all right

Occasionally adding corroborative details to add verisimilitude to otherwise bald and unconvincing,
but veridicous accounts
with careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination.

03 July, 2012

Enigmatic Invective

At Letters of Note, we can read a famous missive of invective from Algernon Swinburne, the English poet, to The New York Tribune, wherein he alludes to another notoriously rude reply:
If I am to believe that that name has been made the mark for such vile language as is now publicly attributed to men of note in the world of letters, I, who am not sufficiently an expert in the dialect of the cesspool and the dung-cart to retort in their own kind on these venerable gentlemen—I, whose ears and lips alike are unused to the amenities of a conversation embroidered with such fragments of flowery rhetoric as may be fished up by congenial fingers or lapped up by congenial tongues out of the sewerage of Sodom—can return no better or more apt reply than was addressed by the servant of Octavia to the satellites of Nero, and applied by Lord Denman, when counsel for Queen Caroline, to the sycophants of George IV.
Swinburne refers to the account of Nero’s bringing allegedly false charges of adultery (with a slave!) against Octavia, his sister* and wife, in the Annals of Tacitus:
Actae ob id de ancillis quaestiones, et vi tormentorum victis quibusdam, ut falsa adnuerent, plures perstitere sanctitatem dominae tueri; ex quibus una instanti Tigellino castiora esse muliebria Octaviae respondit quam os ejus.   (Ann. XIV. 60. 4)
[“On account of this, her slave-girls were examined under torture, and though some were forced by the intensity of agony into admitting falsehoods, most persisted in upholding the virtue of their mistress; to the menaces of Tigellinus one of them responded that Octavia’s female parts were purer than his mouth.”]
This reference to female naughty bits was quite rude for Romans—and, since Tacitus uses indirect speech, his readers would likely have assumed that the servant’s actual words were far ruder—; Romans (or, at least, surviving Roman writers) were so horrified that saying cum me—“with me”—might sound like cunne—the vocative of cunnus, “vulva”—that they not only made cum follow the personal pronoun in the first person singular but also insisted that other personal pronouns postposited cum likewise (thus, for instance, tecum and vobiscum, for “with thee” and “with you”).  We may safely assume, I submit, that Swinburne wasn’t thinking that “female parts” would be an adequate English translation for muliebria.

*  Tacitus presents Octavia, though older than Nero, as younger and (though unlikely for a Julio-Claudian woman) as adorably sweet and politically naïve.
†  originally, A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short (Oxford, 1879) chastely and succinctly defined cunnus—not in English but, less usefully for those who might be using a Latin dictionary because they have a less than expert knowledge of Latin, in Latin—as pudenda muliebrum, which means “the shameful things of women”; later (in my 1933 impression, for example), the definition is a slightly less prudish “the female pudenda”.

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