Quasi Labor Intus: A Festschrift for Fr. Reginald Foster

Charley McNamara |

This essay is an abridged version of the introduction to Quasi Labor Intus: Ambiguity in the Latin Language, a Festschrift (celebratory volume) edited in honor of Fr. Reginald Foster. It is jointly written by William M. Short, Charles McNamara, and Michael Fontaine, and includes extra pictures and links.


For forty years, American priest and friar Reginald Foster, O.C.D., worked in the Latin Letters office of the Roman Curia’s Secretary of State in Vatican City. As Latinist for four popes, he soon emerged as an internationally recognized authority on the Latin language — some have said, the internationally recognized authority, consulted by scholars, priests, and laymen worldwide. In 1986, he began teaching an annual summer Latin course that attracted advanced students and professors from around the globe. This volume gathers contributions from some of his many students in honor of his enduring influence and achievements. Its chapters explore a wide range of linguistic and literary evidence from antiquity to the present day in a variety of theoretical perspectives. If the motivation for putting together this collection has been to reflect (and reflect upon) Foster’s influences on Latin scholarship and pedagogy, its title alludes — via the medieval folk etymology of the word labyrinthus (“quasi labor intus”) — to its theme: ambiguity in Latin literature.

This choice of theme emerges from two overriding considerations. First, Reginald Foster himself often highlighted the presence of ambiguity in Latin — ambiguity of morphological and syntactic analysis, of lexical meaning, of grammatical terminology, of argumentation, in wordplay — and, above all, he emphasized how readers must anticipate, avoid, cope with, and cut through ambiguity to understand Latin correctly. His awareness of ambiguity in language underpins both his pedagogy, which trains and alerts students to Latin’s many pitfalls of expression, and his appreciation of Latin literature, which, in the finest Renaissance and humanist tradition of celebrating the musa jocosa, delights in exploring and playing with possibilities of meaning.


Second, ambiguities of all kinds — not only of language, but also of the human body, of identity, of gender, of space — can be seen as representing a theme of recurring scholarly interest in the humanistic disciplines. Since the seminal work of William Empson (1930) and, later, Roman Jakobson (1960), ambiguity has emerged as a central concern of the critical study of language and literature. Whereas traditional approaches inspired by Aristotle and classical rhetoric often viewed ambiguity with suspicion, these modern thinkers instead considered ambiguity to be characteristic and indeed constitutive of poetic expression (what Jakobson called “poeticalness”). Taking this idea further, Umberto Eco proposed that the ability of readers to recognize and interpret texts as poetic depends fundamentally on a kind of textual “auto-reflexivity” introduced only by ambiguous language. In linguistics and philosophy of language, meanwhile, ambiguity — often contrasted with vagueness as a type of polysemy — has been a key concept in constructing (or debunking) theories of linguistic reference. Psycholinguists have also zeroed in on ambiguity in their search to uncover the mental processes involved in determining the meanings of words, phrases, or whole sentences during “on-line” discourse production.

In classical scholarship, W. B. Stanford blazed the path with his 1939 study of ambiguity in Greek literature, and in recent decades numerous independent studies have appeared focusing on ambiguity in ancient philosophy, tragedy, comedy and jokes, satire and elegy, epic, epinician, and medical writing — not to mention in oracles, omens and riddles. At the same time, ambiguity has been recognized as an important theme of Greek and Roman religion and myth.

Yet, as probably every beginning Latin student would acknowledge, and as the papers collected in this volume mean to show, ambiguity is a pervasive feature of the Latin language and of Latin literature. In reading even the seemingly simplest of Latin sentences, we can expect to encounter some ambiguity of meaning. The classical labyrinth, with its many confusing twists, turns, and traps — in Latin, ambages, which is also one word for verbal ambiguity — thus makes a suitable metaphor for a volume in Foster’s honor on a topic of enduring scholarly interest.

