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Ne Hercules quidem adversus duos

Original post date: Monday, April 07, 2008

In English: Not even Hercules (fights) against two.

I haven't blogged here for a while because I've been working on a book manuscript - Aesop's fables in Latin, which should be out in August with Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers - and finally I've gotten the manuscript done so I can start blogging again. Yeah!

In that book manuscript I was working on some Latin grammar topics which will also be the focus of my blogging here. One of my main topics of interest is the use of postpositive particles in Latin. Yesterday, I blogged about the use of the particles quidem and vero in a Vulgate Bible verse, and I chose today's saying because of its nice demonstration of how quidem is negated with the word ne, but with quidem still coming in second position after the word that is being emphasized, just as you would expect from a positive positive particle.

So, in this saying, the words ne and quidem form an "emphatic negative sandwich" around the word that is being emphasized in order to make a negative point: Hercules. Hence the English translation "not even Hercules."

Just to make this saying even more interesting is that it has an implied verb. You can guess what the meaning of the verb must be from the prepositional phrase which is part of the predicate also: adversus duos, "against two (men)." So whatever verb you want to supply in English (and in English we really cannot leave verbs implied the same way that Latin can), the verb needs to be compatible with the idea of "against two." For example: Even Hercules does not fight against two men. Even Hercules doesn't march out against two men. Even Hercules does not stand in opposition against two men. And so on. An alternate form of the Latin phrase supplies one possibility: Hercules adversus noluit ire duos, "Hercules refused to go against two." (In an even fuller form: Natura ipsa docet cedendum pluribus esse: Hercules adversus noluit ire duos, "Nature herself teaches that one must yield to the many: Hercules refused to go against two.")

This ne...quidem construction can cause some problems for beginning Latin students, since it is possible to develop a kind of hyperawareness for the way that ne introduces a negative clause with the subjunctive. Yet ne also performs other negative functions in Latin, as for example here where it negates the particle quidem. You can also see ne used to create compound words and expressions in Latin, such as neuter (=ne+uter), nefas (=ne+fas), and so on.

As for the saying itself, Hollywood would probably prefer for Hercules to battle the lion and hydra both at the same time, but the wiser course is definitely to take on one enemy at a time. Of course, poor Hercules did have to face the many heads of the hydra at once: that surely was bad enough in itself!

So, hoping your own metaphorical hydra is not of the many-headed variety, here is today's proverb read out loud:

901. Ne Hercules quidem adversus duos.

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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