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The Sententia: Its History and Use in both Greece and Rome


The Sententia: Its History and Use in both Greece and Rome

Plato and Aristotle


by Maria Luisa De Seta, Ph.D.

Many Latin books today have sententiae antiquae as translation practice for students of Latin, but do they, do we, really know what sententiae are and how they were used in the past?

A sententia is a short wise saying, like a proverb, adage, or aphorism, which is common to all languages. In the second book of his Rhetoric, Aristotle provides us with the first theoretical explanation of the concept of the sententia. Here (Rhet. 1395) the philosopher defines the γνώμη, a practical maxim according to the LSJ (IIIb3), as a “ἀπόφασις, οὐ μέντοι οὔτε περὶ τῶν καθ ‘ἓκασθον […] ἀλλὰ καθόλου οὒτε περὶ πάντων, οἶον ὅτι τὸ εὐθὺ τῷ καμπύλῳ ἐναντίον, ἀλλὰ περὶ ὄσων αἱ πράξεις εἱσί, καὶ ἃ αἱρετὰ ἥ φευκτά ἐστι πρὸς τὸ πράττειν” (“Now, a maxim is a statement, not however concerning particulars, … but general; it does not even deal with all general things, as for instance that the straight is the opposite of the crooked, but with the objects of human actions, and with what should be chosen or avoided with reference to them”). According to Aristotle, then, a sententia is an expression of general γνώμη, but always related to human actions or to the report of specific circumstances. From this definition we can also infer that the sententiae are based on personal experience and that they are particularly suited to mature people.

Four different types of sententiae (or γνῶμαι) can be listed: 1) a sententia with an epilogue (ἐπίλογος), 2) a sententia without an epilogue, 3) a sententia that is part of an enthymeme, and 4) a sententia that is not part of an enthymeme. The epilogue is a demonstration (ἀπόδειξις) whose function is to provide further evidence to those sententiae whose truth is not universally recognized or to the sentientiae that are expressing something paradoxical or disputable: in the case of sententiae with demonstration, the latter may precede or follow the sententia itself.

As for the use and function of sententiae in speeches, Aristotle adds little more (cf. Rhet. 1395b): thanks to examples close to life experiences, or confirmed by the direct experience of someone, the sententia becomes an instrument of persuasion, that catches the recipient’s attention assimilating a new event to something known and, in so doing, making it pleasant to listen to.

In the Rhetorica ad Herennium, the oldest Latin treatise on rhetoric, the sententia is defined (4, 24-26) as “oratio sumpta de vita, quae aut quid sit aut quid esse oporteat in vita, breviter ostendit” (“discourse derived from life, which in few words demonstrates the truth and what it must be”): the link with the previous Aristotelian definition is clear. Brevity is indeed the essential feature of the sententiae.

Cicero lecturing


Our knowledge of sententiae in early Imperial times is due to the elder Seneca, who by means of the title of his work, Sententiae, Divisiones et Colores, underlines its importance at the time of the Declamationes. The sententia is an essential element of rhetorical schools: because of its penetrating nature, it was loved by those who wished to express themselves in an elegant way, hitting the attention of listeners (Sen. contr. 9 praef. 1) and was particularly enjoyed as a transitional formula between different parts of a rant. Quintilian confirms and reinforces Seneca’s ideas in Book VIII of his Institutio Oratoria: he devotes an entire chapter to the sententiae, as “eum quem plerique praecipuum ac paene solum putant orationis ornatum” (inst. 8, 4, 29: “a form of ornament which many regard as the chief, nay, almost the sole adornment of oratory”) and as “lumina autem praecipueque in clausulis posita” (inst. 8, 5, 2:”is applied to striking reflexions”). At his time the sententiae were considered part of the ornatus.

As Sinclair pointed out, Cicero also attributed a stylistic value to the sententiae, as a form of Hellenistic influence on the style of Latin orators: he states that one of the two Asiani styles was sententiosum et argutum. Quintilian, inst. 8, 5, 31, while recognizing the stylistic value of the sententiae doesn’t endorse their excessive use, and, between the parsimony of the ancient predecessors of Cicero and the abundance of sententiae in modern authors, he prefers the moderation of the past.

According to Tacitus, in the Dialogus de Oratoribus (20, 4), the sententia is one of the elements of an oratio that delights the audience; in 22, 1-3 he reproaches Cicero for creating sententiae when he was young and then reusing them later on. The possibility of reuse, which implies the adaptability of a sententia in different contexts, is one of the greatest values of the sententiae, according to Seneca.

Beyond its use in prose rhetoric, it is questionable where and how the sententiae were used in poetry: Seneca praises the sententiae in Publilius Syrus and attests the use of the same in ancient comic poetry. Seneca the elder says that Ovid uses sententiae in abundance, and Quintilian says that Ovid and Seneca the Younger use them quite frequently as well. Since it is known that Ovid and many other poets attended schools of rhetoric, it is not unlikely that the sententiae eventually influenced their poetry.

So, every time you are presented with a sententia antiqua while learning Latin, remember that it is the product of an ancient literary tradition; look for it in its original context to understand the stories of centuries ago.


maria luisa de seta
Dr. Maria Luisa De Seta is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Literary Criticism from the University of Calabria in Cosenza, Italy. She has considerable experience teaching both ancient (Latin and Greek) and modern (Italian and German) languages, with numerous degrees and certifications for both. Dr. De Seta is currently teaching Italian as a
Second Language in an Italian immersion school in San Francisco and tutors Latin, Latin Conversation, Ancient Greek, Italian, and German for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Dr. De Seta’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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