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.