Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.04.07

Vibeke Roggen, Intellectual play - word and picture: a study of Nils Thomasson's Latin rebus book "Cestus sapphicus", with edition, translation and corpus of sources. 2 volumes.   Oslo:  University of Oslo, 2002.  Pp. xvii, 538; iv, 177.  ISBN 82-7477-105-2; 82-7477-106-0.  

Reviewed by John Aveline, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 2806 words

Because this is a review of a book whose subject is a Neo-Latin text, unlikely to be familiar to classicists, it is necessary to introduce the reader to the subject as well as the book. I have to say at the outset that R's book has treated me to a sight that I never expected to come across; a large-breasted Christ vigourously lactating into a large basin from which angels and members of the congregation eagerly drink (35).

Nils Thomasson (hereafter NTh, following Roggen) was a Lutheran Vicar of the district of Toten in Norway from 1637 until his death in 1662. Among his surviving works is a wedding poem entitled Cestus sapphicus (hereafter CS, also following Roggen) published in 1661. This poem, which offers advice to the young couple on household management and marital harmony, is written in sapphic metre and is composed of 31 stanzas. It is accompanied by a lengthy commentary also written by NTh which explains and expands on the ideas brought up in the poem. Included in the work is also a dedication to Prince Christian, written by NTh, another to King Frederick as well as one to NTh, both written by Truls Nilsson, a former teacher of NTh at the Oslo/Christiana School. There are also two essays, one on the title of the poem, the other on the principles and rules of rebuses as laid out and observed by NTh. It is these rebuses which make the poem such a remarkable piece of literature. One or more syllables in a word are represented by a picture, which both NTh and R refer to by the Latin figura. For instance, thalamus in the first stanza is shown by the letters "thala" followed by the picture of a mouse, mus which represents the final syllable. These figures were etched on copper plates by one Didrik Muus, who eventually became the Vicar of Stord near Bergen.

The dedications are politically significant. At this time Norway was politically under Denmark's control, and in 1660 there was a major shift in the Danish monarchy. Prior to this, the king had been chosen by a council, but in 1660 an absolute, hereditary monarchy was instituted. There was an homage ceremony held in Christiania, Norway on August 5, 1661, where the new Danish monarchy was officially ratified. NTh attended and was one of 86 clergy who signed the act introducing absolutism. It is in this historical context that NTh dedicated CS to Prince Christian and Truls Nilsson wrote a dedicatory poem to King Frederick.

In the first of his two essays, NTh explains why he chose CS as the title for his poem, saying that he wanted to name his poem after its best part, which he considers to be the rebuses. The second essay details the rules of rebuses, which include such strictures as not being allowed to use the same figura more than once and not being able to use a figura to represent itself. For instance, a picture of a mouse cannot be used in place of the word "mouse".

Most interesting, from a scholarly point of view, is the wide-ranging commentary of this poem. In it NTh explains the rebuses, giving the Latin word each figura represents. He also explains various allusions, both Biblical and Classical which he makes in his poem and discusses in detail philological points as well as various issues brought up in his poem. For example, in his commentary on the first stanza of CS NTh has almost 90 lines of commentary on the term capistrum. He argues that marriage is not a halter and makes specific references to Theocritus, Aulus Gellius, Vergil, Proverbs, Peter's 2nd Letter and the humanist authors Laurenberg, Franzius and Melanchthon.1 In these discussions he displays a good deal of learning, quoting from a considerable list of Biblical and Classical texts, either directly or through medieval or renaissance commentaries and scholars.

Roggen's book, a revised version of her doctoral thesis, is divided into two volumes. The first volume has two parts; Part I is a study of CS and Part II an edition and translation into English of the poem and its accompanying commentary. The second volume consists of two appendices, a Thesaurus fontium, which is a collection of the sources referred to in CS, and the material upon which the tables in chapter six are based.

Part I is divided into seven chapters:

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the subject. R provides a summary of previous scholarship and comments on CS, noting that the consensus held that the poem was a textbook for learning Latin. She ends with a statement of the aim of her thesis, to answer two questions: "What is the genre of Cestus sapphicus" and "To what degree can Cestus sapphicus be called an original work."

Chapter 2 provides the historical and social background to the writing of CS as well as a description of the life and career of NTh and the other contributors to the CS

Chapter 3 is a discussion of the history of rebuses and riddles from classical times to NTh's own day and of the difference between rebuses and hieroglyphs, as hieroglyphs were understood in the mid-17th century.

Chapter 4 is a detailed analysis of CS. R discusses and analyses the work, focussing on the table of contents and title page as well as the poem's plan and composition, including a section on Logic and the significant part it played in the plan of CS. R also looks at the rules of creating rebuses as set forth by NTh, his commentaries and the elements of praise of private individuals.

Chapter 5 is a list and discussion of the textual problems in CS.

Chapter 6 is a discussion of the sources used by NTh in his commentaries. R looks at how sources are used and adapted by NTh, the humanist "filter" through which many of the Classical works reached NTh and how sources have either a thematic or philological use.

