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Carolingian Writing

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD, when he had reigned as king of the Franks in Gaul for 45 years, and of the Lombards in northern Italy for 40. On Christmas Day of the year 800, he had been crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope St Leo III on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, the event which marks the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. The last man so to be crowned, the Austrian Emperor Francis II, relinquished the title just over a millennium later, in 1806, a testimony to Charlemagne’s enduring legacy as one of the “Fathers of Europe”, as he was called by St John Paul II.

As a conscious imitator of the cultural achievements of the ancient Romans, Charlemagne is well-known for having done much to encourage learning within his domains, and modern scholars often speak of his reign and the decades that follow it as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” A letter composed in his name by the great scholar Alcuin of York, and addressed to the abbot of the monastery of Fulda, one of the great centers of learning at the time, is known as the “Epistula de litteris colendis – the epistle on the cultivation of letters.” In it, the Emperor states that “we, together with our faithful, have judged it to be useful that the bishoprics and monasteries … in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn … we exhort you not only to be attentive to the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly, in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures. … Such men truly are to be chosen for this work as have both the will and the ability to learn and a desire to instruct others. And may this be done with a zeal as great as the earnestness with which we command it.”

The scholars of the Carolingian period were very much concerned to pass on the literature of the classical world, and to facilitate that, they invented a new kind of script now known as Carolingian miniscule, which is much easier read than the scripts of the preceding Merovingian period. (Examples are given below.) An interesting twist comes with the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries. The humanist scholars of that era wrongly assumed that because the Carolingian lettering was so much clearer than that of earlier medieval writing, it must have come directly from the Romans whom they so much admired, or as one scholar puts it, “(they) thought they were looking at texts that came right out of the bookshops of ancient Rome.” They therefore deliberately copied it, creating a style known as “humanist miniscule”, an unknowing imitation of a later style in the mistaken belief that it was earlier, one of many such happy mistakes of the period.

An example of Merovingian script, ca. 650, a list of Epistle readings for the Mass.

A Carolingian Mass lectionary ca. 800.

An example of humanist miniscule from the very end of the 15th century. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Limites Linguae Latinae

On this day in 98 AD, Trajan succeeded his adoptive father Nerva as Roman Emperor; his rule would last for 19½ years, and bring the borders of Rome’s domain to their greatest expansion. In the course of two separate campaigns (101-2 and 105-6 AD), he conquered a large portion of the region on the Balkan peninsula north of the Danube known as Dacia, much of which is now within the modern state of Romania. The events of this conquest are immortalized by the famous monument in Rome known as Trajan’s column, located within the imperial forum also named for him. Although the Romans abandoned the province in 275, the region was very much romanized during their control of it. To this day, the Romanian people speak a Romance language, which is, to be sure, in many ways very different from its Western cousins such as French and Italian, but nonetheless recognizable as a daughter language of Latin.

In 113, Trajan launched a new series of military campaigns which aimed to permanently end Rome’s long-standing conflict with the Parthian Empire on its eastern border. These led first to the annexation of the kingdom of Armenian in the Caucasus region, and then to the conquest of the whole of Mesopotamia, all the way down the Fertile Crescent to the Persian Gulf, where a statue of him was erected on the shore. In the letter to the Senate by which he announced the end of the war, he expressed his regret that he was too old carry on the campaign in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, who had reached the borders of India. The Romans retained control of Armenia into the next century, but withdrew from Mesopotamia behind the Euphrates almost as soon as Trajan died in 117 and was succeeded by Hadrian.

Many of the teachers and staff of VSI studied at one point or another in Rome with the great Fr Reginald Foster, who passed away on Christmas Day of 2020 after dedicating decades of his life to the teaching of Latin as a living language. Our Latin programs are very much inspired by the fond memory of his truly extraordinary generosity to all of his students, and his love for every aspect of Latin’s history, from the earliest inscriptions to the most recent Papal encyclical (the Latin text of which, until summer of 2009, would have been likely composed by himself.) I remember (sed memoria saepe fallitur, so I may have these details wrong) Fr Foster saying that he had two pictures next to each other on the wall of his room, sent to him by people who had studied with him. One was of a Roman monument with a Latin inscription on it in Charax, the largest major city near the Persian Gulf, which became the capital of Trajan’s short-lived province of Babylon; the other was of a graffito carved by a Roman soldier onto Hadrian’s wall in northern England. Fr Foster would then say (with just a little bit of characteristic hyperbole), “Everything between the Atlantic Ocean and Iran is what you know if you know Latin, my friends!” (Gregorius Philippius scripsit.)