Labyrinthus, quasi “labor intus”
Labyrinthus, quasi “labor intus”

Ambiguity as Meaning-Making

“Language,” remarks Philip Lieberman, “is inherently ambiguous and uncertain. That is the problem and the power of the system.” But the different structures of different languages (excluding formal languages designed to have precise one-to-one correspondences between form and meaning) ensure that some languages present more occasions or opportunities for ambiguous expression than others. In Latin, the great frequency — not to say pervasiveness — of ambiguity emerges from at least two features of the language. The first is that the Latin vocabulary, like that of English, is rife with instances of lexical ambiguity (i.e., ambiguities arising from the presence of two or more possible meanings within the semantic structure of a single word). The Latin word ius (iuris, n.) is ambiguous between the meaning of “law, right, justice” (as in the idiom ius dare “prescribe laws”) and that of “soup, broth” (as in Terence’s ius hesternum “leftover soup”). In everyday discourse, it might seem impossible to imagine a context in which the two senses of this term could ever be genuinely confused, but Latin authors took creative advantage of this duality of meaning fairly often. For instance, in mocking the fashion among wealthy Romans of tending different kinds of fish in separate ponds, Varro jokes that the obsession with fish keeping has reached such a point that hos piscis nemo cocus in ius vocare audet (RR. 3.17.4) — the joke being that fish are nowadays held in such esteem that making a stew of them is tantamount to violating their legal rights. The same ambiguity permits subtler puns, too, like Plautus’ reference to lawyers as iuris coctiores, playing both on the twin meaning of ius and on the possible figurative reading of coctus in the sense of “learnèd, knowledgeable” (Poenulus 586). In the Cistellaria, the ambiguity allows Melaenis to compare lovers’ oaths (ius iurandum amantum, line 472) unfavorably to a Thursday night soup (ius confusicium): that is, a concoction of hastily thrown-together leftovers. Cicero comments disapprovingly on Verres’ legal capriciousness (ius Verrinum) by likening it to “hog soup” (ius verrinum) — a pun the orator admits (making another culinary pun) is rather “tepid” (frigidum).

Endless other examples could be cited, especially from the poets. R. O. A. M. Lyne points out that the ambiguity of fixus (< figo) — “bound to, fastened to” but also “transfixed, pierced” — helps color certain lines of Propertian and Ovidian verse as basically sexual (since they recall, by means of the ambiguity, Cupid’s act of inspiring love — or rather, lust — with his arrows). Mark Edwards catalogues instances such as pulverem Olympicum in Horace’s first ode (1.1.3), where the adjective might refer either to the place (Olympia) where chariot competitions are held or to the gods (on Olympus) in whose honor they are held. As a different kind of ambiguity — one that plays on an uncertainty of reference — Edwards also mentions the Propertian phrase ut Semela est combustus (Carmina 2.30.29), where the overt reading of est combustus must refer to Jupiter in the metaphorical sense of “he fell in love (with),” but a covert reading refers to Semele herself, who was literally “burnt up” when Jupiter revealed his true form to her. Similarly, Propertius compares the lust of his friend Gallus to the flagrans amor of Hercules for Hebe — flagrans once more being ambiguous between a metaphorical reading (“impassioned”) and a literal reading (“burning”), since at the time when the hero met the goddess, his body had already been consumed by fire. Much later, the twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury, writing in Latin, would play on the ambiguity of medicamen(tum) — either “medicine” or “poison” — as a means of thinking about the beneficial or deleterious effects of narrative on readers.

Another reason why ambiguity presented itself to Latin authors as a ready instrument of creative meaning-making is that the language’s inflectional structure introduces countless interpretive uncertainties. We mean, of course, the kinds of morphological ambiguities that emerge when a single word form can represent two or more grammatical cases. Reginald Foster famously taught as one of the basic principles of the language (typically on the very first day of his “First Experience” at the Gregorian University) that, contrary to most teachers’ blithe pronouncement that there are too many endings in Latin, there are actually too few. He meant that decoding the meaning of a particular word form would be trivial if there were always a definite correlation between ending and grammatical function. However, when a word’s different grammatical functions are indicated by a limited set of case endings, problems of interpretation easily arise. Every beginning Latin student knows the challenge presented by a paradigm like that of the first declension, in which the termination -ae can indicate at least three combinations of case and number: genitive singular, dative singular, or nominative plural. In some circumstances, this kind of morphological overlap can lead to real syntactic ambiguities. For instance, without further context, what is the reader to make of a sentence like ante aram deae donum deposuit? Should deae be taken as a possessive genitive with aram (i.e., “before the altar of the goddess”) or as an indirect object with donum (“a gift for the goddess”)?

