The outstretched hand of a statue of Victoria — the Roman goddess of victory — atop the Berlin Victory Column
The Nobel Prize: A Modern Honor Steeped in Ancient Origins
By Devin Casano
Crafting one’s posthumous legacy is a task that many people spend their entire lifetimes pursuing, largely because of the inescapable nature and unknowability of death. For many, the pursuit of a fond legacy is a potent testament to the human desire for enduring significance and immortality — the hope that we may leave behind footsteps for future generations to follow and ensure that our identity and contributions live on for eternity.
For Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel, the pursuit of an optimistic, inspiring legacy was of the utmost importance; just eight years shy of his death, Nobel read a false obituary in a French newspaper that gave him the epithet “The Merchant of Death” for his role in inventing and propagating the production of industrial-grade dynamite — a creation which ultimately became used instrumentally in warfare. Horrified at the thought of being remembered for perpetuity as a militarist warmonger rather than the pacifist opponent of armed conflict that he was, Nobel wrote into his will a provision which, upon his death in 1896, donated ninety-four percent of his impressive fortune to the formulation of the Nobel Prizes — a set of awards bequeathed annually “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Recently, two of Penn’s own — Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman — were laureates of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their role in developing vaccines against COVID-19. Used to denote individuals who are the recipients of an extraordinary honor, the title of Nobel laureate, as concealed in its etymology, is in many ways exemplary of the cultural continuity and enduring legacy of classical antiquity and its influence on contemporary society.
“Laureate,” as a term used to recognize immense achievements, traces its origins to the ancient Greco-Roman cultural affinity for the laurel shrub — an affinity most prominently espoused in the mythological tale of Apollo and Daphne. Though the prototypical example of this myth originates from the first-century BCE Greek poet Parthenius, its most famous rendition comes from the Metamorphoses — an encyclopedic collection of ancient Greco-Roman myths penned by the ancient Roman poet Ovid in 8 CE.
According to myth, the god Apollo (referred to by Ovid as ‘Phoebus,’ a solar epithet translating to ‘bright one’) had recently slayed the monstrous serpent Python and founded upon its carcass the sanctuary of Delphi — the home of the famous oracle. Reveling in his victory, Apollo boasts to Cupid — the god of erotic love and Roman counterpart to Eros — in a condescending manner, bragging of his strength and denigrating Cupid’s appearance, fixation on love, and divine powers. In an act of vengeance, Cupid flies to the peak of Mount Parnassus and fires a gold-tipped arrow into Apollo, imbuing him with a lustful desire for Daphne — a naiad (freshwater nymph) whom Cupid pierces with a lead-tipped arrow to make her averse to Apollo. Daphne, whose name translates literally as “laurel,” was rumored to be among the most beautiful of the nymphs, yet she preferred the celibate life of a huntress and had denied countless suitors already; this reputation would not stop Apollo who, being so enamored by her beauty as a result of Cupid’s curse, spots and calls over to Daphne, who subsequently flees. Apollo pursues her swiftly, all the while begging her to accept his advances, but she repeatedly rejects him. Eventually, Cupid offers his assistance, providing Apollo with acceleratory wings while simultaneously clinging onto Daphne to decelerate her escape. Nearing a point of exhaustion, Daphne calls out to her father, the river god, and begs him to transform her into something that would halt Apollo’s pursuit. Quickly, her skin converts into bark, and the extremities of her body become a canopy of leaves; Daphne morphs into the laurel shrub (see Figures 1 and 2). Even in this botanical state, Apollo could not help but be entranced by Daphne; in response to her transformation, Apollo assumed the laurel as his sacred tree and granted the plant its evergreen nature so that Daphne could be undying. From this devotion, the laurel shrub came to signify victory and honor alongside several patronages of Apollo, namely the arts, medicine, and peace. As Ovid writes:
“And thus the God;
‘Although thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt
be called my chosen tree, and thy green leaves,
O Laurel! shall forever crown my brows,
be wreathed around my quiver and my lyre;
the Roman heroes shall be crowned with thee,
as long processions climb the Capitol
and chanting throngs proclaim their victories;
and as a faithful warden thou shalt guard
the civic crown of oak leaves fixed between
thy branches, and before Augustan gates’” (1.556–1.564).
