Found in Translation

Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Street musicians in a scene from a comedy by the Greek playwright Menander; mosaic by Dioscorides of Samos from the Villa of Cicero, Pompeii, circa 100 BCE

Shortly after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC, the Roman Senate commissioned a Latin translation of a work by a Carthaginian writer. The writer’s name was Mago, and he wrote on agriculture—a subject of deep interest to the Romans, who liked to think of themselves as a nation of sturdy farmers even after they ruled an empire. The work was a substantial one (twenty-eight books, we are told), and it is perhaps no surprise that the translation does not survive, but snippets from it do turn up in later Latin authors writing on the same topic.

The Senate wanted Mago translated because he was thought to have useful information to offer. (As the Roman poet Ovid would later observe, “one can learn even from an enemy.”) It was presumably with similar motives that the ninth-century Abbasid rulers of Baghdad established the bureau known as the “House of Wisdom,” which translated Greek and Syriac works on science, medicine, and philosophy into Arabic. Some of the medical works would later be put into Latin by translators associated with the medical school at Salerno, under the patronage of local rulers. The Arabic translations of Aristotle would also be latinized, in part by scholars working at the polyglot Sicilian court of Frederick II in the thirteenth century.

Another frequent candidate for translation is popular literature: fiction, fables, proverb collections, prophecies, and the like. A classic example is the anonymous piece of ancient historical fiction known as the Greek Alexander Romance, versions of which survive in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, and a half-dozen or more modern languages. Indeed, if we exclude purely documentary texts (laws, treaties, etc.), then these two categories—the useful and the ephemeral—account for the majority of premodern translations.

Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature, studies a case that fits neither category. In 240 BC the Roman magistrates assigned to organize the state festival known as the Ludi Romani (“Roman Games”) commissioned a play-script for performance. This in itself was nothing new. Stage shows derived from Etruscan models had been put on at the festival for over a century. Many Romans would also have seen Greek dramas performed, in Greek, by touring troupes from southern Italy, a region studded with former Greek colonies. What was novel on this occasion was not the play, a Greek tragedy, but the fact that it was presented in Latin. The translator was a native Greek speaker from Tarentum named Livius Andronicus. The name, combining Roman “Livius” with Greek “Andronicus,” suggests he may have been a former slave.

Livius’s first Latin tragedy was followed by others, and he was soon joined by another translator, Gnaeus Naevius. Naevius too was…

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