Such syntactic ambiguities, which arise from the multiple possible readings enabled by morphemic resemblances, are frequently harnessed by Latin authors for imaginative expression.

Alain de Lille (Alanus ab Insulis), c. 1128–1203
Alain de Lille (Alanus ab Insulis), c. 1128–1203

A good example is given by one of Reginald Foster’s favorite texts: medieval philosopher Alain de Lille’s reflection on the vanity of life, Omnis mundi creatura. Interpretation of this early twelfth-century poem revolves around exactly this sort of syntactic (morphological) ambiguity, which also interacts with a lexical ambiguity. Here are the opening stanzas:


The crucial ambiguity lies in the first line, where the phrase omnis mundi creatura can be read according to two distinct grammatical configurations, and thus with two distinct meanings, that depend on the choice between taking the verbal noun creatura in the concrete sense of “creature” or the abstract sense of “creation,” along with the morphological ambiguity of the form omnis, which can agree either with it or with mundi. At the two extremes, the line can thus mean either “every creature in the world” or “the creation of the whole world.” Which is the “correct” reading? Presumably, the context should help us disambiguate, but since this noun phrase serves as the grammatical subject of the clause that follows, the ambiguity is actually left unresolved. Arguably, this indeterminacy is precisely the point, since the wavering between the two possible readings — “every creature in the world” or “the creation of the entire world” — captures an important theme of the poem as a whole.

If the poem is meant to emphasize the brevity and (ultimately) insignificance of human life, as the extended simile of the blooming and then withering rose in the following stanzas shows, then the dual perspective offered by the opening line’s twofold interpretation could hardly be more fitting. The character of our existence on this planet is reflected both in the particularizing perspective (“every creature”) and in the globalizing perspective (“all of creation”) of God’s work. It is not the case, then, that we must choose between one or the other interpretation as what the poet “really” meant. The meaning of the poem — that in respect of all other life on earth, as well as in view of the immensity of Creation, our births and deaths mean but little — rests in the simultaneous availability of the opening line’s two readings. Through the ambiguity, Alain intends for the reader to understand that human life is vain and fleeting, however one looks at it. The ambiguous readings operate together, rather than against one another, to create this meaning.

Of course, Alain’s intention that creatura be interpreted in both senses simultaneously (a possibility highlighted by the “reading” metaphor of the second stanza) reminds us that we need not look to the work of a twelfth-century French theologian to find ambiguity deployed for imaginative aims in Latin literature. The title and theme of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, written a generation before the collapse of the Roman republic, exploit the same kind of ambiguity via the verbal noun natura — his work being at the same time about “the birth” and “the nature” of things.

Puns, Slippages, and Wordplay

In fact, the creative embrace of verbal ambiguity appears with the birth of Latin literature, and it becomes a favorite device of all Latin poets in all time periods. The comedian Plautus, the earliest extant Latin author whose works survive to us complete, shows himself addicted to puns, slippages, and wordplay of all kinds. For example, in his comedy Rudens, an out-of-town pimp approaches a local fisherman and makes a polite inquiry that receives a frosty reply:

Pimp: ut vales? Fisherman: quid tu? num medicus, quaeso, es? Pimp: immo edepol una littera plus sum quam medicus. Fisherman: tum tu mendicus es? Pimp: tetigisti acu. (1304‒1306)
Pimp: How are you? Fisherman: What’s that? You aren’t a medicus (doctor), are you? Pimp: Lord, no! I’m one letter more than a medicus (doctor). Fisherman: Then you’re a mendicus (beggar), then? Pimp: (dryly) Touché.

The first joke depends on ut vales? being taken literally — an ambiguity that works in many languages. A far more ingenious joke, however, lies in the innocent answer given to the alphabetic riddle. The ostensible answer offered by the fisherman is funny enough, but the real answer is probably merdicus “shitty,” which is the only other possibility the Latin language admits. The joke not only presupposes that most of the audience was literate, but also that they knew somehow that characters in Greek New Comedy are commonly insulted as skatophagoi, “shit-eaters.”

