December 01, 2008

Gallus in sterquilinio suo plurimum potest

In English: The rooster can do plenty in his own dungheap.

Since there are so many sayings about the animals and their characteristics, I thought it would be good to include this saying which emphasizes not just the characteristics of an animal, but also the animal's environment. The rooster can do plenty in his own dungheap - but beyond that, he is just a rooster, nothing more. So, while on his own dungheap, the rooster can crow as loudly as he likes, but if you take him away from his precious dungheap, he won't have much to crow about!

The irony, of course, is that what is to the rooster a mighty kingdom is, in our estimation, a pile of dung, a sterquilinium in Latin (also spelled sterculinium and stercilinium), from the noun stercus, meaning "dung, manure." You can get a sense of importance of dung in the Roman vocabulary from the many compounds of this word: such as the verb stercoro, the noun stercoratio, and the adjectives stercorarius and stercorosus. When something was stercorosus, "full of manure," this could actually be a good thing - a field that was well manured was a fine thing, after all! Still, it's not somewhere you would probably want to live - even though that is the kind of place where the rooster of today's proverb proudly makes his home.

The saying is used famously by Seneca in his satire on the death of the Emperor Claudius, the Apocolocyntosis. When Claudius finds himself facing the mighty hero Hercules, he realizes that he is in big trouble:
Claudius ut vidit virum valentem, oblitus nugarum intellexit neminem Romae sibi parem fuisse, illic non habere se idem gratiae: gallum in suo sterquilino plurimum posse.

When Claudius saw the mighty hero, he forgot the silly words [he had just spoken] and realized that while no man had been a match for him at Rome, here in this place, he did not have the same influence: the rooster can do plenty in his own dungheap.
Mocking the Emperor Claudius as nothing more than a crowing rooster lately of the dungheap known as Rome fits in perfectly with Seneca's sharp and even vicious satirical agenda in this amazing work of literature. Intrigued? You can find the full text in Latin online, and in English, too!

Meanwhile, hoping that you are happily crowing in whatever environment you may find yourself in, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2157. Gallus in sterquilinio suo plurimum potest.

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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