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What Did Cato Mean?

In response to:

Roman Grand Guignol from the January 18, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

A passage in Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ review of P.F. Widdows’ translation of Lucan’s Civil War [NYR, January 18] prompts several questions. In Book IX of the epic, we read of a desert march commanded by Cato. The army is stricken with thirst; a soldier finds a trickle of water, scoops it up in his helmet, and brings it to his general. Cato responds:

You excuse for a soldier! You really thought me the only
Man without guts in the army? Too soft to put up with the slightest
Touch of heat?…

And Cato,

Furious, emptied the helmet: so all had plenty of water.

The conclusion is puzzling: could the emptying of the helmet produce such copious effect? Accordingly, though Lloyd-Jones admires the Widdows translation, he protests: “The last words, suffecitque omnibus unda, are not well rendered by Mr. Widdows; the Latin means ‘all had enough of the water,’ which is much apter.”

Apter or not, the emendation is surely equivocal. Does it mean that all got their fill of water, or that they were satisfied with the proceedings? Are we offered an ambiguity in which one alternative is absurd?

Turning to the corresponding passus in J.D. Duff’s translation of 1928 (Loeb Classical Library, pp. 542-43), we read as follows:

…the day grew burning hot, sweat poured from their limbs and their mouths were parched with thirst. A rivulet with scanty flow was sighted at a distance; and a soldier, snatching the water with difficulty from the dust, poured it into the hollow of his helmet and offered it to the general. Every throat was furred with sand, and the general himself, holding in his hands a mere drop of water, was an object of envy. “Degenerate soldier,” said he, “did you consider me the one man without fortitude in this army? Did I seem so effeminate, so unable to endure the first onset of heat!”…. So in wrath he emptied out the helmet, and there was water enough for all.

Here again, the ending is so perverse that the translator (following the Haskins edition of 1887) must explain in a note: “i.e. they were content to do without it.”

We resort finally to Robert Graves’ prose translation (Penguin Books, 1957, pp. 209-10), generally condemned by Lloyd-Jones as “deplorable.”

A small, nasty trickle of water was sighted and a soldier, breaking ranks, scooped up a little muddy liquid with his helmet, which he thrust into Cato’s hands. No throat but was coated with dust, and Cato became the object of general envy. “Do you call yourself a soldier?” he cried in a rage. “How dare you insult me as the only weakling of this entire army? So I am one of those effeminate creatures who cannot stand a trifle of heat, am I?”…With these words he dashed it to the ground; so that nobody got more than his share.

No doubt, the Latin here is englished too freely, but the translation does try to work without need of a gloss. The question is whether Lucan’s phrase, since it fails to say what it evidently intends, is translatable.

Second question: Lloyd-Jones finds Lucan’s idealization of Cato “infuriating.” It is to give this “self-righteous Stoic pedant” fair hearing that he cites the “memorable” reply made to the man who came up with the water. But that reply was a topos, an exemplum virtutis also attributed to Alexander the Great. In Frontinus’ Strategems (I, vii) we read:

Marching along the desert roads of Africa, and suffering in common with his men from most distressing thirst, when some water was brought him in a helmet by a soldier, he poured it out upon the ground in the sight of all, in this way serving his soldiers better by his example of restraint than if he had been able to share the water with the rest.

Frontinus’ text was published some thirty-five years after Lucan, but his account of “that famous deed of Alexander of Macedon” must follow an earlier tradition. (The tale reappears in later texts, including Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.)

So then we ask: Does Lucan’s Cato contribute anything to the stock anecdote but the ill-temper that humiliates an honest soldier before his comrades?

Third question: What relation, if any, is there between these pagan exempla and the exploit reported in II Samuel 23: 15-17 (repeated in I Chron. 11: 15-19)? David is fighting the Philistines, garrisoned within Bethlehem:

And David longed, and said, Oh that one would give me drink of the well of Beth-lehem, which is by the gate! And the three mighty men brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Beth-lehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: nevertheless he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the Lord. And he said, Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this: is not this the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives? therefore he would not drink it.

Of course, there are differences. David, having precipitated the incident, fears for his soul; Lucan’s Cato fears for his reputation. In David’s action, the poured water is hallowed; in Cato’s, indignantly spurned. Yet there remains an irreducible common element (noticed by Haskins in 1887); and the link between the Hebrew and the Latin accounts may be understood in one of three ways:

1) The Latin writers, educated at Athens, could have been reading the Septuagint. According to a (somewhat shaky) hypothesis advanced by Moses Hadas, Virgil himself may have owed the redemptive theme of the Aeneid to the biblical story of Exodus. Did David’s example of renounced privilege similarly inspire the legends of Alexander and the stoical Cato?

2) The Hebrew and Latin narratives may be mutually independent, their similarity coincidental.

3) All may rehearse an earlier topos; not attesting how this or that hero behaved, but proposing how such men in such pickle ought to behave.

Leo Steinberg
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Hugh Lloyd-Jones replies:
  1. Suffecitque omnibus unda should not be translated by “all got plenty” or “all got their fill,” because nobody got any; but all got enough in that nobody was able to complain that another had got more than he.

  2. Certainly the story of the gallant commander refusing water is a topos; but it may still be true in a given case. Sir Philip Sidney, mortally wounded at Zutphen, gave the cup of water that had been brought to him to a dying soldier with the words, “Thy need is greater than mine,” as a bystander reported.

When Dr. Steinberg suggests that “the Latin writers, educated in Athens, could have been reading the Septuagint,” I fear he may be exaggerating the extent of Greek and Roman interest in the Jewish scriptures. He cites the late Moses Hadas, who in his book Hellenistic Culture (Columbia University Press, 1959) hungrily grasps at any possible indication of Greco-Roman awareness of the Hebrew literature and religion, taking seriously the contention of W.H. Alexander that “Horace’s mother, whom he never mentions, was a Jewess” and of F. Dornseiff that Horace’s father, it seems, “was at least a proselyte.” Credat Iudaeus Apella (“Let the Jew Apella believe that,” Sat. i, 5,100), as Horace might have said. Arnaldo Momigliano’s Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge University Press, 1975), with its marked skepticism regarding Greek interest in foreign languages and cultures, is a safer guide than Hadas’s work.

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