets, gladiators, painters, actresses and singers, dressmakers, and doctors (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 1, 213–15, 216, 218, 219, 264–65).

From all of this, we could ask one question, “Why?” Why did Ovid choose to not only write about religious festivals, but also make a point of showing a representation of women, not just in some of the festivals, but also in the origins themselves? He may have wanted to recognize the significance of women within their religion, in which they would have their voices heard by others. Being a woman in ancient Rome was not easy. When Ovid acknowledges these women, from both the past and present, and in connection to their religion, one could interpret this as his way of saying to all these women, “Thank you.”


DiLuzio, Meghan J.  2016. “Salian Virgins, Sacerdotes, and Ministrae.” In A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton University Press

Dolansky, Fanny. 2001. “Reconsidering the Matronalia and Women’s Rites,” Classical World (2011)

Fantham, Elaine. 2002. “The Fasti as a Source for Women’s Participation in Roman Cult.” In Geraldine Herbert-Brown, ed., Ovid’s Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium. Oxford University Press.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. 2005. Women’s life in Greece and Rome: a source book in translation (Third edition). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nagle, Betty Rose. 1995 Ovid’s Fasti: Roman Holidays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. 1998. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jocelyn Wright: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Lion and the Frog

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Jocelyn Wright (Dickinson ’23) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Lion and the Frog,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

Leo et Rana (The Lion and the Frog)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.

Vox Ranae fuerat delapsa Leonis ad aures,

ranae, quae in pigro garrit inepta lacu.

Ille diu attonitus, nescit quae bestia rauco

quodve animal tantos evomat ore sonos.

Exserit at tandem faucem ambitiosa loquacem;

saltat, et in sicco voce coaxat agro.

Quam Leo cum voltu spectarat forte superbo,

advolat et querulam protinus ungue terit.

Adapted from Cheney et al., 2000, p. 146, II.85

English Translation

The voice of a Frog had fallen to the ears of a Lion;

of a frog who croaks, tasteless, in a still lake.

He, terrified for a long time, does not know what beast or what animal

is vomiting forth such great sounds from a hoarse mouth.

But finally she thrusts out her croaking throat, ostentatious;

she hops, and croaks with her voice in a dry field.

When the Lion by chance had seen her, with a proud face,

he approaches and crushes the chattering one at once with a claw.

Vocabulary & Notes

1 rāna rānae 1f. frog

dēlābor dēlābī dēlāpsus fall. Take this together with fuerat

leo leonis 3m. lion

2 piger pigra pigrum still, slow-moving. Agrees with lacu

garriō garrīre chatter, croak

ineptus inepta ineptum impertinent, tasteless. Agrees with the subject of the sentence

lacus lacūs 4m. lake, pond

3 attonitus attonita attonitum terrified. Participle from attono (ad + tono) thunder at

bestia bestiae 1f. beast

raucus rauca raucum hoarse. Agrees with ore

4 ēvomō ēvomere ēvomuī ēvomitum spew out, vomit forth

fauces faucium 3f. pl. throat, gullet. Usually only plural, but here is singular accusative

ambitiōsus ambitiōsa ambitiōsum ostentatious

loquāx loquācis croaking

6 saltō, saltāre dance, hop

in governs agro

siccus sicca siccum dry. Agrees with agro

coaxō coaxāre croak. Note the onomatopoeia

8 advolō advolāre (ad + volō) run to

querulus querula querulum croaking

unguis unguis 3m. claw

terō terere trīvī trītum crush

SimilarAesopic Fables:

Λέων καὶ Βάτραχος

Greek text from K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854), p. 121, #248

Λέων, ἀκούσας ποτὲ βατράχου μέγα βοῶντος, ἐπεστράφη πρὸς τὴν φωνὴν, οἰόμενος μέγα τι ζῶον εἶναι. Προσμείνας δὲ μικρὸν, ὡς εἶδεν αὐτὸν προελθόντα τῆς λίμνης, προσελθὼν αὐτὸν κατεπάτησεν.

Ὁ λόγος δηλοῖ, ὅτι οὐ δεῖ πρὸ τῆς ὄψεως δι’ ἀκοῆς μόνης ταράττεσθαι.

A lion, once hearing a frog croaking loudly, turned himself towards the sound, supposing it to be some great beast. But having waited a little, as he saw him coming out of the lake, advancing he trampled him underfoot.

The story makes clear, that one must not be troubled by only a sound before the sight.

Alternate Version

Greek text from K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854), p. 121, #248b

Λέων ἀκούσας βατράχου κεκραγότος, ἐπεστράφη πρὸς τὴν φωνὴν, οἰόμενος μέγα τι ζῶον εἶναι· προσμείνας δὲ μικρὸν χρόνον, ὡς ἐθεάσατο αὐτὸν ἀπὸ τῆς λίμνης ἐξελθόντα, προσελθῶν κατεπάτησεν, εἰπών· “μηδένα ἀκοὴ ταραττέτω πρὸ τῆς θέας.”

Ὁ λόγος εὔχαιρος πρὸς ἄνδρα γλωσσώδη, οὐδὲν πλέον τοῦ λαλεῖν δυνάμενον.

A lion, hearing a frog croaking, turned himself towards the sound, supposing it to be some great beast; but having waited a short time, as he saw him coming out of the lake, approaching he trampled him underfoot, saying: “Let no one be troubled by a sound before the sight.”

The story is timely for a talkative man, able to do nothing more than babble.

Rana et Leo

Latin text from Laura Gibbs, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010), #600, p. 191 Gibbs translated this from the Greek in Fabulae Aesopicae, ed. F. De Furia. 1810 (De Furia 90). This fable is Perry index #141.

Ranam magna vi crocitantem cum leo olim audisset, ad eam vocem protinus sese convertit, magnum aliquod animal esse arbitratus. Paulisper itaque cum substitisset, ubi illam ex palude prodeuntem adspexit, accedens illico proculcavit, haec intra se aiens, “Neminem, re nondum perspecta, vox audita conturbet; nec quispiam, antequam viderit, ab ullo deterreatur.”

Once when a lion had heard a frog croaking with great vigor, right away he turned himself to her voice, supposing it to be some great beast. And so after he had stopped for a little while, when he caught sight of her appearing out of the marsh, approaching he immediately trampled her, saying these words to himself, “No one should be disturbed by a voice having been heard, the thing not yet having been seen; nor should anyone be frightened off by anything, before he has seen it.”


Elizabeth Jane Weston was a notable poet of the Neo-Latin tradition and the only female Neo-Latin poet to have a collection of her writings published. Though she has since faded into relative obscurity, her writing was well-known in her lifetime (Cheney et al. 2000: xi). One collection of her works, entitled the Parthenica, was published in the early seventeenth century and included several Latin translations of a much older tradition, the ancient Greek Aesopic fables. The fable featured here, “Leo ac Rana,” tells the story of a lion who is frightened by a frog’s loud croaking, until he sees that the sound is only coming from a frog and crushes it underfoot. The moral as stated by the lion in the fable is to not be frightened by a sound alone before seeing the thing for itself. In other words, first appearances can be deceiving, and often the things we fear turn out in the end to not be so bad after all.

The original ancient Greek Aesopic fable actually had two different versions. Both tell the same story as Weston’s version, but the intended recipient of the overall message is different. The first version (Halm, 1852, p. 121, #248) is addressed to the lions of the world, telling them not to be bothered by the voices of tasteless critics. The second version (Halm, 1852, p. 121, #248b), however, is written to the frogs, men who can do nothing more than babble (note the rare word γλωσσώδη, “talkative” or “babbling,” and λαλεῖν, “babble” or “speak childishly”). The overall message does remain the same, but this version serves as a warning to the “frogs” instead of reassurance to the “lions.”

With a choice between two existing versions of the same story, Weston chose that aimed towards the “lions” or powerful people of the world. This may seem surprising at first, given Weston was not a powerful person and grew up in poverty (Cheney et al. 2000: xi-xiii). Her father was in prison for killing a member of the royal court in Prague, and throughout the course of her writings her beloved brother and mother both passed away. However, she did have close connections with many powerful people, including aristocrat Georg Martinius von Baldhoven. Baldhoven was a tireless supporter of Weston and her work and was responsible for the publication of her works. She also had connections with the royal court for whom her father once worked, including King Rudolf himself. Many of her writings were addressed directly to members of this court, who often helped to support her and her family after her father’s imprisonment. “Leo ac Rana” may have been written not only to keep the Aesopic tradition alive through her own Neo-Latin writing, but also as a message of reassurance to one or some of the powerful people with whom she was affiliated. This could have been Baldhoven, a member of the royal court, or perhaps even Rudolf.