Chapter 7 is the final conclusion concerning the two principal questions which occasioned this work by R.

Part II is R's edition and translation of CS and its commentary, including a very comprehensive description of the principles by which she produced this edition.

Within the parameters R. establishes for her study, a close reading of CS and the two questions which she poses, R. does quite a good job. Her new edition is a very careful analysis which demonstrates good scholarship and sound judgement. She explains and describes her methodology in creating this new edition. She provides a sensible alternative to the standard verdict that CS was written as a Latin textbook and proves that CS belongs to the genre of wedding poetry. To answer the question of the work's originality, R covers literature from classical Latin to NTh's time and offers a convincing argument that NTh had created something new. One weak element in her argument is her assumption that, because wedding rebuses existed in Germany in 1751, they also existed in NTh's time (100 years earlier) in Norway (p. 268). Such a leap of faith is extremely brave.

In the course of her original investigation R. engages a wide range of topics relevant to a study of CS including the use of commentaries and why such would be included in a wedding poem and how Logic influenced the plan of CS.

The text of CS is presented in a very readable manner. On the left hand page is a clear copy of the original (the rebus element of the poem makes viewing the original a necessity) with a transcription followed by the commentary, with original pagination noted. On the right hand side is an English translation. R looks at a large number (c. 60) of textual problems, and her methodology seems to correct errors made by NTh but retains errors that he copied from his source. For example, NTh created an error when he wrote τον εχοντ' and R corrects this to τον εχονθ' (197). On the other hand, she retains a misprint (αφθοητος for αφθονητος) which NTh copied from Casaubonus' citation of Aeschylus.2

There are however quite a few minor errors and methodological questions. Taken in the order in which they appear:

101: R compares the caritas figure on the title page with two other Caritas figures which she has seen. The reader is left to take her word for this.

185/86: In her discussion as to whether a correction has been made in CS from status to nexus or the other way around, she ignores the obvious physical evidence of the erasure, showing that status appears much lighter and to have been written over.

201/02: "Attalus nil hic labor aut Apellis" occasions a discussion which is not especially useful. In the poem, talus is represented by the figure of a single die and pellis by the figure of a tent. R notes the difficulty in this section in that the two names would seem to be grammatically parallel in the sentence and yet are in different cases. She accepts Bergh's reading that there is ellipsis of the verb "to do" whose subject is Attalus and object nil (i.e., Attalus has nothing to do here).3 This seems to look for more in the Latin than there is. Better to assume ellipsis of "to be", which is much more common and produce the reading; "Attalus is nothing (i.e., unnecessary) here nor is the labour of Apelles".

206: Concerning the passage from CS "AESCULAPIUM ) notat aerem & hujus filiam Hygiea id est bonam valetudinem" R changes filiam to filia for a better reading. This does not really provide a better reading. R takes Aesculapius and filia as subjects of notat, but Aesculapius is already ungrammatical in this context so that changing filiam does not really improve matters. Better to take filiam as the object of notat and read as "the word Aesculapius denotes air and his daughter, Hygiea, that is, good health."

247: In the context of comparing how the ancients lived life while the humanists examined it, R makes the rather sweeping statement "for the ancients mythology was not a 'subject', summarized in books." This ignores the great amount of work in which ancient scholars engaged. A perfect example of this type of work is the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus which is an uncritical study of Greek heroic mythology.

251: R lists the authors quoted five or more times by NTh but omits Ovid who, according to her own table on the facing page, is referred to nine times.

There are a few typographical errors, which is not unexpected given the size of the work.4 These are fairly insignificant and do not seriously detract from the book. On the other hand, there are a number of places where R's translation of the Latin is either wrong or significantly misrepresents what is said. These errors are somewhat more serious since R herself states that she has produced a work intended to be accessible to those who do not know Latin and Greek (p. 12).

43: περι γριφων rendered as "treatise on riddle" rather than "treatise on riddles" (this could be a typo).

265: Cum ducit amator / Formosam in thalamus nympham, rendered as "When the bridegroom leads the pretty bride back to the couch" rather than "When the lover takes his beautiful bride to their wedding bed."

265: generosae semina prolis / Sponsa capit rendered as "then the bride will receive the semen of a generous offspring." rather than "the bride receives the seed of well-born offspring."

344/45: Theoninos dentes rendered as "the teeth of Theoninus" rather than "the teeth of Theon", Theoninus being the adjectival form of the name (the translation is correct on p. 162).

348/49: HUMANUS COELO sanctis conatibus ITAS / In supera, civis nobilis, urbe DEI rendered as "Though A HUMAN, YOU GO, noble fellow citizen, TOWARDS HEAVEN because of the sacred attempts, In GOD'S high city!" rather than "May you, noble citizen, a mortal, go to heaven by your sacred efforts, into the city of God above!"

