At the Wording Desk

Increase your knowledge of the roots of English and international history by learning a Latin motto

Bill Casselman

Rome’s first emperor chose his imperial moniker. Although Julius Caesar was his uncle, before he was plain Gaius Octavius; afterward he dubbed himself Augustus, whose literal sense in Latin is ‘he who ought to be revered.’ Modest little toga, wasn’t he?

The emp' liked to send pert-buttocked slave maidens scampering across the mosaic tiles to fetch and peel grapes. His favorite Latin saying was festina lente ‘make haste slowly.’ Never act rashly. Think. Analyse. Then act. He wanted such forethought in particular from his military commanders.

Emperor Augustus, unlike many of the rash egotists and mad rulers who came after him, may be said to have paid throughout his imperial reign reasonable attention to this motto.

Like many nifty maxims of ancient Rome, festina lente was a loan translation from an earlier classical Greek motto, σπεῦδε βραδέως speude bradeos ‘hurry slowly.’

Much later in Roman history appeared one of the earliest and most renowned of Venetian printers, Aldus Manutius. As early as 1499 CE, Manutius took as his own the somewhat flamboyant Renaissance trademark of the Dolphin and Anchor (see the top of this page). Beneath or entwining his symbol he chose the same motto as Augustus, festina lente.

Why did Manutius select the dolphin and anchor as his insignia? I suggest it was due to an early, secondary meaning of dolphin both in classical Greek and in Latin. Hellenistic Greek δελφῖνος delphinos, classical Greek δελφίς delphis and classical Latin delphinus named not only the sassy marine leaper but also a weapon of war. A delphinus was a naval assault weapon carried by Greek and Roman war galleys. Essentially a weaponized anchor, a dolphin was a 220-pound lead weight, pear-shaped, bulb-like, with an iron spike thrust into the midst of its molten lead. A dolphin would be hauled up the ship’s yard, a spar high on the mast, and then, as the attacking ship approached close quarters to the enemy ship, the leaden dolphin would be dropped or flung down splintering the hull and deck of the enemy vessel in an attempt to breach that hull or smithereen an upper deck. Naval archaeologists have recovered precisely one dolphin of war.

I believe Manutius thought of the important books he was to publish (he rescued many volumes of classical literature from total oblivion) as delphini, as counterweights to ignorance, like vast plumbous clods, like swollen boluses of leaden mass, written to smash through unknowingness and unenlightenment and permit the kindly aurae of classical wisdom to refresh and to shine through to us who came after.

Later still, our old thieving friend, the Roman Catholic Church, also “adopted” the Dolphin & Anchor as a symbol of Christian fortitude. But like so many stolen signs in a religious context it is empty, spurious and a bastard device if ever there was one, gaudily displayed perhaps across the braggart cassock of a hunchbacked bishop.

And, on that anti-ecclesiastical impugnment, which, I am certain, will have Saint Peter at the gates wagging the eternal finger of disapproval, I shall take my satanic leave. But I'll be back!

Bill Casselman, January 24, 2017

Text copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman