Sententiae Antiquae.

How have I overlooked the existence of the blog Sententiae Antiquae all these years? From their About page:

Through this blog, and the accompanying Twitter feed (@sentantiq), we aim to bring you some of the most famous (and also most confounding) quotations from the ancient world. In addition, we also take pleasure in shining lights on some of the forgotten shelves and corners of classical heritage. You’ll find tidbits from the Archaic Age in Greece all the way through imperial Rome and up to the fall of Byzantium. By Jove, if there is something somewhat classically oriented later than that, you might find it too.

In the real world, we are teachers and compulsive readers. At times, we even dabble in some forms of scholarship as well (longer translations, commentaries etc.). So Sententiae Antiquae is something of a digital commonplace book, replicating all the delights and horrors of ancient authors like Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Macrobius and Philostratus. We are not saying we are anywhere near as good as these guys. But we do quote from them…

I found out about it when the eagle-eyed Trevor Joyce sent me this recent post, an extended quote from Hugh E.P. Platt’s A Last Ramble in the Classics (1906). The passage is about English words for which there are no classical equivalents; I’ll excerpt the same bit Trevor did in his e-mail (he always knows how to get my attention):

With the rise of bigotry, hypocrisy naturally increased also. There is, I think, no Latin word which carries the same associations as our ‘hypocrite.’ Simulator, dissimulator correspond rather to the English ‘dissembler.’ But by a hypocrite we generally mean not merely a dissembler, but a person who pretends to maintain an unusually high standard of morals or of religion. This vice is alleged by the rest of the world to be peculiarly English, I fear not without reason. Certainly the bank directors, the solicitors, the company promoters, who have distinguished themselves among us by their frauds, have almost without exception been persons who made a conspicuous profession of piety. When a famous French actress first appeared in England, the late Mr. Edward Pigott, then examiner of plays, warned her : ‘Remember that whenever you play in this country you will have before you five hundred Tartuffes.’ But the ancient world also had its hypocrites. Cicero more than once draws a lively picture of such a character in Piso, consul b. c. 58; and when Aeneas explains to Dido that his shabby treatment of her was due to high conscientious motives, one thinks for the moment that Aeneas must really have been an Englishman.

Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!


  1. David Marjanović says

    This vice is alleged by the rest of the world to be peculiarly English

    I’ve never heard of Heuchelei being peculiarly English… though it is a considerably more literary term than in English.

  2. Stephen Downes says

    Possible equivalent: aretelogos, Greek but incorporated into Latin.Someone who keeps going on about virtue: a sanctimoaner.

  3. Michael Hendry says

    Many years ago I was chatting with an Englishman who was teaching Classics in the U.S. We got on the subject of geographic slurs like ‘the French disease’ which I had heard was ‘the Italian disease’ in France and ‘Naples disease’ in (presumably most of) Italy. He suddenly said “What is ‘the English vice’? Is it masturbation? Is it shyness?” I told him I didn’t know, which was half-true: I knew it was either buggery or flagellation, but was too embarrassed to admit (a) that I didn’t know which, and (b) that I knew that much. I was amused that he so underestimated the malice of foreign nations in assuming it was something so much less embarrassing than either of those.

  4. That’s a great story.

  5. The English vice, or rather vices.

  6. That story sounds like classic “rum, bum, and the lash”

  7. If I recall correctly, on the price list of Danish ladies of easy virtue “English” was a manual operation (and the cheapest) while “German” involved boots and whips. (Or so I was told).

  8. “But the ancient world also had its hypocrites. Cicero more than once draws a lively picture of such a character in Piso, consul b. c. 58; . . . ”

    It takes one to know one.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    “Sententiae” calls to mind our current word “sententious” which has experienced semantic drift such that I now think of its pejorative sense (glossed by wiktionary as “Tending to use aphorisms or maxims, especially given to trite moralizing.”) as the primary one. There’s considerable Venn-diagram overlap between the sententious and the hypocritical, I should think.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    As it happens, I heard this evening in church the part of the 23d chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel with the repeated phrase “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” The Vulgate has “Væ autem vobis scribæ et pharisæi hypocritæ,” the last word of which St. Jerome must have thought was a perfectly cromulent Latin rendering of “ὑποκριταί.” Now, maybe it means something that Jerome was using a Greek-origin loanword rather than whatever the Latin equivalent of a good old Anglo-Saxon monosyllable would be, but I imagine that Jerome’s readers (or listeners, in a congregational setting) were able to figure out from context what Jesus was talking about even if they had no Greek.

  11. The gospel invectives against “scribes” apparently led, in the middle ages, to a belief that sofer was a term only used for priests, which still persists today and is propagated even by supposedly learned Christian sources. (I was rather offended to find “scribe” listed as a synonym for “priest” in my thesaurus, with the topical label “Jud.“) There is also the similar belief that the Pharisees must have been priests as well, but this was sufficiently obviously wrong that it was never treated as official dogma by any Christian sect that I am aware of.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Strong’s (which is “learned” in an earnest-yet-practical 19th century American kind of way) gives various glosses for the NT Greek word usually translated “scribe,” but none of them are “priest.”

    I suppose in those times/places in medieval Europe when virtually anyone who worked on religious texts (including in a scribal capacity copying manuscripts) was a priest and/or a monastic, it might have seemed intuitive that the scribal class of Second-Temple Judaism would have been exclusively composed of kohanim and/or Levites, but I take it the real-world sociology was probably more complex than that. (Plus the pejorative use of a fixed phrase like “scribes and Pharisees” was probably like that of modern pejorative phrases like “coastal elitists” or “redneck Bible-thumpers” and should not be understood too non-compositionally.)

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