February 16, 2007

Fortuna gloriae carnifex

In English: Fortune is the butcher of glory.

I've been posting proverbs about Roman Fortuna lately, and today's proverb is a very wrenching commentary on the powers of that goddess. The proverb tells us that Fortune takes glory and cuts it down, brutally, bringing what was bright and shining to a bloody, disastrous conclusion.

The Latin word carnifex is literally a "meat-maker" (carni-fex), hence my choice of the word "butcher" as the translation here. In more specific usage, the word referred to the hangman or executioner, who took a living human being and rendered him into lifeless flesh, a dead body. This occupation rendered the hangman himself such an undesirable figure that he was not allowed to live within the city of Rome and had to live outside the city walls.

This saying is famously reported by Pliny in his account of the Roman triumph:
quamquam religione cum tutatur et fascinus, imperatorum quoque, non solum infantium, custos, qui deus inter sacra Romana a Vestalibus colitur, et currus triumphantium, sub his pendens, defendit medicus invidiae, iubetque eosdem respicere similis medicina linguae, ut sit exorata a tergo Fortuna gloriae carnifex.

Fascinus is the guardian not only of infants but also of generals; in Roman religion, he is worshipped as a god by the Vestals; as a remedy against envy, Fascinus hangs under the chariots of generals and protects them, and a similar verbal remedy urges them to look back in order to conjure away Fortune, the butcher of glory, from following behind him.
So, at the moment of the height of his luck, the Roman general has to beware that the good fortune he enjoys does not turn into bad fortune, the butcher of his own glory.

If you're interested, you can read more about the god Fascinus and his "fascinating" powers at this Bestiaria Latina blog post.

So, watching out from Fortune from behind, here is today's proverb read out loud:

256. Fortuna gloriae carnifex.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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