Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.01.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.01.11

Kenneth F. Kitchell, They Said It First: The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.   Mundelein:  Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2019.  Pp. xxi, 326.  ISBN 9780865168640.  $19.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by David Schwei, Episcopal School of Jacksonville (schweid@esj.org)

With They Said It First, Kenneth Kitchell joins a long tradition of collecting pithy quotations. What sets this collection apart is that Kitchell pairs ancient Greek and Latin quotations with modern quotations, proverbs, sayings, or song lyrics. This pairing originated from Kitchell’s teaching practices, where he stressed not only how our current institutions and practices are greatly influenced by the ancient Mediterranean world, but also how the ancients differed greatly from us (xvi). They Said It First, however, focuses heavily on the former (xvii). Additionally, unlike other quotation collections, Kitchell provides citations for his quotations so that readers may explore the quotations and authors further.

The quotations cover an impressive range of topics and authors, and they are arranged in alphabetical order by theme. As the subtitle—The wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans—suggests, these categories are primarily related to wisdom, morality, or philosophy. As a representative sampling, the themes beginning with the letter F are family, fate, faults, fine arts, food and drink, forgiveness, friends and enemies, and futility. The quotations within each category often provide a variety of perspectives related to each theme. The conceptualization of which quotations might relate to each theme follows modern ideas rather than ancient ideas. This is particularly clear with the fine arts and seven deadly sins categories.

Within each chapter, a Latin and Greek quotation or small set of quotations is followed by a similar English quotation or proverb. Kitchell has admirably endeavored to determine the actual origin of many modern quotations, and he often remarks that they are attributed to someone or falsely attributed to someone—often a “quote magnet.”

Often, the quote pairs are very similar. For example, under hope, Cicero is quoted as saying, Aegroto, dum anima est spes esse dicitur, “As the saying goes, as long as there is breath in a sick person, there is hope” (Cicero, Att. 177.3). This is paired with the popular saying “Where there’s life, there’s hope” (105). This close similarity makes one wonder whether the ancient quotation inspired the modern saying. Usually, Kitchell provides no comment about this tempting thought, although sometimes he provides some context for the quotation or more background information to clarify its meaning. For example, Kitchell traces “Call a spade a spade” to Lucian Hist. conscr. 41 where he really says “calling a fig a fig, a tub a tub.” Erasmus, though, misread skaphen as spathen, turning the tub into a shovel (247-248). This and other contextualizing comments compensate for the quotation being presented outside of, and completely removed from, its original context—a common feature of quote books.

Usually, the sayings carry the same force but are expressed differently. For instance, under the dignity heading, Publilius Syrus 186 is quoted—Etiam capillus unus habet umbram suam, “Even a single hair has its own shadow”—and paired with the saying “Every dog has its day” (45). As with this example, the quotations are commonly translated as literally as possible. Like the above example about hope, the aphorisms are also often translated slightly loosely to convey the same idea.

Very rarely do the quotation pairs seem to contradict each other. In the thematic chapter on death, fragment 734 of Euripides’s Temenidae is quoted saying, “Virtue, even if someone dies, is not destroyed… for base men, though, everything dies along with them beneath the earth.” This is paired with the contrasting phrase from act 3, scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; / the good is oft interred with their bones.” (42). This opposition encourages thought about the differences between virtue and vice, good and evil. Quotation pairs that seem not to agree perfectly, or even those that are perfectly aligned, similarly make this a very thought-provoking book.

The thematic chapters are followed by a chapter on English proverbs and sayings. This is the only chapter that provides English sayings before their ancient counterparts. Next are two appendices. One humorously describes ancient Greek pronunciation, and the second provides very brief, literary biographies of ancient authors or people mentioned in the book. A few of these biographies contain minor inaccuracies. For example, the entry on Pliny the Elder says he died investigating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (300) even though he actually died while trying to rescue people from the eruption. These errors, however, may be forgiven when we remember that Kitchell is attempting to briefly present a large amount of (sometimes controversial) information about people whose lives span roughly 1,400 years. Usually these biographies are clear and concise, but they often do not explain terms like “Stoicism” or “censor” that may confuse readers less familiar with ancient history. An index of authors, ancient and modern, completes the book. The book is well edited and neatly produced, with very few typographical or editing errors.

The introduction and appendices make it clear that the book is intended for a non-specialist audience. Indeed, They Said It First is well suited for a general audience, aside from a few concepts that could be further explained or would require further research. The vast array of quotations also makes the collection valuable for students, teachers, and professors of Classics. It would be a great source for wise, inspirational quotations to post in one’s office or classroom. In fact, this is how Kitchell began collecting these aphorisms (xv).

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