With the reduction of the sound represented by ae [ae̯] to e [eː] in Medieval Latin, the common adverb paene (“almost”) was transformed into a double entendre. It sounds identical to pene, ablative of penis (“penis”). Yet if we pay attention to the formal features of his verse, it seems even Plautus was aware of the potential humor of this ambiguous word form. In a comedy titled Stichus, a parasite complains to the audience that he is so hungry that

prae maerore adeo miser atque aegritudine
consenui; paene || sum fame emortuos. (215‒16)
What’s more, from sorrow and suffering — poor me! —
I’ve grown old before my time: I’m almost dead and gone from hunger.

The enjambment of consenui is very rare in Plautus. So is the neglect of the caesura (marked here with the double bars ||). And penis is a taboo word in Roman comedy, never uttered openly. Together these features suggest the parasite is jesting that he has lost all his appetites, not only for food — that he has, in other words, consenui pene, “grown old in respect to my penis.” Perhaps that explains why a woman eavesdropping suddenly breaks the dramatic illusion to blurt out ridiculus aeque nullus est quando esurit (“There’s nobody out there as funny as this guy when he’s hungry”).

The delight in wordplay seen in Plautus never went away in Latin literature. Cicero and Quintilian both devoted extended treatments to the use of ambiguity for humor. Other authors used wordplay for more baroque or ironic effects. In Catullus’ Coma Berenices, the lock of hair recalls how the queen’s mood changed upon the departure of her new bridegroom for Syria:

sed tum maesta virum mittens quae verba locuta es!
Iuppiter, ut tristi lumina saepe manu! (66.29–30)
But then, in your grief as you parted from your husband, what words you
Jupiter, how often did you rub your eyes with your hand!

The second line is a surprise. A double take helps us realize that tristi is a contraction of trivisti, “did you rub,” but contextual clues like maesta and the formal aspects of the pentameter initially suggest it is an adjective modifying manu. Catullus thereby deploys syntactic ambiguity to capture both action and mood at once.


Epicurean poets sought to demonstrate what they regarded as the inherent naturalness of language, and how language mirrors natural phenomena on a microscopic scale. For example, in book 6 Lucretius discusses strange phenomena of the earth (earthquakes, volcanoes, magnets, pestilence, etc.), including the famed Lake Avernus near Naples. In Lucretius’ day, Lake Avernus was the Black Forest of Italy. It was surrounded by a dark, old-growth forest of frightening trees — but with the semiactive volcanic activity of the Phlegraean Fields in its midst. That spooky setting explains why the entrance to the Underworld had been located there for centuries, and it helps us spot an ambiguity when Lucretius says (6.818):

sic et Averna loca alitibus summittere debent
mortiferam vim.
That’s how also the regions around Avernus presumably release
their deadly force for birds.

Our commentaries do not point out the obvious: that the dative ālitibus from ales (“for birds”) is a pun on hālitibus (“by means of their mephitic exhalations, fumes”), in the same sense Valerius Flaccus uses it —

fragrat acerbus odor patriique exspirat Averni
halitus. (Arg. 4.493‒94)
The bitter odor is wafting up, and native Avernus is exhaling its grim fumes.

— and where, incidentally, fragrat, “is wafting up,” is probably a pun on flagrat, “is burning.” This pun lets Lucretius make a verbal connection between the sulfuric smell of the region and the alleged etymology of Avernus (Greek aornos, “no birds”), and it captures both the infernal and the ornithological aspects of the lake in an interesting way. It is good Epicurean philosophy, too, since if things and words are “naturally” connected, then the very mephitic stench of brimstone that reminds people of hell is, Lucretius suggests, the same reason that birds avoid flying over the lake.

Since many classical Latin poets were Epicureans — Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, and probably Catullus — this kind of productive use of verbal ambiguity can be found everywhere, if only we have eyes to see it. A generation after Lucretius, Vergil achieved similar effects for more serious aims, and with a moral and psychological purpose that prefigures the assumptions of psychoanalysis. In Aeneid 10, when the Etruscan tyrant Mezentius realizes his son has died in his stead, he exclaims:

tantane me tenuit vivendi, nate, voluptas,
ut pro me hostili paterer succedere dextrae,
quem genui? tuane haec genitor per uulnera servor? (846‒48)
Son, was the pleasure of staying alive so great that it kept me
Back, and that I allowed you, my own child, to replace me in battle,
Facing our enemy’s sword? Am I saved, I your father, by your wounds? grim fumes.
(trans. Ahl 2007)

Context again makes it clear that paterer is a play on — but not, in a strict sense, a pun on — pater. It is Vergil’s way of showing us that he believed our guilty thoughts unconsciously spill over into language.

