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Ex pede Herculem

Original post date: Monday, August 06, 2007

In English: You know Hercules by his foot.

After doing proverbs about hands last week, I thought I would devote this week to proverbs about feet!

Today's proverb definitely requires careful attention to the Latin because of the crucial role played by the case of one of the words: Herculem, Hercules, who is in the accusative case. Given that Hercules is in the accusative case, he has to be the object of a verb, and given that there is no verb stated here, in the English translation a verb has to be supplied: "You recognize Hercules by his foot," "You know Hercules by his foot," etc. The Latin is much more elegant precisely because the verb does not have to be supplied. The use of the accusative case gives you all the grammatical information you need to know in order to understand the saying, even without a verb being supplied.

Just what, then, was so remarkable about Hercules's foot? Hercules's foot was the unit of measurement which gives the "foot" its name, at least according to legend.

In ancient Greece, a standard unit of measurement was the "stade" and the first Olympic "stadium" consisted of a race that was one stade in length. This stade was "600 feet" as measured by the foot of Hercules himself! Since the Olympic stadium course was 190 meters, or 633 feet as we measure it today, that would make Hercules's foot very large - a foot that was really a foot long, or a bit more. According to wikipedia, the foot of the average European is 9.4 inches in length.

So that's why you could recognize Hercules by his feet: they were BIG.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were actually interested in the mathematics of this. Would it be possible, they wondered, to figure out just how big and tall Hercules was, operating on the information provided by the Olympic stadium which Hercules himself had measured? Pythagoras, the ancient philosopher still famous today for his "Pythagorean theorem" about the dimensions of right triangles, decided this was a problem he could solve! The Roman writer Aulus Gellius who cites Plutarch as the source for the method Pythagoras applied:
Plutarchus in libro, quem de Herculis, quamdiu inter homines fuit, animi corporisque ingenio atque virtutibus conscripsit, scite subtiliterque ratiocinatum Pythagoram philosophum dicit in reperienda modulandaque status longitudinisque eius praestantia. Nam cum fere constaret curriculum stadii, quod est Pisis apud Iovem Olympium, Herculem pedibus suis metatum idque fecisse longum pedes sescentos, cetera quoque stadia in terra Graecia ab aliis postea instituta pedum quidem esse numero sescentum, sed tamen esse aliquantulum breviora, facile intellexit modum spatiumque plantae Herculis ratione proportionis habita tanto fuisse quam aliorum procerius, quanto Olympicum stadium longius esset quam cetera. Comprehensa autem mensura Herculani pedis secundum naturalem membrorum omnium inter se competentiam modificatus est atque ita id collegit, quod erat consequens, tanto fuisse Herculem corpore excelsiorem quam alios, quanto Olympicum stadium ceteris pari numero factis anteiret.

Plutarch wrote about the mental and physical of talents and powers of Hercules while he lived here on earth. In that book, he says that the philosopher Pythagoras intelligently and inventively made calculations in ascertaining and measuring the exceptional aspect of Hercules's size and height. For it was generally agreed that Hercules with his own feet measured the course of the stadium which is in Pisae at the temple of Olympian Jupiter and that he made it 600 feet long. In addition, since the rest of the stadiums in the land of Greece constructed later by others were likewise 600 feet in length, but that they were somewhat shorter, Pythagoras readily concluded by the logic of proportions that the size and dimensions of Hercules's foot was greater in length than that of other men by the same amount that the Olympic stadium was longer than the other stadiums. Having determined that the measure of Hercules's foot, he then calculated according to the natural proportion of the other parts of the body as they agree with other another, concluding that in height Hercules was taller than other men just as the Olympic stadium exceeded the other stadiums based on the equal number of other men's feet.
Notice that poor Pythagoras is hampered by the fact that there was not a standard unit of measurement he could apply to this problem, so he had to work it out in terms of propotions! Of course, even without the information supplied by Pythagoras, the point was clear in any case: Hercules had very big feet, and you could use that as a means of recognizing him, using information about a part (his feet) to identify the whole. So, in honor of both Hercules and Pythagoras, here is today's proverb read out loud:

363. Ex pede Herculem.

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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