Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.11

Michael Fontaine, Charles J. McNamara, William Michael Short (ed.), 'Quasi labor intus': Ambiguity in Latin Literature. Papers in honor of Reginald Thomas Foster, OCD.   Gowanus:  Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, Inc., 2018.  Pp. xxxi, 278.  ISBN 9781732475014.  $14.99.  

Reviewed by Sonja Borchers, University of Tübingen​ (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

What do law and soup have in common? While the answer is not immediately obvious in English, it becomes evident when we switch languages. The Latin word ius is ambiguous between the meanings ‘law’ and ‘soup,’ an ambiguity that Cicero uses strategically to liken Verres’ law (ius Verrinum) to hog soup (ius verrinum).

This example from the introduction of the new volume Quasi labor intus, a collection of papers dedicated to American priest Reginald Foster (beloved by generations of students for his quirky spoken-Latin summer courses in Rome), demonstrates that ambiguity and puns are important devices to create humour. However, unlike puns, ambiguity is not restricted to humorous language; as an inherent feature of language in general it pervades all forms of communication. Acknowledging the fact that ‘ambiguity is a widespread and varied phenomenon of thought and language’ (p. xxviii), the editors Michael Fontaine, Charles McNamara, and William Michael Short have commissioned 13 papers that cover many genres and centuries and feature a diversity of literary and linguistic approaches to the phenomenon of ambiguity.

In their explanation of the volume’s purpose, the editors stress their wish to create and enhance an awareness among Classicists that many Latin authors used ambiguity productively as an ‘instrument of creative meaning-making’ (p. xiii). To further this goal, they deliberately decided against mandating a unified approach to the phenomenon. The contributors are thus faced with the opportunity (and necessity) of outlining their own understanding of ambiguity; a challenge that unfortunately not all authors fully accept. The result is a book that is packed with many valuable suggestions on the multiple functions of ambiguity in Latin literature, but provides neither a conceptual framework nor a clear distinction between ambiguity and its cognate phenomena (such as uncertainty, contradiction, vagueness, etc.). In spite of this drawback, the volume is a welcome and significant contribution to the growing debate on ambiguity in antiquity, and it is to be hoped that it will serve as a rich source of ideas for both Classicists and transdisciplinary researchers.

Five papers deal with questions of how and why Latin authors produce ambiguities. Two of these focus on syntactic, lexical and morphological ambiguities and their creative application in humorous language. Building on his extended previous work on puns in Plautus,1 Michael Fontaine argues that Plautus uses ‘tasteless jokes that mock disease or deformity’ (p. 29) not only to make fun of unsympathetic characters, but also to voice skepticism about the efficacy of Asclepian faith healing. Five of the eight jokes analysed by Fontaine involve ambiguity, including very interesting cases of ambiguity that result from reading the Greek behind the Latin (e.g. perdura both as ‘endure!’ and πέρδου (ἄ)ῥα, ‘fart on!’). Especially this latter type of ambiguity sheds new light on the question of how closely Plautus follows his Greek models.

The connection between ambiguity and humour is further explored by Michael Sloan, who convincingly shows that ambiguity constitutes an important means for Erasmus to teach his readers about both language and ethics in a humorous way. In the dialogue Echo, cases of ambiguity arise from the interplay of the questions of a young man and the answers given by the mythical character Echo, who can do no more than always repeat the last word. For example, Echo’s inevitable answer to the question et Graece nosti? quid istuc novi? (‘and you know Greek? What’s new?’) is ambiguous between nōvi (‘I know’) and nŏvi (genitive of ‘new’). Sloan’s claim that the readers are led to recognize the two options and to chose (where possible) the most fitting one can be fully endorsed. Yet, his subsequent suggestion that Erasmus additionally intended to teach his readers about pronunciation and the quality of vowels (e.g. nōvi vs. nŏvi ) lacks a discussion of Erasmus’ De recta pronuntiatione and relevant secondary literature.2

A second pair of papers addresses the important question of whether a text as a whole (not only single words or sentences) can be considered ambiguous. Jennifer Ferriss-Hill elaborates on various intersections between the first 400 lines of the Ars Poetica and Horace’s early Satires and argues that the Ars appears to be not only a guidebook on how to write, but also on how to live. While her intertextual analysis indeed indicates that many satirical elements are ‘transferred into the poetic arena’ (p. 158), it remains unclear if the presented textual evidence is strong enough to support her (rather vaguely expressed) view that the Ars can be considered ambiguous.

A stronger approach to the question of global ambiguity is taken by Curtis Dozier, who argues that Quintilian’s self-interpretation as a ‘teacher’ (institutor) and ‘salesman’ (institor) of eloquence creates an ambiguity that pervades the entire Institutio Oratoria. Even though Quintilian harshly criticizes the institor as an intentionally ‘ostentatious self-adviser’ (p. 193), his own practice of continuously advertising his oratorial skills seems to align him with this very same role. Dozier interprets this ‘ambiguous self-contradiction’ (p. 191) as part of Quintilian’s didactic strategy: the ambiguity is designed to undermine our confidence in Quintilian himself and thus teach us to critically examine all claims of authority.

