Harrison Middleton University



We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


March 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives gives the reader a great amount of information about language. It is an invaluable resource when looking at language changes over a period of time. More importantly, Plutarch explains that language is affected both by cultural change, but also demonstrates how language change is based upon proximity to other cultures. I have mentioned in past blog posts how place names depend upon the current cultural story of a place. These names often overwrite previous stories of battle, heroism or tragedy. In this same vein, language itself, arrives already defined, but ever-changing. In thinking that language is static, we fall into a classic human error, until we realize that nothing is static, not even the dictionary.

Throughout Parallel Lives, Plutarch gives language depth and understanding. He offers histories of battles and tragedies that bring the words to life. I often wonder if these stories of our everyday words would have been preserved otherwise. Either way, it seems that we owe a debt to Plutarch for enriching our understanding both of the words themselves, and also the process behind language.

As one example, I wanted to place the entirety of Plutarch’s description of the term “ovation”. He situates the origin of this term between Latin and Greek, but also defines the term as different from triumph. His elaboration of the difference between triumph (as after a great battle) versus ovation (as after an elocutionary win, or one without force and battle) still remains true today. We retain remnants of these ancient practices, though without ritual sacrifices. For example, standing ovations occur in present-day politics, concerts or speeches. We even use the term ‘triumph’ often, but rarely grant it an understanding in relation to ancient Roman and Greek history. Therefore, Plutarch’s passage instructs both the term and the historical and cultural practices surrounding them.

In “Marcellus”, Plutarch writes:

“Whence Marcellus was more popular with the people in general, because he had adorned the city with beautiful objects that had all the charms of Grecian grace and symmetry; but Fabius Maximus, who neither touched nor brought away anything of this kind from Tarentum, when he had taken it, was more approved of by the elder men. He carried off the money and valuables, but forbade the statues to be moved, adding, as it is commonly related, ‘Let us leave to the Tarentines these offended gods.’

They blamed Marcellus, first for placing the city in an invidious position, as it seemed now to celebrate victories and lead processions of triumph, not only over men, but also over the gods as captives; then, that he had diverted to idleness, and vain talk about curious arts and artificers, the common people, which, bred up in wars and agriculture, had never tasted of luxury and sloth, and, as Euripides said of Hercules, had been –

Rude, unrefined, only for great things good, so that now they misspent much of their time in examining and criticising trifles. And yet, notwithstanding this reprimand, Marcellus made it his glory to the Greeks themselves that he had taught his ignorant countrymen to esteem and admire the elegant and wonderful productions of Greece.

But when the envious opposed his being brought triumphant into the city, because there were some relics of the war in Sicily, and a third triumph would be looked upon with jealousy, he gave way. He triumphed upon the Alban mount, and thence entered the city in ovation, as it is called in Latin, in Greek eua; but in this ovation he was neither carried in a chariot, nor crowned with laurel, nor ushered by trumpets sounding; but went afoot with shoes on, many flutes or pipes sounding in concert, while he passed along wearing a garland of myrtle, in a peaceable aspect, exciting rather love and respect than fear.

Whence I am, by conjecture, led to think that, originally, the difference observed betwixt ovation and triumph did not depend upon the greatness of the achievements, but the manner of performing them. For they who, having fought a set battle, and slain the enemy, returned victors, led that martial, terrible triumph, and, as the ordinary custom then was in lustrating the army, adorned the arms and the soldiers with a great deal of laurel. But they who without force, by colloquy, persuasion, and reasoning, had done the business, – to these captains custom gave the honour of the unmilitiary and festive ovation. For the pipe is the badge of peace, and myrtle the plant of Venus, who more than the rest of the gods and goddesses abhors force and war.

It is called ovation, not as most think, from the Greek euasmus, because they act it with shouting and cries of eua; for so do they also have the proper triumphs. The Greeks have wrested the word to their own language, thinking that this honour, also, must have some connection with Bacchus, who in Greek has the titles of Euius and Thriambus. But the thing is otherwise. For it was the custom for commanders, in their triumph, to immolate and ox, but in their ovation, a sheep: hence they named it ovation, from the Latin ovis.”

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Skip to content