Short compositions in ancient Greek, Latin, and English verse

Feb 2020:

Twitter friend Rob Cromarty posts a Pompeian graffito, a fine elegiac couplet that runs:

Miximus in lecto, fateor; peccavimus, hospes.
  si dices ‘quare?’ – nulla matella fuit.

I pissed in the bed, I admit; I did wrong, host.
If you ask ‘why?’ – well, there was no chamber-pot.

I’m roused to suggest an updated version as follows:

in cyathum spuimus, fateor; peccavimus, hospes.
   si dices ‘quare?’, zythum erat, ecce, meum.

Translated as:

OK, I spat into my pint; sorry, barman.
If you ask ‘why?’- look, it was my beer!

Jan 2020:

Thomas Waldkircher writes from Hamburg: ‘I need a translation into Ancient Greek for a stadium inscription: The individual is the major element of our strength; naturally, he will have our attention’. This rather strange text seems to me best translated as a Homeric tag. A Homeric hexameter of the kind a hero might utter at some point in the epic might run:

εἷς ἄρα φὼς ἀλκὴ καὶ ἀεί τοι πᾶσι μελήσει.

Literally this means ‘In the end (ἄρα) one hero is (our) strength and naturally (τοι) will always have the attention of all’.

Henry Colthurst, Master of the Grocer’s Company, writes: “Philip Woodhouse and I, Masters in consecutive years, have given to the Grocers a sculpture – a bronze monkey sitting on the back of a galloping camel. It is unclear as to which creature is in control of which. Could one write an epigram suggesting the same thing holds for the Master and the Company?

I suggest an elegiac couplet:

Aut trahitur praeceps aut simius ipse camelum
   ducit. Quid? Dominus nonne Sodalicium?

Literally: “Either the monkey is being dragged headlong, or is itself guiding the camel. So? Doesn’t the Master guide the Company?” (Implying that it might be the other way round…)

A short translation might run as follows:

The monkey’s on the camel’s back.
Which is the Master, which the hack?

Nov 2019:

I was asked to translate ‘those who plant a garden plant happiness’ and came up with ‘hortum serentes laetitiam serunt’. As this happened to be an Alcaic hencecasyllable, I thought I should complete a stanza:

hortum serentes laetitiam serunt:
iucunda semper prata videbimus
floresque olentes atque silvas
arboribus variis repletas.

Who plants a garden plants delight:
Its pleasant lawns enchant our sight,
Its fragrant flowers, and borders lined
With thronging trees of every kind.

Oct 2016:

Henry Mason, brilliant Classical scholar and former pupil of Robin Lane Fox at New College, composed these elegiacs for the latter’s 70th birthday:

ἑβδομάδας δέκ’ ἐτῶν εὖ κοὐκ ἀτυχῶς τελέσαντι
μή, φίλε, σοὶ μελέτω τοῦθ’ ὅ γ’ ἔλεξε Σόλων,
ὅς ποτ’ ἄρ’ ἄνδρ’ ἔφατ’ ἐκτελέσαντα τόσους ἐνιαυτούς
μοῖραν ἔπειθ’ ἕξειν οὐκ ἀδίκως θανάτου·
οὐ γὰρ ὅδ’ ἐκδημῶν ἐν ὁδῷ που Ἀλώπεκα τοῖον
εἶδέ ποθ’, ᾧ θάλλει σῶμά τε καὶ σοφίη.

I translate:

Since three score years and ten you’ve now traversed in fettle fine
And fortune fair, dear Robin, pay no heed to Solon’s line:
That poet said that any chap who’d lived so many years
Might just as well give in to fate and leave this vale of tears.
Though Solon travelled many a LANE, no FOX he ever spied
So flourishing in body and in intellect beside!

Sep 2016:  My motto for Wellesley House School (see April 2014 below) has now become official, in the short version A SCALIS PATULIS AD ASTRA (‘From BroadStairs to the stars’) and will be incorporated into the School’s crest. I mocked up a design which included three bars (to represent broad stairs) and ten stars, and the final version looks like this:

The shorter version is no less poetic than the longer. Although it is no longer a hexameter, it uses a lyric verse pattern called a Hipponactean.

Mar 2016: On the occasion of Professor Ted Kenney’s 92nd birthday, which fell on 29th February this year- so his 23rd leap year, Nicholas Richardson composed this splendid elegiac couplet to wish him well.

Bis decies tibi terque bisextis rite peractis
Gaudia multa Deus laetitiamque ferat.

Twenty-three leap years have duly passed:
God give you happiness and joy to last.

