Wednesday, November 17, 2010

urna movet

urna, ae f. a vessel of baked clay, vessel for drawing water, water-pot, water jar, urn: a voting-urn, ballot-box: An urn for lots, vessel for drawing lots.

The recent Latin Extension HSC paper had what I thought was a pretty difficult unseen in it. There was some pretty difficult language and a typo (don't tell the SMH) didn't make things much easier. But I thought the most difficult thing  was to understand what on earth Horace is talking about, with very little context. The end of the extract in particular contained the phrase movet urna, which has a particular, pretty specific meaning. Here's the extract the kids had to translate:

Est ut viro vir latius ordinet
arbusta sulcis, hic generosior
descendat in campum petitor,
moribus hic meliorque fama

contendat, illi turba clientium
sit maior: aequa lege Necessitas
sortitur insignis et imos,
omne capax movet urna nomen.
(Horace, Odes III.1.9-15)

It is the case that one man may lay out his orchards with wider furrows than another man, one man, more noble by birth, may descend to the campus as a candidate, another man may campaign, better in regards to his customs or his reputation, a greater crowd of clients may belong to another man: Necessity, with an equal law, decides the fate of both the great and the lowly, the spacious urn moves every name.
It's still not completely clear to me what the furrows in the orchards have to do with anything, nor what contendat is meant to mean in this context, nor what role Necessity plays, but leaving that aside, why is the urn moving? There seems to be a double meaning of urna in the passage - the dictionary tells us that an urna can be a ballot-box, which suits the context pretty well. It's the place where that fates of the three political candidates (hic, hic, illi) will be decided.

But urna is also used in more religious contexts, associated especially with casting lots and prophecy. Horace uses a similar phrase in his Satire I.9:
confice; namque instat fatum mihi triste, Sabella
quod puero cecinit divina mota anus urna:
"hunc neque dira venena nec hosticus auferet ensis...
garrulus hunc quando consumet cumque..."
(Horace, Satire I.9.29-33)

Just kill me now! For that sad fate, which an old Sabellian hag prophesied to me as a boy, having shaken her divine urn, is pressing upon me: "Neither dread poison nor an enemy's sword will steal this man away... a chatter-box will at sometime be the end of him."
Virgil uses the same words of Minos, one of the judges of the Underworld:

nec vero hae sine sorte datae, sine iudice, sedes:
quaesitor Minos urnam movet; ille silentum
consiliumque vocat vitasque et crimina discit.
(Virgil, Aeneid VI.431-433)

Indeed, these places are assigned to them not without the will of Fate, not without a judge: the arbiter Minos shakes the urn; he both calls together the assembly of the silent, and learns of their lives and the charges against them.

These references give us a deeper insight into Horace's Ode. The outcome of the election is decided not just at the ballot box, but by fate. The things which distinguish the candidates from one another (one's noble birth, one's better habits, one's greater crowd of supporters) and which may actually make a difference to voters in an election, are to Fate irrelevant. This is why Horace talks about Necessitas and the aequa lege. Necessity is used here in a way unfamiliar to us these days. I think it stands for the way the world must necessarily turn out, the things which are fated to happen. One book I have says that Necessitas is equivalent to "Anagkh. The mysterious power who, especially among the Greeks, is always described as ruling even over the gods." This by the way makes more sense of the question asked about the poem "Explain how Horace... convey[s] the idea that all people are subject to destiny, no matter what their status." Almost every answer I read answered that question by explaining how people are subject to death, something which the poem makes no mention of.

My point, in case you were wondering, is that this section of the exam is actually pretty difficult, especially for an 18 year old with (to be honest) limited exposure to Latin literature.

1 comment:

Mike Salter said...

It was a ridiculously hard unseen, wasn't it. A shame, because the unseens in Continuers were both pretty reasonable this year (along with those absurd questions on them). My guys were scratching their heads over it when they came out of the exam, but none of them were in the mood to analyse it too deeply...they were just glad to be done with the whole shebang!