A Brief History of Common Latin and Greek Sayings

Photo: Caesar and his army crossing the Rubicon

A Brief History of Common Latin and Greek Sayings

By Adrian Altieri


As a language rich in vocabulary, English is often able to encapsulate many complex ideas on its own. A large proportion of English vocabulary is derived from Latin via French, and many other terms are descended from Ancient Greek. However, in certain cases, it is best to leave phrases in their original languages, allowing for a faithful transmission of not only the meaning but the context associated with the terms as they were used contemporaneously. In some cases, the Latin or Greek is used to describe a concept in an incredibly literal way, such as the anatomical term xiphoid process, which literally means “sword-like advance” to refer to a part of the human body. Additional examples include the clavicle, whose name literally means “little key,” as the bone is able to rotate like a key, and the phalanges (fingers and toes), which are arranged in lines like the Greek battle formation the phalanx. Nevertheless, many terms require an explanation of the grammatical nuances pertaining to its original meaning and usage.

A set of three proverbs, called the Delphic maxims, give us a good sense of how the most religious ancient Greeks lived and ordered their lives. Oracle at Delphi, located at the Temple of Apollo, was a central location in ancient Greek religion. The Oracle was consulted prior to any large decision, especially when related to warfare. In a manner similar to modern religions, the priests of the Oracle, known as the Seven Sages of Greece, taught many tenets to their followers, three of which were inscribed in front of the Temple to Apollo. The existence of these three tenets was recorded by the Greek historian Pausanias in the second century CE. By far the most famous of these is “γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” which translates to “know yourself.” It was followed by “μηδὲν ἄγαν” and “ἐγγύη πάρα δ᾿ ἄτη.” The former translates to “nothing excessively” (or, more idiomatically in English, “nothing in excess,”), while the latter is a bit more difficult to render due to its minimalistic phrasing. The second word, “πάρα,” is usually a preposition, but it is likely being used adverbially here to mean “near” or “together;” it may even be a contraction of “πάρεστι” to mean “is present.” The final word of the phrase, “ἄτη,” can mean either “folly” or “delusion,” but also “disaster.” Most literally, it could mean either “Security, and folly is present” or “Security, and folly (is) near.” The implication, however, is the same: being too sure in any situation will lead to downfall.

Fast forward 500 years, another one of the most famous Classical phrases is attributed to Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon to bring his army back into Rome: “iacta alea est,” which translates to “the die has been cast.” The translation of this phrase has come into popular usage in English to mean that a point of no return has been passed, as was the case when Caesar crossed the Rubicon river. However, the Roman historian Suetonius may have passed down a slightly different version of this phrase. In his Vīta Dīvī Iūlī, Suetonius incorrectly translated the original Greek that Caesar quotes. The Greek saying “ᾰ̓νερρῑ́φθω κύβος” was originally found in the work of the Greek dramatist Menander, who employs the third person imperative form “ᾰ̓νερρῑ́φθω[1].” A more accurate Latin translation of the phrase would be “iacta alea esto,” meaning “let the die be cast.” This correction slightly changes Caesar’s meaning; instead of implying that the future has already been determined by his actions (conveyed by the use of the perfect indicative, “iacta est”), the imperative shows that his current actions (namely, bringing his army back to Rome), will seal his fate.

The Spartans’ famously short and direct war speeches have left us with “μολὼν λαβέ,” a maxim which has also come into modern usage. Usually transliterated into English as “molon labe,” this is most often translated as “come and take [them],” referring to the Spartans’ weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE), which was fought between the Persians and the Spartans as a part of the Second Greco-Persian Wars. Plutarch claims that King Leonidas I of Sparta wrote this phrase addressing King Xerxes of Persia as a response to his demand that the Spartans surrender their arms. Plutarch’s account is written in Attic Greek, which differs from the Doric dialect that Leonidas would have spoken approximately 500 years prior. In addition, the more idiomatic English translation does not fully capture the Greek grammar; “μολὼν” is a participle from the verb βλώσκω,” meaning “to come/go,” and λαβέ,” is an imperative form ofλᾰμβᾰ́νω,” meaning “to take.” The participle would best be translated with a temporal word like “when,” resulting in a translation of “when you come, take,” with an implied direct object “τᾰ̀ ὅπλᾰ,” meaning “the weapons.” Since it was recorded by Plutarch, this phrase has come to represent defiance, particularly in military contexts. It was used during the American Revolution, the Texas Revolution, the Cypriot Revolution against the British, and by anti-gun control activists in the United States.

Although these phrases have survived history and have come down to us mostly intact, there are likely many similar examples that have been lost in textual transmission or were never even written down. Repeating ancient sayings and proverbs in their original form, instead of in translation, allows us to be more connected with their original meaning, as it touches on how those in antiquity may have employed and interpreted the saying.


[1] This is the perfect imperative, which Latin does not have. So, “esto,” the present imperative, is the closest way to render this.


Adrian Altieri (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies (Languages and Literature) and minoring in Chemistry.



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