Nov 2015:    In response to an email request as follows:

‘The grandmother of a Classics undergraduate would like to write her granddaughter’s 21st birthday message in Classical Greek. The girl is called Natasha but they call her ‘Tash’. She would like this greeting translated: Happy birthday Tash. Congratulations on your 21st birthday. May happiness and health always be with you and success follow you through life’s journey.’

I offer an elegiac couplet, which may be translated thus:

Greetings, dear Tash, let your birthday shine bright;
Life’s blessings and gifts may you always invite.

χαῖρε, φίλη Τασία, φαίνοι δὲ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ.
αἰὲν ἔχοις ὄλβον κακαλὰ δῶρα βιοῦ. 

It would be unduly clumsy to try to versify ‘21st’; but as the number 21 in Greek was κα’ I have ensured that those letters appear (twice, in bold) in the centre of the second line.

Nov 2014:   My visit to speak at Westminster School inspired a young Latinist, Nicholas Stone (now reading Classics at Oxford), to present me with an alcaic stanza complete with translation, incorporating the Westminster-style homonyms of my name (in bold, underlined).

Euax! revenit qui metra amat bene
poeta notus carmine Olympico;
de angore et ascensu sonasti,
nunc iuga nunc freta te celebrant.

Hurrah! Returned is verse’s king,
Far-famed for his Olympic lays;
Both anguish and success you sing;
The very world gives you its praise.

Oct 2014:    Birthday couplet on party invitation for Robin Raw (80 on 23 Nov 2014), to accompany a photograph (right) of Robin as a 2-year old with a toy car :

Ecce puer, rudibus rotulis voltuque superbus:R
           curriculum vitae respicit ille suae.

This boy on novice wheels behold, his face with pride is raw
As he surveys the course of life that lies for him in store.

I was so keen to get the pun on ‘Raw’ in that I originally created a hexameter with ‘Rudibus’ as the first word – and that is what is printed on the invitation. It took Kwasi Kwarteng MP, no mean classicist and versifier, to point out to me that Latin ‘rudis’ has a short ‘u’, unlike our word ‘rude’. For correct scansion, the word needs to be postponed as above.

Sep 2014:      Not my composition, but a wry outcome to a query from an old friend as follows: ‘I went to a funeral yesterday; the deceased owned a ring on which was inscribed something in Latin meaning ‘a man alone is unhappy, and a man with friends is happy’. Is it a classical allusion?’

The answer has to be a couplet with a very different thrust (and worthy of Oscar Wilde) from Ovid’s Tristia (1.9.5-6): ‘As long as things go well you will have lots of friends – when the weather turns cloudy you will be alone!’ (We still talk about ‘fair-weather friends’).

donec eris felix multos numerabis amicos:
      tempora si fuerint nubila, solus eris.

Jul 2014:      Edamame beans. A Japanese name, but suggestive of Latin. edam (I will eat) starts with a short e, and in a Latin verse line we would have to elide ed(am) a me, which could just mean ‘I will eat from me’ — with ipso it works better and means ‘I will eat from myself’. The obvious mythical context for such a phrase would be Erysichthon (end of Ovid Metamorphoses 8), who after committing an impious act is afflicted with terminal gluttony: he devours everything in sight and eventually has to eat his own body. One imagines the conversation as follows: “The storehouse is empty, Erysichthon; where will you get your dinner?” “In the end I’ll eat myself, if all I’ve left is a single bean.’ So:

‘horreum inane iacet; cenam unde trahes, Erysichthon?’
       ‘denique edam a me ipso quippe faba una manet’

“What will feed you, Erysichthon, now your store lies emptied clean?”
“Haply I’ll myself devour, since what’s left is but a bean.”

Apr 2014:      My daughter started term at Wellesley House School (see Apr 2013 below), whose motto I recompose with an indicative verb:

                          From Broadstairs we will at length reach the stars

Dec 2013:      I’ve been asked about the motto of Sedbergh School DURA VIRUM NUTRIX (‘a harsh nurse of men’) – see my Clog. Cited by the poet Auden (who went to the school), it’s the opening of a hexameter line. But its origin is obscure: it is not found in any classical poem, and appears to have been invented by Sedbergh’s founder Roger Lupton (he of Lupton’s Tower at Eton). Did he envisage a continuation? If not, how about this:

dura virum nutrix iamdudum alit aurea māla

This rugged nurse of men, from old,
has served to nurture fruit of gold.

imgresNov 2013:     My friend Philip Howard’s 80th birthday. The group that meets twice a year to discuss a Horatian ode includes a great versifier of the same vintage, Colin Sydenham, whom I salute. He has created a perfect Sapphic stanza in honour of Philip:

Te salutamus, tibi nos sodales
Flaccidae grates agimus, Philippe,
cuius octavum duplicavit aetas
      denique lustrum.