One should also consider the possibility that Weston chose this particular fable to translate because of all the hardships she had to endure throughout her life. She wrote poems and letters describing her poverty, the death of her brother and mother, and her father’s stay in prison. Throughout these terrible circumstances, she found comfort in her writing and in her religion. Perhaps to her, these things were adjacent to the lion’s realization that the awesome noise was only coming from a frog. She initially feared and despaired of her fate, but was able to reassure herself with the knowledge that everything would be okay in the end. For example, she wrote after her brother’s death that she must say farewell “forever […] until I follow with my mother through the heavenly summits” (Cheney et al. 2000: 56–57, Parthenica I.28). Despite using the word “forever,” she acknowledged immediately after that this separation from her brother was impermanent. While she would undoubtedly mourn, his death was not as horrible to her as it would first appear, because she knew she would be reunited with him eventually.

Along with choosing one of two morals presented in the original Greek versions of the fable, Weston made certain word choices which emphasized her own unique take on the story and its meaning. Her translation can be compared not only with the Greek but also with an alternative Medieval Latin, as collected by Laura Gibbs (2010). First, Weston added new adjectives and verbs characterizing the frog which were not present in the Greek or in Gibbs’ version, including garrit (“chattering”), inepta (“impertinent” or “tasteless”), evomat (“spewing out” or “vomiting forth”), and ambitiosa (“ostentatious”) (Cheney et al. 2000: 146, II.85). The frog in the first Greek version of the fable (Halm, 1852, p. 121, #248) and in Gibbs’ translation was given essentially no characterization, and this addition subtly but quite dramatically changes the tone of the story and therefore its moral. In the Greek and Gibbs’ translation, the frog is simply loud but not a threat. In Weston’s version, however, the frog is depicted as tasteless and an annoyance, chattering away stupidly. This is more similar to the alternative version of the Greek (Halm, 1852, p. 121, #248b) which directly points out the comparison of the frog to a babbling man or someone who is all talk.

Second, Weston described the lion as proud (Latin superbus), a detail which all three other versions of the fable left out. This could be a compliment to Baldhoven or Rudolf or whichever powerful person Weston may have presented this to, or a reminder to that person to maintain their pride even when confronted with a loud and obnoxious critic. This could also potentially refer to Weston herself, having to maintain her pride as an ambitious woman and poet as she crushed seemingly insurmountable obstacles on her way to self-sufficiency and fame. She knew all about overcoming challenges while remaining proud, and her fierce drive enabled her to look past the initial appearance of her difficulties and find ways to overcome them and reach the success she knew she was capable of.

Third, Weston makes it clear in her translation that the lion is originally terrified (Latin attonitus) by the frog’s croaking, while this is never outright specified in Gibbs’ or the Greek. This further magnified the distinction between the lion’s initial response (shock or fear) and final action (trampling the frog), and emphasized the lion’s first reaction to the noise. At first encounter, a critic or obstacle can seem much worse than it actually is.

Finally, Weston makes one type of word choice which does not change the meaning of the story but does emphasize her own unique flair for storytelling. Weston’s translation is sprinkled with onomatopoeia, adding a whimsical feel to the story with words describing the frog’s croaking: garrit, loquacem, coaxat. She also adds the playful word saltat (“hops”) to describe the frog’s movement.

Overall, whether it was meant for the lions or the frogs of the world, whether it was written to Baldhoven or royalty or herself, Weston’s “Leo ac Rana” has a message applicable to all of us today: don’t be deterred when something seems insurmountable at first, and don’t be bothered by tasteless, babbling critics. (Alternatively, don’t be a tasteless, babbling critic yourself.)


Cheney, D., Hosington, B. M., & Money, D. (2000). Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected writings. University of Toronto Press.

Gibbs, L. (2010). Mille fabulae et una: 1001 Aesop’s fables in Latin. Lulu Publishers.

Halm, Karl. (1852). Aisōpeiōn mythōn synagōge: Fabulae Aesopicae collectae. Lipsiae: Sumptibus et Typis B.G. Teubneri.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Lexi Chroscinski: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Captured Lark

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Lexi Chroscinski (Dickinson ’23) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Captured Lark,” comparing it to Greek version of the same fable.

Cassita Sola (The Captured Lark)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.

Aucupis insidiis haerens Cassita dolosis,

miratur, quaenam sit sibi causa necis.

Hei mihi, flens clamat, quae tanti causa doloris?

Hei mihi, quam me sors exitialis habet?

Num quia per vetitas furtim irrepsisse fenestras,

aut soleo alterius me satiare bonis?

Hoc praeter nihil est, si haec quidquam culpa meretur:

Dignave quis Cereris granula morte putat.


A lark, clinging in the crafty traps of the fowler,

Wondered what might be the cause of death for her.

“Alas for me,” weeping, she cries out,

“What [is] the cause of this great pain?

Alas for me, how destructive fate holds me!

Is it because I am accustomed to have crept secretly through forbidden windows,

or [because I am accustomed] to satisfy myself with the goods of others?

There is nothing except this, unless this fault deserves anything,

or someone supposes that the small grains of food are worthy of death.”

 Vocabulary & Notes

1 auceps cupis 3m. bird-catcher, fowler

insidiae arum 1f. pl. artifice, crafty device, plot, snare

haereo 2 haesi haesum hang, stick, catch, cling

Cassita ae 1f. crested lark, tufted lark

dolosus a um crafty, cunning, deceitful

2 quaenam: ‘nam’ is intensive

sit: subjunctive with indirect question

nex necis 3f. death

3 hei alas! woe!

clamo 1 to call, cry out, shout

4 exitialis e destructive, fatal, deadly

5 num: introduces direct question

furtim by stealth, secretly, privily

irrepo 3 irrepsi irreptum to creep in, into, upon, or to a place

fenestra ae 1f. a window

6 satio 1 to fill, satisfy, satiate

7 hoc praeter: note the unusual inversion between these two words. Most of the time it is written as praeter hoc, “except this,” “besides this,” etc.

8 dignabilis e worthy

granulum i 2n. a small grain (Late Latin)

Ceres eris 3f. food, bread, fruit, corn, grain; the figurative use of this word stems from Ceres, mother of Proserpina, who is also the goddess of agriculture, specifically of wheat cultivation and fruit growth


The first two lines narrate and provide the context before the lark’s dialogue, stating that the bird has been captured by a fowler, and now she is wondering what of her actions have caused her this death. Weston’s word choice is vital to understanding our lark’s situation, and one very important word here is miratur. Because the bird is wondering what warrants her death, it shows immediately that she hasn’t considered her actions, up to this point, worthy of death. Thus, she questions what on earth she could have possibly done to deserve this, the tone of which is conveyed with flens, clamat, and tanti in line 3. At this point, we, the reader, begin to understand what the cause may be. The lark suggests that it could be because she broke into someone’s house (per vetitas furtim irrepsisse fenestras), or that she fills her own needs by taking the goods of someone else (soleo alterius me satiare bonis)? There are a few other keywords that provide a sense of the moral this fable is implying. The two verbs soleo and satiare give the reader insight into the lark’s character and her actions. She is accustomed to sneaking into people’s houses and stealing food, and she is satisfying herself with the goods of other people. Since it is a pattern for the lark to do this, and because satio can also mean to satiate or gorge, implying a sense of greed, it is possible that the reader is not supposed to feel sympathy for the lark. The lark is also completely clueless, as stated before, and as shown again with the verbs meretur and putat. She doesn’t consider her actions deserving of death, and is incredibly upset at her situation, as is underscored by the repeated phrase, Hei mihi. This theme of cluelessness is also highlighted by the word sors. While it can mean “fate,” it can also mean “luck,” suggesting that the lark thinks everything that is happening to her is a result of bad luck when the reader knows that this was to be her fate based upon her pattern of thievery (soleo). The other verb, putat (“suppose”) demonstrates the lark’s misguided judgment, as she doesn’t understand how anyone could be upset with her actions. This is a very interesting word choice as puto takes on a more ironic meaning of “suppose,” instead of a verb of intellectual thinking, such as “cogito” or “credo,” suggesting that the lark’s conclusion is unjustified. So, perhaps, at this point, we may agree that stealing is wrong and the lark deserves her fate; however, the last line could change our stance. The lark proposes a question: does stealing a small grain of bread truly warrant death (dignave quis Cereris granula morte putat)? While some may decide that the lark does deserve to die for her actions, I would argue that some would be sympathetic to her plea, and I believe that is one way to interpret this fable. Even though the lark stole something of seemingly small significance, and perhaps had good reason to do so, she stole, nonetheless.

A similar moral can be taken from the Greek version collected in Carl Halm’s Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae as fable 209 (p. 104), titled Κορυδαλλός:

Κορυδαλλὸς, εἰς πάγην ἁλοὺς, θρηνῶν ἔλεγεν, “Οἴμοι τῷ ταλαιπώρῳ καὶ δυστήνῳ πτηνῷ· οὐ χρυσὸν ἐνοσφισάμην τινὸς, οὐκ ἄργυρον, οὐκ ἄλλο τι τῶν τιμίων·κόκκος δὲ σίτου μικρὸς τὸν θάνατόν μοι προὐξένησεν.”

Ὁ μῦθος πρὸς τοὺς διὰ κέρδος εὐτελὲς μέγαν ὑφισταμένους κίνδυνον.

