Do We Really Need to Swear?

In The R-Rated Blog Post” I explored what it is we really mean by the words we say, especially expletives and innuendo, in hopes of finding ways to translate those words from one culture or language to another. This time I want to explore what others have to say about these same issues.

When I searched “latin swearing” on metacrawler I found many sites supposedly teaching one how to curse in Latin, including a youtube video. Amidst these was also an article on avoiding profanity in Latin (which I sadly couldn’t access).

Barry Baldwin, Classics Professor at the University of Calgary, published the essay Classical Swearing in 2006, in which he describes many ancient vulgarities, their modern counterparts, and the development of swearing throughout history. He makes an interesting point about blasphemy, saying that “the great advantage of polytheism is that it gives you a generous choice of gods to invoke” and includes social strata for who curses with what God. Men would swear to Hercules, while women swore to Castor. While reading through the winding journey of what society considers vulgar and what it doesn’t, I wonder at the twin facts that language is incredibly diverse and that humanity has hardly changed.

Baldwin quotes the adage “censorship is the mother of linguistic invention.” Censorship has indeed contributed to the diversity of profane language. As words become taboo we find new ways to express the same ideas (since we always have had and always will have need of blasphemy, strong exclamations and ways to talk about sex). These inventions produce euphemisms, like “kick the bucket,” “pushing up daisies,” “gone to meet the Lord,” and “six feet under.” They produce a multiplicity of synonyms which not only meet the need of expressing the idea, but offer a variety of images which can impart particular reactions in the audience.

Inciting a reaction from the audience seems to be one of the primary purposes of expletives. When calling down a curse upon something, you could say G**damn, which would certainly incite reaction if you proclaimed it in, say, a church, but possibly the wrong reaction. Instead, depending on the circumstances, you can say goshdarnit, dagnabbit, doggonit, or simply drat.

Translators take advantage of the creativity inherent in swearing. The unchanging nature of humanity is what makes translation work. We may never understand exactly what another culture meant by the specific words they used, but their intent behind the words is still keenly felt in our day and age. By tapping into that intent we find ever more inventive ways to express the passions, lusts, longings, and frustrations we all feel and endeavor to express.

Perhaps that’s what lies at the core of swearing: a need to express the human condition.

Perhaps the deepest emotions can only be expressed by the strongest words.

Perhaps the messiness of humanity requires words that push us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to sit up and take notice of both the world’s brokenness and greatest joys.

Radha Deitenbeck


Terrorism Over the Years

As Terrorism in theAncient Roman World put it,”Terrorism is probably as old as human society. In the ancient Roman world there were no words for ‘terrorism or terrorists. However, the acts of terrorism inflicted in those days were not unlike those of modern times. Then, as now, there were people willing to employ a calculated use of force and terror to accomplish their ends. Though the ancients may have called them rebels or brigands or tyrants, the motives, the methods, and the outcomes are familiar to people of our era under the collective name of terrorism.”  Yeah, in the Roman world the acceptable limits of warfare were more liberally drawn than today, but even so people sometimes hid in shock and horror at acts clearly beyond the line.  “War is terror within bounds; terrorism is terror beyond those bounds.”  There is no doubt that war has always been part of our society, but when it comes to terrorism the line is a little more unclear.  To make it a little more clear look back at the incident in the summer of 82 a.d.  Three Roman warships were hijacked.  The captains of two were murdered and the third captain decided to obey his captors.  The hijackers sailed along the coast.  They struck port cities and took what they wanted by force. However, local resistance and their own lack of skill eventually brought the hijackers to ruin.

Even today we are in the midst of pirates.  This did not just happen back in the Ancient Roman times.  Just this year the Bahamas-registered Seabourn Spirit was attacked off the coast of Africa by pirates firing a rocket propelled grenade and machine guns (Pirates attack luxury cruise liner at sea.  And there are so many cases of this.  I remember a few years ago some Americans were taken hostage by pirates and our Navy Seals were called in.  The times of Terrorism have not changed at all.  There might be different motives and ways that terrorism is being carried out, but we are still surrounded by it every day just as the Romans were.

