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Aut rex aut asinus

Original post date: Monday, June 11, 2007

In English: Either a king or a donkey.

Like yesterday's proverb, today's proverb features a king, rex. The idea of "a king or a donkey" is something like the English saying "all or nothing," with no in-between. In the form rex aut asinus, the saying makes its way into Erasmus's Adagia, 3.5.41.

When I was researching this proverb, I discovered an ingenious use to which it has been put in a story from Heatley and Kingdon's Gradatim: An Easy Latin Translation Book for Beginners, published 1893 (available online at Google Books). Although this story does not illustrate the proverb, it contains a wonderful little echo of the famous aut rex aut asinus in its very witty punchline, playing with the proverb while making an entirely new joke:
Medicus quidam gloriosus, qui maxima paupertate premebatur, omnium animos in se convertere voluit. Is igitur dum per urbem album asinum ducit, magna voce clamitabat, "Hunc quem videtis asinum, cives, litteras Latinas docere possum." Tum rex, cui id nuntiatum est, postquam hominem ad se arcessiverat, eum rem statim perficere iussit. Is vero operam libenter suscipit, sed moram decem annorum postulat. Postero die unus ex amicis medicum ita admonuit, "Fuge, o stultissime, ex hac regione, tu enim capitis certe damnaberis, quod rem, quae fieri non potest, suscepisti." At ille, "Bono es animo, amice; nam decem annis aut ego aut rex aut asinus occiderimus."

A certain renowned doctor, who was suffering from extreme poverty, wanted to get everybody's attention. He therefore led a white donkey through the city and shouted loudly, "This donkey whom you see, O citizens: I can teach him the Latin language." Then the king, to whom this was announced, afterwards summoned the man to himself, and ordered him to do this thing right away. The man, in fact, willingly undertook the work but asked for a ten-year time frame. The next day, one of his friends warned the doctor with these words, "Run away from this place, you complete idiot! For you are sure to be condemned to death because you have undertaken something which cannot possibly happen." But the doctor said, "You can relax, my friend; for in ten years, either I or the king or the donkey (aut rex aut asinus) will be dead."
Delightful! I will confess this is a book I have never heard of before, but it seems to be filled with lots of great material, and a complete dictionary in the back. It even has the adventures of Sindbad in Latin! What a find: Google Books is full of great old treasure troves like this! I'll see what other stories I can find in here (Andrew Reinhard, if you are reading this - has Bolchazy-Carducci thought about reprinting this amazing thing?) So, feeling much more like a king than a donkey (thanks to Google Books!), here is today's proverb read out loud:

171. Aut rex aut asinus.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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