Colin has produced one of the best translations of Horace’s Odes, so I should await his translation, but meanwhile offer mine.

We greet you, Philip, on this day,
your friends and Horace-loving peers:
With this we cordial thanks convey,
and celebrate your four-score years.

Oct 2013:      Andy Trewin of rock band Collisions asks for a Latin translation of the motto ‘Play From Your Fucking Heart’. Ex imo corde ludite (literally ‘play from the bottom of your heart’) misses the shock value of the epithet, so I suggest taking a leaf out of Catullus’ book (poem 16, pedicabo ego vos) and translating ex imo corde ludite nisi vultis pedicari (‘play from the bottom of your heart unless you want to be buggered’). Andy says that though he would like to keep the intensity of ‘fucking’,  the use of ‘buggered’ would be ‘quite difficult for the band to stomach’. Also, he doesn’t care for ludite because it looks like ‘Luddite’. My solution is to go for a different grammatical construction, and to translate ‘you should play from the very bottom of your heart’.


This creates a perfect hexameter line, with the added bonus of introducing penitus, a word etymologically related to penis and penetrate.

Black t

imgres-1imgresSep 2013:   At the launch in Daunt Books of Leo Johnson’s and Michael Blowfield’s Turnaround Challenge, Boris declaims my Olympic Ode from memory. We briefly bat around some Latin alcaics to celebrate Leo’s achievement. My final stanza runs:

Tu qui leonis nomen et indolem
praebes, citata sollicitudine
urges ad orbem promovendum
in melius renovare mentem.

With lion’s name and nature crowned,
for anxious care you’ve made the case:
you challenge us to turn around
and make the world a better place.

On hearing ‘leonis indolem’, Boris says ‘that’s me too’. So with a few small changes one might create a similar stanza for him too, one that picks up on his recent visit to China and his proposal to reduce the visa legalities for Chinese visitors:

Tu qui leonis vultus et indolem
praebes, revisis Seribus invicem
urges ad urbem promovendam
oppositas removere leges.

A lion’s mien and style you take
With you to China, in good cause:
You urge us for the City’s sake
to take away obstructive laws.

Apr 2013:    My old friend Oliver Wise sends three children to Wellesley House, a school in Broadstairs, Kent. He requests  a Latin motto for the school: ‘From Broadstairs to the stars’. The following hexameter literally means ‘from broad stairs let us embark on a journey to the stars’:



Jan 2013:  The Regius Professor of Greek, Chris Pelling (left), passes on a request to translate ‘Knitting, watching, waiting’  We settle on a hexameter version:

 texentes acubus fixi vigilesque sedemus

Literally: ‘weaving with needles we sit fixed in place and watchful’. If the speakers were tricoteuses before the guillotine, fixi should be changed to fixae , but I make no assumptions about who’s doing the knitting here.

Nov 2012:  RAF Honington wants a Latin translation of their motto ‘Walking on Fire’. Propertius 1.5.3 has vestigia ferre per ignes but ‘per’ is ‘through’ rather than ‘on’. I suggest:


With the ending of ignem elided before incedere, this has the metre of a Ciceronian prose clausula (∪∪ − − − ∪ −) and also fits within a dactylic hexameter (e.g. virtutem sequimur, super ignem incedere prompti — ‘in pursuit of virtue we are ready to go walking on fire’).

imgresimgresOct 2012:  Llewelyn Morgan, asked to go on the radio to speak about Wayne Rooney’s autobiography (why?!), collaborates with me on a translation of this excerpt:

When I was a youth team player at Everton I used to see Paul Gascoigne all the time. I loved watching him around the training ground. He was loud, always up to something. I was 16, sitting in the dressing room before a youth team game. Gazza came in. ‘Alright lads,’ he goes. ‘Any of you lot going out tonight?’ Everyone looked at one another. Everyone was thinking the same thing: What’s he up to? In the end, I had to say something. ‘Yeah, I am.’ Gazza got out his wallet and handed me two £20 notes.‘Here you go pal,’ he said. ‘Have a nice night on me.’ I looked down at the money.  None of the other lads could believe it – I’d just got a pay bonus off one of the greatest English midfielders ever.