A Lark, having been caught in a trap, said, wailing, “Oh! What a sad and unfortunate bird I am! I did not steal anyone’s gold or silver, or any other thing of value, but a small cup of grain has brought death upon me.

The story is directed at those who run large risks for small gains.

Similar to Weston, the Greek version gives the account of the lark, who argues that she didn’t steal anything of value, such as gold or silver, from anyone, but a small grain of bread is going to be the cause of her death. While the Greek version is nearly identical to that of Weston’s, the former explicitly states the moral. Here, there is a different moral suggested. This one would have us understand that sometimes the reward is not worth the risk. All the lark wanted was to steal a little grain, but her punishment was death, so one might argue that the lark shouldn’t have even bothered stealing the grain since it wasn’t worth risking her life. One important comparison between Halm’s version and Weston’s is the words “ταλαιπώρῳ” and “δυστήνῳ” with “exitalis sors.” Both these phrases highlight the lark’s predicament, making for an accurate comparative fable, aside from the near-identical plot. With Halm’s fable almost paralleled to Weston’s, it seems that this is the moral Weston is emphasizing, and this is further evidenced by looking at her life.

When Weston’s stepfather, Edward Kelley, died, he left her and her family completely destitute. In turn, Weston became reliant on her circle of friends and benefactors – relationships most likely forged by her stepfather – and because of her status, she learned not to take for granted those who were supporting her in life, unlike the lark, who became greedy. In the book Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings, the editors state, “There is a certain irony in the fact that Weston, young, foreign, helpless, and destitute, as she likes to describe herself, can nevertheless call upon a circle of such rich and powerful men.” (Cheney et al. 2000: xx). I’d suggest that this is not ironic, but rather a result of respect for the patron-client relationship. With this, one can see that Elizabeth has learned the value of taking only what is needed from those who are willing to give it, which is a value the lark did not learn. While this interpretation of “Cassita Sola” seems to line up well with Weston’s life, there is another strong possible interpretation that also ties into Weston’s life. The lark’s actions, although habitual, were seemingly harmless. All she stole were small grains to feed herself, and her punishment is death. I’d argue that most would think that the punishment does not fit the crime in this scenario, and I’d further contend that neither did Weston. The most evident case for this interpretation would be in Book II in her poem modeled after Ovid’s Tristia: “She [Weston] identifies with Ovid in his exile but is able to inject a further personal note into the poem by alluding specifically to her loss of father and family in England, the theft of her goods, her innocence and unjust punishment, and her inability to move Rudolf’s heart” (Cheney et al. 2000: xxii). This passage can be applied directly to “Cassita Sola” – the lark was seemingly innocent, she is being put to death for stealing a grain of wheat, which most would view as an unjust punishment, and as far as we can tell, the lark was unable to move the fowler’s heart enough to release her. Cheney and Hosington also demonstrate Weston’s anger “at the ‘excessive savagery’ of death” and how that played a huge role “in her perception of her young life as one of unhappiness, and it contributes to her sense of injustice” (xxii). Given Weston’s strong sense of injustice in this fable, one can see how this “Cassita Sola” demonstrates this, as it pertains to Weston’s life as well.

Samuel Croxall, an Anglican who published an edition of Aesop’s Fables, interpreted “The Fowler and the Lark” similarly (Fables of Aesop, and Others: With Instructive Applications [14th edition, London, 1789], #97, p. 166v). He argues that justice is unfair in the world – a poor man might go to jail and die for stealing some food to feed his family, but some of the major CEOs who swindled millions of people out of money in 2008 are still up in the corporate world, making even more money. In Croxall’s world, the little guy gets a harsh punishment for a small crime, but the big guy who affects more than just those around him gets off scot-free.

This lesson is seen and experienced throughout our lives as well. In the 2012 film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables, the audience sees a man named Jean Valjean finally released from prison after nineteen years. To someone who has never seen the film before, one might be asking themselves, “Nineteen years seems like a long time to be in prison. He must have committed a bad crime.” Yet, the story we are told is that he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Here, Jean Valjean had an arguably very just reason for stealing, but even so, he was in prison because he stole, similar to the lark’s stealing of a small grain of wheat. Another example would be if a woman were to break into a rich person’s house and steal one diamond necklace out of hundreds. This same woman is working three jobs and has a family that needs to be fed and cared for – this necklace is the solution to their problems. She was arrested and now sits in jail. Are we not sympathetic to her plea? Unfortunately, Weston gives us no background as to where this lark is or whose grain she is stealing from. For all one knows, the fowler could live in a mansion, and might not have even noticed the lark steal the grain had she not been caught. If this were the case, that the fowler had so much, we might even be more sympathetic to the lark’s situation, but even then, it still does not change the fact that the lark stole. This is the ethical dilemma about which Weston could be writing. This is not to say that the interpretation offered by the Greek version is incorrect or doesn’t apply to Weston’s fable, but rather this is another way to interpret “Cassita Sola.” We are not supposed to steal, but there are certainly multiple scenarios where we would argue that it is justified, or if not justified, we may side in favor of the offender. Sure, the examples given are either fictional or inventive, but that does not mean they did not and/or do not happen. Did Jean Valjean truly deserve to spend nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread? Did that woman deserve to go to jail for trying to care for her family? Did the lark truly deserve to die for stealing one grain of wheat? While we may not be able to have a uniform answer, we can certainly turn to Elizabeth Jane Weston’s life to determine her answer, and in turn, perhaps find answers to our own ethical dilemmas that we face.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Nicholas Morris: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Sow and the Dog

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Nicholas Morris (Dickinson ’24) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Sow and the Dog,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

Sus et Canis (The Sow and the Dog)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.

Non levis (at quondam) discordia contigit inter

saetigeramque suem, sollicitamque canem.

Nam sus fecundam se grunnit iniqua; vocari

vult sue fertilior fertiliore canis.

Tandem illa haec referens, “quid criminis evomis?” inquit;                   5

“an non ut furiat mens tibi casca, vides?

Nam fetus generas misere tu lumine cassos,

dum cupis ut proles sit numerosa tibi.”

The Sow and the Dog

Once upon a time, a serious disagreement took place between a bristly sow and a troubled dog. For the hostile sow grunts that she is fertile; the dog wants to be called more fertile than the fertile sow. Finally, the sow, replying to these things, says: “What sort of accusation do you spew forth? Or do you not see that your old mind is raving? For, while you wish that your progeny might be numerous, you beget offspring wretchedly deprived of the light.”

Notes and Vocabulary

discordia –ae f., disagreement, discord

quondam, once upon a time, modifies contigit

contingo –ere –tigi (3rd), to happen, befall

saetiger –era –erum, bristly

sus suis f., sow

sollicitus –a –um, troubled, disturbed

fecundus –a –um, fertile

grunnio –ire (4th), to grunt

iniquus –a –um, inimical, hostile

sue = ablative of comparison

illa: The sow is speaking to the dog.

haec referens: “replying to these things.” Dative hīs would be more normal than accusative haec.

refero –ferre (3rd), to say in return, reply, answer

quid = translate with crimen, “what sort of” + gen.

crimen criminis, n., an accusation, reproach

evomo –ere (3rd), to spew out, vomit forth

furio –ire, late Latin for furo –ere, to rage, be mad

cascus –a –um, old

fetus -ūs m., young, offspring

genero –are (1st), to beget, procreate

misere, (adv.) wretchedly

cassus –a –um, deprived of (+ abl.)

proles –is f., offspring, progeny

numerosus –a –um, a great number, numerous


Elizabeth Jane Weston is one of the most fascinating literary figures of the Renaissance period about whom very little is known today. She was born in England around 1581/2, with her father dying shortly after her birth. Her mother later remarried Edward Kelley, a high-ranking nobleman and alchemist who took his new family to live in Prague after becoming a client of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Weston was brought up in Prague as a member of the nobility, having access to a top-notch education thanks to Kelley’s connections, and she was introduced to Latin via her tutor John Hammond. Weston’s career as a poet seems to have begun in 1591, when her stepfather was imprisoned on charges of murder and his property seized by the crown, leaving his family destitute; he died in prison six years later. Weston proceeded to write poems to royal courtiers and other nobles, pleading with them to intervene with Rudolph on her family’s behalf, which seems to have had no effect whatsoever. She later married the jurist Johannes Leo around 1603 and had seven children with him before dying in childbirth in 1612 (Cheney et al. 2000: xii-xiii).

Although her life may have been unfortunately short, Weston managed to accomplish a great deal. With the help of her friend and publicist George Martinius von Baldhoven, a tireless promoter of her poetry, Weston was able to have several of her works published (Cheney et al. xiii-xiv). Her magnum opus, the collection Parthenica, contains a short selection of Aesopic fables which she rewrote in poetic meter.

