BMCR 2023.04.08

Wisdom from Rome: reading Roman society and European education in the Distichs of Cato

, Wisdom from Rome: reading Roman society and European education in the Distichs of Cato. Trends in classics: pathways of reception, 8. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. ix, 250. ISBN 9783110788846.



A reader of the European Middle Ages or the Renaissance would struggle to recognize a Latin curriculum that did not include the Disticha Catonis (‘Distichs of Cato’), and would be astonished to find that the Distichs are now barely read at all. For a millennium or more, this collection of 144 hexameter couplets was a ubiquitous training ground for elementary Latin literacy. The work’s hard-headed maxims about how to survive in a precarious, unpredictable world were copied by schoolchildren, embroidered on home furnishings, mocked in drinking songs, and imported in bulk to the Americas. If Latin was the unifying force that ‘formed Europe’, as Nicholas Ostler puts it, then Cato’s sayings were an omnipresent sign of the language’s lingering cultural power.[1] For anyone exploring this work or its legacy, Serena Connolly has provided an indispensable vade mecum: an up-to-date survey of the Distichs’ form, literary style, worldview, and afterlife. Connolly’s new critical gambit is to reconceptualize the collection not as a late antique anthology, but as an instant classic of the first century CE, composed with artful simplicity by a single author (or ‘Author’, as Connolly styles it in her book). Even if readers are unpersuaded by that argument, they will still find a wealth of information in Connolly’s monograph, which is impeccably researched, lucidly written, and—like the Distichs themselves—likely to be consulted and quoted by many different audiences.

Wisdom from Rome is divided into three parts. The first begins with a consideration of the work’s authorship (irrecoverable but certainly not any known Cato), structure, and textual transmission. Building upon an earlier article, Connolly argues that Roman audiences of the early Imperial period were more likely to understand the Cato of the work’s title as Cato the Younger than Cato the Elder, while later readers perhaps saw a combined ‘Cato-type’, an ‘amalgamation of the historical figures and their reputations for ethical standards and wisdom’ (p. 22).[2] Connolly then sets the Distichs against the backdrop of ancient paraenesis (wisdom literature). Collections of sententiae have a broad and deep history across the ancient Mediterranean and the ancient Near East. Connolly surveys this material, highlighting similarities with Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian and Biblical texts, and also pointing out intriguing connections with the imperial-era genre of the miscellany (47–8). Finally, Connolly considers the syntax and vocabulary of the Distichs, which are streamlined and simplified for maximum comprehension. The phrasing is grave, quasi-legal, and above all, brief. ‘Do you wonder that I am writing verses in such bare words?’, begins the final couplet of the collection. ‘It’s the brevity that did it, joining together two ideas’ (DC 4.49). Hoc brevitas fecit: it is as if, in the work’s sphragis, brevity itself becomes the author. I wonder if Juvenal heard this claim and responded (facit indignatio versum, 1.79).

As we know from the work of Rafaella Cribiore, Teresa Morgan, and others, ancient classroom lessons often involved the reading and copying of gnomai or sententiae. Connolly plausibly argues, therefore, that the Disticha Catonis were similarly used in Roman schools. Yet she also suggests that the work’s intended audience was ‘perhaps no more than free males’ (xxv) and that ‘there are no entries aimed explicitly at women or enslaved individuals’ (38). We know, however, that girls as well as boys attended the first stage of Roman schooling (Mart. 8.3.16; 9.68.2), so conceivably the Distichs would have been read by both genders. Rome would not be the first place in which women or marginalized communities found themselves talked about rather than represented in the texts they read at school. If we imagine young girls reading sententiae about how husbands should treat wayward wives (DC 1.8; 3.12), the Distichs come into view as a work of social disciplining as much as social advice. Given the ubiquity of enslaved teachers, lectores, and scribes in Rome, we should also imagine readers who were not free, and the sententiae gain additional meaning as a result. Connolly begins her study, for example, with the maxim that we should not let property (rem) slip away, because Opportunity (Occasio) has long hair in the front but is bald at the back (DC 2.26). But what person or property would a Roman grab by the hair? Surely someone enslaved (Prop. 4.8.61; Juv. Sat. 6.490), for whom the image of ‘slipping away’ must have been charged with new and different meaning. Connolly lays the groundwork for an engaged social reading of these maxims, but an interpretation of the work’s ‘hidden transcript’ for diverse audiences, akin to readings of the related genre of ancient fable, still awaits.[3]

The second part of Wisdom from Rome explores the social context of the Distichs, with a particular focus on friendship and economics. Reciprocity and emotional intimacy are intertwined in the text’s conception of friendship, a ‘bond between two people that is founded on a careful balancing of their strengths, in order to foster mutual security’ (96). Friendship is a source of solidarity and support in a fluctuating world. ‘Entrust private deliberations to a discreet friend’, advises one of the sententiae (DC 2.22), just as you ‘entrust your physical problems to a trustworthy doctor’. (Is this an unusually positive valuation of the medical profession in a non-medical Latin text of the early Empire?).[4] Connolly draws effective comparisons between the Distichs and philosophical treatments of friendship by Cicero and Seneca in order to show that the text’s ideas ‘would have resonated with a less elite audience’ (105). Equally interesting is the treatment of spending, saving, and theft in Connolly’s analysis of the Distichs’ twenty sententiae on financial issues. Again, these maxims offer a valuable window on non-elite Roman culture. The direct urging that readers teach their sons a trade contrasts pointedly, for example, with Cicero’s lofty advice to his own son about which professions suit which ranks of society (Off. 1.150), or the avoidance among socially elite authors to talk frankly about the need for money at all.