A generation or two later, Seneca the tragedian played on the ambiguity of Latin manibus for equally baroque and dark effects that Shakespeare later admired and emulated. His ghost of Achilles, eager for the sacrifice of Polyxena, cries out sarcastically:

ite, ite inertes: debitos manibus meis
auferte honores. (192‒93)
Go on, go, you lazy bums: go steal the prizes owed to my hands!

Only meter tells us that manibus comes from manus “hands,” and not manes “ghost,” and even that knowledge cannot prevent one meaning from shading into the other. But that is no doubt how Seneca wanted it.


In later Latin literature, such as Martial or Apuleius, the puns and play with Latin ambiguity become too frequent to list. But the peak of creative ambiguity came arguably with Erasmus (1466–1536). His mastery is evident in every line of the dialogue Echo, but a good example is the beginning of his most famous work, The Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium), dedicated to his friend Thomas More:

visum est Moriae Encomium ludere. Que Pallas istuc tibi misit in mentem? inquies. Primum admonuit me Mori cognomen tibi gentile, quod tam ad Moriae uocabulum accedit quam es ipse a re alienus.
I decided to write a fun essay in praise of folly. But what stroke of genius put that in your head? you’ll say. Mainly it was your last name, More, which comes as close to the word Moria (folly, idiocy) as you are far from the thing.

It is amusing to realize that an essay commonly regarded as a pillar of Reformation thought owes its inspiration to a simple Latin pun.

Caution: Slippery Surface

Priscian: the allegory of grammar
Priscian: the allegory of grammar

We do not want to give the impression that all Latin authors were equally captivated by the expressive potential of ambiguity. While many Latin literary texts do exploit lexical or syntactic ambiguities as local opportunities for sly puns, jokes, or the elaboration of themes at an even larger scale, Latin grammatical texts point to a more cautious and even reproachful view of such moments of linguistic uncertainty. From robust treatises like those of the grammarian Donatus to brief testimonies of anonymous schoolmasters, ancient practitioners of language pedagogy almost invariably confront Latin’s widespread ambiguitas as a kind of fault (vitium): a flaw, a problem to fix, not an opportunity for constructing meaning. Still, even as the Latin grammarians often disparage ambiguity, its usage and definition remain a consistently energizing problem. For example, the second-century grammarian Velius Longus explains how “ambiguity is what we make in those nouns whose written form does not allow for differentiation, as is the case with aedes, sedes, and nubes” (ambiguitas est, quid faciemus in his nominibus quorum scriptio discrimen non admittit, ut aedes sedes nubes, VII 56, 16–17). For Velius, then, ambiguity arises from identical Latin forms, where a word like nubes might be construed as either accusative or nominative. In his treatise on nouns, too, the third-century grammarian Phocas asserts that ambiguitas refers not merely to common declensions but also to the difficulties of identifying a noun’s gender: omnis ambiguitas in genere nominis et declinatione consistit (V 411, 28–29). In the remainder of this work, Phocas lays out handy rules for recalling the genders of words — that certain nouns ending with -is like ensis, torquis, and orbis are all either feminine or of common gender, but never strictly masculine. With knowledge of this guideline, Phocas explains that nulla est ambiguitas.

Sometimes orthographical concerns become almost a meditation on the paradoxes of language. Take Pompeius’ Commentum artis Donati. As part of a discussion of verbs that use the -sco- infix to denote inceptive or inchoative action, Pompeius ponders the paradox of their perfective forms (V 221, 31–222, 3):

scire debemus esse aliqua verba quae caliginem faciunt et ambiguitatem, et nescio, utrum perfectae formae sint an inchoativae, ut senesco, ut quiesco. videntur quasi partem habere perfectionis, id est perfectae formae, et partem habere inchoativae . . . senesco facit senui, quiesco facit quievi. cum ergo recipiant tempus perfectum, necesse est ut non sint inchoativae, sed sint potius perfectae.
We should know that there are some verbs that create murkiness and ambiguity, and I don’t know whether they are perfect or inchoative forms, as is the case with senesco and quiesco. They seem as though they have a perfect component — that is, perfect forms — and also an inchoative component . . . senesco makes the perfect form senui, and quiesco makes quievi. Because they take on the perfect tense, it must be that they are not inchoative verbs, but rather perfective.

