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American Journal of Philology 123.4 (2002) 587-599

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Isto Vilius, Immo Carum:
Anecdotes About King Romulus

J. Linderski

ISTO VILIUS. Lovers of words will love A. S. Gratwick's recent piece (2000) on this idiom. Yet this is only part of the puzzle. There exists a complement at the other end of the scale: Immo carum.

A brief introduction: At the conclusion of Terence's Adelphoe, in a comical reversal of roles, the stingy Demea goads the generous Micio into headlong spendthrift spending. Micio drags his feet, and when Demea suggests that in addition to freeing the crafty slave, Syrus, and his female companion, he should also provide them with a loan so that they may start a business, Micio responds, istoc vilius (line 981). This choice of words to express a petulant demurral has for centuries (or rather for millennia, if we begin with the scholia) intrigued philologists, and Gratwick guides us expertly through all the meanders of the argument. He points out that—surprisingly—the commentators of Terence have generally neglected the testimony of Suetonius preserved by the late fourth-century grammarian Charisius. It is to this text that we ought now to direct our attention. We read under the lemma Isto vilius: 1

rex qui vocabat ad caenam, 2 si sibi ea res exhibenda indiceretur quam exhibere non posset, respondit (respondebat), 3 ut Tranquillus refert, isto vilius hominis erit caena. [End Page 587]

Gratwick (2000, 85) gives the following translation:

A rex who regularly entertained, if a thing were stipulated (for him to provide) which he was unable to provide, would reply, as Suetonius reports, isto vilius hominis erit caena.

It has long been recognized, indeed, since the time of the Renaissance scholars, that the main textual problem resides in the word hominis, which (so it might appear) can hardly be forced into any sensible construction or meaning. Emendations were considered, and here Gratwick's proposal (2000, 88) nihilo minus deserves acknowledgement. Following in the footsteps of several earlier erudites, and in opposition to Bentley, 4 he takes hominis (or whatever hides in it) as belonging to the quotation itself. We thus receive the text: Isto vilius, nihilo minus erit caena or (tortuously) "by that (much) the more meanly, but (by) none the less will it be a feast."

But who is the rex who uttered this quip? Certainly not any real king, says Gratwick (2000, 88-91), but rather a man of influence, a "boss," a "padrone," as defined by OLD s.v. rex 8. At a dinner, an impudent guest makes an outrageous demand (e.g., in addition to food, he would also wish to have dancing girls; "caviar and striptease," as Gratwick puts it). The host gives a witty response. "The dictum has to be taken as a specific quotation of Terence's Micio, but a quotation given a deliberate twist." The twist would reside in the addition of nihilo minus and a play on the [End Page 588] causal 5 and comparative interpretation of istoc. The ill-mannered person will miss the subtlety (for a boor must ex definitione be also ill-educated) and will take this Micio-like petulant refusal for a conciliatory bon mot. "The more cultivated bystanders" will knowingly sneer at the illiterate boor and mentally applaud the refined host.

In sum, a perfect donnish joke that would fare very well indeed at an Oxonian high table. "The point of Suetonius' anecdote . . . was to illustrate the witty comitas of some specific famous eques or senator of the past." Gratwick concedes that this person must remain anonymous for us, but his preferred urbane padrone who entertained boorish guests is none other than Atticus. Rex Atticus? Why not Maecenas, who also loved to entertain and claimed a royal lineage? In point of fact, this is not at all a likely context of the anecdote.

The perusal of evidence for rex in the sense of "patron" seemingly strengthens Gratwick's conceit, for in several passages, the rex appears in a convivial context. But on closer scrutiny, the rex reveals himself as...


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