Below is a map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, at the end of Trajan’s rule. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Tataryn, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Vocabula Mira: “Averrunco” and “Indigitamenta”

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on unusual Latin words.

Like most cultures, the ancient Romans had a number of words which were used exclusively or primarily in a religious context. One of these is the verb “averrunco, averruncare”, which means “to avert” or “to remove.” This may sound like it derives from “ā-vertere – to turn away, to avert”, but the double R indicates rather that it derives from “ā-verrere – to sweep away.” The invocation “di averruncent! – may the gods avert this!” would therefore literally mean “May the gods sweep this away!”

“O rem difficilem planeque perditam! … Non esse me una cum Pompeio gaudes, ac proponis, quam sit turpe me adesse, cum quid de illo detrahatur; nefas esse approbare. Certe; contra igitur? ‘Di,’ inquis, ‘averruncent!’

What a difficult and completely ruinous business! … You are glad that I am not with Pompey, and yet you point out how shameful it would be for me to be present when anything is said against him. It would horrible to approve his conduct, you say. I agree; should I therefore speak out against him? ‘Heaven forbid!’, you say.” (Cicero, Letters to Atticus 9.2)

The writer Aulus Gellius (125-180 AD ca.) mentions a god called “Averruncus” or “Auruncus”, whose name is evidently connected to this verb, and says of him:

“In istis autem diis, quos placari oportet, uti mala a nobis vel a frugibus natis amoliantur, Auruncus quoque habetur. – Among these gods who must be appeased, so that they may remove evil from us and from new crops, there is also Auruncus.” (Attic Nights, 5.12.14)

Averruncus would therefore mostly likely be one of the gods listed in the “indigitamenta” (a word which occurs only in the plural), collections of the names of the many gods to be invoked in public acts of propitiation. Like many aspects of Roman religion, these collections were traditionally attributed to Romulus’ successor as king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, the first “pontifex maximus – chief priest.” None of them survive, but references to them and to the gods they enumerated, amounting to well over 100 names, have been collected by modern scholars. (See Robert Turcan’s “The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times”, p. 41; English ed. Rutledge, 2001)

Pictured below: King Numa, 1828, by the French painter Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), now in the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Saint-Brieuc (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Oldest Known Marian Prayer

The oldest known prayer to the Virgin Mary is often referred to in the West by its first words in Latin, “Sub tuum praesidium.” It was composed in Greek by an unknown author, and is first attested on a papyrus fragment of the 3rd century (Rylands 470). The original Greek text is as follows; the letters missing from the Rylands papyrus are in brackets.
(Ὑ)πὸ (τὴν σὴν) εὐσπλα(γχνίαν) καταφε(ύγομεν), Θεοτόκε. Τ(ὰς ἡμῶν) ἱκεσίας μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσ(ει), ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου (λύτρω)σαι ἡμᾶς, μόνη (Ἁγνή, μόν)η εὐλογ(ημένη.)
“Unto Thy compassion do we flee, o Mother of God. Despise not our supplication in difficulty, but deliver us from danger, o only pure one, only blessed.”
The standard Latin version appears to depend on a variant of this text used by the Coptic Church, and differs from the Greek in a few places.
Sub tuum præsídium confúgimus, * Sancta Dei Génitrix: nostras deprecatiónes ne despícias in necessitátibus, sed a perículis cunctis líbera nos semper, Virgo gloriósa et benedícta.
“Unto Thy protection (defense, assistance) do we flee, o Holy Mother of God. Despise not our supplications in difficulties, but always deliver us from all dangers, o glorious and blessed Virgin.”
In the Roman Rite, this is traditionally sung at Compline in the Little Office of the Virgin Mary; in the modern Liturgy of the Hours, it may be sung at the end of Compline. Many Catholics academic institutions made a practice of singing it at the beginning or end of the school day, according to their particular custom. It has been set to music by composers such as Charpentier and Mozart, and is used in many different Eastern liturgies.

Veterum Sapientia Institute is continually expanding its website with more Latin prayers, and recordings of them in Latin to help you follow along and learn them. We recently posted a video of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, and will be adding more in the near future.

(pictured below: Rylands papyrus 470; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Claudian Letters

On this day in the year 41 AD, near the end of the fourth year of his reign, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated, and his uncle Claudius proclaimed emperor in his place. Long regarded as one of the bad emperors, Claudius’ reputation was revived by the sympathetic, but in many ways fanciful, portrait of him given in Robert Graves’ historical novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). These were made into a highly praised and very successful miniseries, starring many of the finest actors of the day, which aired on the BBC in 1976, and on Masterpiece Theater in the United States shortly afterwards.