We come up with a paragraph full of authentic Petronian words and phrases (shown in bold):

Cum adhuc tiro pedilusor Evertoni essem, Gascona assiduo uidebam. illum libentissime spectabam in gymnasio exercitantem. erat linguosus, petulans, iocus non homo. at ego annos sedecim natus forte cum amicis ante ludum quendam in apodyterio sedebam cum irrupit ille subito. «Saluete, pueri», inquit, “ecquis uestrum ad cenam ibis hac nocte?” respicimus alius alium et omnes idem cogitamus: quid faciat ille? at ego non potui vocem ultra tenere et tandem «ibo ipse» dixi. Ille e sinu togae nescioquid de sacculo profert et mehercules! binos denarios mihi in manum dat. «Haec accipe, amice», inquit, «et fac suaviter hac nocte meo munere.» aureos inspexi. ceteri autem adulescentuli obstipuerunt; nec mirum, quia ab illo, omnium fere Anglorum pedilusorum optimo, corollarium modo acceperam.

Sep 2012:   Oliver Taplin (left) asks on behalf of his niece, a theatre director, for a translation of ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I suggest a Lucretian hexameter.

omne quod acciderit factum ratione videtur

Aug 2012:  Challenged to write an ode to Boris on the zipwire, I suggest a clerihew:

Boris dangling on a zipwire
Sets the media on fire;
He’ll do that per diem
if he becomes PM.

This is reported, oddly enough, by the Jewish Chronicle.  I translate it into Greek iambics as follows:

ἴδου κρεμαστὸν τῇδε δήμαρχoν βαρύν,
ὥσθ᾽ ἡ πόλις γέγηθεν εἰσορωμένη·
οὗτός γε δήπου κρεμάσεται καθ᾽ ἡμέραν
εἴ πως ὁ πρῶτος ἐν πόλει γενήσεται.

Veteran versifier Colin Leach suggests the neater option of elegiacs:

ναιχί, πόλις σύμπασα Βόριν μετέωρον ἐπαινεῖ·
ἦ ταχέως οἰσεῖ σκῆπτρα πετεινὰ πόλις;

July 2012: Colin Leach posts an elegant ‘Anti-Olympics Ode’ in Greek elegiacs on the Liverpool Classics website (he has amended the 3rd line to one with similar meaning). I provide the English verse translation (I now think this should be a requirement for composers of Latin and Greek verse).

πάντες ᾿Ολυμπιακοῖσι διηνεκὲς ἄνδρες ἀγῶσι
τέρπονται, δαπάνης δ’ οὔ τις ἔχει μελέτην.
τοῖσι δὲ νῦν χαίρουσι μένει ποθὲν ἄσπετος  Ἄτη –
τὸ χρέος, ἡ πενία, χἢ πόλις οὐλομένη.

Men greet the Games with unrestrained delight,
and give no thought to all the money splashed.
For those now cheering looms an endless blight:
impoverishment, debt — and London trashed.

Clearly a challenge (as Colin admits) to the composer of an ‘Ode for the Olympics 2012’. I respond with a couplet reprising a Pindaric sentiment:

ἀλλ᾽ ἐν Πιερίδων εὖ νικήσασιν ἀγῶνι
ἔσσεται οὐ κέρδος γ᾽ ἄφθονον ἀλλὰ κλέος.

But those who triumph in the Muses’ game
will earn…not money but…unstinting fame!

July 2012: At Westminster School for the Election Dinner. The tradition of coming up with bilingual puns on people’s names in impromptu verse continues. Seated between two classicists, I offer trimeters that allude to the unseasonable weather, containing ‘Lou(is) Prosser’ and ‘Harry (Winter)’, which Harry declaims:

ἰδοῦ τάδ᾽ ἄστρ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ πρὸς Σείριον φλέγει·
ἆρ᾽ ἐστὶ χειμών; καὶ γάρ ἐστι δὴ σκότος.

Behold these stars: the Dog Star’s brighter yet.
It’s winter then? Yes, dark as you can get.

June 2012: Text from Oliver Taplin: how do you say in Latin ‘the point is not what you know but who(m) you know’? I text back a hexameter:

Res agitur, non quae sed quem cognoscis, amice!

Our exchange demonstrates the truth of the line. Oliver passes it on to Ian Jack for an article in the Guardian, in which it is suggested that NON QUAE SED QUEM COGNOSCIS should become the motto of the new Professor of Networking (Julia Hobsbawm, left) at Cass Business School. I subsequently notice on the Guardian website some critical comments about my version. One misguidedly supposes that my quae is ungrammatical, but makes the nice suggestion to translate non rem sed hominem nosce – ‘know a person, not a subject’. The difference is that this might be taken as a piece of genuine advice (like Cato’s rem tene, verba sequentur), whereas my version aims to preserve something of the latent irony of ‘The point is…’ — as well as being in verse.

Comments are closed.