Friday, May 18, 2012

Latin Without Latin: O Dives, Dives!

This is my seventeenth "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. One of my favorite styles of Latin poetry is the rhyming poetry that was popular with medieval authors (rhyme was not favored by the classical Latin poets). You can find a large collection of rhymed Latin verse, monostichs and distichs, in Julius Wegeler's Philosophia Patrum. The distich I have chosen for today is #792 in Wegeler's collection. Here is the poem, which features internal rhyme in both lines:

O dives, dives, non omni témpore vives!
Fac bene dum vivis, post mortem vívere si vis.

Let's see how it is put together:

O dives, dives. The Latin exclamation O works just like the English exclamation. The Latin word dives means rich or, as here, a rich man. So, the poem is addressed to a rich man: O dives, dives, O rich man, rich man!

Before you read the rest of the poem, you might ponder this intriguing Latin etymology: the name Dis, the god of the Roman underworld, is a contraction of this word, dives. Another name for the god of the underworld, Plutus, is from a Greek word, ploutos, which likewise means riches, wealth; compare the English word plutocrat. It's ironic, of course, because - as the English saying goes - "you can't take it with you!"

Now, back to the poem:

non. The Latin word non means not (compare the English words noncombatant, nonexistent, etc.) - we will have to read on to find out just what is being negated!

omni témpore. The adjective omnis means all (compare the English words omnipotent, omniscient, etc.) and the noun tempus means time (compare the English word temporary). Put the two words together in the ablative case and you get the phrase: for all time, omni témpore. So, something is going to happen non omni témpore, not for all time, not forever… but we still need a verb!

vives. This is from the Latin verb vivere, to live (compare the English words vivid and revivify). It is second-person singular, as we would expect, and in the future tense: non omni témpore vives, you will not live forever, O rich man! Notice also the internal rhyme: dives - vives.

So, that gives us our first line, a prediction of the future: O dives, dives, non omni témpore vives! Now we can see what advice the second line provides.

Fac bene. This is from the Latin verb facere, to do (compare the English words fact and facsimile) and the adverb bene, meaning well or good (compare the English words benediction, benefactor, etc.). The verb is an imperative: fac, do! So, this is advice for the rich man: fac bene, do well, do good deeds!

dum vivis. Here we have a temporal phrase: the Latin word dum means while, and this time we have the present-tense form of the verb vivere: vives means you will live, and vivis (the form we have here) means you live, you are alive. So, fac bene dum vivis means do good deeds while you are living.

That gives us the first half of the line, containing advice for the rich man while he is still alive. The second half has something to say about what will happen after the rich man dies!

post mortem. This is a Latin phrase we use in English: the Latin preposition post means after and the noun mors means death (mortem is the accusative form required by the preposition). So, post mortem means after death.

vívere. Now we have the verb vivere again, this time in the infinitive form: to live. We'll need to read on to figure out what the infinitive form is doing here, especially since the context is post mortem, after death.

si vis. The Latin word si means if, and the verb velle means to wish or to want (compare the English word voluntary). The form vis is second person singular, si vis, if you want. The phrase takes a complementary infinitive, so it all fits together nicely: vívere si vis, if you want to live. Notice again the internal rhyme: vivis - si vis. To live after death, post mortem vívere, is a paradox that is at the heart of the Christian religion.

So, that gives us our second line, full of advice about both life and death: Fac bene dum vivis, do good while you are alive, post mortem vívere si vis, if you wish to live even after you are dead, enjoying the blessings of the heavenly afterlife. The way that the temporal phrases are inverted - dum vivis appears in the second half of its phrase, while post mortem appears in the first half of its phrase - is an artful form of Latin word order called chiasmus, or criss-cross word order (A1-B1 :: B2-A2).

Take a look at the whole poem again, and be sure to notice the internal rhyme in both lines as you read it out loud: dives - vives and vivis - si vis.

O dives, dives, non omni témpore vives!
Fac bene dum vivis, post mortem vívere si vis.

For more of these medieval rhyming poems in Latin, you can visit the rhyming stream in my Latin distichs blog, and here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next essay is about the four cardinal virtues: Virtutes Cardinales.


  1. Dear Laura Gibbs~ You are an amazing grace in this rude and barbarous world. I teach Latin in a small rural charter school(as well as AP ENglish and French). My Latin 1 class is hybridized with a study skills of noisy eighth graders, Latin 2 and 3 are combined. Everything militates against the acquisition of complex information (the parents of many kids haven't been to college) and yet, using the simplified fables and other resources from Best Latin the turtur is tortuously ambling ahead. Gratias agimus omnes tibi!

  2. Thank you so much for your note! I am just now working on an essay for today - it's a little poem about the four Virtutes Cardinales. I am having so much fun with these poems because they provide tiny little keyholes that open onto larger topics. So, it is a good schooling for me, and I am happy that they can help in the schooling of others, too! :-)


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