Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Terror et Error

This is my forty-second "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. I thought I would follow up the Roman poem from yesterday (about the ritual sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius) with a Camerarius emblem that is inspired by an incident from Roman history.

The story takes place during the Second Punic War, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal had invaded Italy by crossing the Alps and was raiding the Italian countryside. At one point, the Roman general Fabius had very cleverly entrapped Hannibal, surrounding him on all sides. Not to be outdone, Hannibal invented an ingenious trick of his own: he attached twigs to the horns of the cattle and then set fire to the sticks at nightfall. When the fire burned their horns, the cattle ran wildly and the Romans, seeing all the fires moving around like torches in the dark of night, became convinced that they were surrounded by innumerable enemy forces. The Romans became even more afraid when the cattle drew closer, taking them to be supernatural fire-breathing beasts. In the confusion and panic, Hannibal and his army easily made their escape. (You can read the details in Livy's History.)


Here is Camerarius' little poem as inspired by Hannibal's exploit. The title of the poem is Terror et Error.

Terror. This Latin word means fear, terror.

et. This Latin word means and.

Error. This Latin word means mistake, error.

That title is about as easy as it gets when reading Latin without Latin! Now here is the poem:

Fraudem fraude, astum non fállere dédecet astu,
Saepe timóre timor trúditur, arte dolus.

And here is how it works:

Fraudem. This is from the Latin noun fraus, which means a trick, a deception (compare the English word fraud). The form fraudem is accusative, so we have the object of our verb.

fraude. Here we have fraus again, this time in the ablative case: fraude, by means of a deception. We are still waiting for the verb, though!

astum. This is from the Latin noun astus, meaning a trick, some act of cunning (compare the English word astute). The form astum is accusative, so it looks like we are going to have two statements - one with fraudem as the object of the verb, and one with astum, but we don't have a verb yet to help put all that together.

non fállere dédecet. At last, our verb: dédecet is an impersonal verb in Latin meaning it is unsuitable, indecent (the -dec- root is what you see in the English words decent, decency, etc.). The word non negates the verb: non dédecet, it is not unseemly, it is not wrong. The verb fallere, to deceive, to cheat (compare the English word fallacy), gives us the infinitive complement we need: non fállere dédecet, it is not wrong to cheat,. Plus, we already have an object for the infinitive: fraudem. So, that gives us a complete statement: fraudem fraude non fállere dédecet, it is not wrong to cheat one deception by means of a deception (compare the English saying "fight fire with fire"). Now we just need to know what to do with that other object, astum.

astu. The final word of the line is just what we need: astu is the ablative form of astus, just as fraude is the ablative form of fraus. So, just as fraudem fraude non fállere dédecet, it is also true that astum non fállere dédecet astu, it is not wrong to cheat one trick with another.

That gives us the first line, with two interwoven, parallel statements: there is no shame, non dédecet, in thwarting one deception with another, fraudem fraude fállere, or one trick with another, astum astu. The second line expands on this same idea, bringing in the theme of terror that was mentioned in the title:

Saepe. This Latin word means often.

timóre. This is from the Latin noun timor, meaning fear (compare the English word timorous). The form is ablative: timóre, by means of fear.

timor. Here we have the nominative form of timor, which means it will be the subject of the verb.

trúditur. This is from the Latin verb trudo, meaning to dislodge, shove, push (compare the English compounds intrude, extrude, etc.). The form is third-person singular passive: trúditur, is pushed, is disloged. So, fear is dislodged by fear: timóre timor trúditur.

arte. This is from the Latin noun ars, meaning art, skill, craft, craftiness. The form is ablative again: arte, by means of skill, by means of craftiness.

dolus. This Latin noun means cunning, deceit, some kind of evil trap. The form dolus is nominative, so it is the subject of the verb: an evil trap, dolus, is disloged by means of craftiness, trúditur arte.

So, if you are afraid, you can often drive out that fear by causing fear, saepe timóre timor trúditur, and likewise dislodge some evil trap by means of your own craftiness, trúditur arte dolus. Although Hannibal is not invoked by name in the poem, the illustration makes it clear that he is the exemplary model here: instead of succumbing to panic when trapped by the Romans, he unleashed both terror and error among their ranks with his own ingenious scheme! A good idea to keep in mind if you find yourself in a trap, real or metaphorical.

Terror et Error
Fraudem fraude, astum non fállere dédecet astu,
Saepe timóre timor trúditur, arte dolus.

For more of Camerarius's poems in Latin, you can visit the Camerarius stream in my Latin distichs blog. 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.

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