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[2arg] What kind of questions we used to discuss when spending the Saturnalia at Athens; and some amusing sophistries and enigmas

WE used to spend the Saturnalia at Athens very merrily yet temperately, not “relaxing our minds,” as the saying is—for, as Musonius asserts, 1 to relax the mind is like losing it—but diverting our minds a little and relieving them by the delights of pleasant and improving conversation. Accordingly, a number of us Romans who had come to Greece, and who attended the same lectures and devoted ourselves to the same teachers, met at the same dinner-table. Then the one who was giving the entertainment in his turn, 2 offered as a prize for solving a problem [p. 299] the work of some old Greek or Roman writer and a crown woven from laurel, and put to us as many questions as there were guests present. But when he had put them all, the question which each was to discuss and the order of speaking were determined by lot. Then, when a question was correctly answered, the reward was a crown and a prize; if it was not correctly answered, it was passed on to the next in the allotment, and this process was repeated throughout the circle. If no one could answer a particular question, the crown was dedicated to the god in whose honour the festival was held. Now the questions that were proposed were of this kind: an obscure saying of some early poet, amusing rather than perplexing; some point in ancient history; the correction of some tenet of philosophy which was commonly misinterpreted, the solution of some sophistical catch, the investigation of a rare and unusual word, or of an obscure use of the tense of a verb of plain meaning.

And I recollect that once seven questions were put, the first of which was an explanation of these verses in the Saturae of Quintus Ennius, 3 in which one word is very neatly used in many different senses. They run as follows:

Who tries with craft another to deceive,
Deceives himself, if he says he's deceived
Whom he'd deceive. For if whom you'd deceive
Perceives that he's deceived, the deceiver 'tis
Who is deceived, if 'other's not deceived. 4
The second question was how it ought to be understood and interpreted that Plato in the State [p. 301] which he planned in his books 5 said κοινὰς τὰς γυναῖκας, that is, declared that women “should be common property,” and that the rewards of the bravest men and the greatest warriors should be the kisses of boys and maidens. In the third place this was asked, in what words the fallacy of the following catches consisted and how they could be made out and explained: “What you have not lost, that you have. You have not lost horns; therefore you have horns.” Also another catch: “What I am, that you are not. I am a man; therefore you are not a man.” Then it was inquired what was the solution of this sophistry: “When I lie and admit that I lie, do I lie or speak the truth?” Afterwards this question was put, why the patricians are in the habit of entertaining one another on the Megalensia, 6 and the plebeians on the Cerealia. 7 Next came this question: “What one of the early poets used the verb verant, in the sense of 'they speak the truth '?” The sixth question was, what kind of plant the “asphodel” was, which Hesiod mentioned in the following lines: 8
O fools! who know not how much half exceeds the whole, 9
Or that the asphodel and mallow make fine food.
And also what Hesiod meant when he said that the half was more than the whole. The last of all the [p. 303] questions was this: of what tense the verbs scripserim, legerim and venerim are, perfect or future, or both.

When these questions had been put in the order that I have mentioned, and had been discussed and explained by the several guests on whom the lots fell, we were all presented with crowns and books, except for the one question about the verb verant. For at the time no one remembered that the word was used by Quintus Ennius in the thirteenth book of his Annals in the following line: 10

Do seers speak truth (verant), predicting life's extent?
Therefore the crown for this question was presented to Saturn, the god of that festival.

1 p. 133, Hense.

2 Cf. note on vii. 13. 2.

3 vv. 59 ff., Vahlen2.

4 Rendered as follows by R. J. E. Tiddy in Gordon, English Literature and the Classics, p. 206: “The man who thinks to score a pretty score off another, says that he has scored off him off whom he would score—but he hasn't all the same. For he who thinks he's scoring, but isn't all the same, is scored off himself—and so the other scores.”

5 Rep, p. 457, etc.; 460), 468.

6 The festival of Magna Mater, on April 4, established in 204 B.C.

7 The festival of Ceres, on April 19.

8 Works and Days, 40. Cf. Horace, Odes, i. 31. 16:

me pascunt olivae,
Me cichorea levesque malvae.

9 Hesiod means that a simple and frugal life is the best. He had shared his father's property with his brother Perses; but Perses went to law and through the partiality of the judges got possession of the whole inheritance. He soon wasted it, and Hesiod, through his thrift, was able to come to his help. Hence the expression became proverbial. Cicero, on seeing a bust of his brother Quintus, who was of short stature, said: “Half of my bother is greater than the whole.” (Macrob. Sat. ii. 3. 4.)

10 v. 380, Vallen2.

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  • Cross-references to this page (3):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), AENIGMA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), CERIA´LIA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), LUDI
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