Here ambiguitas denotes not some overlap of forms or confusion about a noun’s gender. Instead, Pompeius takes a philosophical approach to ambiguity, underscoring the “murkiness” of verbs that appear to convey contradictory meanings. To use his example, Pompeius understands senui to mean “I have aged,” even if the stem from which it derives describes a senescence that is only beginning.

Whether it is a matter of uncertain declensions or inscrutable verb forms, for Pompeius and Phocas, ambiguity rests on the page. For other grammarians, however, ambiguity is in the ear: they emphasize the importance of exact pronunciation for avoiding an audience’s misunderstanding. In the preface to his Carmina De Littera, De Syllaba, De Pedibus, Terentianus Maurus, for instance, advises his readers to exercise “clever precaution so their speech won’t sound ambiguous” (callida cautio ne sermo ambiguum sonet, 73–74). And in a treatise on accentuation attributed to Priscian, too, we find a worry that incorrect pronunciation will lead one’s listener to record a text incorrectly (III 520, 32–36):

ambiguitas vero pronuntiandi legem accentuum saepe conturbat, siquis dicat interealoci: qui nescit, alteram partem dicat interea, alteram loci, quod non separatim sed sub uno accentu pronuntiandum est, ne ambiguitatem in sermone faciat.

Ambiguity often confuses the rule of pronunciation regarding accents, if someone, for example, should say the word interealoci — that is, someone ignorant who says interea as the first part and loci as the second. This word must be pronounced not in separate parts but with one accent, so that the speaker does not introduce ambiguitas in his speech.

Reginald Foster in his classroom at the Gregorian University, 1999 or 2000. (photo by Michael Fontaine)
Reginald Foster in his classroom at the Gregorian University, 1999 or 2000. (photo by Michael Fontaine)

No mere warning of overlapping forms or uncertain genders, the ambiguitas of Pseudo-Priscian’s work resides in sermone, in the words of the Latin orator, actor, or even student. The dangers of such vocal ambiguity are well known to those in Reginald Foster’s classroom: the Carmelite pedagogue winced at the mispronunciation of (e.g.) ostendere — where the length of the penultimate e alone differentiates the present infinitive and a conjugated perfect (= ostenderunt) — or at the failure to use a long i in an accusative plural of the third declension. Even if Pseudo-Priscian’s protestations are comparatively staid, such ancient accounts nevertheless attest to the long tradition of warning students about ambiguities of mispronunciation.

In this survey of pedagogical texts, we might finally look to the ancient glossaries collected in Goetz’s Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum. Like the more discursive grammatical treatises cited above, these glossaries — which simply list Latin words and pair them with rough equivalents — also seem to frame ambiguity as a problem of imprecision. Never defining ambiguitas as lepos or argutia, these vocabulary lists equate ambiguity with dubitatio (IV 308, 14), and they provide ambiguus alongside the adjectives dubius (V 344, 15), anceps (ibid.), and instabilis (IV 479, 18). Although brief or even cryptic, these word studies do not advance a view of ambiguity as literary cleverness or humor, a view that we observe in the comedies of Plautus and the poems of Alain de Lille (and indeed that is represented by many of the contributions to this volume). Instead, their focus on “instability” and “doubt” suggests that the authors of ancient glossaries also viewed ambiguitas negatively.

In this light, we easily recognize that a certain tension characterizes Latin authors’ attitudes toward, and their valuation of, the role of ambiguity in literature. Grammatical works of various kinds — whether glossaries or treatises, whether concerned with the letter of the page or the sound of sermo — stand as a foil for the literary exempla discussed above. Poems and plays may revel in opportunities to introduce dualities or even multiplicities of sense, and by embracing their language’s ambiguitas Latin authors may encourage (rather than constrain) the proliferation of meanings. Velius Longus, Terentianus, and other cautious grammarians, however, can function as a check on our enthusiasm for finding ambiguity of all kinds in all places. Reginald Foster himself used to emphasize this point.


