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.