By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
Although proverbs and maxims are by their nature very brief, they can contain a tremendous amount of wisdom. And in my mind one of the wisest writers of proverbs was Publilius Syrus! His writing has provided many generations with precious life lessons, and I therefore have no doubt that this present generation of Latin students is no different. In this article, as a means of introduction for those not yet familiar with his work, I have selected three sample proverbs of his.
Publilius was originally a Syrian slave who, thanks to his clear talent and wit, won the favour of his master, who eventually made him a free man. Later in his life, he wrote his masterpiece, Sententiae, a series of moral maxims in trochaic and iambic verse, which are great reading for Latin students since they provide real-life lessons.
“Pecunia non satiat avaritiam, sed inritat” – Advice for Greedy Men
Men who care for nothing but making money never think they have enough. Syrus is trying to show us in this maxim that money will only make the greedy man more restless, as money is the master he can’t help but serve. These days a similar maxim might be “Money doesn’t bring happiness.”
Publilius write a number of similar sententiae through which he warns people about the dangers of being greedy. In another sententia, he explains that if we learn to use money well, it is our servant; otherwise, it becomes our master – “Pecunia si uti scias, ancilla est, si nescias, domina”.
“Ab alio expectes, alteri quod feceris” – The Golden Rule
The translation of this sententia is a little tricky. Publilius is saying we should treat others the same way we would like them to treat us. In English, this sentiment is popularly known as The Golden Rule. The first known instance of this idea was in the “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant”, a Middle-Egyptian tale. A number of famous philosophers, including Confucius, have come up with similar maxims. Westerners are most familiar with its appearance in the Bible.
“Pacem cum hominibus habebis, bellum cum vitiis” – The Real War
This sententia is translated “You shall have peace with men and make war with vices”. Publilius says that we should not fight against each other. On the contrary, we should fight against our own vices, which are our real enemies.
Many people harbor the misconception that the Romans cared about nothing but war, but Publilius’ maxim demonstrates that there were reasonable people back then who were well aware of the horrors of war. It’s worth mentioning Tacitus’ famous quote as well: “Ubi sollitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”- “When they create a desert, they call it peace”.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my introduction to Publilius Syrus. This is one of the most interesting and edifying Latin authors I’ve read and I hope more teachers will integrate these proverbs into their Latin curriculum. Publilius’ Sententiae may be brief, but they are packed with useful life lessons.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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