The closest fable in the Aesopic tradition is “The Sow and the Bitch” (Ὗς καὶ Κύων Perry 223, Halm #409, p. 197)

Ὗς καὶ κύων περὶ εὐτοκίας ἤριζον. ἔφη δ’ ἡ κύων, εὔτοκος εἶναι μάλιστα πάντων τῶν πεζῶν ζώων. Καὶ ἡ ὗς ὑποτυχοῦσα πρὸς ταῦτα φησίν: “ἀλλ’ ὅταν τοῦτο λέγῃς, ἴσθι, ὅτι καὶ τυφλοὺς τοὺς σαυτῆς σκύλακας τίκτεις.”

Ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὅτι οὐκ ἐν τῷ τάχει τὰ πράγματα, ἀλλ’ ἐν τῇ τελειότητι κρίνεται.

The Sow and the Bitch

The Sow and the Bitch were quarreling about fertility. The Bitch said she was the most fertile of all the animals who go on feet. And in response the Sow said, “But when you say this, be aware that the pups you give birth to are blind.”

The story shows that things are judged not by their speed, but by their perfection.

A medieval Latin version of the same fable is provided by De Furia’s Fabulae Aesopicae (1810), as edited by Laura Gibbs (2010): Sus et Canis, Contendentes (Perry 223, Gibbs 343, p. 111, De Furia 186).

Sus et canis de pariendi facilitate contendebant. Porro cum canis se citius animalibus omnibus filios suos in lucem edere affirmaret, sus, ad eam conversa, “Heus tu,” inquit, “dum haec dicis, memento te eos caecos parere.”

Fabula declarat non ex celeritate sed ex perfectione de rebus esse iudicandum.

The Sow and the Dog, Arguing

A sow and a dog were arguing about the ease of giving birth. When the dog was first affirming that she brings forth her offspring into the light sooner than all the animals, the sow, having responded to her, says: “Hey you, remember while you say this that you give birth to blind young.”

The fable declares that these things must not be judged from swiftness but from perfection (skill).

Weston begins with litotes (non levis), telling us what this discordia is not (1). This dispute, therefore, is not as petty as it initially sounds, but has importance for both parties. One way in which the Aesopic and Westonian fables differ is that Weston gives her characters certain traits and attributes that the original fable leaves out. She appears to take a more dramatic approach towards her retelling of this fable, adding in certain adjectives that give us clues pertaining to the emotional state of both animals: a bristly sow (this word has a double meaning, since it can denote both the sow’s physical appearance and her unpleasant demeanor) and a worried dog. The word iniqua in line 3 also looks like it describes the sow; perhaps the reader is meant to sympathize with the dog, who must put up with the sow’s arrogant boasts of her fertility. In whatever case, we learn in the next line that the dog wants to be known as the most fertile, more so than even the sow; this is highlighted by Weston’s use of polyptoton – the repetition of a word in two different forms (fertilior fertiliore, line 4).

Informed of the dog’s desire, we turn to the sow, who is preparing to answer the dog. This is where context is paramount. As listed in the notes, the pig (illa) is speaking to the dog in the fifth line. While this might not be apparent at first, recall that the Greek fable has the dog boast that she can give birth faster than any other animal. Weston’s choice of the verb evomere in line 5 seems appropriate here, describing the length of the sow’s contempt for the dog’s foolish claim. Note that in Weston’s version, the dog’s words are not explicitly provided to us. And the sow does not hold back in her retort, asking the dog if her feeble mind is raging – a rather poetic way of calling someone crazy (line 7).

Of course, we could have foreseen the outcome of this discord had we paid attention to Weston’s placement of words in the fourth line: fertilior (referring to the dog) is placed before fertiliore (referring to the sow), reflecting the dog’s desire to place herself before the sow. But the position of sue lies well before that of canis at the end of the line, foreshadowing of the futility of this dream (line 4).

Could the dog have been the one to start this debate? According to the Greek version of this fable, this seems a likely conclusion, as we see the dog boasting about how citius she is when it comes to bringing her young in lucem – the accusation that Weston’s sow mentions. What makes the sow’s retort so satisfying? The dog may be the first among animals in the swiftness with which she gives birth, but this ability comes at a cost: her pups are born blind (misere…lumine cassos), and thus are unable to see in the light they have been brought into so quickly (7).

As in her other adapted versions of Aesopian fables, Weston does not include a moral at the end of her poem. This is a byproduct of Weston’s style: her poems are written to meter — in this case, elegiac couplet — and so the morals likely would not fit into this metric. However, this problem can be easily solved by referring to the earlier Medieval Latin and Greek versions of the Sow and the Dog, supplied by Gibbs and Halm, respectively. The basic message of this fable urges its readers to select quality over quantity: the dog appears to shirk the well-being of her young in favor of having as many pups as possible, leaving her puppies “wretchedly useless in light”; that is, they are born blind. Piglets, on the other hand, can see right when they are born. Viewed in this context, the sow would seem to win this debate, since her offspring prove to be more functional and autonomous than the dog’s, which are entirely dependent on their mother.

Does this adage of quality over quantity have any application to Weston’s life? Why would she weave this message into this poem, and what did she hope to gain by doing so? The answer might lie in her personal life. Weston was prolific early on in her production of poems, many of which were undoubtedly addressed to Rudolph’s nobles and courtiers on behalf of her stepfather’s case. Later in life, however, her activity slowed as she married and had children. Obviously, Weston’s duties as a wife and mother would not have left her as much time as she had before to focus on her poetry, but perhaps this adage was also responsible for this period of literary fatigue. Many classical writers believed that to be successful at their craft, they must prioritize the perfection of their pieces, not the speed at which they could publish them. In short, it is better for an author’s pieces to be few yet profound as opposed to numerous yet shallow. Weston’s admiration for these esteemed authors and her own ambition to become a famed poet herself likely led her to take this advice. She was also regularly in correspondence with fellow aspiring poets, and so this advice would have been helpful to her audience as well. Thus, Weston would certainly have written her later poetry with such a focus in mind.

Notes on sources and translations

I have adapted the original Latin text of Weston’s fable from As for the other fables, I have taken the original Latin prose from Laura Gibbs’ Mille Fabula et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin, who in turn has collected these fables from other fabulists’ compilations: both Sus et Canis stories are taken from F. De Furia’s Fabulae Aesopicae, Testudo et Lepus is taken from P. Irenaeus’ Mithologica Sacro-Profana, and Leaena et Sus is attributed to Odo of Cheriton in a compilation of Latin fables edited by Leopold Hervieux. The original Greek of Ὗς καὶ Κύων can be found in Karl Halm’s Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae, available through the Internet Archive. Links to these resources may be found in the bibliography.

The reader will find that I have placed the appropriate index numbers next to the original prose of each fable, the first of which (Perry #) is from the Perry Index, created by the classicist Ben Edwin Perry to catalogue the fables in his manuscript concerning the ancient fabulists Babrius and Phaedrus (Simondi, “Perry Index”). Gibbs organizes her fables in a different way, arranging them according to the main characters – animals are first, then birds, fish and so on (Gibbs i). Since Gibbs’ index differs from Perry’s, I have thus provided both Gibbs’ index numbers and the page numbers at which these fables can be found in Mille Fabulae et Una; the same is true for Halm. I have also given the fable numbers from Gibbs’ sources (De Furia, Irenaeus, Odo).

All translations herein are my own, except for that of Ὗς καὶ Κύων, which was done by Professor Chris Francese.


Cheney, D., B. Hosington, and D. Money. Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings. Toronto:   University of Toronto Press, 2000.

“Elizabeth Jane Weston.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2021,

Gibbs, Laura. Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Lulu Publishers: North Carolina. 2010.

Fabulae Aesopicae, ed. F. De Furia. 1810.

Irenaeus, P. Mithologica Sacro-Profana, seu Florilegium Fabularum. 1666.

Odonis de Ceritona Fabulae, in Les Fabulistes Latins, ed. Leopold Hervieux, Vol.                               4. 1896.

Halm, K. Aisopeion Mython Synagoge – Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae. Page 197. 1854.

Simondi, Tom. “Perry Index.” Fables of Aesop, 9 Feb. 2021,

Weston, Elizabeth Jane. Parthenica. Vol. 2. Prague: n.d. [1608?]


Original Weston text on CAMENA:

Gibbs’ Mille Fabulae et Una:

Halm’s collection of Greek fables:

Wikipedia article on Weston:

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Jack Tigani: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Geese and the Cranes

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Jack Tigani (Dickinson ’22) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Geese and the Cranes,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

Anseres et Grues (The Geese and the Cranes)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6b.

Quae poterant volucres arcem servare Quirini,

et magna iunctae vi Palamedis aves.

Iugiter in prato fusae pascuntur eodem,

securo et peragrant laeta vireta pede.

Forte canis Meleagros venaticus apros

comminus insequitur per iuga, perque nemus.

Plumigerosque greges subiti invasere timores,

devia dum replent vocibus arva canes.

Strymoniae unde grues leviter motantibus alis

eripiunt subitis se, fugiuntque minis.

At (dolor!) anseribus multo conamine nixis

pinguia non licuit membra levare solo.

Corporis obstabat dum debile pondus obesi

aeriumque alis impediebat iter.

Faucibus apta canum rapidis hi praeda, repente

robore devicti procubuere suo.