The third and final section of Connolly’s book offers a brief but fascinating overview of the panorama of translations and adaptations of the Disticha Catonis in European history, stretching from an Icelandic schoolroom circa 1200 to a hilarious parody from 1740, Cato’s Advice, which commends drunken indulgence as a reward for hard work (‘while care in an ocean of claret is drown’d’). The later history of the text is so vast and long that it can only be summarized briefly, but Connolly has an eye for interesting details. She surveys some familiar figures, especially Erasmus, whose commentary on the Distichs, ‘masterful in its brevity’ (p. 163), was nonetheless a cause of some embarrassment to its author, since even his publisher felt that his talents should have been devoted to some weightier text. She also finds space for a host of other eye-catching stops along the text’s millennium-long reception journey: a thirteenth-century Icelandic adaptation, the Hugsvinnsmál (The Speech of the Wise One), which mimics the form of an Eddic poem and blends Catonian wisdom with Christian and Old Norse elements (171); a Jesuit ship, the Espíritu Santo, which sailed for the West Indies in 1600 with 248 copies of the Distichs in its cargo (149); and a 1623 work, Handful of Honesty or Cato in English by John Penkethman, which offers lists of couplets appropriate for decorating the dining room, shop, or office (181). In her mining of the tradition, Connolly has unearthed some gems.

The trickiest aspect of the book for many readers to accept will be the recasting of the Disticha Catonis as a single-authored work of the early first century CE, rather than as a later collection of couplets assembled from common wisdom. As Connolly acknowledges, all we have are clues; ‘evidence is too strong a term’ (24). An inscription (CIL 6.11252), potentially from the late first century, appears to cite a couplet from the collection. But the inscription can only be dated approximately, and its author could always be quoting a popular proverb that was later incorporated into the Distichs. Martial (8.29) criticizes an anonymous author who writes in disticha but then squanders brevity by collecting them as a book. Could it be our author? Yet the word distichon is used elsewhere in Latin literature to refer to the elegiac couplet, so Martial could be targeting any epigrammatist—even himself, since his Xenia and Apophoreta are also collections of two-line poems collected into books. Connolly additionally grounds her argument upon metrical practice, arguing that the Distichs’ meter is ‘modeled on Vergil’s Aeneid’ (35) and that the work should therefore be dated close to the Augustan age.[5] Yet as she shows, the Distichs’ meter is more ‘simple and consistent’ than ‘any other work of Latin poetry’ (33), characterized by an absence of elision or enjambment, by regular and strong caesurae, and by plodding chains of spondaic feet (the most common line pattern includes three spondees in a row). None of that sounds much like the Aeneid, and in any case, the Distichs’ form, not continuous hexameters but hexameter couplets, is so anomalous that we lack reliable comparanda anyway. Finally, Connolly argues for single authorship of the Distichs based upon ‘consistency of style’ (23). But their phrasing and syntax varies; sometimes it is stately and clear (DC 1.3), sometimes crabbed and barely correct (DC 4.4).

I am tantalized by the possibility of a first-century date, but I agree with Connolly that all we have are clues. As I worked through her arguments for dating, though, I thought often of Tom Geue’s comments in Author Unknown about our apparent need to ennoble an ancient text with a recognizable author and historical milieu before it becomes worthy of close attention.[6] Put simply, do we need to pinpoint a precise date and personality for the author of the Disticha Catonis? Or is it more useful to see layers of authorship in a text that, after all, purports to preserve conventional wisdom? Recent years have seen a flourishing of scholarship on anonymous and pseudepigraphic texts; Latin texts that blur the boundary between the literary and the documentary or epigraphic; miscellanies, epitomes, and florilegia; and texts in which the author function is minimal or minimized, such as recipe collections, medical case-notes, jurists’ responses, and certain other kinds of technical literature. Current scholarship is more than ready to tackle a text that belies older conceptions of how Latin literature should look and behave. Moreover, if the Distichs had a single author, he was unusual—intriguingly so. Which other poet deliberately aimed for his work to become a schoolbook? (Cf. Horace’s horror of precisely this fate: Ep. 1.20.17–18). In casting the Distichs in the conventional mold of a polished libellus masterminded by a single author, we risk familiarizing a text that is excitingly strange.

Wisdom of Rome ends by bringing the legacy of the Disticha Catonis up to contemporary times. Connolly briefly explores a children’s book, R. J. Palacio’s 365 Days of Wonder: Mr Browne’s Book of Precepts (2014), which is itself an intriguing combination of different formats (a preface written in the voice of a fictional character, then an anthology of improving quotations arranged by days of the year). ‘There is life in paraenesis yet’, writes Connolly (192). Indeed there is. Her innovative study is the perfect starting point for anyone wishing to immerse themselves in Rome’s distinctive contribution to the cross-cultural tradition of ancient wisdom literature, or who wishes to trace the role of this extraordinarily popular text in classicizing ideology and Latin pedagogy across the centuries. All throughout Wisdom of Rome, I found myself rereading the couplets of the Disticha Catonis, a work that I had previously filed away in my mind as a typical product of the ‘minor Latin poets’, as the Loeb edition calls them. They are more than that. If Connolly’s monograph inspires other readers to explore the Distichs with new enthusiasm and interest, it will have achieved something truly worthwhile.



[1] Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and the World it Created (London, 2007), 20.

[2] Serena Connolly, “Disticha Catonis Uticensis”. CP 107 (2012), 119–30.

[3] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, 1990).

[4] On the standard Roman prejudices, see Vivian Nutton, ‘The Perils of Patriotism: Pliny and Roman Medicine’, in Roger French and Frank Greenaway (eds.) Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influences (London, 1986), 30-58.

[5] See also the more detailed version of this argument in Serena Connolly, ‘The Meter of the Disticha Catonis’, CJ (2012), 313-29.

[6]Tom Geue, Author Unknown: the Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome (Harvard, 2019).