-Sam Starks

The Patron-Client Relationship, It’s Cooler Than You Think.

“Patronage might be located conceptually between inequality and equality. Although the language of friendship was frequently used by both patrons and clients, it is not the friendship of equals; it is asymmetrical” (Andrew).

This post is a second installment to follow “V for Vendetta, R for Rebellion” which can be found further down in this same blog.


The painting shown above is called “Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. I think the title of the painting speaks for its relevance and shows how integral to daily life these relationships were.

So, the patron-client relationship was quite a bit more integral to Roman society than I originally thought. When we translate Catullus or Propertius, we talk about them in the context of their lives, and especially their social lives. So when we talk about Catullus’ res novae little circle and his lepidum novum libellum, we discuss them in the context of his circle of contacts and social life, but the ripple effect goes farther than that. I guess I just had this preconceived notion that to being in a patron-client relationship was kind of like an ancient Roman hipster thing, I never realized that the patron-client relationship was more than a small part of the society reserved for a select few artists and some influential men who liked to dabble in the arts. However, although I found information on the importance of the patron-client relationship in ancient Roman society, I also found many commentaries on different attitudes behind these relationships and aspects that can upset this relationship. It was these that I was most interested in with this post.

I learned that the patron-client relationship was very familial, genetic even. Patron-client relationships ran so deep in history and tradition that they were generational and thus genetic because they were passed on through generations in families. It supports a stratified patriarchial system that is consistent with the idea of paterfamilias which stated that the man was the head of the house and the women and children were beneath. In fact, lecture notes from a professor’s teaching that I found said that the “father in [the] family can be seen as a model for patron-client relationships”. In the same way, although both were benefiting from this symbiotic relationship, the patron had a higher standing in society and a greater level of control in the relationship. The idea that these paradigms were supported in areas throughout the culture is not surprising because this was an idea considered the norm and not only supported but enforced by the government. Catullus, Propertius and Ovid all subverted these social norms through their elegiac poetry in their own ways. For one specific example Propertius, among other elegiac poets, flips the roles of the man and the woman in the relationships so that the woman is dominant and the man is in the weakened and vulnerable state. This is the opposite of what the upstanding Roman man is supposed to be, and can provide a hidden metaphor for the influence of elegiac poetry on government and policy. The flipping of roles in elegiac poetry so the man was being ruled by the woman and by love, when in traditional society it was expected to be the other way around, could suggest that government could be ruled by the elegiac poet. I found an article that not only addressed this idea, but also included that this role reversal also “underscores Maecenas’ superior status” as patron. The author of this article also addresses the idea that Propertius makes the statement that elegiac and epic poetry are comparable and even the same in some situations. Ovid could be considered to do this, too when he writes in the meter to mimic “The Aenead” and compares love to war (Ovid 1.9).

the patron-client relationship was something that was used to rule the lower class, so when the lower class grew too numerous for the upper class to control through this relationship, especially in times of unhappiness or unrest and events like famines, there was the potential for an uprising from the larger lower class. In this way, the breakdown of the patron client relationship could definitely contribute to rebellion and may have been a spot of contention that caused a greater division between the plebeians and the patricians. For further information, see this article on the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, my best friend.

The patron had a great deal of control over the client not only pertaining to their time and how they were to serve their patron, they also had great amounts of political influence. Because of this, patrons could use this to either influence the political environment for or against the person or belief system in power at the time. I found an article that talked about how this was cause for concern in the context of the philosopher Seneca. This article addressed the interesting idea that patronage was considered a sell-out by some because these artists or writers were taking money for their works and thus some people saw it as not truly art, but instead a form of propaganda. This caused “tension between the republican freedom of speech and the desirability of royal patronage”. This article also showed the role reversal of the patron and the client in the situation where many patrons were competing to support one specific artist and this moved the balance of power and the ability of choice to the client, which I thought was a very interesting idea.

I’m honestly not sure how all of these ideas fit together into the definition of the patron-client relationship as of yet. Right now they seem related by definition, but not exactly as if they relate to each other. I am interested to see where some or all of these paths lead.

I used Google’s advanced search to see what I could find. Interesting little tidbit, when I used Google advanced search, my first blog post was the second hit that came up! I don’t know if that says something about the small amount of research in this area or if I was using keywords that were too specific… hmm. I found the Hope library’s list of databases really helpful and I used the L’Année Philologique and the Project MUSE databases. I also wandered around in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review and the Encyclopedia Britannica Website, just for some funzies. I did find that I used a lot of the same keywords to search, and I wondered if this was limiting me, but I didn’t know what other keywords to use that would get me the desired results, so I guess I felt a little stuck there. 

Something interesting I did this time just to look at the nature of research technology was that when I found a page of results to a search, I not only looked at the results to look for articles related to my topic, but I looked at all the results and thought about how they were seemingly related. I also read through a majority of the list, instead of just staying within the first couple of pages. It was interesting to see the delineation from similar to not so similar.

By: Emilie O’Connor

Dawn, a Dress, and Whose Voice?

In my search for a better understanding of the glorious Sappho, I have decided that the best place to begin is at the beginning- her first and perhaps best known fragment, the Hymn to Aphrodite.  I turned to three different authors’ translations, hoping that comparing and contrasting would lend themselves well to restoring a bit of what is lost in translation. A dmoz search yielded many different options, out of which I selected William Harris (professor of classics at Middlebury college), Elizabeth Vandiver (professor of classics at Whitman College), and Peter Saint-Andre (technologist who dabbles in classics. I thought he would provide an interesting contrast to the classics professors).  If you’d like to read along, the three translations can be found here, here, and here, respectively.

At first read, what stood out to me most was the way the word choices of each translator impacted the mood of the poem, such as the slightly different feel of “lavish” instead of “many-colored” or “iridescent”. When we are given so few words to set the scene in our minds, it’s amazing how much impact these subtle differences can have. Another good example of this is the difference between Sappho’s lover returning her love “unwillingly” and returning her love “despite herself”. “Unwillingly” sounds so much harsher than “despite herself”. Although perhaps this harshness better fits the overall theme, since the poem ends with a military reference (this military nature is clear in all three versions ). A particularly interesting note is that all three versions use the feminine pronoun for the lover, although Elizabeth Vandiver mentions in her footnotes that we cannot be certain that this is what is actually implied in the original Greek.  It was also interesting that Peter Saint-Andre did not set up lines fourteen through twenty one as a direct quote from Aphrodite. While this may have been the structure that he felt would best show us Sappho’s voice, I felt that it confused the point.

Comparing these three different versions has really made me think about the way a translator’s voice is carried into their translation. Was Sappho speaking to me through William Harris, or was William Harris speaking to me through Sappho? And what does that tell us about the translating styles we’re developing as young classics scholars ourselves? How do our own tastes and experiences play into the way we try to portray Ovid or Catullus or Cicero to modern readers?  

Happy translating, friends. 

-Elaina D.

Oh where do you go if you’re poor in Rome?

Social Mobility in Old Times and New

Today in American society, there is an obvious divide in wealth. Although we Americans are not tied to the lower, middle, or upper class that we are born into, like the caste system, it is still something that can drag you down or lift you up regardless of your abilities. America is the land of opportunity, flowing with milk and honey, right? Not according to Business Insider, which states that social class is much less mobile than we like to think. If you were born in the bottom 20%, you have a 5% chance of moving to the top, which is worse than many countries. This class change seems tough, but possible. What was it like during Roman times? Was changing social class even a distant reality?


