The Stone that the Builders Rejected


Permalink 01:44:23 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 485 words, 6487 views   English (US)
Categories: Literature, Vocabulary and Grammar, Ovid's exile poetry

The Stone that the Builders Rejected

Via Appia
The Via Appia

Silex is the Latin word for a fieldstone, an annoying rock that a farmer would overturn in his field and curse for damaging his plow. Although the name may make you think of “silicates” like quartz or feldspar, the word referred to any large rock–the usual limestone and granite found in the foothills of the Appenines (silex is probably related to solidus , which also has an short first vowel).


So silices were usually considered unwelcome impediments. But leave it to the practical Romans, who found a use for everything, to put these discarded stones to work. Such local stones were commonly used when paving a nearby road, and eventually the word becomes a synonym for “pavement". This passage from Livy is a typical example; it describes the extensive public works projects comissioned by the censors Fulvius and “one-eyed” (luscus) Albinus in 179 BCE:

Censores vias sternendas silice in urbe…primi omnium locaverunt…Et clivum Capitolinum silice sternendum curaverunt (XLI.27)

locaverunt - not simply “placed", since they didn’t do the phisical work, but more like “put down the money” => “contracted”
clivum - think of the verb clino

Still, the word never lost its original connotations from agriculture–one impled by this passage in Plautus’ Poenulus ("The Little Punic"). Here Agorastocles confesses his love for the enslaved prostitute Adelphium to his cunning slave Milphio:

AGOR. Nam illa mulier lapidem silicem subigere, ut se amet, potest.
MIL. Pol id quidem hau mentire, nam tu es lapide silice stultior,
qui hanc ames.

Pol - an exclamation
mentire = mentiris
hau = haud

That last line reminds me of the English expression “dumber than a box of rocks". Both lines play on the idea that a silex is typically unmoved–not just physically, but even by such abstract forces as love or reason. Cicero uses this metaphor in his Tusculan Disputations, where he argues that the emotion of grief (here aegritudo) is quite natural even among cultured philosophers:

Non enim e silice nati sumus, sed est natura in animis tenerum quiddam atque molle, quod aegritudine quasi tempestate quatiatur. (III.6.12)

naturâ - note this is abl., not nom.: “by nature”

That quasi reminds me of the way Latin prose writers often “apologize” for metaphorical language…but I’m getting distracted–let’s save that for a future post…

The poets extend the metaphor further–did Tibullus have Cicero’s thought in mind when he imagines his beloved Delia weeping at the sight of his funeral pyre?

Flebis: non tua sunt duro praecordia ferro
   Vincta, neque in tenero stat tibi corde silex.

praecordia - besides helping to fill out the meter, the word is more urgent–more “vital"–than the simpler pectus or cor

And here is Ovid in his Tristia, insulting an unsympathetic critic of his exile:

Natus es e scopulis et pastus lacte ferino,
   et dicam silices pectus habere tuum.

Ut linguam Latinam assequamus, nullum silicem relictum habeamus!


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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