Sunday, 15 June 2014

Disticha Catonis or how to learn Latin.

Some decades ago when people in Europe started to go abroad on holidays, phrase-books were used to make oneself understandable: what and how in Czech, Greek, Spanish etc. Knowledge of English was not wide-spread at that time and could not be relied upon when you happened to need to go to a doctor, a garage or even for such a simple question as asking where the railway station is. Such bilingual phrase books are not a modern invention: some thirty years ago I attended lectures Old High German and I remember a collection of phrases Old High German – Latin (or was it Old French?) with amongst other phrases some sentences about what to say in a brothel. I don’t think modern phrase books contain such practical information.
No one would use such phrase books for actually learning a language, but in the Middle-Ages they did. The so-called Disticha Catonis were widely used us a beginners textbook for learning Latin. The manuscripts where often not bilingual, but the explanation of the Latin was taught orally. The Disticha Catonis were believed to be by Cato the Elder, but in fact they are much later written, may be by Dionysius Cato, who lived around 300 and is otherwise unknown. The disticha are often Stoic in outlook and emphasize patience and modesty. For this reason they were suited for schools in monasteries too. The disticha consisted of two hexameters containing some moral lesson, so no sentences for practical use, but the poor student was both drilled in Latin and moral behaviour….

Disticha Catonis, Liber I, 1-10

1. Si deus est animus, nobis ut carmina dicunt,
Hic tibi praecipue sit pura mente colendus.

colo: to worship
carmina: having no commentary available, I wonder what carmina are meant. The idea is common in Hellenistic philosophy.
praecipue: above all

2. Plus vigila semper nec somno deditus esto;
Nam diuturna quies vitiis alimenta ministrat.

plus: very
vigilo: to be awake, alert
esto: an imperative used in legal and religious Latin
diuturna quies: constant laziness
alimentum: food

3. Virtutem primam esse puto compescere linguam:
Proximus ille deo est, qui scit ratione tacere.

compescere linguam: to keep one’s tongue
ratione: wisely

4. Sperne repugnando tibi tu contrarius esse:
Conveniet nulli, qui secum dissidet ipse.

sperno sprevi spretum: to despise
repugnando: by fighting against it, strongly
dissideo: to disagree

5. Si vitam inspicias hominum, si denique mores:
Cum culpant alios, nemo sine crimine vivit.

denique: subsequently
culpo: to blame

6. Quae nocitura tenes, quamvis sint cara, relinque:
Utilitas opibus praeponi tempore debet.

nocitura: harmful things
praepono praeposui peaepositum: to put something before something else (dat.)
tempore: in time

7. Constans et lenis, ut res expostulat, esto:
Temporibus mores sapiens sine crimine mutat.

lenis, lenis: soft, gentle
expostulo: to demand
temporibus:  in the course of time

8. Nil temere uxori de servis crede querenti;
Saepe enim mulier, quem coniux diligit, odit.

Nil temere uxori de servis crede querenti = nil temere crede uxori querenti de servis
temere: rashly
servis…quem: within the context I wonder whether male of female servants are meant.
queror questus sum: to complain
deligo dilexi dilectum: to love, esteem

9. Cumque mones aliquem, nec se velit ille moneri,
Si tibi sit carus, noli desistere coeptis.

cumque: whenever
moneo monui monitum: to warn
noli desistere coeptis: will stop (desisto + abl.) the things begun (coeptum)

10. Contra verbosos noli contendere verbis:
Sermo datur cunctis, animi sapientia paucis.

verbosus: one full of (empty) words
contendo contendi contentum: to dispute

For those reading German: (this information differs somewhat from the wiki links, as it dates from the late 19th century. It could also be that the modern wiki links are less cautious.)


Learning to read in the Middle Ages (I could not find from which manuscript this illustration is.)

For those still needing a translation:

Disticha Catonis, Book I (trans. J. Marchand)

1. If God is a spirit, as the songs tell us,
He is to be worshiped above all with a pure mind.

2. Always keep alert, nor be given to sleep;
For continuous idleness offers food for vice.

3. I think the first virtue to be keeping your tongue;
He is close to God who knows how to keep quiet properly.

4. Avoid strongly being contrary to yourself;
He agrees with no one who disagrees with himself.

5. If you look at the life of those (and their ways of life)
Who find fault with others, {you will find that} nobody is without fault.

6. Things you have which are harmful, though dear, let go;
In time, usefulness should be put before wealth.

7. Be constant and kind, as the case demands;
The wise man changes his ways as time demands without fault.

8. Believe nothing blindly of a wife complaining about the servants;
For often a wife hates the one the husband likes.

9. When you warn somebody who does not want to be warned,
If he is dear to you, do not desist in what you have begun.

10. Do not exchange words with a wordy person;
Speech is given to all, wisdom of mind (good sense) to few.


  1. Can someone explain to me what that "se" is doing in sentence 9? Is it connected to moneri?

  2. `se’ in `nec se velit ille moneri’ is the accusative in the aci construction `and he doesn’t want himself (se) to be warned’