Shades of Meaning, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs. Today we’ll continue our series of posts about vocabulary development with a fairly brief post about the pragmatics of a particular expression that our friend (?) Cnaeus Caelius uses several times in the story we focused on this week. At long last, tomorrow, we’ll look at connections between Latin and other languages.

First, though, let’s deal with That Phrase. It’s not a very nice thing to say, especially if you’re a Roman! Here’s the complete exchange:

sorōrēs bracchia Cnaeī prēnsant et hoc rogant: “frāter noster, nōnne diem tuum commemorāre vīs?”

“minimē, puellae molestae, nōlīte mē vexāre,” respondit ille.

Prīma autem “nōnne nōbīs dē lūdō commemorāre vīs?” rogat. et Secunda haec addit: “nōnne laetāris, mī frāter, quod puerum tam īnsolentem quam tē iam vidēs?” Cnaeus tamen īrātus, “puellās īnsolentēs!” exclāmat. “nōnne vōs decet in maximam malam crucem īre? cūr mē ita vexās? et iste Quīntus Flavius est īnsolentissimus! multō īnsolentior est quam ego!”

Prīma et Secunda cachinnibus sē trādunt. “heus! multō īnsolentior quam tū? utrum bove pater illum pūnīre solet, an taurō?” inquit Prīma. “nōn taurō, sed lupō!” inquit Secunda. “immō leōne ferōcissimō!” clāmat Prīma. “vel bālaenā maximā?” exclāmat Secunda.

“tacēte, pessimae puellae!” exclāmat Cnaeus īrātus. “nōnne mē decet vōs ambās in maximā malā crūce suspendere?”

“tacē, frater pessime! patrī verba tua commemorāre possum!” exclāmat Prīma ērubēscēns. Secunda, “verba enim impiissima!” addit. Cnaeus tamen, “num mē terrēre potestis? nōnne bracchium patris in pavīmentum cadere potest, sī mihi plagās plūrēs dare temptat? et quid poenārum minārī potest ille?”

The phrase in question is the malam crucem, with which characters in Roman comedy – especially Plautus – are constantly threatening each other (or telling each other to go hang themselves on, for that matter). In this context, we have Prima and Secunda ignoring it the first time Cnaeus uses it, but becoming extremely offended (or at least pretending to do so!) the second time. And you may be wondering why.

Longtime readers of the blog know that I’m very fond of Plautus’ comedies, especially as a key to understanding Roman social structures. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly how to interpret the social structures in Plautine comedy, since they’re overtly set in Greek city-states and, of course, are “translated” (whatever that means) from Greek New Comedies that have since been lost. But if we take a look at comedy in our own day, we can probably draw a few tentative conclusions. Comedy, by its nature, exaggerates (and therefore pokes fun at) aspects of everyday life and social structures. Sometimes the exaggerations are wild (the Marx Brothers, anyone? or SpongeBob?), and sometimes they’re closer to real life (the Brady Bunch, perhaps?). But if there’s no connection to everyday life and “real” social structures, it’s not a comedy; it just isn’t funny. With that set of assumptions, I looked at the times when Plautine characters threaten each other with a malam crucem or a malam rem and noticed that it seems to be a threat from the superior (usually the master, or a citizen) to the inferior (usually a slave or non-citizen) … which makes sense, given how crucifixion was typically used in the Roman world. It was a penalty for slaves, non-citizens, and other “undesirables” who stepped out of their place, whether by committing theft or by participating in a rebellion.

And so, when Cnaeus tells his sisters not just to go to the malam crucem, but that it’s decet for him to hang them on one, consider the implications! Women, it seems, were rarely crucified; citizen women, certainly not; and Prima and Secunda have hardly done anything worthy of crucifixion! They did make fun of their brother, but that’s not an unusual behavior among big sisters. It certainly doesn’t give him the right to reduce them to rebellious-slave or non-citizen-thief status! So much about the hidden, unstated assumptions of Roman society can be brought out … and contrasted with the unstated assumptions of learners’ native societies and cultures … with little words and phrases like this one. And yet, if all you do is “translate the passage,” all you’d say is “this is an idiom expressing anger and insult.”

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • I must confess I did not track down every malam crucem or malam rem in Plautus, so I may have missed some where a woman or a social superior is addressed. If so, please tell me … and please tell me if you find anything like that in any other Roman author. I’d be glad to revise my understanding!
  • What do you think of the sibling rivalry among Prima, Secunda, and Cnaeus? Do you find it believable, and do you think it will “speak” to Tres Columnae participants of school age?

One hope that I have for the Tres Columnae project is that we can present characters who “feel” authentically Roman – who behave in Roman ways, give us insight into Roman thought patterns, and occasionally strike us as different or other or even alien. One problem I have with the “Big Three” reading-method Latin textbooks is that their characters, by and large, are so sympathetic … or in a few cases, so underdeveloped that we don’t really get a sense of their motivations. When they are developed, they often tend to be very similar to twentieth-century Westerners … but the Romans, for all their accomplishments and influence on us, were not twentieth- or twenty-first-century Westerners. Some of their thought patterns and assumptions were dramatically different from ours, and I think it’s important to do justice to those differences. But what do you all think?

Tune in next time for those language-to-language connections. And, in the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming.

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