Homo homini lupus - Man is a wolf to man

This famous Latin phrase is first attested in a comedy by Plautus (250-184 BC). There, a character says:

Lupus est homo homini, non homo, non quom qualis sit novit

Wolf is the man for man, not man, when he does not know who is the other.

Erasmus included this phrase in his collection of adages, but his celebrity is due to the modern British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes is known today mainly for his groundbreaking developments in the field of political theory (especially in his work Leviathan, whose cover is here reproduced), but he was also a philologist and eminent scholar of classical antiquity, as is evidenced by his -still today frequently reprinted- English translation of Thucydides.

Having experienced the atrocities and cruelties of the English Civil War, one of Hobbes’ central aims was the discovery of the rational principles that could help building a stable political regime. The state of nature (i.e., the absence of government) was considered by Hobbes as a synonym for a permanent state of war of all against all, in which the achievements of civilized life would be impossible. Only a government with concentrated power can, in his conception, avoid that conflict. The Latin phrase homo homini lupus illustrates this idea with great force. If a greater authority does not impose restrictions on their brutal instincts, men behave like beasts ready to fall on each other.

This pessimistic view of human nature has been criticized from every position imaginable, perhaps rightly so. History, however, shows beyond doubt that man is the most formidable predator of its peers.


Cave canem!

Beware of the dog
(From a Pompeian Mosaic)

The ruins of Pompeii bear -for its wealth of information- unique testimony to the richness and variety of daily life in an ancient Roman city. Visitors of the modern archaeological park near Naples are doubly surprised, because Pompeii offers an unexpected mix of known and strange things. The first impression the city gives is one of “modernity”, the urban design and the buildings seem remarkably familiar to us. This familiarity is, however, only superficial, and visitors soon marvel at the many exotic elements in every corner of the city.

Among the many surprisingly familiar things, there is a beautiful little mosaic depicting a chained dog together with the brief text Cave Canem, beware the dog. The mosaic is on the floor of the entrance hall to the House of the Tragic Poet, (a house famous for its particularly exquisite decoration with mosaic floors and frescoes depicting well known scenes from Greek mythology). A similar picture is described by Petronius (Satyricon 29) and it is sure that mosaics like this one were a popular motif for the thresholds of Roman villas and rich houses.

This short phrase (quite different from the deep and philosophical reflections normally discussed in this blog) has for me a special charm. In my opinion, it illustrates how Latin can give a powerful force even to the more banal thoughts and expressions.


Fortuna multis dat nimis, satis nulli

Fortune gives too much to many, enough to no one

Martial, Epigrams, 12, 10, 2.

Satirical wit and brevity are the essence of epigram and Martial is the undisputed master of the genre. The poet is a cynical observer of imperial Rome, and an intelligent critic of its vices and miseries. His poems are classics because its criticism transcends time and reflects the flaws that plague human nature at all times. Insatiable greed is one of them. The tone of the Martial Epigrams is, however, never too harsh, never quite damning. In his work, a decadent and sophisticated society looks itself, and this, rather than to reproach, moves to laughter.


Ars longa, vita brevis

Life is short, art long

Seneca, De brevitate vitae1

This is the Latin translation of one of Hippocrates’ aphorisms:
βίος βραχς, δ τέχνη μακρ, δ καιρς ξς, δ περα σφαλερ, δκρίσις χαλεπή
Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile

Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult.

Anyone who has ventured into a field in pursuit of human knowledge knows the feeling of helplessness that this proverb evokes. There is so much to learn, reality is so complex that many lives would not suffice to quench our thirst for knowledge. Thus science is like a torch, which is transmitted from generation to generation, each making only the small contribution that the narrow limits of his mortality and transience allow. But Seneca quotes this phrase at the beginning of his treatise on the brevity of life to express his disagreement:

We have not received a short life, but made it short. We are not poor in time, but wasteful.


Erasmus’ Adagia

With the start of the sixteenth century, Italy lost its almost exclusive dominance in the study of antiquity. Many humanists from other European countries, in many cases trained in Italy, carried the flame of classical studies to their countries of origin, starting new traditions of study. Undoubtedly, one of the central figures in the dissemination of European humanism was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).

In 1500 a young and still unknown Erasmus published in Paris the first edition of a text destined to become one of the most reprinted in history, the Adagia. It is a collection of Latin proverbs discussed and explained by Erasmus. The collection is, indeed, only an excuse that allows Erasmus to develop his vision of ancient culture and humanism. His educational interests are clearly visible; the adages are the distillation of the high ideals Erasmus wants to spread among his readers.

The first edition printed in Paris (Collectanea Adagiorum) covers only 832 adages. In 1508 Erasmus published with Aldus Manutius in Venice - the most famous publisher of this period-, a second enlarged edition (Adagiorum Chiliades), which included 3260 entries and transformed its author in an international celebrity. Many more versions were produced in the following years, like the one published by Frobenius in Basel in the year 1515. Different summaries of this work were widely read until the nineteenth century.

Erasmus is known today mainly for his “The Praise of Folly”. His collection of proverbs is, by contrast, almost forgotten and read only by scholars and researchers. To immerse in this book is to travel to another world, a world where the passion for ancient culture occupied a central place. With respect and devotion, we will use the Adagia often in this blog as a source of knowledge an inspiration.

Note: the original text of the Adagia is not online. But you can access the Full edition of Paolo Manuzio. The Adagia were placed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), along with all the works of Erasmus, in the Index librorum prohibitorum. Paulo Manuzio (son of the editor who had published the 2nd edition of 1508) was commissioned to produce an expurgated edition, which appeared after his death in 1575.


dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet

“Once you've started, you're halfway there.”

(Horace, Epistles, Book I, Ep. 2)

I could not start with a better quote than this. Since a long time I cherish the idea of starting a blog about Latin Quotes, but distracted by other occupations, the project was always delayed. Today I feel that, as Horace says, an important part of the work is done, perhaps the most difficult part ... beginning.

This quote encapsulates a deep understanding of human nature. Men always have projects and purposes, we are never short of desires and goals, but constantly defer completion for another moment. As if we had an infinite amount of time, we always wait for a better opportunity and we always think it is still too soon...

A Chinese proverb says: "the longest journey begins with the first step." That first step is undoubtedly the most difficult. But once given, the rest follows almost automatically. Once the trip is started, we are convinced of the need to move forward, not to distract, to reach, ultimately, our destiny. Every process has its inertia. Once in motion, less energy is needed to keep moving.

The beauty of this phrase rests not only in its wisdom, but also in the concise elegance of Latin. That is what gives it a special force. It is that ability to synthesize complex thoughts briefly what is unique about Latin quotes.