Figure 1. Oil painting by Giovanni Tiepolo depicting Apollo Pursuing Daphne, on display at the National Gallery of Art.
Figure 2. A marble statue on display at the Villa Borghese depicting Apollo and Daphne, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
It is from this myth that the significance of the laurel shrub in ancient Greco-Roman society and its synonymy with triumph can be understood, though it should be noted that Apollo’s connection with the laurel shrub predates the earliest record and Ovid’s Romanized retelling of the myth of Apollo and Daphne. Laurel — known by its scientific name Laurus nobilis — is a species of evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region known for its glossy, aromatic leaves. Although its leaves are commonly dried into bay for modern culinary use, ancient peoples utilized laurel in a variety of medicinal treatments and religious activities.
Laurel was particularly venerated at the religious site of Delphi in central Greece, which extolled Apollo as its patron deity and credited him with the site’s establishment; here, one could find the seat of the Pythia — a highly authoritative oracle reputed to be a direct conduit of Apollo — who would chew laurel leaves to a potentially hallucinogenic degree before uttering her commanding prophecies. Delphi garnered similar significance from its role as the site of the second-greatest of the Panhellenic Games: the Pythian Games. Held every four years and every two years after the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games constituted a series of largely artistic competitions in reverence of Apollo’s dedication to the arts. It was here that competitors from across the Greek world convened to engage in artistic events — namely in the fields of poetry, song, dance, and music — before eventually adding athletic events. Victors of the Pythian Games were subsequently crowned with a wreath fashioned from sprigs of laurel in honor of the plant’s connection to Apollo. Coronating individuals with a wreath of laurels in honor of their glorious triumph, achievement, or distinction thus became a famed tradition, and it is this tradition and the mythology behind it that inspired the modern term “laureate.”
Etymologically, laureate can be traced back to the base Latin word laurus, simply meaning “laurel.” From here, laurusbecame laurea, the feminine version of the masculine laureus, which translates to “laurel crown or tree.” Ultimately, this then transitioned to laureatus, an adjective that, when translated from Latin, means “crowned with laurels,” in reference to the Greco-Roman use of laurels as an indication of victory and high esteem. Thereafter, the earliest known usage of the term “laureate” in the English language can be traced back to the late Medieval period, specifically Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; in this text, Chaucer refers to Petrarch — the famed early Renaissance poet and academic — as a laureate. From then on, laureate became a glittering title associated with excellence and remarkable accomplishments, so it is no wonder that the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious honors that humanity has to offer for intellectual achievement, bestow such a title upon their recipients.
Awarded to those individuals who have made significant contributions to human progress in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics, the Nobel Prizes and the laureates distinguished enough to receive them maintain the flame of human ingenuity first ignited millennia ago. Just as the virtuosi of ancient Greece were crowned with laurel wreaths for their triumphs, so too are the luminaries of contemporary society bestowed with the title of “laureate” for their genius; it is this profound devotion to human innovation and progress that connects antiquity to modernity, linking us to our past and emboldening our future. In the title of “Nobel laureate” and the innumerable other words in the English language which are derived from ancient sources and mythologies is a perennial reminder that all of humanity — no matter when, where, or how someone lived — possesses a shared history through language and culture. Although the civilizations and cultures of antiquity have since been lost to ruin, their legacies live on eternally in the very words that we speak and the actions we take.
Devin Casano (College ‘26) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science as well as Earth and Environmental Science.
“Alfred Nobel’s Will.” The Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-will/.
Laureate|Etymology, Origin and Meaning of Laureate. Etymonline, https://www.etymonline.com/word/laureate.
P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Aboo
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023.” The Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2023/press-release/.
“What Is a Laureate? A Classics Professor Explains the Word’s Roots in Ancient Greek.” BrandeisNOW, https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2022/october/laureate-explainer-christensen.html