Before he became emperor, Claudius had spent most of his life as a scholar, and wrote histories of the civil wars that took place in the last years of the Roman Republic, of which several of his own relatives were the protagonists. (He was descended from both Marc Antony and Augustus’ wife Livia.) He also wrote histories of the Etruscans and the Carthaginians, as well as an autobiography and a treatise on dicing games. All of these works have been lost, but are referred to by other writers; Suetonius, e.g., describes his autobiography as “magis inepte quam ineleganter – lacking rather in good taste than in style.” He was one of the very last Romans who could read and write Etruscan, which ceased to be a living language in the first half of the first century A.D.

During his reign, Claudius attempted to introduce three new letters into the Latin alphabet. The best known of these is the digamma inversum, i.e. the Greek letter digamma, which is basically a Latin F, but turned upside-down. It served to represent the consonantal V, which sounded like the modern English W. (It is interesting to note that Claudius apparently saw no need for a special letter to represent consonantal I, which only got its own letter in the form of J in the 1520s.) Another, known as the antisigma, was the equivalent of the Greek Ψ, intended to replaced BS and PS, and the third looked like the left half of a modern capital H.

These new letters never caught on, and were abandoned after Claudius’ death. The digamma inversum appears in a few inscriptions put up in Claudius’ reign, but the precise form of the antisigma (either a backwards C, or a backwards C joined to a regular one), and the precise phonetic value of the half-H, are unknown.

In the picture below, we see an inscription set up by Claudius to commemorate the fact that “having expanded the territories of the Roman people (by the conquest of the island of Britain in 43AD), he expanded and set the bounds of the pomerium.” (The pomerium was an area within the city of Rome; for a variety of legal and religious purposes, only what was inside this boundary was counted as part of the city.) The photographer has highlighted in red two digammata inversa in the last line of the inscription: “AMPLIAℲIT ET TERMINAℲIT.” (i.e. “ampliavit et terminavit”.)

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pierre Tribhou; CC BY-SA 4.0

The Historical Infinitive – From Sallust to Saint Ambrose

One of the oddest features of Latin is known as the “historical infinitive”, a grammatical construction by which the infinitive is used in a narration in place of the imperfect. This can be found in writers of all genres, from the early playwrights to the historians of the 4th century AD, although some prefer it much more than others; Terence, for example, uses it six times more often that Plautus. It is most frequent in the works of the historians Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, but is not used at all by Suetonius; it has no analogy in other Indo-European languages. Allen and Greenough’s note that it “is not strictly historical, but rather descriptive, and is never used to state a mere historical fact,” which is to say, it is employed when the author wants to give a more vivid feel to his account.
This passage from Sallust’s Jugurthine Wars (51) illustrates the use of the historical infinitive perfectly.
“…pars cedere, alii insequi; neque signa neque ordines observare; ubi quemque periculum ceperat, ibi resistere ac propulsare; arma, tela, equi, viri, hostes atque cives permixti; nihil consilio neque imperio agi; fors omnia regere.
… one part give way, others press on; they hold neither the standards nor the ranks; where danger overtook a man, there would he stand and fight; arms, weapons, horses, men, foe and fellow-citizen mingled in confusion; nothing was done by counsel or command; chance ruled all.”
More than 400 years later, we see St Ambrose use the historical infinitive in his treatise On Virgins (1.2.7-8), when describing the martyrdom of St Agnes, whose feast day is today.
“Haec inter cruentas carnificum impavida manus, haec stridentium gravibus immobilis tractibus catenarum, nunc furentis mucroni militis totum offerre corpus, mori adhuc nescia, sed parata, vel si ad aras invita raperetur, tendere Christo inter ignes manus, atque in ipsis sacrilegis focis trophaeum Domini signare victoris: nunc ferratis colla manusque ambas inserere nexibus. … Flere omnes, ipsa sine fletu. Mirari plerique, quod tam facile vitae suae prodiga, quam nondum hauserat, jam quasi perfuncta donaret. Stupere universi, quod jam divinitatis testis exsisteret, quae adhuc arbitra sui per aetatem esse non posset.
She had no fear when grasped by the bloody hands of the executioners; she was unmoved when they dragged her with the heavy, grating chains. Now she offered her whole body to the angry soldier’s sword, ready to die, though she knew not how, if she were dragged unwilling to the altars. She stretched forth her hands to Christ amid the flames, and in the very fires of idolatry, made the sign of the victorious Lord. Now she submitted her neck and hands to the iron shackles… All wept, but she did not. Most were astonished to see how easily she gave up her life, which she had not yet begun to live, and gave it up as if it were already lived. All were amazed that she was already a witness for the Deity, who for her youth could not yet be mistress of herself.” (Agnes was martyred at about 14, well below the age of legal majority.)
Veterum Sapientia Institute can help you learn the Latin of all periods, from Plautus to the most recent Papal encyclicals.
The picture below shows the statue of St Agnes on the Pyre, by Ercole Ferrata, 1660-64, in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built at the site of her martyrdom in the Piazza Navona in Rome.

