Yesterday, we presented a selection from Livy’s account of the death of the consul L. Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Cannae. (Ab Urbe Condita 22, 49 and 50) When a military tribune offers to carry him off the battlefield to safety, the consul begins his reply with the words “tu quidem … macte virtute esto.” This puzzling phrase has given rise to various explanations.
Lewis and Short list the adjective “mactus, -a, -um”, which is used in religious language to speak of the gods, meaning “glorified, worshipped, honored, adored.” They connect it etymologically with the Greek word “makar – blessed”, which seems to be generally accepted, although other origins have been proposed. It occurs almost exclusively in the vocative “macte”, rarely in the nominative “mactus”, and in no other forms, but “macte” is often used as if it were the nominative. For this reason, Gildersleeve and Lodge (85.2) give “macte” as an indeclinable adjective like “frugi” or “potis.”
In his De Agricultura (also known as De Re Rustica), Cato the Elder provides several expressions in which “macte” is used while addressing a god in the context of offering a sacrifice. For example, in 139, a sacrifice of a pig is made with the words “macte hoc porco piaculo immolando esto – be honored by the sacrifice of this pig as an expiation.”
In authors of the so-called Golden Age, it then evolved into “an exclamation of applause or congratulation” (L&S), or of encouragement. It occurs either by itself, or more often, with the noun “virtute” as an ablative of specification, or other nouns such as “animo” and “gloria.” “Macte virtute” therefore means “well done!” in regard to a deed of valor. In book nine (641) of the Aeneid, after the hero’s son Ascanius acquits himself well in battle and kills an enemy for the first time, the god Apollo says to him, “macte nova virtute, puer; sic itur ad astra! – Well done with this new act of courage, boy; thus does a man rise to the stars!” Cicero gives another good example in one of his letters to Atticus (12, 6, 2): “ ‘macte virtute esto’ sanguinolentis et ex acie redeuntibus dicitur. – ‘macte virtute esto’ is said to those who return all bloodied from the lines of battle.”
What makes this use of “macte” difficult to parse is that it very often occurs with the imperative form “esto – be”, even when it is clear from the context that the speaker is not giving a command or expressing a wish. In the examples given above from Cicero and Virgil, the speaker seems not to be wishing that the fighter be “honored by a manly deed”; he is congratulating him because he has already done “virtutes – manly deeds.” Perhaps the best explanation for this is simply that since “macte” was originally used in sacrificial language with “esto” attached it as part of a common formula, the expression became fossilized, and the imperative force of “esto” was just not heard. English has many examples of words that have become so fixed into a single expression that their original meaning is no longer perceived. For example, the word “lurch” is both a noun and a verb, but the noun is now used exclusively in the expression “to leave someone in the lurch.” Likewise, “kith” is used only in the expression “kith and kin”, and English-speakers no longer even remember that it is a collective noun meaning “friends and acquaintances.”
The oddity of “macte” was also noticed by St Isidore of Seville (560 ca. – 636). In his Etymologies, one of the most important textbooks of the Middle Ages, he tried to reconcile it with the imperative force of “esto” by proposing that “macte” derived from “magis auctus – increased all the more.” The Ciceronian expression would then say to the soldier, “may you be increased even more in your virtue.” This is, of course, completely fanciful, like almost every etymology proposed by every author of the classical world, but no less clever for that.
In his Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Michiel de Vaan connects “mactus” with the verb “mactare – to slay”, as in the slaying of a sacrificial animal. It is also linked to a word that occurs in Varro, “magmentum – part of a sacrificial animal”, whence also “magmentarium – a shrine for the reception of such sacrifices.”