I am very pleased to see that the Bellum Catilinae of Sallust is back on the schedule of Latin texts for Cambridge undergraduates and I look forward to drawing on it in Linguistics and Philology teaching once this term is underway. (The companion site for a recent edition is a very welcome resource.)
One of Sallust’s purple passages is his ‘portait of a lady’, Sempronia (25). She is largely incidental, it seems, to the work as a whole and to Catiline’s conspiracy. She did provide a venue later on (40.5: ille eos in domum D. Bruti perducit, quod foro propinqua erat neque aliena consili propter Semproniam; nam tum Brutus ab Roma aberat. ‘He led them into the house of Decimus Brutus, because it was next to the forum and not unfamiliar with his plan, because of Sempronia; for at that time Brutus was away from Rome). However, the conspiracy was betrayed by another woman, who gets no such portrait: Fulvia (23.3-4, 26.3, and 28.2). Still, Sempronia has a prominent place in the history of the end of the Roman Republic, as the mother of Decimus Junius ‘Et tu, Brute’ Brutus (cf. 40.5 again).
sed in eis erat Sempronia, quae multa saepe uirilis audaciae facinora commiserat. haec mulier genere atque forma, praeterea uiro liberis satis fortunata fuit; litteris Graecis et Latinis docta, psallere, saltare elegantius quam necesse est probae, multa alia, quae instrumenta luxuriae sunt. sed ei cariora semper omnia quam decus atque pudicitia fuit; pecuniae an famae minus parceret haud facile discerneres; lubido sic accensa ut saepius peteret uiros quam peteretur. sed ea saepe antehac fidem prodiderat, creditum abiurauerat, caedis conscia fuerat: luxuria atque inopia praeceps abierat. uerum ingenium eius haud absurdum: posse uersus facere, iocum mouere, sermone uti uel modesto, uel molli, uel procaci; prorsus multae facetiae multusque lepos inerat.
Now among these women was Sempronia, who had often committed many crimes of masculine daring. In birth and beauty, in her husband also and children, she was abundantly favoured by fortune; well read in the literature of Greece and Rome, able to play the lyre and dance more skilfully than an honest woman need, and having many other accomplishments which minister to voluptuousness. But there was nothing which she held so cheap as modesty and chastity; you could not easily say whether she was less sparing of her money or her honour; her desires were so ardent that she sought men more often than she was sought by them. Even before the time of the conspiracy she had often broken her word, repudiated her debts, been privy to murder; poverty and extravagance combined had driven her headlong. Nevertheless, she was a woman of no mean endowments; she could write verses, bandy jests, and use language which was modest, or tender, or wanton; in fine, she possessed a high degree of wit and of charm. (tr. J.C. Rolfe)
So, her linguistic attainments are reported with some ambivalence. In her defence, she could write verse. However, Sallust slips easily from his comment that she was ‘learned’ (docta) in Greek and Latin literature, not only to lyre-playing and dancing, but to greater ability there than an honest woman needs or should have: psallere, saltare elegantius quam necesse est probae. The infinitive psallere ‘to play the lyre’ is one of a handful of Greek loanwords in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae and neatly associates Sempronia’s Greek learning with her conduct unbecoming a Roman matron and downright criminal.
(Sallust’s other Greek loanwords are (as far as I know at present): camera [καμάρα] ‘a vaulted roof’ in 55.4; machinor ‘machinate’ in 18.7 and 48.7 (a derivative within Latin from machina, a borrowing from ‘Doric’ μᾱχανά̄ and early enough to show vowel-weaking of unstressed <a> to <i>; then, tetrarches ‘tetrarch’ in 20.7 and toreuma ’embossed or relief work’ in 20.12, both on Catiline’s lips. Then, dolus ‘trick’ in 11.2, 14.5, 26.2, and 28.2 is not clear-cut. It appears as early as the XII Tables and could be either an early borrowing from Greek (and into Oscan, perhaps via Latin) or an inherited word related to doleo ‘I feel pain’. Both an inherited word and a loan would look identical.)
As we saw in an earlier post on the dangers of diglossia, bilingualism and, here, perhaps ‘only’ a reading knowledge of Greek, were not always seen as morally-neutral attainments.
After I wrote that post, James reminded me of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, the Roman 11-year-old wunderkind, who died shortly after winning an honourable mention, in a contest of 52 poets, for his 43 Greek hexameters on Phaethon (GVI 1924, shortly after 94 CE).