The Pope Elected by a Bird

In his Ecclesiastical History 6.29.2-4, Eusebius of Caesarea recounts the following story about the election in A.D. 236 of Pope St Fabian, whose feast is today.

“They say that Fabian … was chosen to the office (of the Papacy) through a most wonderful manifestation of divine and heavenly grace. For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honorable men were in the minds of many, but Fabian, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Savior in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.”

St Fabian was martyred on this day in A.D. 250, during the persecution of the Emperor Decius, and buried in a crypt in the catacomb of Callixtus on the Appian Way. In 1854, the archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (whom the Italians like to call “the Columbus of the Catacombs”) rediscovered this catacomb; the funerary inscriptions of several Popes, including Fabian, were preserved in the crypt. “ΦΑΒΙΑΝΟϹ ΕΠΙ[CΚΟΠΟC] Μ[ΑΡΤΥ]Ρ – Fabian, bishop and martyr.”

Ancient languages come to life in the study of archeology! Learn more with Veterum Sapientia Institute.

(Pictured below: the Crypt of the Popes in the Catacomb of Callixtus; image Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The Death of Clodius Pulcher

Today is the anniversary of the death in 52 B.C. of Publius Clodius Pulcher (i.e. the Handsome), one of the most notable politicians and muckrakers of the last years of the Roman Republic. In 62 B.C., when the rites of a goddess known as the Bona Dea, from which all men were excluded, were held in Caesar’s house, Clodius dressed as a woman in an attempt to sneak in and seduce Caesar’s wife, creating an enormous and long-lasting scandal which would come to involve all of the leading political figures of the day. This event led Caesar to divorce his wife, although she was not in any way complicit with Clodius, since, as he said, “Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach.” Reading the story of Clodius’ career, one is not surprised to learn that it ended violently at the hands of one of his enemies, Titus Annius Milo. The latter was defended from the murder charge by Cicero in the Pro Milone; although Milo was not acquitted, it is considered one of the great rhetorical master’s finest speeches.
Studying Latin with Veterum Sapientia Institute will open for you the pages of history as it was written by those who lived it.
The picture below is of a tapestry by Justus van Egmont, ca. 1680, which shows Clodius being discovered in the midst of the Bona Dea rites. At top is written “Clodius amans Pompiliam in veste muliebri nocturno sacrificio detectus expellitur – Clodius, being in love with Pompilia, is discovered in woman’s clothing during the sacrifice held at night and thrown out.” (ca. 1680; Art Institute of Chicago)

Jobs Board and First Listing

VSI has added a jobs board to our website. https://veterumsapientia.org/jobs/

St. Benedict Faculty Position – Latin and Psychology

St. Benedict at Auburndale in Memphis, TN has an immediate full-time faculty position with responsibilities in the Foreign Language and Social Studies Department. Specific courses are Latin 1 – 4 and Psychology/Sociology. A valid teaching certificate is preferred with previous teaching experience.


Latin in actu: Writing A Thomistic Christocentrism

Why learn Latin? Besides whatever beauty, delight, and perspective there are to gain, the reason to learn a new language is to communicate with it. In the case of Latin and other “dead” languages, the majority of that communication consists of reading old texts. My recent book, A Thomistic Christocentrism: Recovering the Carmelites of Salamanca on the Logic of the Incarnation, resulted from engaging with theologians of the medieval and early-modern periods via our common language.

For Catholics, there is no need to treat Latin as if it were an intrinsically sacred or even magical language. Nor must we pretend that Latin is uniquely suited to the technicalities of Catholic doctrine. Where Latin really stands out is its shelf-life. For the very reason that it has been used so extensively and for so long, it has become indispensable. Whether Greek might have been better for Scholasticism or Hebrew better for the liturgy is moot. It just didn’t happen that way. But, God works through human causes. History is no happenstance. Therefore, we receive Latin, ordinary language that it is, as a special gift of divine providence (cf. Apostolic Constitution, Veterum sapientia).