350/51: quam eum ipsum rendered as "than itself" rather than "than the thing itself."

354/55: si placet in gratiam Lecturi rendered as "if it so pleases, to the reader's pleasure" rather than "if that suits the reader's pleasure."

354/55: eadem figura non nisi semel pingatur rendered as "the same rebus figure cannot be depicted more often" rather than "let the same rebus figure not be pictured more than once."

354/55: accentus and tonum are both rendered as "accent" where they are being contrasted. "stress" for tonum would have been preferable.

370/71: Imo quam plurimae maritis & aliis imperant rendered as "Finally- how many women are there not who rule over their husbands and others" rather than "Indeed, how many women command their husbands and others"

406/07: defunctis quos haereditabunt rendered as "when the persons they are going to inherit are dead" rather than "whom they will inherit from are dead" (you don't inherit people).

412/13: jacentibus rendered as "those who are lying down" rather than "those who have fallen". In the quote jacentibus is paired with mortuis.

426/27: Thermopylae rendered as "the Thermoples" rather than "Thermopylae"

454/55: parva pomum arulla modis de tuna / Milleque miris rendered as "If only one tiny apple pip would give a thousand fruits in wonderful ways." Rather than "Let one tiny apple seed give bushels in one and a thousand wonderful ways."

In general, R's work is far too divided up into subsections. Admittedly, this is something of an occupational hazard when creating a critical edition, but Part I (seven chapters long) has 300 subsections in 271 pages and Part II (four chapters) has 74 subsections in its 34 pages. The longest subsection ( "Nils Thomasson and the hieroglyphs," pp. 85-90) is just under five pages in length and yet is itself subdivided into seven parts. The result is that there is little in depth discussion to support conclusions, especially at the end of chapters. The overall effect is one of extreme choppiness.

Also, R supplies two 'Registers of Names'. The first contains all the names mentioned in Part I, the second all the names, including geographical names, found in CS, plus a brief description. The descriptions in this second Register is rather uneven in quality, some being fairly detailed and exact, others brief to the point of obscurity. Two examples will illustrate: "Theocritus (ca. 270 BC), Greek poet from Sicily, from the Hellenistic period. His bucolic idylls inspired Virgilius into writing his Eclogues." and "Suetonius (ca. 75-140), author of biographies of Roman emperors" (p. 526). It might also be noted that Virgilius is used rather than the standard Virgil.

This type of unevenness does tend to plague the book, and it can be seen in her analysis of the various aspects of CS. R discusses the use of proper names in the poem and notes how often a proper name denotes a noun by synecdoche (144-45). She quite rightly concludes that this was done by NTh because it gave him greater flexibility to create rebuses. This is supported by the fact that 38 out of 44 proper names contain a rebus figure. She could well have continued this train of thought and noted how NTh employs unusual nouns to the same effect (e.g., bracteatores, serperastrum and palmaria).

Finally the Thesaurus fontium which makes up almost all of the second volume seems to be a bit longer than is really necessary. R does well to place the sections cited in CS within their greater context, but when 172 lines of Ovid's Metamorphoses (13.404-575) are copied out for the sake of four words, occurring in two lines, (vol. II, 62-65) which are referred to in CS, the reader is left seriously questioning the value of such an extensive citation. The purpose of the Thesaurus fontium is further brought into question because these passages are not translated ("Readers have expressed the need for translation and notes to the excerpts. I agree, but it has been impossible for me to fulfill this wish" (vol. II, iv)). This goes against R's own wish to make her book accessible to people who are "without knowledge of Greek and Latin" (12).

Despite the errors and problems I had with this book, I would recommend it. Although it was not written as a textbook, I plan on using the images to demonstrate to my Latin students some of the more unexpected uses to which the Latin language has been put. One criterion I place on a scholarly work is how much further inquiry the work opens up. I can see a number of avenues which R's work has opened and that alone makes it a valuable contribution to scholarship.

[[For a response to this review by Vibeke Roggen, please see BMCR 2005.09.59.]]


1.   For those not familiar; Peter Laurenberg was a professor of mathematics in Montauban from 1611 and of poetry in Rostock from 1624, Wolfgang Franzius was professor of history and then theology at Wittenburg in the first part of the 17th century, and Phillipus Melanchthon was a scholar and reformist in the mid-16th century.
2.   Isaac Casaubonus "Theocriti Syracusii Idyllia & Epigrammata cum mss." (Heidelberg 1596).
3.   Bergh is cited in a private correspondence with R.
4.   Errors noted include p.13 Denmark should be Denmark's; p.67 one ... are should be one ... is; p.73 Govio should be Giovio; p.91 the title of volume should be the title of the volume; p.136/37 & p.159 a series of numbered points all have the same number, 1; p.143 exist a separate text should be exist as a separate text; p.206 the adjective give should be the adjective gives; p.237/38 the last two rows of the table are repeated; p.302 bacground for background; p.407 hone sty for honesty; p.485 sourcet for source.

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