As far as holding office goes, partly. Although it was not usual for a plebian to hold higher office, some moved through the ranks as a result of a good term as tribune, which was an office that only plebians could hold. Tribunes helped protect the plebians from arbitrary actions of the senate, and they were even viewed as sacred.


 Freedmen were often satirized because of their wealth and poor taste. It took American freedmen a very long time before they could achieve similar social status, and this was after every single slave was freed. Freedmen were viewed as noveau-riche, uneducated and flamboyant with their wealth. The sheer fact that they could and very often did acquire wealth though lends credence to the fact that Roman society was more mobile than ours. The emperor’s freedmen instantly became important because of all the dirt they had on the empire. All this shows that slaves were more socially mobile than one would think.


What about the poor, non-slave Romans? Unless you were a citizen, you could not climb the rungs of the social ladder. Luckily, citizenship was fairly easy to attain. The poor could attain indirect access to power and authority through patronage, but few did. Even if the poor did amass wealth, they were looked down upon and not allowed to participate in high office. It seems that if one went from rags to riches that the rags would always be visible.


All in all, it seems that many kinds of Romans, slaves and poor, could eventually acquire wealth, but your status would stick to you your entire life. Wealth for the average roman was a possibility, much like America, but class seems to have transcended wealth. Here in America, there is no real connection between political offices and the upper class. In fact, they seem to be at odds with each other much of the time. The equestrians to me are comparable to the Kennedys. A poor roman could acquire wealth, but never hold the political influence that a member of the Kennedy family could. Is this okay? Is it wrong that the Romans and us Americans cannot enter these seemingly royal families? For the average citizen, nobody really cares. As long as an American/Roman can move from poverty to a happy, well-fed family, life will be good. Is it really so wrong that although it may be hard to move to the high upper class, a move from lower to middle is totally possible? For me that is the true American dream. Not characterized by opulence of an emperor, but contentment in a nice home with a nice lawn and food for your children.


business insider came up on google for social mobility. It is a trusted news source for things like social mobility and economic questions.

this came up on dogpile under cursus honorum. Vroma is a widely used database and should be trusted.

Jstor came up on google under poor roman social mobility. Jstor is THE name in scholarly articles and can always be trusted as a good source.

BBC came up under googling social mobility in rome, and it is a respected news source. It was written by a professor at a British College. 

Greeks vs. Romans: Music as Art

In my last blog post I talked about the Roman’s conception of music and how it affected their daily lives. In this post, I want to delve a little deeper into the difference between how the Roman’s viewed music and how the Greeks viewed music. In this regard, although I love the Romans, the Greeks seem to win out, at least in terms of viewing music as an actual art form.


To the Greeks, music was actually an art form in and of itself. Musical papyri (scraps of papyrus) have been dug up from the sands of Egypt that contain ancient musical notation of the Greeks. These were actually intended for vocal music (apparently the Greeks had a separate notation for voice than they did for instruments). The mere fact that we have these documents reveals that the Greeks took music quite seriously—as seriously as mathematics or philosophy. Music theory, a field completely aligned with mathematics, actually originated from the Greeks. It strikes me as odd that the Romans, with their habit of “borrowing” from the Greeks, did not take much of an interest in the theory of music. It’s surprising that the love of poetry as an art formed survived the transition to Rome, yet the love of music as an art form in and of itself did not.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Romans basically thought of music as an add-on for religious ceremonies, military procedures and theater. The fact that actors were considered “on par or below the status of sex workers” (Dr. Sir Rev. Nefarious) leads me to believe that the Romans didn’t think too highly of musicians either. According to my sources, events with music were also typically reserved for the elite.


In conclusion, I’m gonna have to say that the Greeks take the cake on this one. I definitely think that the Romans should have given the art of music a lot more respect. Seems like they were too sidetracked with their gladiators and chariot races…


 -Arbiter Bibendi