“You cannot put 1,000 Latin words into a mixer,” he writes in Ossa Latinitatis Sola, “and pull them out at random and have them make sense, and even if the first and last word of the Latin Bible were to agree grammatically with each other, this does not mean that the author intended them to go together. The Romans have the same kind of brain and mind as we do. The way they keep ideas together that belong together while preserving greater freedom in word order is challenging and surprising, but not foolish.” By reminding us of the efforts of exacting schoolmasters who corrected the spelling and speech of their students, who cautioned against the use of words that might generate “murkiness,” these grammatical texts should make us aware that authors may have attempted to avoid indeterminacy of meaning where we imagine ourselves to have found it.

But we believe that awareness of this tension in Latin authors’ own attitudes towards ambiguity can only be productive, since it serves as a constant call for renewing our interpretations of Latin literature and indeed for reflecting on our own methods of interpretation. If we recognize, on one side, the positive cultivation of ambiguity in texts by literary authors, and, on the other, the negative censure of ambiguity in some grammatical works, this tension suggests our process must always be twofold: identifying what may be ambiguous in literary texts, and then taking seriously the question of whether these ambiguities represent interpretive uncertainties for us (which may arise from, say, incomplete understanding of context, or the imposition of our own concepts and categories on those of Latin), or whether and how they may be integral to the meaning(s) of texts as creations of the contexts — situational, linguistic, literary, historical, social, cultural — in which they were produced. This is not a warning to try to resolve ambiguities whenever possible, out of some misbegotten fear of reading too much “into” texts, but rather a spur to reflect on the ways in which ambiguity contributes to the unlimited generation of meanings, locally and globally, synchronically and diachronically. In this sense, paying close attention to the varieties of ambiguity in which Roman authors trafficked can increase our understanding of Latin literature. If the chapters of this volume achieve that aim in even the slightest degree, we believe they are a fitting tribute to its dedicatee.

Our Contributors and Our Contribution

As a reflection of the various ways one might define ambiguity and its place in Latin literature, the essays in this volume span genres, periods, and even disciplines. Several examine lexical and syntactic ambiguities in literary texts, principally as they allow Latin authors to leverage the uncertainty of interpretation they introduce for humor or manifold meaning. For instance, Michael Fontaine draws out a trove of “unnoticed jokes in the play about disease, disability, deformity, diagnosis, and treatment” in Plautus’ Gorgylio. Peter Barrios-Lech probes the several grammatical formulas for requests in comedic texts to reveal how Roman dramatists use the ambiguities arising from these formulas to separate the meaning of what characters say from what they intend. Driving a wedge between speech and meaning reappears in Rachel Philbrick’s study of Ciceronian praeteritio, which she argues is a rhetorical strategy that “hinges upon an audience that is cooperative and willing to read ambiguity into a statement that is unambiguous.”

Other contributions underscore the productive evasiveness of ambiguity in Latin by focusing on questions of how the reader or audience finds meaning in a text. Jessica Seidman revisits a topic that will be very familiar to Foster’s students — Dido’s tears in the Aeneid. In showing how various scholars have interpreted and reinterpreted the ambiguous language of one of the Aeneid’s dramatic heights, she suggests the episode is “a testament to the continued relevance of these words, these characters, and this poem to very different people at very different times.” Looking to another Augustan poet, Jennifer Ferriss-Hill applies an ambiguous frame to the whole of Horace’s Ars Poetica, a work that one “may read as a cipher for how to live masquerading as a guidebook on how to write.” Taking the opposite approach, Stuart McManus points to a long-settled ambiguity in Cicero’s Brutus and casts doubt on one prevailing interpretation of a passage in which the Roman statesman allegedly advocates, though cryptically, tyrannicide.

