Sunday Sol Day – 08Sep2013 – nolite timere

This is our weekly update of news of the Classical world, in which war and death dominates. In our opinion piece we have the last words – the last words of Seamus Heaney – correctly.

Remember, Sunday brings you a round-up of last weeks news, Sol Day brings you our inconsequential thoughts, every Sunday at 9:30am (barring a hangover).


There really aren’t many news this week as the general newsphere is dominated by Syria and G20. An item related to Classics is that the host city of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad was announced on Saturday night. Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, is to hold the 32nd edition of the modern Olympic Games in 2020, fending off bids by Madrid and Istanbul (BBC:

As this post goes to press the IOC session is yet to decide which of the three sports to admit into the Olympic Games. Wrestling, squash and a joint entry of baseball/softball are the candidates. Wrestling has a long tradition in the ancient Olympics and the modern editions, and is hoping to be readmitted following its exclusion after the previous Olympics. We should know the decision before 5pm today (BBC:

Be afraid… be very afraid. For media across the UK and the world misprinted Seamus Heaney’s last word. Heaney texted his wife with the words “nolle timere”, according to The TimesThe Independent and other UK and foreign news agencies. The Atlantic has a piece on the error (, as do The Daily Telegraph (, as do we in our Sol Day piece (see below).

A British Museum-sponsored Roman exhibition is going on the road. The first stop is Bristol, and it will open at its Museum and Art Gallery late September (The

(Re-)watch the second episode of “Ancient Greece – The Greatest Show on Earth” by Dr Michael Scott on BBC iPlayer ( Episode 2 was on Kings and detailed how drama evolved after the heyday of Athenian democracy. The next episode, titled “Romans”, will air on Tuesday 10Sep at 9pm on BBC Four.

The details on this year’s Live like a Stoic Week, 25Nov-1Dec, has been announced (Stoicism Today blog:

“Total War: Rome II” is out. The game is reviewed here (

Read a gazette in celebration of the release of “Total War” here (The Guardian

The Cantabrian Wars were celebrated with an re-enactment. Have a look at the photos here (article in Spanish, National Geographic España:

Extremely short trailers to upcoming BBC series Atlantis has been released (, Den of Geek:

Finally, a happy 10th year anniversary to Rogue Classicism, which have brought us so much Classics-related news (

Sol Day – nolite timere

Habete fiduciam ego sum nolite timere. As wired words travel across the oft-turbulent Irish Sea to report the proceedings of Seamus Heaney’s funeral we are given a glimpse – and only a glimpse – of Heaney’s bold, comforting and decorous last words.

Nolle timere, reports media high and low across the word. The wiring must have come loose. Reading first in The Daily Telegraph, then The Independent on the day brought a feeling of dread. First is the feeling of outrage (“that’s not right!”), secondly trying to make sense of it, then deciding that it could not be made sense of, finally having severe doubt that it may be medieval Latin or some anomaly. Such were the doubts on the day following when, reading the i, I was driven to type and send a letter to the editor and then fearing that I have made a fool of myself, because I must have missed the heading in Gildersleeve and Lodge which says two infinitives together is acceptable.

Should we be worried that Heaney and his son has been misquoted? I have not seen or heard the recording of the funeral speech but I can imagine that, whether Heaney’s son meant to say nolle or noli there may be no difference in the pronunciation. I suppose the initial error comes in the initial reporter transcribing the words in a spelling that (s)he is familiar. The error is not reversed because no one in the chain the message passed through suspected, or (I suggest) had the ability to suspect that it would make no sense.

The lack of precision is unfortunate, for words are interpreted and to cause to mis-interpret is to mislead. To the majority of readers it would have gone unnoticed, because the majority of readers would simply be touched by this vignette and impressed that the news agency has included it. If this is the case then the perception of Latin is that it is something to bandy around, that it adds gravitas for no practical reason. This cannot be how Heaney sees it, this cannot be what Heaney’s instinct is as he flashed the words in a language none other than Latin.

If Latin has an intrinsic suitability and value for such last words, then part of it belong to the fact that these are the very words in the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Greek original. But another significant factor for the choice of Latin is that its precision and compactness enhances the meaning of the phrase greatly. The latter factor is a significant factor to ensure that it is correct.

But how does the press ensure that its Latin is correct? It would be unrealistic to have Giovanna Chirri, the ANSA correspondent who scooped Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation thanks to her understand of the Pope’s Latin speech, reporting around the globe, not least in a non-Latin based setting. An extra layer of proof-reading may also lead to the press giving up Latin altogether – the BBC did not quote Heaney’s final words in Latin, correctly or incorrectly. Yet in order for the good qualities of Latin to be ensure when transcribed in the media, it must be correct. Should help be sought by ringing an expert or placing the quote on Twitter, I am sure there will be Classicists willing to ensure its grammatical correctness. From that, we Latin readers can be suitably touched by Heaney’s choice of words, boldly, determinedly and elegantly touched into the mobile phone.

So the furore should not take too much away from the fact that a giant has fallen. Heaney’s work will be read forever. The marriage of language and feeling is exemplified by Heaney, even in texts that have been “translated”. He will be missed.

For the background of the quote read:

The Daily Telegraph “Why Seamus Heaney’s last words weren’ the last laugh”:

The Atlantic “How so many people got Seamus Heanye’s last words wrong”:

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