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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A golden race now rose up throughout the world

And the most beautiful age of all was just beginning

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

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

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

Catullus 63: Looking at the Data of the Diction

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

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

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

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

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

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

calculation used to create poteicism scores

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

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

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

   nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Coleman, “Poetic Diction,” 92.

[6] Coleman, 55.

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

Classical Studies at Dickinson College in the Nineteenth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Specifically, the speech De Corona.

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

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

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

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

[15] Winterer, Culture of Classicism, 33.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Ibid., 38, 63.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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