The way for us as Catholics today to “communicate” with the majority of our predecessors is through Latin. To the extent that our ancestors’ voices have been preserved, most of their words remain in Latin. While many of them—like us—spoke any number of languages, they speak to us today mostly in Latin.

The great Scholastic theologians of the high middle ages often pushed Latin to its limit. While this drew criticism from those more sensitive to humanistic concerns (e.g., Erasmus in his Moriae encomium),1 the language proved hardy enough and supple enough to bind the academy of western Europe and beyond together for centuries.

In the case of the theologians whose theory I defend in my recent book (the Salamancans), how they used Latin is clear. Their twenty-folio-volume course of theology is written in a mostly predictable and functionary style—with the occasional burst of passion or entertaining side-remark.2 It’s Latin that gets the job done. The beauty of their work lies more in the ideas being expressed than in the prose itself. However, this is not to say that the Salamancans were incapable of real Latinity. Nullo pacto! The flowing, poetic dedications and prefaces to their work refute that claim. Only a language seized by rigor mortis never changes register. The Salamancans, like other Scholastics, show just how active their Latin was. They knew that, like everything else under the sun, there is a time to write purple and a time to write plain.

The particular theory that I defend in the recent book was first expressed, of course, in Latin replete with technical terms. The English theological copia verborum is embryonic by comparison. The text also reflects the characteristic Scholastic attention to formal logical patterns. They might attack an opponent’s consequentia (logical entailment) or argue de primo ad ultimum (invoking the chain rule) to connect conditional premises into a syllogism. The Salamancans press all of it into service for a worthy end.

The argument in their disputation De motivo Incarnationis, the theory I defend in this new book, is that Jesus in his humanity is first in God’s plan for history, that everything else was intended for him. Thus, he is the goal of everything else God has ever done. In their terms, he is the finis cuius gratia (“the end for-the-sake-of-which”). At the same time, they say, God the Son would not have become human if humanity had never sinned. In other words, Jesus’ actual coming into the world is precisely for the redemption of humanity. This makes redeemed humanity the finis cui (“the end to-which”), the beneficiary of Christ’s coming. Finis cuius gratia and finis cui are two components of the overall reason why God made the universe: Everything is for Christ, but Christ is simultaneously for the redemption of humanity.

The disputation De motivo Incarnationis amounts to about 0.5% of the Salamancan Cursus theologicus. The full course of theology took almost a century to complete, with companion courses in philosophy and moral theology appearing as well. Three generations labored to produce these works, the earlier probably realizing they were unlikely to see the final results of their efforts. Through Latin, their contribution lives on alongside countless other monuments to Catholic thought and experience.

1 “Illud ipsa quoque nonnumquam ridere soleo, cum ita demum maxima sibi videntur Theologi, si quam maxime barbare spurceque loquantur, cumque adeo balbutiunt, ut a nemine nisi balbo possint intelligi, acumen appellant, quod vulgus non adsequatur. Negant enim e dignitate Sacrarum Litterarum esse, si grammaticorum legibus parere cogantur. Mira vero maiestas theologorum, si solis illis fas est mendose loqui, quamquam hoc ipsum habent cum multis cerdonibus commune.”

2 Such as when upbraiding John Duns Scotus and Francisco Suárez or punning that on a certain point of controversy Vincent Ferrer was “non tam ferreus” in his Thomism.


Carolingian Writing

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD, when he had reigned as king of the Franks in Gaul for 45

Read More »

Limites Linguae Latinae

On this day in 98 AD, Trajan succeeded his adoptive father Nerva as Roman Emperor; his rule would last for 19½ years, and bring the

Read More »

The Claudian Letters

On this day in the year 41 AD, near the end of the fourth year of his reign, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated, and

Read More »

The Pope Elected by a Bird

In his Ecclesiastical History 6.29.2-4, Eusebius of Caesarea recounts the following story about the election in A.D. 236 of Pope St Fabian, whose feast is

Read More »

The Death of Clodius Pulcher

Today is the anniversary of the death in 52 B.C. of Publius Clodius Pulcher (i.e. the Handsome), one of the most notable politicians and muckrakers

Read More »

Jobs Board and First Listing

VSI has added a jobs board to our website. https://veterumsapientia.org/jobs/ St. Benedict Faculty Position – Latin and Psychology St. Benedict at Auburndale in Memphis, TN

Read More »