The papers discussed so far point out a wide range of ambiguities that are produced by Latin authors and constitute functional elements in their literary texts. One should not forget, however, that ambiguity may also be caused by the distance of the modern reader from the ancient context. In this respect, Stuart McManus’ contribution adds a valuable word of caution. After carefully examining a passage in Cicero’s Brutus that is commonly assumed to be an ambiguous invitation to Brutus to kill Caesar, McManus concludes that a pro-tyrannicide reading is supported neither by the text nor by circumstantial evidence.

Four papers in the volume focus on the question of how ambiguity is perceived by the reader or audience. Of these, two examine the ways in which later Latin authors dealt with ambiguities that they found in Vergil’s Aeneid. Jessica Seidman argues that Augustine emphasizes the ambiguity of a potentially ambiguous line in Aeneid 4. 449: mens immota manet, lacrimae volvuntur inanes (‘his mind remains unmoved, the tears roll down, useless’). As many scholars have noted, this line is marked by a referential uncertainty whether the tears belong to Aeneas or to Dido. Seidman provides strong evidence that the problem cannot be solved satisfactorily as long as scholars insist on an ‘either/or’ interpretation (p. 134) and suggests that Augustine may be the first to propose a ‘both/and’ approach by identifying both with Aeneas (and his tears) in book 9 of De Civitate and with Dido (and her tears) in the first book of the Confessions.

Similarly, Patrick M. Owens examines four Renaissance additions to the Aeneid (written by Decembrius, Vegius, Foreestius, and Villanova) and comes to the conclusion that these do not aim at replacing Vergil’s epic ambiguity with certitude and closure. Contrary to the widely held view that the supplements try to provide a full stop to the Aeneid, Owens argues that the continuators understood the important role of gaps, inconsistencies, and ambiguity in the genre of ancient epic in general and the Aeneid in particular (a point on which Owens primarily relies on O’Hara).3

Another two papers are concerned with ambiguities that may only emerge in the act of perception. Rachel Philbrick analyses the role that ambiguity plays in the workings of praeteritio, a rhetorical device that is contradictory at its core: what the speaker denies saying is nevertheless said. Philbrick argues convincingly that there is no requirement for the speaker to use ambiguous language, but that it is up to the audience to read ambiguity into the praeteritio. Using the Cooperative Principle proposed by Grice,4 Philbrick distinguishes between a hyper-literal reader who will point out the inherent contradiction of the praeteritio and a cooperative reader who will dissolve the contradiction, e.g. by understanding non dicam not as ‘I shall not say/mention (at all),’ but as ‘I shall not affirm’ or ‘I shall not talk in detail about.’

A similar approach can be found in Peter Barrios-Lech’s excellent paper, which deals with a specific kind of ambiguity that arises when two or more intents (‘speaker meanings’) could be read from what the speaker says (‘sentence meaning’). Focusing on conditional sentences used in Plautus and Terence to convey requests, commands and directives, Barrios-Lech shows that almost all conditional sentence types leave little to no room for this type of ambiguity—with one significant exception: socially inferior characters of Roman comedy may use future less vivid conditional sentences in order to conceal an impolite request in a seemingly polite form. Barrios-Lech assertions are especially remarkable as they are solidly grounded in linguistic theory (especially pragmatics and speech act theory) as well as embedded in a wider discussion of the politeness system of Roman comedy.

A book on ambiguity in Latin literature would lack an important aspect if it did not address the question of how the phenomenon was conceptualized by Latin authors. The two papers concerned with this question are among the strongest of the volume, as they cast doubt upon the prevailing opinion that, in Latin, the term ambiguitas is primarily linked with doubt, misunderstanding, and flawed communication. Using the resources of Lakovian metaphor theory and cognitive linguistics, William Michael Short looks at the imagery of ambiguity in Latin and identifies two conceptual metaphors: (1) the image of ‘paths diverging’ (ambiguus < ambi- + agere, ‘leading around on two sides’), and (2) the image of ‘centrality,’ captured in Latin by terms such as medius (‘in the middle’). A reader new to metaphor theory may struggle to follow Short’s rather brief, yet complex explanation of the roots of these twin images, tracing them back to the Latin conceptualization of “meaning” in terms of a linear spatial metaphor (‘meaning is a path’). However, the subsequent comparison of the conceptual metaphors of ambiguity in Greek and Latin is readily accessible even to the novice reader and highly intriguing. Short argues that, in Greek, ambiguity (ἀμφιβολία) is conceptualized as ‘enclosure,’ marking it as something that conceals the truth. By contrast, the Latin metaphors of ambiguity seems to imply that Latin speakers did not consider the phenomenon to be detrimental to truth, ‘but rather as a naturally occurring and perhaps even essential part of any meaning-journey.’ (p. 17)

Short’s hypothesis seems to be supported by Charles McNamara’s paper. Challenging the widely accepted view that ambiguitas has solely negative connotations in Quintilian, McNamara demonstrates that, in legal contexts, Quintilian uses the terms ambiguitas, ambiguus, and amphibolia in order to indicate (in a rather neutral way) that there are multiple approaches that one can take on a law. According to McNamara, this does not imply that Quintilian criticizes the formulation of the legal texts as flawed or defective. Rather, this type of ambiguity constitutes an ‘interpretive challenge’ (p. 217) that requires the orator to read the text sensitively and to discover the spirit (voluntas) of the law. The orator’s ability to resolve interpretive ambiguities successfully is thus linked to his moral disposition, as a result of which a strong link emerges between ambiguity and ethics.