English translation

The birds which were able to save the Capitolium,

And the birds joined with the great force of Palamedes

were grazing continually, spread out in the same meadow,

and were wandering around without worry in happy green places.

By chance, a hunting dog was pursuing the wild boars of Meleager at close hand

Through ridges and through the woods.

Sudden fear seized the feathered flocks,

While the dogs filled up the remote fields with their voices.

The cranes of Strymon saved themselves and fled from there.

They escaped from the threat by lightly moving their wings.

But (pain!) although the geese struggled with much effort,

It was impossible for them to lift their fat limbs from the ground,

While the debilitating weight of their obese bodies was opposing their wings

And hindering their airborne path.

These geese were suitable prey for the seizing jaws of the dogs,

They fell down, suddenly overcome by their own power.

Vocabulary and Notes

1 Quirini: of Romulus (after his deification), populus Quirini, i.e. the Romans, urbs Quirini, i.e. Rome, arx Quirini, i.e. the Capitolium. The first line is a reference to an episode in the early history of the Roman Republic in which the Gauls were about to attack the city of Rome, but a flock of birds that the Romans referred to as Juno’s Sacred Geese clucked very loudly in the middle of the night and because of the noise the Romans immediately became aware of the imminent attack. As such, the whole first line about Juno’s sacred geese alludes to an imminent attack later in the poem. Weston obtained this reference from Martial. He writes about Juno’s sacred geese in his Epigrams,

Haec servavit avis Tarpei templa Tonantis.

miraris? nondum fecerat illa deus.

This bird saved the Tarpeian temple of the Thunderer. Do you

wonder? Not yet had a god built it. (Martial, Epigrams 13.74)

[Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.]

2 Palamedes, is m.: son of Nauplius, king of Euboea, who lost his life before Troy, through the artifices of Odysseus. He is said to have invented some Greek letters by observing the flight of cranes. Again, Weston clearly read Martial as this reference about the birds of Palamedes comes from his Epigrams,

Turbabis versus nec littera tota volabit,

unam perdideris si Palamedis avem.

You will confuse the lines and the writing will not fly complete, if

you lose one of Palamedes’ birds. (Martial, Epigrams 13.75)

3 iugiter: continually, perpetually

3 pratum, prati n.: meadow

3 pasco, -ere, pavi, pastus: to feed, graze

4 peragro, peragrare: to wander through

4 virectum, virecti: a green place, greensward (viretum is an alternate form of the word)

5 Meleagreus, a, um, adj.: of/belonging to Meleager; Meleager was the son of the Calydonian king Oeneus and Althaea. He was one of the combatants at the famous Calydonian boar-hunt.

5 aper, apri n.: wild boar

5 venaticus, a, um: belonging to hunting, hunting-

6 comminus: close at hand. Usually this word means “in close contest”, but “close at hand” is a more suitable translation here because comminus is describing the dog’s steadfast pursuit of the boar, not a formal contest.

6 insequor, insequi, insecutus: to pursue, press upon

7 plumiger, plumigera, plumigerum: feathered, feather-bearing

7 grex, gregis m.: flock, herd

7 invado, invadere, invasi, invasum  to seize, rush upon (+ acc.)

invasere = syncopated perfect, verbs in the 3rd person, plural, perfect, active, indicative are sometimes shortened in prose for purposes of meter.

8 devius, devia, devium: unfrequented, out-of-the way, remote

8 repleo, replēre, replevi, repletum: to fill up, make full

9 Strymonius, Strymonia, Strymonium: of / belonging to Strymon. The river Strymon, in Macedonia, on the borders of Thrace, now Struma or Kara-su (LS Strymon, onis/onos I).

9 grus, gruis f.: crane

9 moto, motare: to keep moving, move about; motantibus is a present active participle

9 ala, alae f.: wing

10 minae, minarum f. pl.: threats

11 anser, anseris m.: goose

11 conamen, conaminis n.: effort, struggle

11 nitor, niti, nixus sum: to make one’s way with an effort, to press forward

12 pinguis, pingue: fat, plump. Pinguia has quite a pejorative connotation, not only because it translates as “plump” or “fat,” but because of the effects their heavy weight has on the situation at hand. The geese are desperately trying to fly away from the present dangers, but they are not light like the cranes.

12 levo, levare: to lift up, raise

12 solum, soli: the ground, floor

13 obsto, obstare, obstiti: to hinder, oppose

13 debilis, debile: weak, debilitated

13 obesus, obesa, obesum: fat, stout, plump

14 impedio, impedire, impedivi or impedii, impeditum: to hinder, hamper

15 fauces, faucium f.: jaws

15 rapidus, rapida, rapidum: tearing away, seizing (adj. of rapio)

15 repente: suddenly, unexpectedly

16 robur, roboris n.: strength, firmness, power. This word refers to things made out of oak or hard wood. Its meaning is “power” or “firmness” because the wood of a tree is hard and firm, and a tree is not easily knocked over using brute force.

16 devinco, devici, devictum: to conquer completely, subdue

16 procumbo, procubui, procubitum: to fall forward, sink down; procubuere = syncopated perfect. Procumbo is a forceful verb as it sometimes used to describe a legion that has been completely destroyed. Procumbo refers back to robur because both words imply force and firmness, and as it takes a great deal of power to make a tree fall, a tree “falls forward” with great force when it finally collapses.

Similar Aesopic Fables

The Aesopic version of this fable is number 421 in the collection of Greek Aesopic material edited by Karl Halm (Halm 1854: p. 204):

Χῆνες καὶ Γέρανοι (The Geese and the Cranes)

Χῆνες καὶ γέρανοι ἐπὶ ταὐτοῦ λειμῶνος ἐνέμοντο. Τῶν δὲ θηρευτῶν ἐπιφανέντων, οἱ μὲν γέρανοι, κοῦφοι ὄντες ταχέως ἀπέπτησαν, οἱ δὲ χῆνες, διὰ τὸ βάρος τῶν σωμάτων μείναντες, συνελήφθησαν.

Ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὅτι καὶ ἐν ἁλώσει πόλεως οἱ μὲν ἀκτήμονες εὐχερῶς φεύγουσιν, οἱ δὲ πλούσιοι δουλεύουσιν ἁλισκόμενοι.

The Geese and the cranes were grazing on the same meadow. But when the hunters showed up, the cranes, being light, quickly took off, but the geese were captured because of the weight of their bodies.

The fable makes clear that in the capture of a city, the poor escape easily, whereas the rich, having been caught, serve as slaves.

The closest Medieval Latin version is number 536 in the collection of Laura Gibbs (Gibbs 2010: p. 171).

Olores et Anseres (The Swans and the Geese)

Olores et anseres, amici inter se facti, exierant quondam in campos. Quibus coniunctim pascentibus, superveniunt venatores. Olores, corporis celeritate et volatu, tuto evadunt periculum. Anseres autem, natura tardiores, deserti ab amicis, in venatorum incidunt manus.

Haec fabula arguit eos qui amicos suos non adiuvant totis viribus, sed produnt in periculis.

The swans and the geese, having become friends to each other [inter se: between them (literally), here: to each other], once went forth into the fields. The hunters come up to the ones who feed together. The swans safely evade the danger with the speed of their bodies and with their flight. But the geese, slower by nature, forsaken by their friends, fall into the hands of the hunters.

This tale censures those who do not help their own friends with all their strength, but those who give them over to dangers.


Weston’s poem Anseres et grues is full of references to classical poets and famous tales of Greek and Roman mythology. The poem has a clear message regarding the disadvantages of wealth during times of crisis. Weston articulates this message by telling a story about geese and cranes who eat together in a field. The geese are heavy, and they cannot escape when hunting dogs come rushing onto the premises, but the cranes escape because they are lighter. The message is that wealthy individuals are not fit to survive a crisis such as the sack of a city because they have too many possessions weighing them down, but the poor are able to escape much more easily because they do not have an excess of possessions hindering their escape.

The idea about wealth being a hindrance in times of crisis is clearly displayed in line twelve of the poem. Weston uses the word pinguia to describe the limbs of the geese. Pinguia means “plump” or “fat.” The geese are unable to escape like the cranes because they are too heavy to fly. The hunting dogs are about to hurt the birds, but Weston specifies that the cranes lightly move their wings and they escape easily because they are not weighed down by their own weight.

The last line describes the geese being destroyed by the hunting dogs, “Robore devicti procubuere suo.” The word choices are interesting in this line. Robur means “power” or “firmness,” and it originally referred to anything made out of oak or hard wood. In my opinion, this alludes to a tree. This makes sense because, as a tree is not easily knocked down, its own firmness and power works against itself when it finally falls over. The verb procumbo means “to fall forward” or “sink down.” It was sometimes used to describe a legion that had been completely destroyed. As such, Weston’s decision to use this verb emphasizes the self-destructive nature of the power of the rich, or in this case, the geese.

The moral of the Greek version is identical to Weston’s message. The fable makes clear that in the capture of a city, the poor escape easily, whereas the rich, having been caught, serve as slaves.

