Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Whose basic meaning is ‘way of thinking’, came to have specialized senses, such as an opinion expressed in the senate, the judgement of a judge, and the spirit (as opposed to the letter) of the law. In literary criticism, it came to mean a brief saying embodying a striking thought. Such sayings could be gnomic (see gnome) and moralizing; a collection attributed to Publilius Syrus survives. But they were often specially coined for a particular context. They probably played a part in ‘Asianic’ rhetoric and declamation (see asianism and atticism); but Latin, with its terseness and love of antithesis and word play, took to them with especial enthusiasm. Even the florid Cicero was thought not to lack them, and the declamation school gave them a natural home; in his book on rhetoric Seneca the Elder makes sententiae a main rubric. At their worst, they descend to puerile punning; at their best they are pointed, allusive, witty. They are typical of Silver Latin. Where declaimers might use them merely for pleasurable effect, orators and philosophers found they could be persuasive too, because they stuck in the mind; and they were perfectly designed to give emphatic closure to speech or section. Tacitus used them masterfully (sōlitūdinem faciunt, pācem appellant, ‘they make a desert and call it peace’). So too in verse of different kinds: Seneca the Younger's drama, Lucan's epic (victrix causa deīs placuit, sed victa Catōnī, ‘the victor had the gods on his side, but the vanquished had Cato’, typically hard to translate), Juvenal's satire (probitās laudātur et alget, ‘integrity is praised—and left in the cold’), and Martial's epigrams rely heavily on them.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.