Finally, two papers go well beyond the understanding of ambiguity as a textual phenomenon. Katharine van Schaik applies the term ambiguity to uncertain situations in which there is more than one way to interpret given facts. Using this broader definition of ambiguity as a basis, van Schaik argues that Celsus presents medicine as the art of dealing with ‘ambiguous symptoms.’ Her careful study of Celsus’s use of fallere (‘to deceive’), various expressions of doubt, and usus (‘experience’) offers many useful insights into the ancient discussion of medical uncertainty. Yet, even though van Schaik tries to distinguish between ambiguity and uncertainty at the beginning of her paper, it remains unclear whether Celsus in fact addresses questions of ambiguity (and not only uncertainty).

Another broad approach to the phenomenon of ambiguity is chosen by Kathryn Jasper, who argues that the Christian concept of caritas is ambiguous or polysemous (the terms are used interchangeably) in so far as it is voluntary and mandatory at the same time. Examining the spectrum of meanings that Peter Damian attributes to caritas, Jasper shows that the notion expresses mutual cooperation, reciprocity, and humility (representing the obligatory aspect) as well as sincerity and divine love (representing the voluntary aspect). Although historically well researched and scholarly, Jasper’s study does not take into account any literature on ambiguity, leading to a fairly imprecise understanding of the phenomenon.

The copyediting is good but I did spot a few errors.5

In short, while the volume would benefit from clearly defined terms in each paper and stronger interactions between the contributions on a conceptual level, it is delightful and engaging book that is worthy to be read in its entirety and that will be welcomed by a wide range of scholars.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (Michael Fontaine, Charles McNamara, and William M. Short)
2. The Spatial Metaphorics of Ambiguity in Roman Culture (William M. Short)
3. A Cute Illness in Epidaurus: Eight Sick Jokes in Plautus’ Gorgylio (Curculio) (Michael Fontaine)
4. Indirect and Off-Record Speech in Roman Comedy: The Case of the Conditional Request (Peter Barrios-Lech)
5. Teleology and Tyrannicide in Cicero’s Brutus 331 (Stuart M. McManus)
6. Praeteritio and Cooperative Ambiguity (Rachel Philbrick)
7. Dido’s (?) Tears: A Brief History of a Sorrowful Ambiguity (Jessica Seidma)
8. Vivas Hinc Ducere Voces: Hearing Horace’s Satires in his Ars Poetica (Jennifer Ferriss-Hill)
9. Coniecturalem Artem Esse Medicinam: Ambiguity and Uncertainty in Disease Diagnosis and Treatment in Celsus’ De Medicina (Katharine van Schaik)
10. Purveying Rhetoric: Quintilian Insti(tu)tor (Curtis Dozier)
11. The Ethics of Ambiguity in Quintilian (Charles McNamara)
12. Peter Damian and the Language of Friendship: The Polysemy of Caritas (Kathryn L. Jasper)
13. The Ever-Ending-Story: The Role of Ambiguity In Supplements to the Aeneid (Patrick M. Owens)
14. Ambiguity in Erasmus’ Echo (Michael Sloan)


1.   Funny Words in Plautine Comedy (Oxford/New York 2010) and multiple subsequent publications.
2.   See especially John Bateman, “The Development of Erasmus’ Views on the Correct Pronunciation of Latin and Greek,” in Classical Studies Presented to Ben Edwin Perry, ed. by Burton A. Milligan (Urbana 1969), pp. 46–65.
3.   Inconsistency in Roman Epic. Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan (Cambridge/New York 2007).
4.   Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, MA 1989).
5.   On p. 35 ἄρα is printed as ἄῥα; on p. 36 read ‘this’ for ‘this this;’ on p. 37 read ‘one of the great luxury fishes’ for ‘one the great luxury fishes.’ On p. 66 ‘in passage (7)’ should read ‘in passage (8).’ On p. 145 read ‘tabulae’ for ‘tabellae.’ On p. 212 read ‘how to run’ for ‘how run.’ On p. 247 ‘In’ should not be capitalized in the title and ‘epic codas’ should read ‘epic codes.’ Given the frequency of omitted words in the book, one might suspect that on p. 72 ‘two more intents’ should read ‘two or more intents.’ Richard Thomas, mentioned on p. 4, and Grice 1975, mentioned on p. 75, fn. 1, are not included in the corresponding bibliographies. Presumably, the references are to Richard Thomas, ‘A Trope by Any Other Name: Polysemy, Ambiguity, and Significatio in Virgil,’ in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000), pp. 381–407 and Paul Grice, ‘Logic and Conversation,’ in Studies in Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts, ed. by P. Cole and J. Morgan (New York 1975), pp. 183–198.

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