This summarizes the fate of the geese after the cranes easily escaped. It is also relevant to Weston’s own experience. She was destitute after her stepfather was accused of murdering a member of Emperor Rudolf’s court. (Cheney et al. 2000: 4). She tried to convey this message through her poetry and this was her way of hinting to her rich patrons that wealth is not always a good thing.  Weston chose not to include the message of the Medieval Latin version, Olores et anseres. Olores et anseres is a Latin translation of Syntipas’ sixtieth fable, Κύκνοι καὶ Χῆνες. (Gibbs 2010: 375).The moral in Olores et anseres has to do with friendship and betrayal, directed at “those who do not help their own friends with all their strength, but those who give them over to dangers.”

Weston’s poem Anseres et grues is meant to show that wealth is not useful during times of crisis. She depicts this idea by using foreshadowing, descriptive adjectives, and forceful verbs. Weston incorporates material from Martial’s Epigrams in an effort to foreshadow an imminent attack. The adjective pinguia has a negative connotation which symbolizes the disadvantage of wealth in a situation like the one in the poem. The word robur and the verb procumbo are quite alliterative as they allude to an oak falling down with force. Weston is explaining that this is what happens when the rich are caught in the middle of the sack of a city. Their economic “power” and “firmness” does them no good, in fact, it weighs them down and leads to their destruction just like the geese in the poem.


Cheney, Donald, and Brenda M. Hosington, eds. Elizabeth Jane Weston Collected Writings. University of Toronto, 2000.

Gibbs, Laura, comp. Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Lulu Publishers, 2010.

Weston, Elizabeth Jane. “Anseres et grues.” In Fabulae Quaedam Aesopicae. Vol. 2 of Parthenica.

Halm, K. (1854). “Χῆνες καὶ Γέρανοι.” In Aisōpeiōn mythōn synagōge =: Fabulae aesopicae collectae., 204. Lipsiae: sumptibus et typis B.G. Teubneri.

Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey., 203. Loeb Classical Library 480. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Carl Hamilton: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Flea and the Soldier (1606)

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Carl Hamilton (Dickinson ’21) reads, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Flea and the Soldier,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

De Pulice et Milite (On the Flea and the Soldier)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B7b.

Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli,

aevo si veteri sit tribuenda fides.

Fama refert, illum pulsa formidine, quondam

saltibus intrepidis insiluisse pedi

militis eximii, multorum caede cruenti,

quem voluit stimulis exagitare suis.

Unde etiam hic tremulo gemibundus pectore, numen

Herculeum voto flebiliore vocat,

suppetias misero ut veniat, viresve ministret,

aut acres morsus saevitiemque domet.

Negligit Alcides nequiquam vota ferentem,

ridiculis renuens edere rebus opem.

Iamque adeo observans nullam restare salutem

haesitat, ambiguus mentis, opisque carens,

dum tandem adductus pulex maerore precantis

aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum.

Haec ubi facta, imo suspiria pectore ducens

miles iners tremula talia voce refert:

“Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles,

imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros:

Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem,

quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?”


A little flea sometimes shows great boldness,

If the old tale is to be believed.

Fame reports that that flea, fear having been repulsed, once

With unshaken leaps hopped upon the foot

Of a select soldier, one bloody with the slaying of many men,

Whom the flea wished to attack with his own stings.

Whence also this solider, sighing in his quaking chest, called on

Hercules’ divinity with a lamentable prayer,

So that he would give succor to a miserable one, or lend his strength,

Or vanquish the sharp bites and the cruelty.

Alcides ignored the one bringing prayers in vain,

Refusing to offer help to risible matters.

And already noticing up to this point that no aid remains,

He hesitates, uncertain of his mind, and lacking help,

Until finally the flea, having been persuaded by the sorrow of the one praying,

Fled and sought another place in the house.

When these things were done, drawing sighs from his deepest heart,

The lazy soldier spoke as follows with a quivering voice:

“You who are accustomed to conquer rebels with an aggressive courage,

And help unwarlike men with your club,

If you did not come bravely against a small enemy,

Why would I hope, if now more serious things should weigh me down?”

Vocabulary and notes

pulex pulicis m: flea

interdum: sometimes, occasionally

audacia –ae f: boldness, intrepidity: subject, magna predicate adjective

pusillus –a –um: very small

tribuo tribuere tribui tribitus: grant bestow; allow

aevo…fides: lit. “faith for an ancient time,” meaning, “if we are willing to believe old stories”

formido formidinis f: fear, dread

saltus saltus m: jump, leap

intrepidus –a –um: fearless, unshaken

insilio –ire insilui insultus: leap, bound

eximius –a –um: select, special

caedes –is f: cutting; killing

cruentus –a –um: bloodstained, red

stimulus –i m: prick, sting

exagito (1): harass, disturb; attack

tremulus – a- um: quaking, shaking

gemibundus –a –um: groaning, sighing (more often spelled gemebundus)

flebilis –e: lamentable, tearful

suppetiae –arum f: assistance, succor

ministro (1): execute, carry out; usually meaning giving assistance or aid, here it refers to Hercules’ using his strength for aid

morsus –us m: bite, sting

saevitia –ae f: rage, cruelty; note the variety of conjunctions, ve, aut, que

domo (1): conquer, vanquish

negilgo –ere neglexi neglectus: neglect, ignore; take ferentem as object, vota as object of ferentem

Alcides: Hercules, old birth name for Hercules

nequiquam: in vain

ridiculus –a –um: funny, absurd, risible

renuo –ere renui: shake the head, refuse, decline

observo (1): watch, notice

resto (1): stand firm, remain

haesito (1): hesitate, be uncertain

ambiguus –a –um: doubtful, uncertain

adduco –ere adduxi adductus: induce, persuade

maeror –oris: m. sorrow, grief

aedis –is f: house

imus –a –um: lowest, deepest

suspirium –i n. sigh

iners inertis: sluggish, inactive

tremulus –a –um: shaking, quaking, quivering

pugnax pugnacis: aggressive, pugnacious

rebellis, rebellis m: rebel

inbellis –e: unwarlike, peaceful

fustis –is: cudgel, club

exiguus –a –um: paltry, inadequate

si…hostem: protasis of afuture more vivid condition

gravo (1): weigh down, oppress: graviora subject, me object

quid sperem: apodosis of two protases, the future more vivid above and the following present contrary to fact protasis with which it most closely accords, forming a complete present cont. fact condition.

Similar Aesopic Fables

ΨΎΛΛΑ (The Flea)

From K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854)  #424, p. 205

ψύλλα ποτὲ πηδήσασα ἐπὶ πόδα ἀνδρὸς ἐκάθισεν. ὁ δὲ τὸν Ἡρακλῆν ἐπὶ συμμαχίαν ἐκάλει. τῆς δὲ ἐκεῖθεν αὖθις ἀφαλομένης στενάξας εἶπεν· „ὦ Ἡράκλεις, εἰ ἐπὶ ψύλλῃ οὐ συνεμάχησας, πῶς ἐπὶ μείζοσιν ἀνταγωνισταῖς συνεργήσεις;“

ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ μὴ δεῖν ἐπὶ τῶν ἐλαχίστων τοῦ θείου δεῖσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀναγκαίων.

Once upon a time a flea, having landed on the foot of a man, sat down. The man was calling Heracles for aid. And with the flea jumping off again, the man, having sighed deeply, said: “Ο Heracles, if you did not help (me) against a flea, how will you assist against larger rivals?”

The story shows that one must not ask the gods for the smallest things, but for necessary things.

Pulex, Homo, et Hercules (The Flea, the Man, and Hercules)

From Laura Gibbs, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010), #703, p. 224 (Perry #231), from Joachim Camerarius’ Fabulae Aesopicae (1579)

Cum insiluisset pulex in pedem cuiusdam, ille ad opprimendum hunc Herculem invocavit. Sed cum pulex se illinc mox saltu subduxisset, cum gemitu ille “Hercules,” inquit, “quid ego abs te opis in magnis periculis exspectem, qui contra pulicem adesse mihi noluisti?”

When the flea had jumped on the foot of a certain man, that man invoked Hercules for squashing this flea. But when the flea had soon removed himself from there with a leap, that man said with a groan, “Hercules, what aid can I expect from you in great dangers, you who did not wish to help me against a flea?”


While adhering to the basic storyline, Elizabeth Jane Weston’s retelling of “The Flea and the Soldier” embellishes the tale for great humorous effect. In her hands, what by many accounts is a short fable of proper religion becomes an ironic tale of a great solider being laid low by the smallest of annoyances. By showing the laughter of the gods at the soldier’s pleas, Weston invites us to see the fable as a comedy of humanity, rather than a religious admonition.

Weston makes many innovations when it comes to the human character, starting with his identity. In Gibbs he is called cuiusdam, “a certain man,” and in the Greek version “a man.” This title, vague as regards everything but sex, closes readers off from any knowledge of the human character. For Weston, though, he is a miles “soldier,” which signifies a certain toughness in the contrast to the very small, pusillus, flea. Weston deepens the soldier’s characterization by relating what kind of a solider he is, one who is eximii, multorum caede cruenti, “select, bloodstained from the killing of many men.” This description increases the stature of the solider by making him especially pugnacious and, so it seems, intrepid in dangers.