The possibility that ambiguity can lead to various interpretations of texts is not limited to modern studies of ancient literature, however. As several essays in this collection show, authors in the intervening centuries were also aware of the pitfalls and possibilities of ambiguity. In her study of Peter Damian and his eleventh-century meditations on caritas, Kathryn Jasper argues for “the inadequacy of modern concepts like ‘charity’ and ‘love’ to accommodate the semantic complexity” of this virtue. Patrick Owens, by surveying Renaissance additions to the Aeneid, shows how “epics often do not resolve to a conclusion but rather to a dynamic end filled with uncertainty.” And Michael Sloan shows how Erasmus — one of Foster’s favorite humanist authors — repurposes Echo and her Ovidian habit of ambiguous, conversational wordplay to serve ethical lessons.

Finally, several essays examine the generic and conceptual questions that define ambiguitas and the circumstances in which it arises. In a discussion of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, Curtis Dozier explores how the techniques of rhetorical persuasion might figure in an educational manual itself, blurring the distinction between didactic text and educational advertisement. Charles McNamara also includes Quintilian among rhetorical and grammatical texts in a study of the difference between the ambiguities of composition, which grammatical texts urge their readers to avoid, and those of interpretation, which an expert orator must learn to navigate. Even more fundamentally, William Short looks to the metaphors underpinning meaning and ambiguity in Latin, drawing attention to Latin’s “regular conceptualization of ‘meaning’ itself in terms of a linear spatial metaphor.” And Katherine van Schaik looks to Celsus as an author concerned not with the vagueness of texts but with the vagueness of bodies, where one might understand “medicine as the art of contending with ambiguity.”

One final, related reflection is in order on the character of ambiguities in Latin literature, a reflection that also bears on this volume’s place in the context of wider critical interest in ambiguity among classicists, and the selection and organization of the chapters included in it. In gathering together this collection of papers, we must emphasize that it has not been our intention to present a unified narrative of how ambiguity developed over the course of Latin’s many genres and centuries, let alone advance a grand theory of what ambiguity may have represented to Latin authors. Given the huge diversity of even the small number of ambiguous expressions analyzed above — in terms of their linguistic (lexical or syntactic) realizations, contextual configurations, generic interactions, and semiotic behaviors — as well as their chronological scope, we do not believe it would be feasible to reconstruct such a narrative.

More to the point, it would not even be desirable, since, as we see it, any attempt to pin down what ambiguity “is” or “does” in Latin literature with a single comprehensive account will, paradoxically, prove limiting, because it would have to exclude certain types or manifestations of ambiguity. In the same way, attempts to identify the exact definitions of Greek and Latin terms covering this concept (e.g., Moussy and Orlandini 2007) end up providing an impoverished perspective on this concept, because they are necessarily based on definitions that emerge from specialized, technical contexts.

While recognizing the value of prior studies — above all in helping to illustrate the pervasive, ramified presence of ambiguity in ancient literature — we believe that in focusing narrowly on ambiguity “in” a particular genre, author, literary work, or context, they actually misrepresent the fundamental power of ambiguous thinking in Latin speakers’ meaning-making. We have selected, instead, a set of papers that do not attempt to present a consistent picture of ambiguity. In doing so, we hope we have illustrated the range of approaches to our topic and, more important, to the rich and protean role that ambiguities (note the plural) play in Latin authors’ ways of constructing meaning, without presupposing that these essays will be in any way all-inclusive. Just as we do not consider it a necessary aim of scholarship to try to resolve ambiguities (that is, to make definitive judgments about which of two interpretations is the correct one) — indeed, the included chapters provide ample evidence of situations where uncertainty is the aim — we do not consider it necessary or even insightful to claim that all ambiguity can be explained under one theory or method. Our contributors, in fact, underscore how ambiguity is a widespread and varied phenomenon of thought and language. In this sense, we see the volume functioning very much as ambiguity itself often does in Latin literature: by making the reader aware of multiple “meanings” at the same time, it may enable new understandings.


We would like to thank Jason Pedicone of the Paideia Institute for his enthusiastic support of this project from its inception, and for shepherding the volume through peer review and publication. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to the anonymous referees who reviewed the manuscript and offered astute commentary. Jay Kardan provided invaluable service copyediting the volume. His sharp eye and finely-tuned critical sense have improved every page.

Click here to buy Quasi Labor Intus: Ambiguity in Latin Literature or recommend it to your librarian. Every penny goes to the Reginald Foster Scholarship Fund.

Charley McNamara


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