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Multae regum aures atque oculi

Original post date: Tuesday, June 12, 2007

In English: Many are the ears of kings, and their eyes.

Like yesterday's proverb, today's proverb also features a king, this time a quite sinister one! This saying can be found in Erasmus's Adagia, where Erasmus offers the following vivid comments:
Allegoria inde ducta est, quia regibus complures ubique sunt exploratores, atque ob id oculi regum dicuntur, complures auscultatores, quibus velut auribus utuntur. Neque desunt manus, et pedes quamplurimi, fortassis ne ventres quidem. Vide, cuiusmodi portentum sit tyrannus, et quam formidandum, tot oculis, iisque emissitiis, tot auribus, iisque tam asininis, aclongis, tot manibus, tot pedibus, tot ventribus, ne reliqua parum honesta commemorem, instructum.

The symbolism is derived from the fact that kings have many spies everywhere, and as such they are called the eyes of the kings, and they have many listeners whom the kings use like ears. Nor do the kings lack hands, nor numerous feet, and perhaps not even stomachs. Look at what sort of a monster is the tyrant, how fearful, equipped with so many eyes (and such prying eyes), and so many ears (and such long ones, like those of a donkey), and so many hands, so many feet, so many stomachs, not to mention the other, less decent, members.
Thanks to the joys of JSTOR, I was able to find a marvelous passage from Richard Tavener's Adagies, which provides this commentary on the saying (Tavener is one of the less well-known Bible translators of the 16th century):
Kynges haue many eares and manye eyes, as who shulde saye, no thynge can be spoken, nothynge doon so secretly agaynst kynges and Rulers, but by one meanes or other at length it wol come to their knowledge. They haue eares that lysten an hundred myles from them, they haue eyes that espye out more thynges, then men wolde thynke. Wherfore it is wysdome for subiectes, not only to keep theyre princes lawes and ordinaunces in the face of the worlde, but also preuely: namely syth Paule wold haue rulers obeyed euen for conscience sake.
What a contrast! Erasmus uses the symbolism of the proverb to paint a comically monstrous picture of the king, with all his many members, while Tavener takes the same proverb to terrorize people into good behavior, so that they will obey the kings and princes at all times, in public and in private.

Needless to say, I vote for Erasmus!

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

315. Multae regum aures atque oculi.

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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