But not for long does this impression last. Weston has built this image of soldier for optimal ironic contrast, a kind of poetic form of “the bigger they come the harder they fall.” In the very next line Weston subverts the soldier’s daring, when, upon being bitten, he sighs, gemebundus, from his quaking chest, tremulo pectore. He calls himself a miserable one, misero, and the bites of the flea sharp, acres morsus, all while calling for the strength, vires, of Hercules to save him. By depicting him first as bloody and then as pusillanimous, Weston has made the solider not merely pathetic, but bathetic. Any strength the solider may have had has instantly vanished by being made so helpless by something so small.

The reader feels his fall so quickly and clearly because of Weston’s remarkable concision. As we saw above, she communicates the soldier’s valor in one simple line, but one which is quite vivid with the image of a blood-stained warrior. She then relates his helplessness in four lines filled with five pregnant adjectives, tremulo, gemibundus, flebiliore, misero, acres. For the reader, the celerity of the verse mimics the quickness of the soldier’s change from brave to weak. Weston causes the reader to understand that perhaps his strength was simply masking his inner weakness all along.

But if the solider himself lacks a true soldier’s mettle, with whom do these qualities lie? The answer is with the flea. By going back to the beginning of the poem, we will notice that Weston always describes the strength of the flea as a contrast to the weakness of the solider. The first line is a marvelous study of this ironic turn: Pulicis interdum est audacia magna pusilli. The flea here, although small, nevertheless has great boldness. The brilliant antithesis of magna and pusilli as the heroic clausula foreshadows the central contrast of the poem, namely that the mighty are weak (soldier) and the weak are mighty (flea). The flea leaps fearlessly, saltibus intrepidis, upon the man, wishing to strike him with his own stings, stimulis exagitare suis. The reflexive adjective suis attributes an unexpected daring to the flea, who wants to give the soldier, a “taste of his own warlike medicine,” so to speak. The flea then flees to seek another foot to pester, aufugit atque alium quaerit in aede locum. In a role reversal, the flea has now become more of a soldier than the actual soldier, acutely beating his enemy and moving on to fight the next battle.

We have yet to mention Hercules, to whom the solider prays for aid. In most versions he is silent, present only through the vocative of the soldier’s plea which ends the poem. Not content with a mute character, Weston endows him with a judgement more savage than silence. Hercules instead declines to help the man because his pleas are for “absurd things,” ridiculis rebus. The silence of Hercules found in other versions leaves the reason for rejection open to interpretation. Was Hercules offended by such a small plea? Did he simply not care about a flea? Weston’s telling settles these questions with the introduction of humor. Hercules is essentially saying to the solider, “Oh come on, get over yourself.”

All three of these characterizations anticipate the final questions of the solider, which act as both the climax and the moral of the tale. Inactive with a shaking voice, iners tremula talia voce, the solider pleads with Hercules. He begins by reciting the attributes of the god, who vanquishes the rebels in battle with a warlike virility, and gives aid to the peaceful with a cudgel, Tu qui pugnaci virtute domare rebelles, imbellesque soles fuste iuvare viros. These attributes serve both as flattery for Hercules and as reasons why Hercules should have helped him. The beautiful irony here is that presumably the solider thinks he possesses these warlike qualities. He then continues with his final helpless inquiry, that if Hercules will not help him against a small enemy, how could he hope for aid when large dangers beset him? Si contra exiguum non fortius iveris hostem, quid sperem, si me nunc graviora gravent?

This final line acts as the negative moral of the fable, spelled out explicitly in the Greek version as: “The myth shows that one must not ask god for the smallest things, but for necessary things.” Weston’s fable adds depth to this moral by telling us why the gods won’t help, namely, because such pleas are ridiculous and completely within human power to solve. In this way Weston is using this fable in a decidedly humanist fashion. Far from, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “Knock and the door will be open for you,” Weston’s fable here says “If you can get in the door by yourself, do it.” The soldier’s former bravery causes us, as well as Hercules, to laugh at his pitiful importuning precisely because he can “get in the door” but instead surrenders to the divine.

Throughout her life, Weston indeed got herself in the door both in her career and her poetry. Aided by her friend Baldhoven, she tirelessly promoted her poetry both in the older feudal ways, by writing to Rudolf II and King James as potential patrons, as well as the newer commercial avenue, by ensuring the publication of her poems. In her poetry itself, Weston relished the classical potential of the Renaissance, seen most vividly here in her use of the learned “Alcides” for Hercules. She also circulated her poetry among the learned and very male elite, something rare in her day, but even rarer before the Renaissance. All told, Weston was the anti-solider, one who seized upon her human potential for poetic creativity, undaunted by the many fleas of her life, most notably poverty after the mysterious ill-fortune of her stepfather. Weston thus allows us to read her “The Flea and the Solider” as a humorous assertion of humanist creative potential, in which God is there, but distant, and human achievement and concerns come to the fore.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Katrina Faulkner: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Pidgeon and the Painting (1606)

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Katrina Faulkner (Dickinson ’23) reads, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Pidgeon and the Painting,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

Columba et Tabula Picta (The Pidgeon and the Painting)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.

Ex nimio multum sitiens ardore columba

viderat appensam parietibus tabulam,

hydria qua fuerat tam vivo picta colore,

et specie falsum dissimulante liquor.

Unde sinistra suis circumdans pocula pennis,

optatae infelix approperavit aquae.

Et pictam contra praeceps allapsa tabellam,

collisā periit praecipitata gulā.

A dove who was thirsting greatly from excessive heat had seen a painted tablet hanging on a wall, where a water jug had been painted with very vivid color, and counterfeit liquid with a deceptive appearance. And so, wrapping around the injurious cup with her wings, the unfortunate dove flew toward the desired water. And flying headlong against the painted tablet, she perished, having collided at high speed, her throat crushed.

 Vocabulary & Notes

sitiens, sitientis: thirsty

ardor, ardoris, m: heat, burning heat.

columba, columbae, f.: a dove, a pigeon.

appendo, apprendere, appendi, appensum: to hang something upon something, to suspend on.

paries, parietis, m.: a wall.

tabula, tabulae, f.: a painted tablet or panel, a painting, a picture.

hydria, hydriae, f.: a water-pot or a jug.

qua: on which side, at or in which place, in what direction, where, by what way, i.e. qua hydria, “where a jug…”

vīvus, vīva, vīvum: lively, vivid.

pingo, pingere, pinxi, pictum: to paint, stain, color.

dissimulo, dissumulavi, dissimulatum: to feign that a thing is not that which it is; to dissemble, disguise; to hide, conceal, keep secret.

liquor, liquōris: a fluid, a liquid

sinister, sinistra, sinistrum: unlucky, injurious, adverse, unfavorable, ill, bad

circumdo, circumdare, circumdedi, circumdatum: to put, set, place, or wrap around.

poculum, poculi, n.: a drinking vessel, a cup, goblet, bowl, beaker.

penna, pennae, f.: a wing.

opto, optāre, optāvi, optātum: to choose or select

infelix, infelīcis: unfortunate, unhappy, miserable.

appropero, approperāre, appropāvi, apprropātum: to hasten, accelerate or to fly, to hurry somewhere.

praeceps, praecipitis:  headlong, hasty, rash, precipitate.

allabor, allabi, allapsus sum: to glide to or toward something, to come to, to fly, fall, slow, slide, and the like

tabella, tabellae, f.: a painted tablet, a small picture or painting.

collīdo, collīdere, collīsi, collīsum: to clash, strike, dash, beat, or press together

praecipito, -āre, praecipitavi, praecipitatum: to hasten or rush down, to throw oneself down, rush headlong, sink rapidly, to fall, i.e. at high speed.

gula, gulae, f.: the gullet, throat.

Similar Aesopic Fables

ΠΕΡΙΣΤΕΡΑ ΔΙΨΩΣΑ (The Thirsty Pidgeon)

From K. Halm, Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1854) #357, p. 176.

περιστερὰ δίψει συνεχομένη ὡς ἐθεάσατο ἔν τινι πίνακι κρατῆρα ὕδατος γεγραμμένον, ὑπέλαβεν ἀληθῆ εἶναι. διόπερ πολλῷ ῥοίζῳ ἐνεχθεῖσα ἔλαθεν ἑαυτὴν τῷ πίνακι ἐντινάξασα. συνέβη οὖν αὐτῇ τῶν πτερῶν περιθραυσθέντων ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν καταπεσοῦσαν ὑπό τινος τῶν παρατυχόντων συλληφθῆναι.

οὕτως ἔνιοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων διὰ σφοδρὰς ἐπιθυμίας ἀπερισκέπτως τοῖς πράγμασιν ἐπιχειροῦντες ἑαυτοὺς εἰς ὄλεθρον ἐμβάλλουσιν.

A pigeon distressed by thirst, when she saw a water bowl depicted on a tablet of wood assumed that it was genuine. And so, rushing at it with high speed, she unintentionally smashed into the painted tablet. Thus, with her wings having been broken, she fell to the ground and was captured by a passerby.

Thus, some people, because of intense desires, thoughtlessly embark on affairs and hurl themselves into destruction. [trans. Christopher Francese]

Columba et Hydria Picta (The Pidgeon and the Painted Water Jar)

From Laura Gibbs, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010), #512, p. 163.

Columba, siti compulsa, aquam ut inveniret, huc illuc ambulaverat. Conspecta deinde picta in pariete hydria, vas aqua plenum se invenisse credens, celeri impetu petiit potum. Sed semianimis illisa parieti concidit humi. Morti ergo vicina, sic secum locuta est, “Infelix ego et misera, quae, aquae nimis appetens, non cogitaram vitae periculum.”

A pigeon, having been compelled by thirst, had traveled to and fro so that she might find water. Finally, with the water pitcher painted on the wall having been seen, believing that she had found a vessel full of water, she thrust at the drink with a quick charge. But having collided with the wall she fell down to the ground half-alive. Therefore, with death close, she spoke to herself as follows, “I am a wretch and miserable, who, excessively greedy for water, had not considered the danger to my life.”


Elizabeth Jane Weston’s fable, “Columba et Tabula Picta” or “The Pigeon and the Painted Tablet,” follows a similar course as other fables in the Aesopic tradition, including “The Pigeon and the Water Jug Painting” or “Columba et Hydria Picta” and “The Thirsty Pigeon” or “Περιστερᾶ διψῶσα.” While it is unknown what specific texts Weston used as source material it is clear that she had access to at least one previously existing version of this fable. Each of these three fables follows a thirsty pigeon in search of water who encounters a painting of a water jug and believes it to be legitimate. All three result in the same tragic ending: the pigeon crashes into the painting, painted on a solid wooden tablet, and perishes upon impact.

Both Latin versions, Elizabeth Jane Weston’s “Columba et Tabula Picta” as well as that from Syntipae Philosophi Persae Fabulae, “Columba et Hydria Picta,” differ somewhat from the Ancient Greek version. Notably, the Greek version ends with the pigeon being captured by a human passerby. Further, the Greek version provides a distinct moral at the end: “Thus, some people, because of intense desires, thoughtlessly embark on affairs and hurl themselves into destruction.” Similarly, “Columba et Hydria Picta” ends with the moral more directly implied than seen in Weston’s fable, having the pigeon speak her final words which convey the ultimate meaning of the fable. Weston’s fable shies away from the direct providing of meaning and moral, though indirect, it is still apparent.

The Greek version, “Περιστερᾶ διψῶσα”, places emphasis on foresight, with the pigeon’s thoughtlessness being her downfall, conveying a moral against thoughtless pursuit of desires. “Columba et Hydria Picta” places special emphasis on greed, with the pigeon describing herself as “nimis appetens” meaning “excessively greedy,” and also conveys a similar emphasis on thoughtlessness, “non cogitaram vitae periculum” meaning “I had not considered the danger to my life”. Similar to “Columba et Hydria Picta,” Weston uses “nimio,” in this case paired with “ardore” meaning “excessive heat”. Weston’s use of nimio seems to portray the pigeon’s harsh conditions rather than portray her intense greed. Much of her fable places particular emphasis on the deception of the painting, saying “specie falsum dissimulante liquor” (liquid with a disguising appearance, a forgery) and “sinistra…pocula” meaning “injurious cup” or as Cheney translates, “false cup.” This seems to shift the blame away from the bird and onto the false image. Weston’s version seems to lack the same level of condemnation of foolishness and thoughtlessness that is present in both other versions. That said, the fable still ends with the death of the pigeon, implying a definite moral backing. Further, Weston’s depiction of the pigeon’s death could be considered the most gruesome of the three. The Greek text implies the death as the bird is carried off by a passerby, the alternative Latin text describes death approaching “Morti ergo vicina” and ends with the pigeon’s last words. Weston’s version instead describes the pigeons throat, “gulā,” being crushed upon impact with the painting. Weston’s text still seems to, much like the other two versions, emphasize the desire of the pigeon. With “optatae aquae” (the desired water), Weston directly references the idea of desire and denounces greed. Further, with “praeceps” meaning “headlong,” “hasty,” or “rash,” Weston conveys the thoughtlessness of the pigeon. Weston’s “Columba et Tabula Picta” conveys a message promoting self-restraint and modesty as well as denouncing greed.

Elizabeth Jane Weston wrote for the upper class; thus, her fate was in their hands. She had first-hand experience with the ups and downs of court life with her stepfather having been a controversial figure and falling out of favor. Her speech given to Lord Heinrich von Pisnitz for his birthday shows her applying this principle of modesty and restraint which she preaches. Weston was well aware that her station was not secure and was nervous of being seen as greedy by those who helped her, lest they cease their patronage. This fable is especially cognizant of this as it warns against striving above your station and puts forth morals of modesty and restraint. Interestingly, this fable, in all three versions, seems especially targeted towards the lower classes with the pigeon struggling and the message meaning to suppress attempts to quench that suffering. Yet “Columba et Tabula Picta”, as with all of Weston’s writing, was targeted towards the upper classes. Perhaps it was meant to concur with upper class sentiments, those which likely wanted to maintain their social standing and therefore suppress those below them or perhaps the fable was simply written in order to reinforce Weston’s modest depiction of herself to her patrons. Elizabeth Jane Weston is perceived by historians to have been an especially ambitious figure. It seems that the other two variations of this fable warn distinctly against ambition, or at the very least against ambition without careful thought to drive it. Weston’s version, with more emphasis on the falsehood that is the image, seems to have a further warning against striving for that which one does not fully understand, rather than simply advising against ambition as a whole. Further, rather than wholeheartedly attacking ambition, Weston uses “Columba et Tabula Picta” more so to condemn greed.

Works Cited

Cheney, D., B. Hosington, and D. Money. Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Gibbs, L. Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Morrisvill, NC: Lulu Publishers, 2010.

Halm, K. Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae. Leipzig: Teubner,1852.

Matthaeus, C.F. Syntipae Philosophi Persae Fabulae. Leipzig: Christiani Rudiger 1781.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

Citing Ancient Authors

When citing classical texts scholars employ a specialized, precise method that does not use page numbers. In outline, the proper format for citing classical texts is as follows:

Author, Title Book#.Section#.Line#

Different texts have different structures that might alter this schema slightly. Using this method ensures the reader can find the exact passage no matter what translation or edition he or she is using.



Homer, Iliad 18.141–143.

That’s Book 18 of the Iliad, lines 141 to 143. A “book” for classical works represents what once fit on a single scroll of papyrus. When referring to books of classical texts, the word is capitalized (“see Iliad, Book 18” or “in the eighteenth Book of the Iliad).

Sophocles, Antigone 904–922.

Antigone is a play, with one continuous sequence of line numbers, so there is no “Book” number.

Horace, Odes 4.1.1-4.

Book 4 of Horace’s Odes, poem 1, lines 1 to 4. The individual Odes have numbers, rather than titles.

Catullus 85.2

Poem 85 of Catullus, line 2. Catullus’ poetry exists in a single collection, with poems numbered sequentially. There are no “Book” numbers, and no title, since it’s just Catullus’ surviving poems, one after another. Note that when there is no title, no comma is needed after the author’s name.


Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.11.6.

Book 9, section 11, paragraph 6 of Pausanias’ Description of Greece. Since Pausanias has only one work surviving, the title is actually optional. There would be no ambiguity if it were omitted.

Apollodorus 2.5.4

Book 2, section 5, paragraph 4 of Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology. Apollodorus only wrote one work, so mentioning its title is optional. When there is no title, no comma is needed after the author’s name.

Herodotus 4.1.

The first section of Herodotus’ Histories, Book 4. This section actually has three sentences, each individually numbered. But there is no reason to give a specific sentence number if you are referring the reader to the whole section.

Plato, Symposium 215a3–218b7.

Plato has his own special reference numbers called “Stephanus pages” after an early editor of his complete works. Each numbered section has subsections labeled a, b, c, d, e. Within each subsection, each sentence has a number. This reference specifies a range from Stephanus page 215, subsection a, sentence 3, to Stephanus page 218, subsection b, sentence 7. Modern translations put these reference numbers in the margins, so you can always locate the specific passage.

Abbreviations: Most classical authors and texts have standard abbreviations that you may want to employ; these can be at the Oxford Classical Dictionary Abbreviations list.

Multiple references to the same work in the course of a paragraph can be abbreviated even further. Once it’s been established that you are discussing Iliad Book 18, for subsequent references you can simply put line numbers in parentheses, rather than repeating the whole “Homer, Iliad 18” part. Efficient! The goal is clarity, so if you refer to something else, then come back to Iliad 18, put the full form in again just to be sure.

Those are the basics. Any questions? Leave a comment and I will respond as soon as I can.

Chris Francese, October 7, 2020